Unsolved Mystery of the Galleries: Sixth Corps Trenches at Spotsylvania Court House

By Lindsay Waller

Tucked in the woods, off modern-day Grant Drive, are Union Sixth Corps fortifications that are known to historians as the “Galleries.” Few people have ever seen these earthworks, let alone even know they exist. Even Eric Mink, the Cultural Resource Manager of Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park (FRSP), has a difficult time finding their exact location. When he showed me the trenches this summer, we were wandering around in the woods for thirty minutes before we stumbled across them. But I didn’t mind because trudging through the woods was worth it. While the now dense forest poses challenges for visiting the fortifications, it has also kept these works incredibly well preserved, so much so that I grew giddy as we slowly moved down the line of lunettes. Bushwhacking through the woods was like being transported back in time. It felt like these works were abandoned mere hours before we got there, and not over 150 years ago. As we made it to the main line of trenches, I was struck with even greater awe, but also with confusion, as these stair-stepping trenches look unlike any other Civil War trenches I have ever encountered. Amongst park historians, they have a reputation of being a unique spot to take diehard visitors, but beyond that, not much is known about these unusual works. Every time I asked a Park Ranger what they knew about them, the answer was pretty much the same: “They are terraced trenches built by the Union Sixth Corps.” This summer at my internship at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, I did research to uncover the mysteries of the Galleries.

In 1864, Ulysses S. Grant, recently promoted to Commanding General of the United States Army, and George Meade, the commander of the Army of the Potomac, focused their efforts on attacking Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. The plan was simple: Push the Confederates south, take Richmond, and end the war. By the summer of 1864, the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia had seen three years of battle and the end appeared to be nowhere in sight. However, none of the fighting up until that point would even compare to the carnage and bloodshed that was soon to come in the Overland Campaign. The campaign opened on May 5th, 1864 in the Wilderness, a relatively small area bordering Orange and Spotsylvania Counties. The hard-fought battle in the Wilderness would only last three days, but it would leave some 28,000 men dead, wounded, or missing. Immediately after the battle, Grant ordered his army to disengage from the Wilderness and march south toward Spotsylvania Court House, a critical crossroads.  On the night of the 7th, the Union army stepped off, and on the evening of the 8th, the head of the Union column, led by the Fifth Corps, eventually found themselves engaged with the Confederate army once again, and the Battle of Spotsylvania began. On May 9th, both armies settled into their positions and immediately started digging in. The Sixth Corps was positioned in the middle of the Union line, between the Brock Road and Scott Shelton’s House. It was the area in the middle of the Sixth Corps line, held by the 2nd Division, where the trenches in question are located.

The 2nd Division was made up of Brigadier General Frank Wheaton’s Brigade, Colonel Lewis A. Grant’s Brigade (also known as the “Vermont Brigade”), Colonel Daniel D. Bidwell’s Brigade, and Brigadier General Henry L. Eustis’s Brigade. These were the first men to occupy and fortify the area in question. In the regimental history of the 77th New York, George T. Stevens, a surgeon for 77th, recalls arriving on the 9th and the terrain that his men held. He writes:

There was little hard fighting on Monday the 9th, though skirmishing was briskly kept on the whole line throughout the day. Our line of battle was now extended from northwest with Hancock’s Second corps on the right, Warren’s Fifth corps on the right center, Sedgwick’s Sixth corps on the left center, and Burnside’s Ninth corps on the extreme left. Our Second division was formed in a clearing on the side of a hill which sloped gradually until it reached a swamp, which, however, turned and passed through our line at our left. About three hundred yards in front of us was a strip of woods one-fourth of a mile wide, and beyond the woods an open field where the rebel force were posted behind formidable earthworks. Just in our rear and on the crest of the hill, our batteries were posted so as to fire over our heads. On our right was a dense forest where the Fifth corps were posted, and on our left Burnside’s troops occupied a more open country.[1]

Stevens’s account provides a valuable window into what the Union line looked like on the 9th, but more importantly, it presents a vivid description of what the ground looked like that reveals who the likely architects of the Galleries were. The 2nd Division was on “a hill which sloped gradually until it reached a swamp.”[2] This description matches perfectly with the exact terrain of where the Galleries are. Therefore, the 2nd Division (or at least a Brigade in that Division) were the men who built and occupied the Galleries. Based upon descriptions from soldiers, like Stevens, it is most likely that either Bidwell’s or Wheaton’s Brigade was responsible for their creation. However, we cannot be certain about this without doing some archaeological research.  

The unique earthworks straddle a ravine located on a hillside that ascends 12 feet over 30 yards.[3] The Galleries themselves are composed of three sets of trenches. The main line of trenches is made up of 11 steps with a traverse trench running along the side. The traverse trench connects all of the steps leading to the top of the hill. Lining the top of the hill are 12 single-gun emplacements that were used to help support the Union attack on the Bloody Angle on May 12th. The other sets of trenches, just to the west of the main line, are constructed in the same fashion, but are significantly smaller than those along the mainline. Needless to say, this design is unusual and unlike any other fortifications in the Civil War. The below GIS map made by David Lowe, a National Park historian and Civil War trench enthusiast, provides a nice visual overview of the layout of the Galleries.

Sixth Corps “Galleries” as represented on a Geographic Information System (GIS) map provided by NPS Historian David Lowe, August 5, 2020.

