In 2018 the house that George Rowe built will be 190 years old, which by American standards is quite a milestone. The building was originally constructed in 1828 as a Federal style dwelling. Technically, the main building is classified as a two-story, four-bay, double-pile, side-passage-plan dwelling. The brick house, with its English basement, molded brick cornice, deep gable roof, and two-story front porch, stands on a one acre lot on Hanover Street. George Rowe purchased the land in 1827. At that point in time, the property was outside the incorporated boundaries of Fredericksburg. A previous owner established it as a site for butchering animals, a trade in which George Rowe participated. The house was built just before where Hanover Street split into the Swift Run Gap Turnpike, which crested Marye’s Heights on its way to the city of Orange to the west, or into Courthouse Road, later named the Sunken Road, which went southwest to Spotsylvania Court House. In fact, deed and property tax records note that it was “along the turnpike” when specifying its location. The site would allow for the quartering of animals arriving on the hoof by way of the turnpike and their slaughtering without offense to the neighbors.
The house of George Rowe sits directly astride what I have termed Union Avenue of Approach number two (AA #2) during the Battle of Fredericksburg, 13 December 1862. The house, with its substantial collection of outbuilding and heavy fences, was located on a minor finger of land that rose above the Union troop crossing point of the canal ditch on Hanover Street.
While not occupied by the Confederates, the house compound imposed an important movement restriction. It helped to dictate or strongly influence Union troop movement during the battle. It essentially subdivided AA #2 in half and much like a large rock in a stream; it limited maneuver options and forced most of the Union troops, who approached via Hanover Street, to the left or south of the house. General Burnside’s point of attack against General Longstreet’s Corps came down to the well-known frontal attack against Confederate infantry at the Sunken Road and stone wall, backed up with the Washington Artillery on Willis Hill. Between George Rowe’s house and Hazel Run to the south, there was no room to maneuver anything larger than a brigade. Despite having a numerical advantage, the Union method of attack squandered this advantage. General Burnside had roughly 60,000 troops available for this portion of his overall plan but could only use 5,000 at a time.
We are fortunate that the Rowe house appeared in two photographs taken in 1864 during General Grant’s Overland campaign when the city was a Union supply hub and hospital location.
The Rowe House appears in an account of a reconnaissance on 12 December, written by a member of the Fourth Ohio Infantry, the day before the battle:
“The squad…crossed the bridge over a canal [possibly an Prussia Street further south]…[and] moved to the right oblique to the house that was furthest out of any, [and] went upstairs where they obtained a full view of the battlefield of the morrow; looking out of the west window, they saw near at hand the [Confederate] pickets taking good aim, and firing upon our men near Hanover Street; the window was opened and a volley sent into the flank of a number of “greybacks” lying in a ditch…there was a lively climbing and rushing to the rear by fifty or more Confederates, who did not stop until they were…behind the stone wall…at the foot of the hill.”
“After this flank movement there was but little firing back at the city…Before leaving the house a noise was heard in an outhouse; the squad marched to the door with guns at an aim; the door was tried, but found locked; Lieutenant Byron Evans, with drawn revolver demanded a surrender; in a moment the door burst open with a stick of cord wood, when, lo! Scores of chickens fluttered in every direction…” Kepler.
Kepler’s squad evidently crossed the canal-ditch at the Prussia Street Bridge and moved along the western side of the ditch, past unseen Confederate pickets, up to Hanover Street. We do not know how they gained entrance into the Rowe house. They succeeded in moving a portion of the Confederate picket lime back to the stone wall.
During the battle on the 13th, Rowe’s house proved a prominent enough feature to be seen in a post-war painting of Kimball’s Brigade attack. The openness of the terrain below Marye’s Heights, as well as the solidness of the Rowe house complex, is evident. It must have made a real impression upon the battle participants.
The terrain is open on the left, whereas the Rowe house compound provided no room for maneuver on the right.
The next evidence of the Rowe house appears in the 1867 field notes that support the Michler survey, under the direction of Major John E. Weyss. This sheet of working notes was titled “Sept 27, Survey at Front of Marye’s Hill.”
