Today I felt we should take a side trip. I’ve noticed from some of the supporting data I am provided through WordPress, that many of my readers are from different countries. It occurred to me that you may never have a chance to visit Fredericksburg in person, so allow me to be your tour guide. We will visit the Willis Hill Cemetery. I’ve talked about it some in the past. This structure was the mute backdrop to the momentous events of December 1862 and May 1863; the Battles of Fredericksburg.
Today, the cemetery atop Willis Hill sits, almost forgotten, adjacent to the Fredericksburg National Cemetery. In December 1862 and May 1863, it was anything but tranquil, located almost dead center in the middle of both Battles of Fredericksburg.
The cemetery earned official status through the will of John S. Wellford, who died in 1846. It was mentioned in a deed dated December 31, 1852, which placed Willis Hill in the hands of John Howison. The stipulations concerning the cemetery were listed as the following: “Second, one acre of land which has been set aside as a graveyard and being a part of the tract of land known as Willis Hill. And the right of title to the said one acre of land was retained in the children of the said John S. Wellford and their descendants forever for the purposes aforesaid, with the right to improve the same by enclosure or otherwise, with the right of ingress and egress at all times and in the most convenient manner without the ________ or hindrances of the said John Howison, his heirs or assigns forever.”
Although the deed specified one-acre for the cemetery, the area enclosed by the sturdy brick walls encompassed only 0.2 acre, 116 feet long by 75 feet wide. In this aerial view of Willis Hill, obtained from the City of Fredericksburg GIS site, you will see the purple colored rectangle of the cemetery, as well as an orange rectangle to provide a size comparison between the actual cemetery and the outline of a one-acre plot. I have found no record of how that one-acre was laid out. The fortunes of war and the creation of the National Cemetery also changed the circumstances on the ground. The National Cemetery comes up to within two feet of the southeast corner of the Willis Hill Cemetery. The National Park Service now manages both cemeteries. They acquired the Willis Hill land in 1997. Although the cemetery is in the middle of the land the Park Service acquired, the legal owners are still the decedents of the Wellford family. They are still entitled to visit the cemetery and be interred within its walls if space is available. The Park Service has a good working relationship with the Wellford decedents, and maintains care for the cemetery in exchange for access to the property. The Willis Hill Cemetery remains private, and therefore cannot to be entered without permission from the family.
In April 1863, AJ Russell made a photograph of Confederate soldiers standing on the west side of the Rappahannock River on their portion of the burned out railroad bridge. He was stood on the opposite bank with his camera. In the background, Russell captured an interesting view of Willis Hill. I enlarged a portion of the photo that shows the cemetery.
From his vantage point he could make out the cemetery gate and its north-south wall a mile distant. The cemetery stood behind and to the left of the Mitchell dependency with its one chimney. I discussed this building in a previous post (click here). Due to the importance of this building in locating Confederate artillery positions, I will use this photograph again when I discuss Squires Battery of the Washington Artillery Battalion in the future.
The National Park Service sign located at the entrance to the Willis Hill Cemetery provides a fuller view of the Russell photograph.
While Union artillery bombarded Willis Hill during the first battle, most structures located on the hill received only superficial damage. William Owen, adjutant of the Washington Artillery, noted that he sheltered his horse on the west side of the cemetery. Several reinforcing Confederate regiments were guided by the cemetery. A few also took shelter behind its walls before they moved forward over the hill to join the other troops located in the Sunken Road to repel Union assaults.
The initial reinforcements to General Cobb’s brigade in the Sunken Road came from Brigadier General John R Cooke’s brigade of General Ransom’s division. Of these regiments, the 48th North Carolina was placed in reserve behind the wall of the cemetery. These troops were supplemented by the 15th South Carolina regiment.
Colonel De Saussure reported that “On Saturday, the 13th, the regiment marched off by the left flank with the rest of the brigade to the support of General Cobb’s brigade, under Marye’s Hill. Passing to the rear of the batteries, the regiment was halted and lay down in line of battle in rear of the Marye house until, by an order extended through Adjutant-General Holmes, it was marched across the hill under a heavy fire to the rear of the cemetery, as a support to Colonel Walton’s batteries. Later in the evening the regiment was marched down to the stone wall on the road below Marye’s Hill,….