I spent my summer poring over countless primary source documents written by the men of the Sixth Corps to try and discover any information I could about their unusual design. Unfortunately, nothing that I came across specifically talked about their construction. Due to the silences in the written records, we are thus forced to interpret the landscape through context. In an email correspondence with David Lowe, David explained that, in his interpretation, the unique layout of the Galleries is due to the terrain. Because of the way the soldiers who built them were situated on the hillside, building stair-stepping trenches was most pragmatic way to defend their position.[4] Lowe also thinks that their design would not only be effective in protecting the troops  from fire, but also in helping to concentrate the men’s fire back onto the Confederate position.[5] There would have been around 700 men in these fortifications. Approximately  200 men (a small regiment) occupied the main trench and the trenches to the north-west, and about 300 men occupied the trenches parallel to the main one.[6]

Unlike some other speculations, Lowe seems to think that the ravine was used more as a natural covered way. In other words, the men used the ravine to protect them as they moved between, and communicated with comrades from the different set of trenches. He explained that the traverse trench was constructed primarily to protect against any flank attacks. This theory also makes sense because both armies would have been wary of any flanking maneuvers, especially after the previously devastating flank attacks they endured at the Wilderness.  As for the effectiveness of the Galleries as a fortification, Lowe explains, “Yes, I think it was an effective defense for the salient angle. I wonder how effective it would have been without the wooded area to the front; if the Confederate artillery could have drawn a direct bead on those massed regiments, it might have gotten ugly.”[7]

Constructing earthworks was like second nature to these men, meaning that the Galleries were probably constructed out of instinct and in direct response to their unfolding combat situation rather than some carefully orchestrated plan. Most of the soldiers would have aided in these earthworks’ construction. However, by 1864, there was usuall a specific group of men who were usually responsible for the construction of earthworks. These “pioneers” were detailed to each brigade in the Union Army and carried the spades, shovels, and axes necessary for fortification. In, Trench Warfare Under Grant and Lee, historian Earl J. Hess explains the duty and training of the pioneers:

In addition to the regular and volunteer engineer troops, Meade’s army had a detail of pioneers attached to each brigade. These were the men detached from the ranks, but they were never trained as engineer troops. Their job was to facilitate the movement of infantry by repairing roads and bridges, bury the dead, help construct trenches and latrines, and do any other job of manual labor needed by their brigades.[8]

The pioneers thus were tasked with doing all the manual labor that would usually be assigned to the engineers. One might even conjecture that perhaps they had even more influence on the ground than traditional engineers ever did. There is a strong possibility that the pioneers were the ones that constructed the Galleries, or at least significantly helped with their construction. However, there is no real evidence to confirm this. Unfortunately, little has been written about the pioneers at Spotsylvania. However, they are recorded at the Wilderness as building works and assisting other soldiers in the construction of fortifications there.

At the end of the day, no matter who built them, the Galleries are a unique set of fortifications. Unfortunately, many questions still remain about these trenches. While we can speculate that Bidwell’s or Wheaton’s Brigade constructed and occupied the Galleries, archaeology must be conducted in order to know, definitively, who was there. In such an excavation, archeologist would likely search for uniform buttons, or any kind of artifact that would identify an exact regiment as having occupied that position. While such archaeological investigation is not current priority for FRSP, it is certainly something the park would like to undertake in the future. Ultimately, the long-term goal is to construct a trail, erect waysides, and this fascinating site for the public.  But for now, the mystery of the Galleries still remain tucked away in the woods of the Spotsylvania battlefield.

Works Cited

I. Primary Sources:

Abbott, Lemuel Abijah. Personal Recollections and Civil War Diary 1864. Burlington: Free Press Printing Co., 1908.

Barnhart, Lorenzo. The War of Rebellion. http://web.archive.org/web/20031203111927/http://www.bright.net/~lrrp/ldb.html.

Bowen, James. “In the Wilderness: Movement of Both Armies from the Opening Fight to the Close of Spotsylvania.” Philadelphia Weekly Times, June 27, 1885. Bound Volume 141. Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park (Hereafter cited as “FRSP”).

Galloway, Norton G. “Annals of the War: Chapters of Unwritten History, Battle of the Wilderness.” Philadelphia Weekly Times, February, 16, 1884. Bound Volume 141. FRSP.

Lewis, George. The History of Battery E, First Regiment Rhode Island Light Artillery, In the War of 1861 and 1865, to preserve the Union. Providence: Snow & Farnham Printers, 1892.

Moody, William. Letter to the Pittsburg Evening Chronicle, May 29, 1864. Bound Volume 115. FRSP.

“Our Army Correspondence.” Pittsburg Evening Chronicle, June 1, 1864. Bound Volume 361. FRSP.

Seiser, August. “Rochester in the Civil War.” Edited by Blake McKelvey. Rochester, The Rochester Historical Society Publications. Bound Volume 117. FRSP.

Schoyer, Samuel. The Road to Cold Harbor: Field Diary, January 1 – June 12, 1864 of Samuel C. Schoyer. Edited by William T. Schoyer. Apollo: Closson Press, 1986. Bound Volume 116. FRSP.

Stevens, George. Three Years in the Sixth Corps: A Concise Narrative of Events in the Army of the Potomac, From 1862 to the Close of the Rebellion, April, 1865. Albany: S.R. Gray Publisher, 1866.

Willsey, Berea. The Civil War Diary of Berea M, Willsey: The Intimate Daily Observations of AMassachusetts Volunteer in the Union Army, 1862-1864. Edited by Jessica H. DeMay. Bowie: Heritage Books, 1995. Bound Volume 352. FRSP.

