Mapping Willis Hill

Willis Hill was an investment property of a local merchant, William M. Mitchell. When Mitchell purchased the 18 acres on Willis Hill, with the exception of the cemetery, from John Howison in 1854, the land was devoid of structural improvements. During the first half of the 1800’s up through the civil war, the locals sometimes referred to Willis Hill as Cemetery Hill because the Willis Hill Cemetery was the only thing there and it could be seen from the town until Wallace added his buildings. The timing of this purchase by Mitchell coincided with other land speculation of the plain that stood between Fredericksburg and Willis Hill (click here). That land would see major fighting during the Battles of Fredericksburg in December 1862 and May 1863.

Following an attempt to sell the land the 1855, Mitchell began to make improvements in order to attract buyers. Part of his advertisement for the land was a description of it having been “laid off in falls [terraces] at great expense”. By this, Mitchell was referring to the eastern slope of the hill between the Sunken Road and the top of the hill. In 1857, according to tax records, he added $300 worth of building improvements to the property. These improvements, which, in and of themselves were unimportant, remained significant to later generations because they acted as sentinels or landmarks from which the location of Confederate civil war defensive emplacements might be located. The challenge is finding where these buildings sat on the hill.

Andrew J Russell photo taken 3 May 1863. Note Mitchell buildings circled in yellow.

Andrew J Russell photo taken 3 May 1863. Note Wallace buildings circled in yellow.

This May 3rd, 1863 photograph by Andrew J Russell shows both of the Mitchell buildings. The larger one, a residence, was made of brick with chimneys at both ends. It was estimated to have been approximately 45 feet long by 40 feet wide (14 meters by 12 meters) and stood one and a half stories high. A second structure, a Dependency with one chimney, also constructed of brick, was located to the north of the main house, near a well and just in front of the Willis Hill Cemetery. This building is estimated to have been 25 feet long by 15 feet wide (7.6 meters by 4.5 meters). Both were evidentially whitewashed. It is curious that no structure for a barn was added to complete the supposed agricultural compound. Both structures had a clear, unobstructed and open view eastward towards the town. The Rappahannock River was a mile east, just beyond Fredericksburg.
In the 1860 census, Mitchell, a single 50-year old white male, was listed as having resided on the hill, probably in the larger of the two structures. Later in 1860, the land was put up for public auction and was purchased by another local merchant, Douglas H. Gordon.
The April 1863 Russell photograph, which I used in a previous blog on the Willis Hill Cemetery (click here) is my starting point for determining the location of the Dependency.

AJ Russell photo taken April 1863 using a telephoto lense of Confederate soldiers stood on railroad bridge on their side of Rappahannock River.

AJ Russell photo taken April 1863 using a telephoto lens of Confederate soldiers stood on railroad bridge on their side of Rappahannock River.

 

The photo was taken with a telephoto lens in order to get closer to the group of Confederate soldiers stood on the bridge on their side of the river. In this blog we will focus on what is in the background, Willis Hill and the Dependency and its location adjacent to the Willis Hill Cemetery.

Enhanced Russell photo showing Willis Hill Cemetery and Wallace Dependency.

Enhanced Russell photo showing Willis Hill Cemetery and Wallace Dependency.

Knowing the length of the cemetery wall (north to south) and the size of the gatepost entry, I used proportions to estimate where the northern end of the cemetery should be in the photograph that is hidden behind the Dependency building and the Confederate earthworks to its right. Assuming this is correctly plotted, then we can see approximately one third of the cemetery wall using the gate posts as our starting point.

1867 Michler map of Fredericksburg with sight lines of photographs by AJ Russell in red and green as well as Brady photo from Federal Hill in orange and drawing by A Waud in blue. Overlay of current city streets credited to Phil Brown, City of Fredericksburg.

1867 Michler map of Fredericksburg with sight lines of photographs by AJ Russell in red and green as well as Brady photo from Federal Hill in orange and drawing by A Waud in blue. Overlay of current city streets credited to Phil Brown, City of Fredericksburg.

