National Cemetery (Part 2) – Stratton Burial Trench

The purpose of this post is to honor the memory of the fallen, and to identify some of the prominent locations of the temporary Union war-time burials, prior to their being gathered into the Fredericksburg National Cemetery on Willis Hill.

During my initial research on the Swale in Mercer Square, I came across references concerning the burial of Union dead. There was a map related to these burials which intrigued me, and it closely matched my Swale findings. I knew that someday I would look further into this part of the history of the battle.

The Anderson Burial Trench map. The Stratton burial trench was located between the Stratton house and his wheelwright shops

You can see that the author of the burial sketch was clearly attempting to convey what he remembered from his time during the battle and at the burials. While the author’s map is not drawn to scale, it does convey a sense of location. We can compare it with the plat map that covered the projected development of Fredericksburg in 1856, to include the land surrounding the fairgrounds – Mercer Square.

Caldwell plat map of 1856 in Fredericksburg just west of the city.

At the time of the Battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862, the Union Army used burial locations of convenience; ones that were relatively close to where the men died. Individuals who died close to or within the city were generally buried in any open space, be it a yard or park or cemetery.  Mass graves were used during truces following the battle. Later, during the winter of 1862-3, burials occurred near the hospitals and camps where the soldiers died

On the southern part of the battlefield at Prospect Hill, Union General Franklin and Confederate General Jackson buried the fallen during a local truce on the 15th of December, prior to the Union withdrawal. Below Marye’s Heights, on the northern part of the battlefield, the area in which my blog has focused, mass burial did not occur until after the Union withdrew. On the 17th and 18th of December, unarmed Union work details were ferried across the Rappahannock River at the upper crossing site. These men were escorted out of town to the killing fields of Mercer Square below Marye’s Heights.

This work detail was commanded by Colonel John R. Brooke, commander of the 53rd Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry Regiment. He was very familiar with this location as his unit fought between the Stratton House (click here) and Sisson’s Store (click here) as part of General Zook’s Brigade.  The 53rd Pennsylvania suffered 21 killed and 131 wounded out of 314 officers and men that went into battle.

As the burial detail approached the field, some men initially thought there were sheep in the field so recently fought over. To their distress, these turned out to be the bodies of Union dead stripped of their clothing by the Confederates. The weather had been so cold the previous night, the ground was frozen solid. The bodies had to be chipped out with picks and dragged or carried on loose boards to the place of burial. Colonel Brooke’s report reads in part “…I proceeded, on the morning of December17, 1862, with a large detail of the different regiments of the command, to the battle-field in front of Fredericksburg, Va., where I found and buried 913 of our soldiers, and brought to this side of the river the bodies of 5 officers, making a total of 918. Nearly all of the dead were stripped naked by the enemy… The burying occupied two days.”

Fighting around the Stratton House was intense. Many Union regiments only made it that far. Others overcame obstacles in their way and approached the deadly Sunken Road and its stone wall before they too gave way and retreated back behind the Stratton House and fence, or spilling back to the canal ditch where they formed for the assault, or all the way to the city.

Charge of Kimball’s Brigade; Union infantry charging up field toward Confederate positions, buildings and ridge in background. It was issued 01/10/1863.

The movement of Union troops around obstacles; buildings and fences, was very similar to that of water in a stream or waves at the beach. The troops went around those obstacles that could not be moved over, pushed aside or knocked down. There were three fences associated with or adjacent to the Stratton House. The first, reportedly a three board fence, was located in Stratton’s front yard along Fair Street, today named Littlepage. The second fence was more substantial with vertical boards. This was located along the rear of his property, closest to the Sunken Road. This fence seemed to cause Union troops some difficulty. It could not just be pushed down by advancing troops.

Graphic depicting movement of Union regiments in brigade size assault formations. Units were forced to around buildings and over or through fences in the approach to the Sunken Road.

The third fence was associated with the Mercer Square fairgrounds. It was located to the left or south of the Stratton House across Mercer Street, a distance of fifty feet (about 18 yards) from the house. This fence was perpendicular to the line of fire from the Confederate defenders; as a consequence it received less incidental battle damage than the Stratton fences. This fence was described as being substantial, held in place with spikes rather than nails. It was designed to keep nonpaying fairgoers out of the fairground. These three fences influenced the movement of Union troops. Union regiments that directly approached the Stratton House were split up with portions deviating around either side the structure. Those who went to the left side became bunched up and crowded together by the combination of the house and the fairground fence. Those troops that went to the right side of the Stratton house confronted the two fences at the front and rear of the property.

Photo of Stratton House circa 1880. Note the fence at the rear of the house which was located along his rear property line. The burial trench was located on Stratton property adjacent to the house. The stone wall associated with Confederate defense of the Sunken Road actually extended from the Sunken Road to the wheelwright shops.