II. Secondary Sources:

Hess, Earl. Trench Warfare Under Grant and Lee: Field Fortifications in the Overland Campaign. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2007.

Lowe, David. Email conversation with author, July 31, 2020 – August 3, 2020.

“NPS Battle of Spotsylvania Troop Movement Maps.” Frank O’Reilly assisted by Elizabeth Getz, Kelly O’Grandy, illustrated and produced by Steve Stanley. 2000. 21

Rhea, Gordon. The Battles for Spotsylvania Court House and The Road to Yellow Tavern. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1997.

     [1] George T. Stevens, Three Years in the Sixth Corps: A Concise Narrative of Events in the Army of the Potomac,

From 1862 to the Close of the Rebellion, April 1865 (Albany: S.R. Gray Publisher, 1866), 326.

     [2] Ibid.

     [3] Earl J. Hess, Trench Warfare Under Grant and Lee: Field Fortifications in the Overland Campaign (Chapel

Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2007), 236-237.

     [4] David Lowe, email correspondence with the author, July 31, 2020.

     [5] Ibid.

     [6] Ibid.

     [7] Ibid.

     [8] Earl J. Hess, Trench Warfare Under Grant and Lee: Field Fortifications in the Overland Campaign (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2007), 11.

The McLean House: Symbol of Reunification or Surrender Grounds?

By Carolyn Hauk ’21

This post is part of a series featuring behind-the-scenes dispatches from our Pohanka Interns on the front lines of history this summer as interpreters, archivists, and preservationists. See here for the introduction to the series. 

While enjoying live music in a small coffee shop nestled in historic Appomattox, Virginia, a local asked me where I was from and what had brought me here this summer. Mine was a new face among the Friday night crowd and I expected some curious glances. However, when I explained that I was working at Appomattox Court House National Historical Park, I was surprised to hear in return, “Oh, the Surrender Grounds”. This reference to the park – and the McLean House in particular – revealed one of the long-standing interpretations of the town’s events that still lives on today. Here, on April 9th, 1865 met two of the most skilled generals that ever led men into battle – with lasting implications for the nation’s future.

Two years prior, grocer and entrepreneur Wilmer McLean had moved his family to the small hamlet of Appomattox Court House to escape the war that had literally broken out in the backyard of his Manassas plantation. Originally a guesthouse in the Raine family tavern complex, the substantial brick McLean house reflects the well-traveled Lynchburg-Richmond State Road and the brisk stage-coach and hospitality businesses that helped to establish the village of Appomattox Court House in 1846. For the McLean family, this was now home – at least temporarily.

After nine months of laying siege to Petersburg, General Ulysses S. Grant and the Union Army finally pushed General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia west, resulting in the week-long pursuit known as the Appomattox Campaign. At each turn, Lee’s plans to secure rations and join with North Carolina Confederate forces were thwarted. Outnumbered and outmaneuvered, the Confederates lost two battles in the village. Finally, on April 9th, 1865, Lee and Grant convened in the McLean front parlor since it was Palm Sunday and the Courthouse was closed. In just over one and a half hours, the Terms of Surrender were written out by Grant and signed by Lee. As Grant had surmised, this triggered a series of Confederate surrenders that led to the official end to the Civil War.

For the Union, the McLean parlor symbolized victory — the beginning of the end of a tumultuous, four-year war. For the Confederacy, however, it meant something altogether different. During Reconstruction, the Southern war narrative would twist into a gallant, prideful story of resistance despite inevitable odds. For the Confederates, the McLean parlor did not represent defeat; rather, it was the surrender of the fight against their aggressors, the germ of what would become known as the ‘Lost Cause’. Semantics aside, for a few hours on that April afternoon the McLean parlor resonated with respect, humility, and humanity as two war-weary generals convened to bring about a peace in accordance with President’s Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address: “with malice towards none”.

In the years following Reconstruction, the events of Appomattox have been interpreted in polarizing ways. The war may have ended, but the cultural and political divide remains. Is the McLean House a national symbol of the reunification of our country or is it merely the Surrender Grounds? The battle, it seems, rages on.

Today, the McLean House  is even more relevant as a monument to peaceful, humane conflict resolution. Here, two adversaries met face to face, as equals. They were not motivated by power, nor revenge, but by the greater good to put down arms, pick up pens, and “with malice toward none,” begin the process of putting to an end to one of the bloodiest conflicts in history.

Hauk McLean House
Carolyn Hauk ’21 in front of the McLean House at Appomattox Court House National Historical Park. Photo courtesy Carolyn Hauk.

Richmond National Battlefield Park

By Albert Wilson ’21

This post is part of a series featuring behind-the-scenes dispatches from our Pohanka Interns on the front lines of history this summer as interpreters, archivists, and preservationists. See here for the introduction to the series. 

Richmond National Battlefield Park consists of thirteen sites around Richmond that document the battles for control of the Confederate capital. Several of the park sites feature earthworks; at Fort Harrison the earthen wall of the fort towers twenty feet over the ditch below, by the Totopotomoy Creek the earthworks have been eroded to barely a few inches in height. But the most infamous earthworks are on the Cold Harbor battlefield.

The earthworks that remain at this site are all original. Some are in pristine condition, all they are missing are reinforcement and header logs. Usually one is forbidden on earthworks, but there is a segment along one of the park’s trails where visitors are allowed to walk down through a segment of earthworks and get an impression of what fighting in these trenches was like. Forest had taken over much of the property. While the ground was clear land during the battle, today tree growth (and thus root growth) as well as leaf cover helps to prevent erosion of these earthworks in the sandy soil. It then becomes a challenge for visitors to imagine that battlefield not as a forest but as a open field, earthworks not as a line of earth but as a barrier crowded by soldiers.