Brigadier General Kershaw reported that “Colonel De Saussure’s Fifteenth Regiment South Carolina Volunteers in reserve, and under cover of the cemetery.”
General Kershaw’s commander, Lafayette McLaws reported it this way “… the Fifteenth South Carolina, Colonel De Saussure, in reserve at the cemetery…. This continued until about 4.30 p.m., when the enemy ceased in their assaults for a time, and posting some artillery in front of the town on the left of the Telegraph road, opened on our position, doing but little damage. The batteries on Marye’s Hill of Colonel Walton were at this time silent, having exhausted their ammunition, and they were being relieved by others from Colonel Alexander’s battalion. Taking advantage of the lull, the Fifteenth South Carolina Regiment, Colonel De Saussure, was brought forward from the cemetery and posted behind the stone behind the stone wall…”
The second battle was a totally different story though. Damage from Union artillery to the buildings and the cemetery was significant. War is the respecter of nothing. By the time John T. Trowbridge reached Willis Hill during his early post-war journey around the South, it had been the scene of two battles and then part of a vast Union hospital encampment in 1864 during the Overland Campaign. He described;
“There is a private cemetery on the crest, surrounded by a brick wall Burnside’s artillery had not spared it. I looked over the wall, which was badly smashed in places, and saw the overthrown monuments and broken tombstones lying on the ground. The heights all around were covered with weeds, and scarred by Rebel intrenchments; here and there was an old apple-tree; and I marked the ruins of two or three small brick houses. “
The cemetery was repaired by its owners. Scars of battle still adorn the entry pillars of the cemetery.
Looking inside from the gate of the cemetery, we see its widely spaced burial plots.
Looking over the wall at the southeast corner of the cemetery, this is the view.
I stood on the wall of the National Cemetery to capture this next view. Willis Hill Cemetery is on the right and the National Cemetery is on the left. Note the difference in the lay of the land inside of Willis Hill Cemetery and the land just to the left outside the wall. When the builders laid out the cemetery, they imported soil in order that the land within the cemetery remain level rather than conform to the slope of the land outside the walls.
Here is a plot layout of the various monuments and graves of those interred, along with a listing of the occupants.
The earliest recorded interment was that of Charles Carter in 1756. By 1860, there had been 26 burials. Today, it contains 26 stones and 35 burials.
There is one irregular grave included in the cemetery. It is of Private James L Coffee, late of the 24th Georgia Volunteer Infantry Regiment. His unit fought on the Sunken Road located immediately downhill from his final resting place. It is a curious point of history as to why his is the only non-“family” grave. He served in company E of the 24th Georgia. Certainly there were other Confederate defenders who died that day defending Marye’s Heights. Some of them died much closer to the spot where he is buried.
The War of the Rebellion: a Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (Washington DC, 1880-1901) Serial 031, Chapter XXI, page 280. Report of Colonel W. D. De Saussure, Fifteenth South Carolina Infantry.
The War of the Rebellion: a Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (Washington DC, 1880-1901) Serial 031, Chapter XXI, page 274. Report of Brigadier General Joseph B. Kershaw, C. S. Army, commanding Kershaw’s brigade.
The War of the Rebellion: a Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (Washington DC, 1880-1901) Serial 031, Chapter XXI, page 271. Report of Major General Lafayette McLaws, C. S. Army, commanding McLaws division.
Harrison, Noel G., A Tour of Civil War Sites on the University of Mary Washington Central Grounds, Center for Historic Preservation, University of Mary Washington, Fredericksburg, VA, 2008, p147-9.
O’Reilly, Francis A., The Fredericksburg Campaign, Winter on the Rappahannock, Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge, 2003, p 259.
Owen, Willian M., In Camp and Battle with the Washington Artillery of New Orleans, original published by Ticknor and Company (Boston, 1885) Reprinted by Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge, 1999 p 185.
Trowbridge, John T. The South: It’s Battle-Fields and Ruined Cities, L. Stebbins, Hartford, Conn, 1867, p 109.
Library of Congress photograph titled: View at Fredericksburg, Va. – south end of the railroad bridge across Rappahannock River, taken from north side of river by telescopic camera.