The back fence was deceptively deadly. A soldier could duck down to be out of sight of the Confederates but the boards did not stop bullets. At the conclusion of the battle there remained a windrow of Union dead and wounded strung out along the length of the fence. By the time the burial detail arrived five days later there were so many bodies lying along the fence and beyond nearer the Sunken Road that the burial detail dug a separate trench in Stratton’s yard.

Directly behind the house, between the kitchen and the back fence, there was a young apple orchard. Additionally, there was an outhouse and a pig pen enclosure. Further right or north, Stratton had his wheelwright assembly shops. The following sketch was drawn by Thomas Francis Galwey to accompany his diary. He was a lieutenant with the 8th Ohio Volunteer Infantry Regiment that was one of the first Union units to the area. His fight was at Sisson’s Store and at the wheelwright shop from where he observed the Stratton House with its orchard. Interestingly, the orchard receives scant comment by those who fought there and is missing from photos taken two years later.

Gelway Sketch Key:
A – Brick Grocery Store [Sisson’s] at fork at Richmond and Orange Court-House Road
B – Blacksmith Shop
C – Large Brick or Farm Country House [Stratton] past which the Irish Brigade moved when charging the Heights.

Union troops arrived in successive brigade sized waves during the battle. The following are a few accounts recorded by participants following the Union retreat across the river. I sequence them earliest to last as the fight developed.

…” The line [Zook’s Brigade] begins to waver, and, with some disorder, presses forward to a brick house [Stratton], from which a brisk musketry fire is kept up in the direction of the stone wall. At this time the various regiments became mingled together, and, unfortunately at the order to deploy into line to renew the charge, the Twenty-seventh [Connecticut Volunteer Infantry Regiment], in consequence of the confusion, separated into several fragments, advancing to the right and left of the house. The time for a sudden dash had passed, and unable longer to stem the avalanche of fire, which seemed to gather in intensity as we proceeded, the charge was continued only as far as a board fence, all full of bullet holes and torn with shot, less than a hundred yards [120-135 yds] from the famous stone wall, as estimated by an officer of the regiment who afterwards visited the spot under a flag of truce. With the exception of a partially successful attempt to approach still nearer the rebel rifle-pits, the men remained at this point the rest of the afternoon, loading their guns on the ground, then rising sufficiently to deliver their fire.” Sheldon, 27th Connecticut.

This is followed by a member of the 5th New Hampshire who describes it this way;

“The line has now reached the brick [Stratton] house… Beyond the brick house extends a close board fence, parallel to the stone wall. We have now reached the fence, the point beyond which no previous line had been able to go. The dead and dying lay in a windrow along the fence. With the butts of our muskets we knocked the boards off in several places. Sergeant George L. Gove of Company K, with the colors, dashed on towards the rebel line.

At the fence all formation of the line on battle was lost … About twenty-five yards from the stone wall Gove halted. I was the first man on his left; next on my left was Foss of Company E. Gove and Foss were the only two men standing. All others, who were not shot down, fell down of their own accord. ..I was struck with a piece of shell in the left arm above the elbow… rendering my arm useless. I managed to get to Gove. He told me he was shot through, and that I must save the colors… The fire of the enemy had slackened considerably. … I fixed my eyes on the opening in the fence, I made a break for the rear, out to the brick house, where there were hundreds of men huddled. A shell dropped in the midst, killing or wounding a great many.“ Child, Fifth New Hampshire.

Detail of the Anderson Burial map highlighting the Stratton trench circled in yellow. Identified as “Pit in which was buried 130 bodies.” 

Another member of the 5th New Hampshire recorded it this way;

“The regiment angled to its left and headed towards a square two-story brick structure known as the Stratton House. The house sat one hundred yards [120 yds] from the rebel infantry, and a high board fence behind it ran parallel to the rebel line. The Fifth [New Hampshire Volunteer Infantry Regiment] turned the corner beyond the house and came face to face with the enemy… Private John Crosby felt a stinging sensation in his right elbow. He knew instantly that the bone was shattered. He clenched his right sleeve in his teeth and ran back to the Stratton house. He crawled through a hole in the fence and sat down beside an outhouse in the yard …” Pride & Traves, My Brave Boys.