Now the 1864 Overland Campaign had a two-fold goal for the Army of the Potomac: capture Richmond and destroy the Army of Northern Virginia along the way. The Confederates countered this by staying between the Union army and Richmond, and by digging earthwork defenses wherever their army stopped. Many Union soldiers feared (and found true) that once the Confederates were dug in, these earthworks were an almost impenetrable defense. The morning of June 3, 1864 finds the Confederates dug into earthworks with Richmond just 10 miles to their backs. At 4:30am, General Grant orders a frontal assault upon this line of earthworks that proves futile, as the Confederate defenders fire volley after murderous volleys into advancing Union soldiers. After the bloodshed of that morning, many Union soldiers were hesitant (if not outright refused) to advance again upon enemy earthworks, as the horrors of Cold Harbor were clear in their heads.

The earthwork remains are pivotal to the story of Cold Harbor, not just as a line of defense on June 3, but what these earthworks mean in the mythology of the Civil War. It is shortly after the Battle of Cold Harbor that the insult of “Grant the Butcher” begins appearing in newspapers unfriendly to the Lincoln administration. This attempt at slander accuses Grant of throwing wave after wave of troops into impenetrable Confederate lines because Grant did not care that greatly for the lives of his soldiers. Visitors to the park still repeat and still believe the line of Grant the Butcher over 155 years later. When discussing the battle, the easiest way to dispel this myth is putting the bloodshed into context. Grant suffered heavily, taking almost twice as many casualties as Confederate General Lee. But this battle’s casualty figure does not make it the bloodiest battle of the Overland campaign, and there are individual days of the Civil War bloodier than the two weeks spent at Cold Harbor. Grant would write in his memoirs “I have always regretted the last assault at Cold Harbor was ever made.” It is not hard to imagine the bloodshed when looking down range from the top of an earthwork line.

While some segments of earthworks seem impenetrable, other segments are quite vulnerable. About halfway through a tour, one comes to a spot where the line of earthworks is about 80 yards back from the crest of the hill. This is a poor position for earthworks because it provides a limited line of fire for the trench’s occupiers. Now on the morning on June 3, despite being ordered to attack, the Union divisions opposite this poorly positioned segment of earthworks failed to attack. So I end my tours with a what if- what if the Union army attacked that poorly positioned segment of line and broke through? The entire memory of the battle could have changed at that segment of earthworks; from a battle that was a vain assault on the part of the Union, to an attack celebrated as the victory that could have ended the war in June of 1864. Visually, one segment of earthworks is only distinguishable from another in terms of height, depth, and length. But each segment of earthworks presents examples on how the story of Cold Harbor is told, and how that story is remembered.

Wilson Cold Harbor trenches
View down a segment of Confederate earthworks on the Cold Harbor Battlefield. Photo courtesy Albert Wilson.

Andersonville’s Providence Spring

By Maci Mark ’21

This post is part of a series featuring behind-the-scenes dispatches from our Pohanka Interns on the front lines of history this summer as interpreters, archivists, and preservationists. See here for the introduction to the series. 

At Andersonville National Historic Site there is not much left of what was here in 1864 when this site operated as a prison, aside from the earthworks, which now have pleasant green grass growing on them. The petrified stumps of the original stockade do still remain in the ground, but otherwise the park is a quaint pretty scene of rolling hills with tall grass. The only visible indication of the horrors that prisoners suffered here is in the cemetery. The headstones of the prisoners have no space between them, they are placed exactly where the prisoners were buried shoulder to shoulder in trenches, 13,000 of them side by side. Most of the stones have names on them but about 400 do not. This is something distinctive about Andersonville, the fact that so many of those who died here are known. This is thanks to a paroled prisoner, Dorace Atwater, and the secret list of the dead he kept when working in the hospital and the dead house. But sadly, this list was destroyed in a fire that consumed Atwater’s home in the early 20th century.  Visitors frequently ask whether the museum has the Atwater list, but the best we can do is direct them to a book in the bookstore that has a portion of the list.

Our bookstore contains lots of books about Andersonville and the broader Civil War, and various knick knacks that visitors can buy to show that they were here. But there’s a common theme amongst much of our merchandise: the image of Providence Spring. It is on the magnet, the key chain, the pocket watch, post cards, and the pin, and there are even little bottles with labels where a visitor can collect water from the spring. Providence Spring is a spring that came up in August of 1864 and was deemed a miracle for the prisoners. The prisoners’ water source, Stockade Branch, was contaminated with human waste and oils from the Confederate guards’ camp before it even got to the prisoners. The prisoners would get sick from the water and would have to resort to digging wells (the Georgia water table is about 70 feet down and they only had spoons or broken canteens) or drinking from the stream. The prisoners had been praying for a miracle, in the form of clean water or exchange, and one came in a thunderstorm that broke down the stockade wall, bringing with it lightning that struck the ground and brought forth a spring. This spring had clean water that the prisoners could drink without getting sick. This was deemed a miracle, and in 1901 with the help of the Woman’s Relief Corps, the survivors of Andersonville placed a monument to the Spring which has become a popular symbol of the site.

The pathway leading to Providence Spring. Photo courtesy Maci Mark.

