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.

Revisiting Fredericksburg: Using Provocation to Explore New Questions

By Jonathan Tracey ’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. 

To Freeman Tilden, provocation was an essential ingredient to effective interpretation, and I tend to agree with that idea. Both my walking tour at the Fredericksburg Battlefield Visitor Center and the interpretive exhibits at Chatham Manor utilize provocation in different forms, with different challenges and opportunities. Overall, the atmosphere of Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park is one that supports and encourages provocative thinking by visitors.

Continue reading “Revisiting Fredericksburg: Using Provocation to Explore New Questions”

Choosing Your Battles: Provoking the Public at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park

By Abby Currier ’17

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. 

During training to be an intern at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, our instructors continuously stressed the importance of reading our audience. Whether we were greeting visitors at the front desk or leading walking tours, our job was to always watch the visitors and gauge what they are interested in. For me, this was initially very frustrating. I prefer to deal with concrete things instead of making judgement calls. It all sounded pretty wishy washy and that I would somehow ‘know’ what the visitor wanted just by looking at them. Needless to say, I was not convinced.

Continue reading “Choosing Your Battles: Provoking the Public at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park”

Making the Most of Interpretative Tours at Fredericksburg and Spotslyvania National Military Park

By Julia Deros ’17

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. 

Freeman Tilden argues that the purpose of good interpretation is to inspire people to want to discover and learn for themselves in order to gain an understanding and appreciation for what they see. After having experienced the challenges of interpreting the battlefields at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, I agree that provocation is important to good interpretation.

Continue reading “Making the Most of Interpretative Tours at Fredericksburg and Spotslyvania National Military Park”

The ‘Angel of Marye’s Heights’ and Civil War Memory

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.

By Jon Danchik ‘17

In 1862, the small Virginian town of Fredericksburg found itself between two opposing armies. The Federal Army of the Potomac sat restlessly, eagerly awaiting means with which to cross the Rappahannock River, while elements of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia were called to take defensive positions in and behind Fredericksburg. What ensued was a bloody spectacle that claimed thousands of lives, and tempered the fighting spirit of the armies for the remainder of the Civil War.

Confederate infantry held back the Federal advance by occupying firing positions along the infamous “Sunken Road” at the base of Marye’s Heights. Supported by a considerable number of cannon, Confederate infantry were so effective at halting Federal charges that they nearly ran out of ammunition on several occasions. Despite their numerous successes, many Confederate soldiers were appalled by the bloodshed that they caused, forced by their stationary deployment to continuously gaze upon a veritable sea of dead or wounded Federal soldiers—their own victims.

Danchik 3.jpg

Continue reading “The ‘Angel of Marye’s Heights’ and Civil War Memory”

Find Your Park Friday: Meg and Megan Take Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania NMP

By Meg Sutter ’16 and Megan McNish ’16

The Civil War Institute will be celebrating the National Park Service Centennial this spring with its brand new “Find Your Park Friday” series. Inspired by the NPS #FindYourPark campaign, the series will challenge our fellows to share their experiences exploring America’s national historical, cultural, and natural resources through trips and internships with the NPS. In our first post, CWI Social Media Coordinators Meg and Megan discuss their time interning at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. 


How long did you spend at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park and what did you do while you were there?

Megan: I’ve spent two summers at Fredericksburg; the first summer I was a Pohanka Intern and the second summer I was able to return as a seasonal employee. I’ve worked at almost all the sites in the park in my two summers there. I’ve given tours at Chancellorsville, Fredericksburg, and the Wilderness. I’ve also spent time at the Stonewall Jackson Shrine and Chatham doing informal interpretation.

Meg: I was a Pohanka Intern at FredSpot from May 2014 to August 2014. I gave interpretive programs at the Fredericksburg Visitor Center and the Spotsylvania Exhibit Shelter and led tours daily. On the weekends I led the Children’s Program with a fellow intern. We led four different programs including a cemetery program, a soldier’s life program, a flags-and-signals program, and a regular Junior Ranger program which alternated each weekend. Continue reading “Find Your Park Friday: Meg and Megan Take Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania NMP”

The Good, the Great, and the Ugly of Public History

By Jeff Lauck ’18

Elizabeth Smith '17 gives a tour in Fredericksburg as part of her Pohanka internship. Photo courtesy of the author.
Elizabeth Smith ’17 gives a tour in Fredericksburg as part of her Pohanka internship. Photo courtesy of the author.

My last post recounted some of my favorite takeaways from my Civil War road trip this summer. But this trip was about more than just mosquito bites and cheap donuts; it was the first time I ever visited a historical site as a student of public history. My first tour was with Elizabeth Smith ’17 at the Sunken Road at Fredericksburg. Elizabeth’s tour was unique in that she was able to connect the events that transpired along Marye’s Heights, a moderately nuanced subject, to President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, a very well-known subject. I was delighted to see this connection that appealed to a wide audience. For the hardcore Civil Warrior, Elizabeth’s accounts of the 5th New Hampshire and Cobb’s Georgia Legion gave the military historian exactly what he or she was looking for. Tying the mortality of the common soldier and the pathos of the war-torn nation that was so evident at Fredericksburg to the familiar and powerful Gettysburg Address gave the casual Civil War enthusiast something relatable (and perhaps it provided a new perspective to the hardened military historian as well). Her knowledge of her audience combined with her ability to connect broad themes to specifics and the importance of location demonstrated Elizabeth’s skill as a public historian.