 

I plotted the sight line Russell had on the 1867 Michler map and the city of Fredericksburg GIS map to get the alignment of Russell’s camera during the April 1863 photography session.

City of Fredericksburg GIS mapping 2014 aerial photo with sight lines added.

City of Fredericksburg GIS mapping 2014 aerial photo with sight lines added.

This allowed me to plot the photographers view on the GIS map. I found that the Dependency sat close to a well.

Enhanced GIS 2014 aerial photo with Wallace Dependency plotted on Willis Hill.

Enhanced GIS 2014 aerial photo with Wallace Dependency plotted on Willis Hill.

We know that the Dependency should fit somewhere along the view line, but where? Close to the cemetery or near the edge of the hill? We know from Colonel Edward Porter Alexander, who was responsible for siting the artillery guns, that he instructed the engineers to place the gun pits far forward so that the gunners could see everything. “Very soon after my arrival I was directed to assist Gen. Lee’s engineer officers in locating & constructing some pits for artillery at various points along the range of hills overlooking the town & valley of the river…[I}n selecting the positions, I persuaded the engineers always to advance the guns to the brows of the hills so as t be able to sweep the approaches to the hills if it became necessary.”

The larger Wallace house sat to the south of the Dependency.

Enhanced Russell photo showing the position of both Mitchell houses.

Enhanced Russell photo showing the position of both Mitchell houses.

Again, working with proportions taken from the cemetery, it appears that the larger house was approximately 230 feet (70 meters) from the northern end of the cemetery.

 city of Fredericksburg GIS 2014 aerial photo of Willis HIll showing the estimated location of both Wallace houses in yellow.


City of Fredericksburg GIS 2014 aerial photo of Willis Hill showing the estimated location of both Wallace houses in yellow.

Assuming the foregoing is valid, then the Wallace house might have stood on an slight rise of ground still found within the National Cemetery. For those who might visit the Fredericksburg area, I would place this structure within the rectangle defined by cemetery headstones marked 1786, 1519, 1509, and 1778.
William Miller Owen in his book on the Washington Artillery gives us a description of the house. “The little brick house alongside of Squires’s guns, which was white at the beginning of the battle, was perfectly red with bullet-marks at its close, its paint scaled off. There was an old cooking-stove in front of the house, exposed as was the house, to the fire of the enemy. The balls striking it kept up a perpetual “bing, bing,” equaled the varied notes of a hand-organ.”

1864 Brady photograph of Confederate defensive works atop Marye's Heights [Willis Hill] . Union artillery severely damaged both Wallace buildings during the fighting of 3 May. The location of one of Squires gun pits is in the foreground. Note the alignment of both buildings along the front slope of Willis Hill.

1864 Brady photograph of Confederate defensive works atop Marye’s Heights [Willis Hill] . Union artillery severely damaged both Wallace buildings during the fighting of 3 May. The location of one of Squires gun pits is in the foreground. Note the alignment of both buildings along the front slope of Willis Hill.

From the Brady photo of the battle damaged Dependency one can get a sense that the northern wall was indeed reduced to exposed brick by the end of the December battle. This does not appear to be quite so when looking closely at the first Russell photo above. But then, this is but a very small point to one like Owen who was there under fire during the first battle.

We can also see that the Confederate earthworks and artillery were indeed located close to the eastern edge of Willis Hill just as EP Alexander describes. In this photograph the Dependency, now severely damaged by Union artillery fire during the May 3rd 1863 attack, stands just to the rear of the artillery position. It is also possible to see that both the Dependency and the main Wallace house are roughly aligned.

I photographed the spot I considered to be a good candidate for the Dependency. I measured the bricks found in the Willis Hill Cemetery wall because these were locally made and are of the same era as the Dependency. They seemed a reasonable substitute for the bricks of the Dependency that are no longer available. Counting the number of bricks in the photograph of the ruined Dependency found above, I estimated that was approximately 15 feet (4.5 meters) wide [10 bricks] from the edge to the center point of the wall = 7.5 feet (2.2 meters).