Park rangers at Andersonville NHS today explain that the spring was covered up when the Stockade was built and that the rains of August 1864 uncovered it. But there are still people who visit Providence Spring and believe that a miracle took place there. Providence Spring has many different meanings to those who visit it; for some it shows that the prisoners’ prayers were answered when they felt abandoned by their country, letting them die in prison. Others see how minimal improvements to the conditions at Andersonville – such as clean water – saved many lives. Whether or not Providence Spring is an accurate representation of Andersonville (could it better be represented by the reconstructed Stockade?), it has become one of its most popular and up-lifting stories in a place where 45,000 men suffered and 13,000 paid the ultimate price.

The Remnants of the Crater

By Claire Bickers ’20

This post is part of a series featuring behind-the-scenes dispatches from our Pohanka Interns on the front lines of history this summer as interpreters, archivists, and preservationists. See here for the introduction to the series. 

In the final years of the Civil War, the Army of the Potomac laid siege to Petersburg, Virginia.  Petersburg was the center of supply for both the city of Richmond and Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, and Grant understood that he could cripple the Confederate army by capturing the city.  He hoped to end the battle quickly, but through a series of missteps and complicated battle scenarios, the siege lasted more than nine months—longer than any other Civil War battle.

The most notorious battle during this campaign was the Battle of the Crater.  On land that had once been part of the Griffith plantation, Union soldiers dug a mine and detonated black powder underneath Confederate lines to create a gap through which Union troops could march on the city.  The situation quickly deteriorated as unit after unit charged into the Crater.  The Confederates were enraged to realize that many of the troops they were fighting were USCTs (United States Colored Troops), and treated them with particular cruelty.  The men who charged into and around the Crater were in frenzied disarray; the battle devolved into hand to hand combat and bayonets were used with abandon.

Many men did not survive that battle.  Neither did their rifles.  What remains of their weapons are shattered, bearing the scars of the savagery of the fighting.  Many are still loaded, Minie balls ready for the assault that will never come.  They are the remnants of a brutal battle unlike the noble picture that Lincoln painted at Gettysburg.  The men who died July 30th, 1864 in the Crater didn’t nobly sacrifice their lives for a comrade, breathing their last breaths in the arms of a friend.  Instead, they died frantic and alone, a teeming mass of men trying to escape disaster.

After the end of the war, the Griffith family moved back to their plantation.   Seeing an opportunity to capitalize upon the relic hunting that was already becoming commonplace, they created a small museum (of sorts) on their property, featuring the vestiges of the most notorious battle of the siege.  The Griffiths preserved rifles that were cracked in half, bent and splintered, or otherwise destroyed by the trauma of battle.  Not long after the Civil War finally ended, people lined up to see these remnants from Petersburg that they already understood to have been sanctified by blood; Frederick Douglass himself visited the Crater and Crater Museum in October of 1878.  When the National Battlefield was eventually created, the Griffith collection changed hands.  Many of the same artifacts that they chose to display are still exhibited by the park to this day.

At most Civil War sites, weapons such as rifles or cannons provide visitors a tangible link to the past.  To ensure the continued survival of these  important Petersburg artifacts, many of these Crater rifles were sent to conservation treatment last year, from which many of them just returned.  This care will help ensure that their voices can remain poignant reminders of the brutality of battle for generations to come.

Bickers rifle
A remnant of a Crater rifle, after conservation treatment. Photo courtesy Claire Bickers.


Bowery, Charles R., Ethan Sepp Rafuse, and Steven Stanley. Guide to the Richmond-Petersburg Campaign. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2014.

Kidd, Sherry Williams. “Petersburg National Battlefield Opens New Exhibit Honoring Frederick Douglass
.” The Prince George Journal, March 13, 2018.

“Pretty Well Swiss Cheese”: The Innis House and the Battle Of Fredericksburg

By Zachary Wesley ’20

This post is part of a series featuring behind-the-scenes dispatches from our Pohanka Interns on the front lines of history this summer as interpreters, archivists, and preservationists. See here for the introduction to the series. 

A sea of houses and alleys covers the bloody path taken by seven Union divisions during the Battle of Fredericksburg. Nevertheless, a silent witness remains before the Sunken Road: the Innis House, one of two wartime properties owned by Martha Stephens is still standing today. It is not an impressive structure at first glance. The building stands at only one-and-a-half stories tall and consists of three rooms. The wall between the former parlor and the entryway, however, proudly bears its scars: more than 58 bullet holes. This bullet-riddled wall presents a clear message of the horrors of the Civil War while also revealing a layered narrative of a home and the civilians and soldiers who intersected around it.

Built between 1856 and 1861, the simple structure sat on the outskirts of the town of Fredericksburg, and its owner was just as much on the edge of society as the home. Martha Stephens was – and is – mysterious. She lived in the long-gone Stephens House next door. Intriguingly she owned the two houses under  different names, which popular lore attributes to an attempt to avoid the loss of her entire property in a lawsuit (lawsuits being a relatively frequent occurrence for Stephens). Rumors swirled that she ran an illegal bar or brothel out of her home and that she took a formerly enslaved man as a lover later in life. Mrs. Stephens did not fit into the ideals of traditional Southern womanhood. Nevertheless, perhaps in an effort to warrant inclusion in this group, she claimed that she tended to wounded soldiers during the Battle of Fredericksburg, even though no Confederate soldiers remembered her presence.

