Finding the Swale

Fredericksburg is perhaps best known for that fateful Civil War battle on December 13, 1862. As a volunteer at the Fredericksburg Battlefield Visitor’s Center, I became aware that the visiting public was having trouble visualizing the battlefield due to the present day built-up nature of the city. It occurred to me that there must be some way to help folks “see” the 1862 open field terrain as it once was by stripping away the man-made features such as houses, roads, trees, etc. The question was how to accomplish this?

I began by simply walking through the area adjacent to the Sunken Road in order to better understand the terrain. As I stood at the corner of the Sunken Road and Mercer Street with my back to the Heights looking east towards the city, I noticed that about 200 yards in front of me, the land dipped as it fell away. If there was a car parked on Mercer Street in this dip in the terrain, some of its front wheel was hidden from view. If I were a confederate soldier of Cobb’s Brigade stationed in the Sunken Road at this same place, what would I have seen as I looked out towards the city? Was there any place where union soldiers could hunker down or was it all simply open ground? Certainly the 1864 Brady photographs don’t seem to show anything. Was this dip I noticed the “swale” spoken of in various letters and reports written by both sides following the battle? So this is where my research begins.

These two 1864 photographs show the area of Mercer Square also known as the Fair Grounds, seen from opposite directions looking diagonally across the area.

View from Federal Hill looking West

View from Federal Hill looking West

Photo #1 – View from Federal Hill looking west.  US National Archives 111-B-134

Photo #2 - View from Willis Hill looking East

Photo #2 – View from Willis Hill looking East

Photo #2 – View from Willis Hill looking East. US National Archives 111-B-342

The first photograph was taken just outside the city on land known as Federal Hill. Hanover Street is just off view to the right. The land falls away down to the canal ditch then steadily rises up until it reaches the heights. On the far right is Marye’s Hill. Marye’s home, Brompton, can be seen amongst the trees on the far right.  Then beginning at the small group of houses, the height immediately to the left known as Willis Hill which drops off into Hazel Run towards the left side of the photo. Just past this, to the left in the hazy background, is Lee’s Hill. The most prominent  house, the Stratton House, stood at the northwest corner of Fair Street (now called Littlepage) and Mercer Street. Just across Mercer Street to the left was the local Fair Grounds also known as Mercer Square. At the base of the ridgeline is the Sunken Road with its stone wall.  It was then known as Telegraph Road, the main road to Richmond which has been styled as the I-95 of its day. The side of the ridge at this point is lightly wooded. On top of the Height, in the center of the photo, can be seen two buildings identified by their chimneys. The larger building has two chimneys, while the more easily seen building to its right, has one chimney. Immediately to the right of the single chimney was the location of Squire’s Battery of the Washington Artillery.

The ridge from Hazel Run and to the north is known as Marye’s Height in most writings concerning the Battle of Fredericksburg.

Photo #2 - with notations

Photo #1 – with notations

Photo #1 – with notations. This photograph identifies a number of features described above for ease of identification.

Photo #2 with notations

Photo #2 with notations

Photo #2 – View from Willis Hill looking east.  US National Archives 111-B-342

The second 1864 photograph was taken from the south end of Willis Hill, in what today is the National Cemetery, from the south end of Willis Hill. This photo view is probably taken from very close to site of Echelman’s Battery at the end of the Height. It views the same area of Mercer Square from the opposite direction of the first photograph. The Sunken Road, then known as Telegraph Road, emerges from the right along the base of the Height where the road crossed Hazel Run. A small grove of fruit trees or orchard is seen in the right mid-distance. On the ground in the midst of these trees is a white area, the apparent burnt remains of the Hall House. This is the approximate location of the current National Park Service Fredericksburg Battlefield Visitor’s Center. This orchard can be seen in the previous photograph just below Willis Hill where the Height drops off into Hazel Run. Lafayette Blvd is located just in front of the trees coming from the Sunken Road just to the right of the stone wall and moving off to the right edge of the photo.  In the foreground following the Height, and at the base of the Height, parallel with Telegraph Road are supplementary confederate infantry earthworks. There is no written evidence of them by the confederates who occupied the area in December. They were probably added to strengthen the confederate position during the winter and early spring before the campaign season began in May, 1863.

A trail seems to be visible crossing from right to left just behind the orchard, very close to what today is known as Willis Street. Beyond it is a slightly darkened area that may well be the outline of Mercer Square. The Stratton House is seen to the left mid-range of the photo, partially hidden by a tree. In the background you can make out the city with its church spires and city courthouse tower, as well as Federal Hill, the location of the first photo.

This photograph identifies a number of the features described above for ease of identification. One can see a tree in both photos that was located on the bank of the canal ditch. It is peculiar in shape and therefore easily identifiable.

Photo Orientation map

Photo Orientation map

Aerial map marked with photo locations.

Before going further, it is important to highlight how the participants described the terrain in this location. Confederate General Kershaw, in his after-action report to General Lee, says in part:

About 1 o’clock of that day I was directed to send two regiments into the city to the support of General Cobb, then engaged with part of his brigade at the foot of Marye’s Hill, and having called for re-enforcements. I sent forward at once Colonel John D. Kennedy with his own (Second) regiment and the Eighth Regiment South Carolina Volunteers, Captain E. T. Stackhouse commanding. Within a few minutes after, I was directed to take my entire command to the same point and assume command there. I had just moved when I was informed that General Cobb was wounded, and was directed by Major-General McLaws to hasten forward in person immediately and take command. Leaving my staff to conduct the troops, I proceeded as rapidly as possible to the scene of action, reaching the position at Stevens’ house at the moment that Colonel Kennedy arrived with the Second and Eighth Regiments, and just in time to meet a fresh assault of the enemy. The position was excellent. Marye’s Hill, covered with our batteries-then occupied by the Washington Artillery, Colonel [J. B.] Walton commanding-falls off abruptly toward Fredericksburg to a stone wall, which forms a terrace on the side of the hill and the outer margin of the Telegraph road, which winds along the foot of the hill. The road is about some 25 feet wide, and is faced by a stone wall about 4 feet high on the city side. The road having been cut out of the side of the hill, in many places this last wall is not visible above the surface of the ground. The ground falls off rapidly to almost a level surface, which extends about 150 yards, then, with another abrupt fall of a few feet, to another plain which extends some 200 yards, and then falls off abruptly into a wide ravine, which extends along the whole front of the city and discharges into Hazel Run.  OR 21: 1st Part: 588-91

Colonel Allbach of, 2nd Bde, 3rd Div, V Corps involved in General Humphreys late afternoon attack, says in part….  Crossing the pontoon bridge, and passing up the street leading through the city to the battle-ground, I moved my column to the left of the Telegraph road, formed two lines of battle, and, by your directions, moved them off at a charge. The line moved with great steadiness some 200 yards, when they came to a line of infantry down just in rear of a small elevation, which partially covered from the incessant musket firing. OR 21: 1st Part: 443-4.

I underlined the relevant portions of both texts for emphasis of the swale.

How significant was the Swale?

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About Peter Glyer

I am retired with a lifelong interest in history, primarily the Civil War and WWII - Europe. I was an Army engineer, hence my interest in terrain. I graduated with a degree in City and Regional Planning and a Masters in International Relations.
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One Response to Finding the Swale

  1. Pingback: Washington Artillery (part 2) | Mercer Square

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