General Tyler, part of General Humphreys division, commanded the last charge against the stone wall in this vicinity that day. The 126th Pennsylvania was part of that last effort. They were new troops in their first engagement. They reported:”… In front of the brickhouse at the foot of the crest, and along the raised ground to its right and left, lay a body of men in line prone on the earth. They were the men of the last proceeding charge….the column passed over the like a storm. Colonel Elder led the right wing of the One Hundred and Twenty-Sixth [Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry Regiment] to the right of the brick house. Lieutenant Colonel Rowe sent part of the left wing, placed in his charge, also the right, and led the two left companies, H and K, around on the other side. These latter companies having a clear field [up Mercer Street] pressed rapidly beyond the house and quite near the stone wall, blazing now in the evening with the enemy’s fire. Colonel Elder with those who went to the right of the house was greatly obstructed by fences in the way, which had to be broken down…”

So where was the Stratton burial trench? The drawing places it in between the house and the wheelwright shops. It was likely six feet across and sufficiently long to accommodate 130 bodies. The words in the drawing say “Pit in which was buried 130 bodies.” The pit or trench was likely dug deep enough to stack the bodies three deep.

In the sketch we can see the two fences with indications that the trench was sufficiently back from the row of dead and other obstructions to make digging easier and movement convenient.

Topographic map showing the location of the Stratton Burial Trench.

Lastly, another account from the same attack reported; “… On the side of this meadow, next to the enemy, is a slight bluff [at the canal ditch], under the shelter of which the assaulting columns formed for attack on the Rebel lines. From the apex of this bluff to the stone wall is probably a distance of a little over 300 [450] yards. This portion of the field is a slightly ascending plain. The only obstructions were a brick [Stratton] house and two board fences. The first of these fences was constructed of narrow boards, fastened horizontally to the posts on the side of approach, making it rather difficult to remove them. The second fence was made of broad boards, which were fastened vertically, like palings, on the opposite side of approach. Consequently [these] were easily knocked off. The fences, when reached by our charging columns, were found to be in a fairly good state of repair, but both of them were completely razed to the ground by Humphreys’ charging column of Pennsylvania troops.” Alexander, 126th Pennsylvania.

This next photo was taken in 1864 from Federal Hill. I selected only a portion of the original shot. Notice that the land is devoid of anything that could be burned. The fences, the Wheelwright shops and the orchard were most likely torn down to provide firewood for the Confederate soldiers during the long cold winter of 1862-3.

A portion of 1864 photo taken from Federal Hill. Notice that the land is devoid of anything that could be burned. The fences, the Wheelwright shops and the orchard were most likely torn down to provide firewood for the Confederate soldiers during the long cold winter of 1862-3. The approximate location of the Stratton Burial Trench is in yellow.

In my next post I will continue to explore the Union temporary burial locations. These will include the Swale trench located just east of the Stratton House, as well as the Wallace Ice House that was located adjacent to Hanover Street where it crossed the Canal Ditch.

Sources:

Books.

Alexander, Ted , Editor, The 126th Pennsylvania, Shippensburg, PA: Beidel Publishing House, 1984, Reprint of A Sketch of the 126th Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteers, Chambersburg, PA: Cook & Hayes, 1869. p 44 &132.

Child, William, A History of the Fifth Regiment New Hampshire Volunteers, in the American Civil War, 1861-1865, Bristol: R.W. Musgrove, 1893, p 207-11.

Harrison, N., Fredericksburg Civil War Sites, Volume 2, Lynchburg:  E. Howard, p. 172.

Pfanz, Donald, Where Valor Proudly Sleeps, A History of the Fredericksburg National Cemetery, 1866-1933, Fredericksburg: unpublished manuscript, FRSP, 2007. p 18.

Pride, Mike and Traves, Mark, My Brave Boys, To War with Colonel Cross and the Fighting Fifth, Hanover and London: University Press of New England , 2001, p 174.

Sheldon, Winthrop D., the Twenty-Seventh, A Regimental History, New Haven: Morris and Been, 1866, p 28.

War Department, The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, 128 vols. (Washington D.C., 1890-1901. Series 1. http://ehistory.osu.edu/books/official-records

OR XXI, No. 76, Report of Col. John R. Brooke, Fifty-Third Pennsylvania Infantry, p 261-2.

Sketch.

Galwey, Thomas Francis , Personal Memoirs and Correspondence; First Lieut. Thomas F. Galwey, Eighth Ohio Infantry, Army of the Potomac. Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Box 335. p. 73.

Prints.

Charge of Kimball’s Brigade: https://repository.library.brown.edu/studio/item/bdr:234316/ Prints, Drawings and Watercolors from the Anne S.K. Brown Military Collection Contributors Keyser, J. G. (artist) P.S. Duval & Son (lithographer).

Maps.

Anderson, George C. Map of Fredericksburg showing location of burial trenches.

Privately owned. FRSP Ms. #00630.

Caldwell Tract, Deed Book/Page R/349/351, Caldwell et al sells 10 acres to Mayor of Community of the Town of Fredericksburg, 14 March 1855

 

 

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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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