[

Photograph of estimated location of Wallace Dependency on Willis Hill. Note the location of the four orange cones at the each corner used to locate the structure on Willis Hill. Photograph and drawing by Peter Glyer.

Photograph of estimated location of Wallace Dependency on Willis Hill. Note the orange cones at the each corner used to locate the structure on Willis Hill. The National Cemetery is in the left background. Willis Hill Cemetery is at the extreme right background.

I placed small orange soccer cones at the four corners (barely visible) and drew this replica of what the house might look like today, had it not been demolished, and the land repurposed by Charles Richardson when he built his house here in 1887 (click here). The photo is taken from the southwest corner of the old Richardson house terrace that is thought to have been the remnant of a Confederate artillery gun pit.
I conclude with two additional pictures. The first is a close-up of the 1864 photograph taken from Federal Hill. You can see the stark chimneys of the two houses I have highlighted in this blog. I included the Stratton House to assist you in orienting yourself.

Enhanced photograph taken from Federal Hill in 1864. Note the chimneys of the burned out Mitchell buildings on the crest of Willis Hill. The Stratton house is highlighted to orient the sceen in front of the Sunken Road that runs along the base of Willis Hill.

Enhanced photograph taken from Federal Hill in 1864. Note the chimneys of the burned out Mitchell buildings on the crest of Willis Hill. The Stratton house is highlighted to orient the sceen in front of the Sunken Road that runs along the base of Willis Hill.

My last image is a close-up taken from the Alfred Waud drawing of the first Battle of Fredericksburg. In it, I highlight both the Dependency as well as the location of Squires guns. This battery will be the subject of my next blog, now that we have established the locations of the Mitchell buildings.

Enhanced section of drawing by Alfred Waud on December 13, 1862.

Enhanced section of drawing by Alfred Waud on December 13, 1862.

One last observation. While there were clearly two buildings atop Willis Hill, only the first is mentioned by the combatants; the Dependency. For some reason, the main Wallace house is left out. Further, as good as Alfred Waud’s drawing is, even he doesn’t capture it.

Sources:
Gallagher, Gary W (editor), Fighting for the Confederacy: the Personal Recollections of General Edward Porter Alexander. The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, NC 1989, p 167.

Geier, Clarence R., Sancomb, Kimberly, and Sherwood, W. Cullen The Cultural Resource Assessment of the Willis Hill Parcel, Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park, Volume II: An Historical-Archaeological, Cultural Landscape Assessment of the 18th Through 20th Century Domestic Components on Willis Hill (2002, James Madison University).

Harrison, Noel, Fredericksburg Civil War Sites, December 1862-April 1865, Volume Two, H.E. Howard, Lynchburg, VA, 1995, p 149-152.
Owen, William Miller, In Camp and Battle with the Washington Artillery of New Orleans, Boston, 1885, reprinted by Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge, 1999, p 193-4.
Photographs:

AJ Russell, titled “Fredericksburg from near Lacy House” National Archives 111-B-362A, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:View_of_Fredericksburg,_Va_-_NARA_-_524782.jpg
AJ Russell showing Confederates at the RR Bridge, Library of Congress 35084, http://loc.gov/pictures/resource/ppmsca.35084/
Brady from Federal Hill, National Archives 111-B-134, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Part_of_the_Battlefield,_Fredericksburg,_Va_-_NARA_-_524553.jpg
Brady of Confederate Works at Marye’s Heights, Fredericksburg VA, National Archives 111-B-509, https://research.archives.gov/id/524926
Drawing:

Alfred Waud, Attack on rebel works, Fredericksburg, Dec 13, 1862, Library of Congress DRWG/US Waud No 189, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2004660277/

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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 Mapping Willis Hill

  1. Pingback: Washington Artillery (part 4) | Mercer Square

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