The Innis House’s renters wisely vacated the premises before the fighting started. The home has no cellar and, as the structure would soon bear witness, would not offer sufficient protection from the hail of lead that crashed into it. Confederate sharpshooters occupied the upper half-story of the structure during the battle, leaving behind graffiti and drawing ample fire from frustrated Union soldiers. However, the bullet holes in the parlor wall appear at virtually every angle, including from behind, revealing that Confederate soldiers on Marye’s Heights and in the Sunken Road also fired into the home. Friendly fire into the Sunken Road, and thus the Innis House, presented a serious problem for Confederates throughout the battle – despite the assumption that the Confederate forces were perfectly protected behind the stone wall. The home’s walls – inside and out – were pretty well swiss cheese once the fighting stopped.

Wesley Innis House
This picture of the parlor wall of the Innis House shows the bullet holes that still scar it. These were made by just some of the thousands of bullets that flew through the air each minute during the Battle of Fredericksburg. Photo courtesy Zach Wesley.

The Innis House continued in its pre-battle capacity as a private residence into the early 1970s, when the National Park Service acquired the property. After peeling back layers of wallpaper from the parlor wall, park personnel encountered far more bullet holes than they expected. Even today, the number of bullet holes (and one Minie ball that remains in a ceiling joist) elicits amazement and shock from visitors. Although the damage of war is an essential piece of the home’s story, the full picture is far richer, weaving together the lives and experiences of people both on the fringes and in the mainstream of the Civil War Era South. Just as to find more bullet holes, all one must do is peel back the layers to reveal them, the same is true for the stories the house can tell.


O’Reilly, Francis Augustin. The Fredericksburg Campaign: Winter War on the Rappahannock. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 2006.

Pfanz, Donald C. War So Terrible: A Popular History of the Battle of Fredericksburg. Richmond, VA: Page One History Publications, 2003.

The Shifting Meaning of the Richmond-Lynchburg Stage Road

By Lillian Shea ’21

This post is part of a series featuring behind-the-scenes dispatches from our Pohanka Interns on the front lines of history this summer as interpreters, archivists, and preservationists. See here for the introduction to the series. 

The part of the Richmond-Lynchburg Stage Road running through Appomattox Court House holds various meanings for those that have used it through the years.  The early 19th-century inhabitants of Appomattox Court House viewed it as the source of prosperity for the town.  By connecting the two wealthy cities of Richmond and Lynchburg, it ensured a steady flow of traffic that would spur construction of the town’s first building, the Clover Hill Tavern, in 1819.  Without the road, many of the non-agricultural businesses in the community could not function, thus making the road instrumental to the town’s success. In 1854, a railroad stop was established 3 miles west of the town.  The road which had once been a source of prosperity spelled the town’s death sentence as people chose faster and smoother train travel over the stage road.  Taverns went out of business and the population of 100 people in the 1860s decreased to just 10 by the 1890s.

Shea Richmond-Lynchburg Stage Road
The author speaks to a tour group along the Richmond-Lynchburg Stage Road. Photo courtesy Lillian Shea.

The Richmond-Lynchburg Stage Road held a different meaning for the Federal and Confederate troops that followed it into the village on April 8th, 1865.  The road saw two days of fighting starting on April 8th and ending on the 9th with Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Ulysses S. Grant.  For the men involved in these last, desperate battles of the Civil War, the road reminded them of the deaths of their comrades along with the battles that they had fought throughout the entire war.

Beyond being a place of death, it was also a site of acts of respect.  On April 9th, the road literally led both generals to the surrender meeting that ensured generous terms for the Army of Northern Virginia. On April 10th, Lee and Grant met for a second time on horseback, this time on the road.  In this meeting, Grant offered Lee’s men parole passes to ensure safe passage home, rations, and transportation.  April 12th saw the Stacking of Arms ceremony.  Fifty-five thousand Federal infantrymen lined the stage road and saluted the Confederates as they laid down their guns.  The Confederates returned the salute.  Exhausted by the fighting and grateful for the generosity displayed on the stage road, these men were ready to go home along that same road and prepare for reunification.

Even though we at the park focus on the road’s former uses, it is still active today as a pathway into the past, leading visitors through the town’s history. No longer connecting two major cities, it now connects the past to the present. Rangers describe the deep ruts and blood red mud which characterized it 150 years ago, much different from the level, tan gravel of today.  Rangers use the soldiers’ own words to describe the men weeping from relief and others embracing one another in the middle of the road as brothers, no longer enemies.  Each detail about the road adds nuance and makes the soldiers’ experiences more tangible. The Richmond-Lynchburg Stage Road acts almost like a river.  Its function constantly changes, ebbing and flowing with fortune and failure, peace and war. Now it allows visitors to walk up and down its length, retracing the steps of those long forgotten so they can be remembered once again.

Antietam’s Dunker Church: Meaning in the Viewpoint of the Beholder

By Ryan Bilger ’19

This post is part of a series featuring behind-the-scenes dispatches from our Pohanka Interns on the front lines of history this summer as interpreters, archivists, and preservationists. See here for the introduction to the series. 

Antietam National Battlefield’s venerable Dunker Church stands out today as one of the battlefield’s most recognizable landmarks. While visitors to the park commonly seek it out as a place to explore today, the church has held several different meanings for those who have interacted with it over the years. These varying perspectives on the simple white brick structure provide great insight into how material objects influenced the attitudes and beliefs of historical actors. Across the decades, the Dunker Church has remained a key object in this regard, even as its meaning has changed depending upon the viewpoint of the beholder.

Bilger Dunker Church
Dunker Church is one of Antietam National Battlefield’s most recognizable landmarks. Photo courtesy Ryan Bilger.