I previously made use of the sketch in a piece on mapping the battlefield [click here], Note that the surveyor called this location a ‘Tannery’, possibly reflecting George Rowe’s profession as a butcher. These field notes were incorporated into the final map published in 1867.
I also found possibly the earliest visual reference of the Rowe house in a small corner of Alfred Waud’s classic drawing of the battle. His point of view was from the tower of the St. Georges Church, located at the corner of Princes Ann Street and George Street. In it, you can make out the distinctive double-chimneys located on the east end of the main house, as well as the alignment of the outbuildings. For more on Alfred Waud click here.
We are fortunate, in that Waud’s position closely matches that of the 1864 photograph taken from Federal Hill, one block to the left of Waud’s location. These two pieces of history nicely complement each other. Thank you Alfred for your skill in quickly and accurately capturing the essence of the battle as it unfolded.
I follow this with an enlarged and enhanced view of the 1864 Federal Hill photograph. In it, we can clearly see the original 1828 house with the double-chimney. Just in front of the main house is the eastern addition that he added to the structure in 1840 to handle his expanding family. The house itself fronts on Hanover Street. It is surrounded with a number of outbuildings, most of which use the east-west alignment of the main house. The building at the front of the complex has a transverse or north-west alignment. A recently discovered well was located between this structure and the main house.
Using the two photographs and the Waud drawing, I’ve developed a possible plot plan for how the Rowe complex of outbuildings, corrals and fences may have appeared. This shows the possible interrelationship between the main house and the outbuildings. We know that there were four slave quarters according to the 1860 census. George Rowe had eleven slaves who most likely assisted him in his work as a butcher. What is obvious is that at the time of the December battle, this tightly knit group of buildings would not have allowed for freedom of movement on the part of the Union.
The killing fields of Mercer Square were located just to the south. The attacks utilizing AA #2 of Union General‘s Kimball, Owen, Zook, Meagher, Caldwell, Allabach and Tyler flowed across the land to the south of George Rowe’s complex. The batteries of Hazard and Frank took up firing positions just south of the house, in support of General Humphey’s assault, late in the afternoon.
For some of those troops, the house became a refuge and an aid station. Private Thomas Aldrich of the 1st Rhode Island Artillery talks about a Union field hospital located in the vicinity of the Rowe house complex in a memoir published in 1904.
“When I lay down to rest that night, the fog was very thick, and the weather cold and disagreeable. All was quiet except for the occasional moaning of the poor wounded soldier, lying upon the field between the picket lines, and, as it was impossible for me to sleep on account of it, I arose about 9:30 [p.m.]. About this time Surgeon S.F. Haven, Jr., of the Fifteenth Massachusetts, came up the street and said in a quite loud voice, ‘For God’s sake! Is there no one who will go and help those poor fellows out of their suffering?’…Walter Arnold, of our section, volunteered to go; I offered to go also. So we started with the surgeon down near a brick mansion, near where Battery B [or Hazard’s First Rhode Island Light Artillery] had been stationed, where the doctor had a rude table fixed up, and from there we went to work. I was sent out with a canteen with some whisky [sic] in it with orders what to do when I found a wounded man. I started directly towards a wounded soldier that I could hear very plainly. Our outposts were nearby, and after passing them, I had to creep on my hands and knees…I brought in six on my back and came near getting shot by a rebel outpost, as I had to creep very close to him in the fog to get one of our men who was groaning very loud and who had had his leg shattered. When I touched him, he cried out so loud that the rebel sentry pulled back the hammer of his gun and put up to his shoulder to shoot, but, after a few minutes took it down and said, ‘If you yell out again like that, you damned yank, I’ll fix you anyway.’ I hugged the ground very close until he became quiet, then, after a great exertion and after giving him two or three drinks of whisky; I got the man on my back and crept to where out stretcher bearers were. On taking him to the operating table I found on reaching it, to my sorrow, that Dr. Haven had been killed by a shot fired from the rebels as he was engaged in his sad duties of ministering to our wounded comrades.”
