Modern Photographs of the Swale

In early 2012, camera in hand, I walked along Littlepage Street which parallels the Sunken Road in the heart of what was once called Mercer Square or the Fairgrounds.  My goal was to try to “see” back 150 years. On one side of the street, the ground noticeably dropped away before it again resumed its gentle fall towards the city proper with its church spires and old buildings. Could this be the location where the union soldiers took shelter once their attacks against the confederate positions on Marye’s Heights were devastated by fire?

What did I find? Plenty. First, the land definitely drops off to the east of Littlepage Street, the side towards the city. This drop increases in height as one walks south from Mercer Street towards Lafayette Blvd. This is definitely the Swale. The land, even in its current state of development, it was plain to me, showed that the swale was not fiction. While there was not a lot of protection for a union soldier, there was something there. Colonel Allbach had termed it “a small elevation” behind which his troops found shelter. He crossed the swale in the between Mercer Street and Hanover Street where the protection was slight, not further to his left where the drop off is more pronounced.

These are six of the photographs that I took. Three of the photographs are taken looking east towards the city, while stood on Littlepage Street looking downhill along Mercer, Charlotte and Wolfe Streets. The other three are taken in the alleyways in line with the fourth house in the block, looking west, and uphill. The alleys seem a little truer to the 1862 terrain as there is little improvement for traffic. They are not paved. The streets on the other hand, are built up for ease of passage by foot and vehicle traffic. They are bounded by sidewalks and front lawns.   Each homeowner, over time, has worked to flatten out his lot.  Those closest to Littlepage Street had less opportunity due to the gradient of the land. Overtime, there has been some stair stepping of the terrain using retaining walls. This alteration from the 1862 terrain is relatively minor when one considers what modern tract home development would do.

      Mercer-St-at-Littlepage-St_web

 Photo #1 – Mercer St at Littlepage

 Alley-at-Littlepage_Charlotte-and-Mercer_web

Photo #2 – Haw Alley, between Mercer and Charlotte

 Charlotte-St-at-Littlepage-St_web

Photo #3 – Charlotte St at Littlepage

 Alley-at-Littlepage_between-Wolfe-and-Charlotte_web

Photo #4 – Alley between Charlotte and Wolfe

 Wolfe-St-at-Littlepage-St_web

Photo #5 – Wolfe St at Littlepage

 Alley-between-Wolfe-and-La-Fayette_web

Photo #6 – Alley between Wolfe and Lafayette

 mercer-square-map--640-google

Map of photo locations.

This Google map will assist you in placing the photos with the existing development.  Obviously, none of the houses or roads were here in 1862.

Having established that there is a Swale, does this change what the confederate soldier could see and therefore hit when shooting?  Did the Swale provide protection, if any, to the union soldiers?  If so, how much?

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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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