Continue reading “The Good, the Great, and the Ugly of Public History”

Interpreting Civilian Experiences in Fredericksburg

By Jennifer Simone ‘18

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

Battlefields administered by the National Park Service are in a process of transformation. Administered originally by the War Department, interpretation at many battlefield sites has for years been marked by the military actions that occurred on the ground, from orders given to regiment positions to how flank attacks work. The National Park Service now is working to expand the horizons of interpretation on battlefields. Though military history is still greatly (and rightly) emphasized and members of the US Armed Forces still travel to battlefields to study tactics or communication, military history is no longer the only topic of focus at many parks.

This is a relatively new concept, only being overtly implemented in the last two decades, so many visitors still arrive at the parks expecting a program entirely focused on the military history of the site. While it is certainly not a problem that many visitors are most greatly interested in military history, too few come to the parks looking to also learn about the social, political, and economic histories of the war as well. At Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park where I am interning this summer, we conduct “History at Sunset” programs each Friday at 7pm, lasting up to two hours. These programs have very specific topics, ranging from animals in war to the trail taken by Stonewall Jackson’s amputated arm. NPS Ranger Beth Parnicza has noticed that attendance at these programs is greatly dependent upon the type of history that the specific program reflects. Programs about street fighting in the town of Fredericksburg will draw two hundred people, while programs about slavery will likely only bring eighty. Is this because people are simply more interested in military history or because visitors are still stuck in the old mindset that these parks are only about the military history and they therefore do not look for or expect anything else? Continue reading “Interpreting Civilian Experiences in Fredericksburg”

The Meade Pyramid’s Shifting Sands

By Jacob Ross ‘15

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 his essay, “The Politics of Memory: Black Emancipation and the Civil War Monument,” Kirk Savage describes a phenomenon in which the plastic arts of memory can re-appropriate blocks of bronze and stone meant to convey a certain message about the Civil War and change their meaning entirely. There is no better materialization of this theory than the Meade Pyramid located on the Fredericksburg Battlefield. The 400-ton granite structure constructed near Prospect Hill had the original intent of marking the location of General “Stonewall” Jackson’s headquarters; however, in time the purpose of the monument shifted to denote the location of a small, but unique, Union success on the Fredericksburg Battlefield – General Meade’s breakthrough of the Confederate lines. It is this monument’s new purpose which provides its modern namesake.

The pyramid was built in 1898 by a partnership between the Confederate Memorial Literary Society (CMLS) and the Richmond, Fredericksburg, and Potomac Railroad. The intent of the monument’s purpose was clear even in the initial stages of design. R.F.&P. Railroad employee John Rice was charged with visiting the mammoth Confederate memorial pyramid at Hollywood National Cemetery in Richmond in order to take measurements in an attempt to build a scaled-down duplicate by the tracks at Prospect Hill. From personal experience, the Hollywood Cemetery Pyramid sits in the epitome of “Moonlight & Magnolia” romanticism, but its location is isolated in a tucked away small portion of the vast cemetery. The Meade Pyramid, however was placed right beside the railroad tracks with the primary goal of serving as a landmark-memorial to the most geographically diverse audience Fredericksburg regularly experienced – those travelers passing through town by rail. If nothing else, it is safe to say that the pyramid embodied romantic Confederate memory and placed it at a location of highest public exposure. Continue reading “The Meade Pyramid’s Shifting Sands”

Stonewall Jackson: The Man, The Myth, The Lemons

By Megan McNish ’16

She stood staring into the room, tears streaming down her face. The quiet tick of the clock in the background was an appropriate melody for the sad scene. The woman mourned the loss of a great man who one hundred fifty years earlier had rested his tired body in the bed just feet from where she was standing. Today this site is the Stonewall Jackson Shrine Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania NMP in Woodford, Virginia. It is the death site of Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, located twenty-seven miles south of the Battlefield at Chancellorsville where the famous Confederate general was shot. But the greater question is not where, but why. Why, after so many years, are people still mourning the loss of Stonewall Jackson?

Stonewall Jackson was an incredible phenomenon during his lifetime; he was one of the most well-known generals of the Civil War and his death on 10 May 1863 even made Northern newspapers. But what makes Jackson so appealing to people today? In many ways Jackson’s story is reminiscent of the American spirit, for it finds its beginnings in humble roots but ends in glory. Jackson was born in what is today Clarksburg, West Virginia (at that point still Virginia) and shortly after birth became an orphan. (1) He attended the United States Military Academy at West Point, but only after another Virginia man returned home, thereby creating an opening. (2) By the end of Jackson’s four years of military education, the young man who had been woefully unprepared for West Point graduated in the top half of the Class of 1846. (3) Jackson would go on to gain recognition in the Mexican War, but it would be the American Civil War that brought true fame to Jackson.

Continue reading “Stonewall Jackson: The Man, The Myth, The Lemons”