Sunday, May 11, 2014

Massaponax Church: Then & now at Grant's war council site

Library of Congress collection.
On May 21, 1864, Timothy O'Sullivan shot a series of  images of  Ulysses Grant's council of war at Massaponax Church, near Spotsylvania Courthouse, Va. It was here that the lieutenant general, commander of all Union forces, and Army of the Potomac commander George Meade plotted the next phase of the bloody Overland Campaign: a move toward the North Anna River. Three of the five images, which are available on the Library of Congress web site, appear above. The top image shows soldiers congregating at the church before the council of war began. The second image shows Grant standing and leaning over a pew, and in the third photo, Grant, perhaps deep in thought, sits on one of the pews that he had ordered removed from the church. This O'Sullivan series was dissected by William Frassanito's in his excellent book, Grant and Lee, The Virginia Campaigns 1864-1865, published in 1983. Upon enlargement of the widely published images, details not readily apparently may be seen ...


... in an enlargement of Image 1, which was shot looking west from Telegraph Road, 114th Pennsylvania soldiers who served as Meade's headquarters guard stare at O'Sullivan's camera. (Hat tip: John Cummings.) The second-floor balcony window (right middle of photo) from which the photographer shot Images 2 and 3 is also visible. Telegraph Road was the main road leading from Fredericksburg to Richmond ...


... a mounted flag-bearer is revealed in this enlargement of Image 1 ...


... and in this oft-reproduced close-up of Image 2, Grant, leaning over Meade's right shoulder, reviews with his subordinate what probably is a map. In a fabulous 2008 recreation of Grant's war council using some of the same pews from 1864, John Cummings of the Spotsylvania Civil War blog shot this image ...



... but this enlargement of
Image 2 really caught my eye. The soldier wearing the distinctive headdress is a member of the 114th Pennsylvania (Collis' Zouaves), which served as headquarters guard for the Army of the Potomac. Check out the Maltese Cross, the symbol of the V Corps, on the supply wagon behind the soldier. ...



... an enlargement of Image 3 shows Grant with a cigar in his mouth. A heavy cigar smoker who died of throat cancer in 1885, Grant picked up the habit in earnest after a Union victory at Fort Donelson in February 1862.  In Grant, The Man of Mystery, published in 1909, Grant is quoted explaining those circumstances: 
“I had been a very light smoker previous to the attack on [Ft.] Donelson, and after that battle I acquired a fondness for cigars by reason of a purely accidental circumstance. Admiral Foote, commanding the fleet of gunboats which were cooperating with the army, had been wounded, and at his request I had gone aboard his flag-ship to confer with him. The admiral offered me a cigar, which I smoked on my way back to my headquarters. On the road I was met by a staff-officer, who announced that the enemy were making a vigorous attack. I galloped forward at once, and while riding among the troops giving directions for repulsing the assault I carried the cigar in my hand. It had gone out, but it seems that I continued to hold the stump between my fingers throughout the battle. In accounts published in the papers I was represented as smoking a cigar in the midst of the conflict; and many persons, thinking, no doubt, that tobacco was my chief solace, sent me boxes of the choicest brands from everywhere in the North. As many as ten thousand were soon received. I gave away all I could get rid of, but having such a quantity on hand, I naturally smoked more than I would have done under ordinary circumstances, and I have continued the habit ever since.”


... in this enlargement of Image 3, five officers, three of whom grip their swords, appear to stare at O'Sullivan's camera ...


... while in the far background of Image 3, Union supply wagons and horses jam the road by the church ...


 ... that same road today (Massaponax Church Road) may be seen in the interactive panorama above that I shot in early April. Although Massaponax Baptist church, still in use today, largely retains its 19th-century character, the extremely busy Jefferson Davis Highway (the old Telegraph Road) and commercialization have greatly changed the area since 1864. ...


 ... an old Virginia state historical marker and a Civil War Discovery Trail wayside marker explain the site to visitors today. During the war, the church was used as a stable, a hospital and a headquarters by both armies. Civil War-era graffiti on the walls of the second floor are today preserved behind Plexiglas.

The church today. Cars in the church parking lot did not allow for an image taken from 
Timothy O'Sullivan's 1864 vantage point (IMAGE 1).

3 comments:

  1. In the photo "

    ... and in this oft-reproduced close-up of Image 2, Grant, leaning over Meade's right shoulder, reviews with his subordinate what probably is a map. In a fabulous 2008 recreation of Grant's war council using some of the same pews from 1864, John Cummings of the Spotsylvania Civil War blog shot this image ..." The shoulder boards show TWO STARS, while the Photo "

    ... an enlargement of Image 3 shows Grant with a cigar in his mouth. A heavy cigar smoker who died of throat cancer in 1885, Grant picked up the habit in earnest after a Union victory at Fort Donelson in February 1862. In "Grant, The Man of Mystery," published in 1909, Grant is quoted explaining those circumstances:" Show a shoulder board with THREE STARS. How can both be Grant?

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  2. Hi, C.A. Evans: Two stars actually Meade's. Grant moves and is transparent. (Civil War photography could not easily capture motion.) Grant's shoulder board is up behind seam of his sleeve to body of the coat.

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  3. The council of war took place in what is now the southwest corner of the smaller parking lot, east of the church, and the trees which stood near the benches in 1864 are gone. On Sundays, it is usually possible to get inside the church after services, to see the soldiers' artwork.

    Jim Kelling

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