When Sharpsburg farmer Samuel Mumma donated the land on which the Dunker Church would be built in 1851, he surely intended for the new place of worship to become a peaceful refuge and a communal gathering place. The Mumma family occupied a position near the center of the tight-knit local community, which included several of members of the pacifist German Baptist Brethren church, better known as the Dunkers. In its first decade of existence, the church filled its intended niche as an anchor for the local congregation. Its simple design and sparse furnishings reflected the devout religious beliefs and relative focus on austerity held by those who met there each Sunday, further contributing to its status in the community as a place of peace and solemnity. This meaning largely defined the Dunker Church in its early years. However, the arrival of two powerful armies at its doorstep would alter that meaning for some, and change overall perspectives on the structure forever.

On September 17, 1862, the Dunker Church stood in the center of the single bloodiest day in American history, and assumed totally different meanings for those who fought at Antietam. For the Union generals and soldiers attacking Robert E. Lee’s Confederates, the church became a landmark to guide their advance. Their hopes and goals for the day, in many cases, fixated upon it as the symbol of the victory they desperately desired. After the chaos and carnage of battle ravaged the fields of Sharpsburg, the Dunker Church transformed once again. It became a hospital aid station for wounded Confederate soldiers desperately in need of treatment, and, according to one account, an embalming facility for Union dead. The pacifist meeting house became a scene of suffering and death, creating experiences that surely shaped how the soldiers and surgeons who passed through it thought about the maelstrom of war. The Battle of Antietam radically altered the meaning of the Dunker Church for those who interacted with it in September 1862.

Today, Antietam National Battlefield works effectively to stimulate visitor thinking on the different meanings ascribed to the Dunker Church and how people have interacted with it throughout history. The church occupies the position of Stop #1 on the battlefield auto tour, ensuring that visitors take time to observe the structure and reflect on its significance. Additional related artifacts in the Visitor Center museum highlight the dichotomy of uses and meanings, and interpretive signs and markers, as well as the Battlefield Ambassadors program on weekends, further contribute to promoting visitor reflection on the variation in the relationship between the Dunker Church and those who used it across the years. Overall, this targeted interpretation contributes well to ensuring that visitors remain mindful of how historical objects interacted with the people who used them in different, nuanced ways, and it should continue to do so into the future at Antietam.

Doors into the Past

By Emily Vega ’19

This post is part of a series featuring behind-the-scenes dispatches from our Pohanka Interns on the front lines of history this summer as interpreters, archivists, and preservationists. See here for the introduction to the series. 

Vega Magazine Doors
A view of the magazine door. Photo courtesy Emily Vega.

Submerged into the side of a grassy hill are two large white doors. As one looks at Fort Stevens from a distance, the doors seem misplaced. They randomly appear in a visitor’s line of sight as he/she examines the curves and dips of the earthwork before them. But these doors tell a much more interesting story than might be expected. To the left of these doors once stood the home of Elizabeth Proctor Thomas, a free African American woman, whose family originally owned eighty-eight acres of land in the Brightwood area of Washington, DC.  At a time of few economic opportunities for the African American community, having this land was an important part of being self-sustaining. On this high ground, Thomas’s family farmed and sold parts of their holdings to relatives and other African American families.

Due to Washington’s position between Virginia and Maryland, it made the city an incredibly vulnerable and easy target during the Civil War. With the Confederates approach looming, the Defenses of Washington went into motion and made it one of the most heavily fortified cities in the world.

Ms. Thomas had a small cottage approximately twenty feet away from the cellar doors where she lived prior to the Civil War with her six-month old daughter. But with eminent threat to the city, Union troops took possession of Ms. Thomas’ property and dismantled her home. They used her land to construct Fort Massachusetts, which was later renamed Fort Stevens.

Vega Fort Stevens

During the war, the white cellar doors actually served as the magazine for the Fort. Fort Stevens is the only location within the city limits to face a battle to protect the capitol. Nothing survived on Ms. Thomas’ original property after the Civil War and there is great debate about whether she ever received the compensation she had been promised.

More broadly, Fort Stevens served not only as protection from opposing forces but also as a safe haven for enslaved people. This movement of African Americans to the area during the Civil War can be seen in the cultural landscape of the city today. Today, the majority of the 68 forts constructed to defend the city during the war have been lost to the growing urban city and built over. The National Park Service is preserving the few forts that do still maintain their shape but to a visitor’s eye, they are often hard to spot in the brush of parks.

The Civil War Defenses of Washington’s mission is to educate the residents of the capitol about the fortifications that once existed in their neighborhoods and the Civil War history that is found in their parks. But one struggle that CWDW faces is finding effective ways to engage the local communities who do not know the historical value of these green spaces. While many visitors see the fort locations as a place to enjoy the sun or walk their dogs, they often fail to connect with the history of these spaces. Through public programming and events, CWDW hopes to get the community more interested in the history that exists in their neighborhoods. These white cellar doors were once a part of a home, then a part of battleground, and now exist as an artifact of Washington, D.C.’s own Civil War history.


Emily Vega on the job during the 154th Battle of Fort Stevens Commemoration. Photo courtesy Emily Vega.

Of Rocks and Revolutions

By Benjamin Roy ’21

This post is part of a series featuring behind-the-scenes dispatches from our Pohanka Interns on the front lines of history this summer as interpreters, archivists, and preservationists. See here for the introduction to the series. 

Roy firing a musket
The author firing a flintlock musket at Minute Man NHP during a black powder demonstration. Photo courtesy Benjamin Roy.