The Union army opened a field hospital in Brompton, utilizing John L. Marye’s house on Marye’s Heights and all houses within a half-mile radius during the Overland Campaign. One of these houses was George Rowe’s. A Northern surgeon recounted:
“We were assigned to the Ninth Corps Hospitals, reporting to Dr. Noyes, on Marye’s Heights just outside the city. Every house or place of shelter within a radius of half a mile of the central building was taken and used as a hospital. In mansions of grand proportions, in leaky sheds and outhouses crumbling to decay, in rooms, entries, attics, and upon porticos our wounded men were laid Among these houses was the Rowe mansion, occupied by the owner, an elderly man, whose sympathies were clearly with the rebel cause. His cellar at night was a rendezvous for the guerrillas, who held their secret meetings there, planning for the recapture of the town…This house was our headquarters, and we felt that we were living over a powder mine, which at any moment might explode. We found here a delicate woman and her little child; it was announced to her that her house must be used as a hospital, two rooms being retained by her. She was asked to prepare some dinner for our party, and was promised that we should cause her as little trouble as possible. The poor woman burst into tears, saying ‘Indeed, indeed, sir, I have nothing in the house but a little corn meal for myself and this little one;’ and her story of extreme poverty was only too true. From affluence and a luxurious home, she had been reduced to this, and, as we afterwards knew, was even suffering from want of food.” Reed.
Given the number of usable structures located in the Rowe house complex, I would imagine more than just the brick main house was taken as a temporary refuge for the Union wounded of IX Corps. More than fifty Union bodies were removed from the house complex property to the National Cemetery between 1867 and 1868.
In December 1862, the Rowe House and its outbuildings was a singular landmark that stood amidst the chaos of battle. Today, it poses a serene picture of a house hidden amongst other more modern structures along Hanover Street.
Since George Rowe’s death in 1866, various members of the Rowe family have continued to occupy the house. Over time, the house has been enlarged and modified. The current owners, sixth generation Rowe family members, renovated the house in 2013. They, as well as previous owners, have faithfully retained the original elegance of the house.
In a future piece I will explore George Rowe, his rise to prominence in the community, his family and extended family and their impact upon the fabric of the community of Fredericksburg.
Michler-Weiss Survey Books, cupboard1, shelf 5, box 9, book 6, Record Group 77, National Archives, Washington DC. 1867.
Michler 1867 map of Fredericksburg https://www.loc.gov/item/99439215/
Brady photo of Battle of Fredericksburg, (from Federal Hill) Fredericksburg VA, National Archives 111-B-337, https://catalog.archives.gov/id/524756
Brady photo of View of Fredericksburg, 1863, Fredericksburg VA, National Archives 111-B-342, https://catalog.archives.gov/search?q=*:*&f.ancestorNaIds=524418&sort=naIdSort%20asc&offset=340
Kesler, JG., The Charge of Kimball’s Brigade, P.S. Duval & Son Lithographer, 1863. from the Anne S.K. Brown Military Collection. Brown Digital Repository. Brown University Library.
Waud, Alfred, Attack on the rebel works. Fredericksburg. Dec. 13th  LOC DRWG/US-Waud, no. 189, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2004660277/
Aldrich, Thomas M., The History of Battery A, First Regiment Rhode Island Light Artillery In the War to Preserve the Union, Providence, Snow and Farnham, 1904, p 163-4. https://archive.org/details/historybatterya00aldrgoog
Harrison, N., Fredericksburg Civil War Sites, Volume 2, Lynchburg, E. Howard, P. 197-201.
Kepler, William, Three Months and Three Years’ Service of the Fourth Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry, Cleveland, Leader Printing Co, 1886. P 93. https://archive.org/details/historyofthreemo00kepl
Loew, David W., From the Rapid Ann to Cold Harbor, Post-War Topographical Survey of Civil War Battlefields, PDF March 18, 2004.
Reed, William Howell, Hospital Life in the Army of the Potomac. Boston, William V Spencer, 1866. P 21-22. https://archive.org/details/hospitallifeinar00reed