It is difficult to explain how the most advanced military technology of the 18th century relies upon a rock to function. Examined with modern eyes, the flintlock musket is as absurd as the macaroni fashion of the era. A petite vise grips a hunk of flint, which when thrown upon a steel battery, showers sparks on a criminally unmeasured amount of black powder. This produces a blinding flash, ushering a jet of flame through an eighth inch wide hole in the barrel. The powder condensed behind the ounce ball of lead is transformed from inert sulfur, charcoal and potassium nitrate into instant leviathan strength. The bullet careens down the barrel until its ejection from the twelve gauge bore, destined for whatever organic matter may halt the progress of this thoroughly unnatural reaction.

The Flintlock musket is itself a metaphor for the era of change it helped affect. It is not quite ancient, yet not thoroughly modern. It is a prime example of the enlightenment’s infantile understanding and dangerous fascination with science and nature; and it had an undeniable power to upend the natural order. The flintlock musket was the final expression of Colonial dissent leading up to the American Revolution. Concord’s Reverend Emerson spoke for many Provincials when he thundered to his flock, “Arise my injured Countrymen, and plead even with the Sword, the Firelock and the Bayonet, plead with your Arms.” The roaring plea of the flintlock musket would register with seismic power, upending an entire Empire. The firelock was the engine of revolutionary social and political change, and every aspect of its use was involved in the buildup to Revolution on April 19th, 1775.

Reloading begins with tearing the paper cartridge to expose the black powder. Exhibiting Puritan thrift, old newspapers were often recycled into paper cartridges. Those repurposed newspapers would be twice formative in the story of the Revolution. High literacy rates in Massachusetts meant that most of the Militiamen who were tearing these cartridges could read what was written on them. And there was no shortage of newsprint. Tory newspapers were outnumbered in Massachusetts four to one, their voice drowned out in the popular clamor for liberty. The same incendiary words that pushed the people of Massachusetts further to the edge of revolution would contain the powder they would use to ignite it.

A draught of powder is poured into the pan, the piece is cast about, and the rest is unceremoniously dumped down the throat of the gun. Without this source of energy, the weapon is impotent. Powder, and other supplies of war, were what the British marched on Concord to find, looking for the “35 half barrels of powder” hidden there. Powder had long been a critical point of contention. When the British seized gunpowder from The Cambridge Powder House on September 1st, 1774, the response commanded respect. The alarm brought 20,000 militiamen from all over New England to Boston to see just what the British thought they were doing. In the mass of armed humanity that choked the roads to Boston, a poor countryman with flintlock musket laid over his shoulder, met a haughty, well known Tory on horseback and defiantly taunted, “Damn you, how do you like us now, you Tory son of a bitch”? Resistance to British rule was rapidly becoming an engine of social change, the muscle of which was the flintlock musket.

The steel rammer drives the whole cartridge into the claustrophobic breech. Even this steel rammer is an important aspect of the coming war. Steel rammers were a technological innovation that allowed the soldier to load faster; yet some British regiments were still equipped with older, wooden rammers on April 19th. In contrast, the town of Lincoln, among others, provided each of its Minutemen with steel rammers, demonstrating that this local democratic force was on an equal, if not better technological footing with their opponents. British arrogance concerning the “raw, undisciplined cowardly men” of the Provincial Militia, would shatter against the hard front of burnished Provincial steel.

Loaded, the musket is ready to emit its deadly articles. The charge in the pan is ignited with a terse hiss, followed by the baritone detonation of the main charge. The different sounds of gunfire that erupted on April 19th speak eloquently of the dispute that aroused them. The ordered volleys of Lord Percy’s relief column garnered cheers from the bludgeoned Regulars of Lt. Colonel Smith’s original force signaling that help had arrived, that the omnipresent might of the Crown would escort them back to Boston. Alternatively, the scattered, peppering fire of the militia, like a chorus of voices speaking at the local meetinghouse, alerted the British that they had blundered into another ambush. Those shots, the ubiquitous “shot heard round the world,” resounded like a thunderclap across the thirteen colonies. In New York, a disgusted Loyalist observed a band of Patriots celebrate the news “with avidity” and “paraded the town with drums beating and colours flying, (attended by a mob of negroes, boys, sailors, and pickpockets) inviting all of mankind to take up arms in defence of the ‘injured rights and liberties of America.’” The gunshots fired on April 19th reverberated in Patriot ears as a universal call to arms.

The flintlock musket was simultaneously ornate and savagely simple and brutal. The weapon of both Empire and Revolution, it would destroy an old order, and enforce a new one. Nearly 250 years removed from the American Revolution, the flintlock musket, and the war it won, still produces awe. Like the modest stone that slew Goliath, a small, sharp flint, thrown against steel, would topple an Empire.


Borneman, Walter R. American Spring: Lexington, Concord. and the Road to Revolution. Boston: Back Bay Books. 2014.

Darling, Anthony D. Red Coat and Brown Bess. New York: Museum Restoration Series. 1977.

Fischer, David Hackett. Paul Revere’s Ride. New York: Oxford University Press. 1994.

Galvin, John R. The Minutemen: The First Fight, Myths and Realities of the American Revolution. Dulles VA: Potomac Series. 2006.

Gross, Robert A. Minutemen and their World. New York: Hill and Wang. 1976.

Tourtellot, Arthur B. Lexington and Concord: The Beginning of the War of the American Revolution. New York: W.W Norton and Company. 1959.

C. Keith Wilbur, The Revolutionary Soldier: 1775-1783. (Guilford CT: Rowan and Littlefield, 1993).