Wednesday, April 23, 2014

History lost: What happened to Harris Farm battlefield?

Left: 27-year-old Van Buren Towle of the 1st Massachusetts Heavy Artilllery
 and 25-year-old James Branscomb of the 3rd Alabama. 
(Towle image: Blogger's collection; Branscomb: Courtesy Frank Chappell)

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UPDATE: The historic Harris farmhouse pictured below was demolished in mid-December 2014. John Cummings first reported the news on his Spotsylvania Civil War blog. The owner of the house, according to the Fredericksburg (Va.) Free-Lance Star, said it was torn down because it was infested with termites,

On May 19, 1864,  a day a Union soldier recalled as "beautiful almost beyond description," the world turned upside down for a Massachusetts private and the family of a private from eastern Alabama. Compared to much bloodier fighting elsewhere in Spotsylvania County, the Battle of Harris Farm was a minor event -- a brief but deadly continuation of the horrific fighting at Spotsylvania Courthouse, Va. Forced into action when they were surprised by 6,000 Confederates under Richard Ewell, four heavy artillery regiments that Ulysses Grant had yanked from Washington's defenses fought as infantry at Harris Farm and nearby at the farm of a 23-year-old widow named Susan Alsop.

On their way to the front for what proved to be their first major fight of the war, soldiers in the 1st Massachusetts Heavy Artillery were maligned by Union wounded in Fredericksburg, Va. "Go it, Heavies," a soldier teased, "ol' Grant'll will soon cut you down to fighting weight," and while the regimental band played, another soldier told the musicians, "Blow, you're blowing your last blast." Although the regiment "got a little mixed and didn't fight very tactically" at Harris Farm, it "fought confounded plucky," according to one of its officers. But the "Heavies" suffered terribly: 54 soldiers killed, 312 officers and enlisted men wounded and 27 missing.

1st Massachusetts Heavy Artillery soldiers bury the dead, most likely Union soldiers,  after fighting  near Spotsylvania Courthouse, Va., on May 19, 1864.  (Library of Congress collection)

"The sound of leaden missiles tearing through the trees and the dull thud of bullets that reached their human marks produced a feeling of horror among those whose ears could hear," a soldier in the regiment recalled. Shortly after they were given an order to charge into a strip of woods about 3:30 p.m., the Massachusetts men were shocked and demoralized when a Rebel volley "like a stroke of lightning from clear skies" cut down scores of soldiers. An inviting target astride his horse, 25-year-old Major John Rolfe was killed, his body pierced by 11 bullets. Years later, an old veteran who had served as a corporal in the "Heavies" described the awfulness of the next morning:
"The ground was strewn with dead and wounded, and it was a sad sight that greeted us with the dawn of the next day, when several of us were detailed to bury the dead. A long trench was dug and the bodies were placed side by side, those from each company and regiment being kept together as far as possible. A little wooden cross was placed at the head of each, with name and regiment if known, and then the earth was quietly replaced, with no noise, no speech, no ceremony whateever. Many a brave fellow we laid away that day."
According to this document in the 
National Archives, Van Buren Towle 
was buried at sea.
When roll call was held, a 27-year-old shoemaker from Haverhill, Mass., named Van Buren Towle of Company B was among the missing. Captured along with his 19-year-old brother Carroll, he was sent to the notorious prisoner-of-war camp in Andersonville, Ga., where thousands of Union soldiers were crowded onto about 26 1/2 acres. Like many of his fellow prisoners of war, Towle suffered from chronic diarrhea at Andersonville, perhaps caused from drinking water from a polluted stream that also served the prisoners' sanitary needs. Finally paroled in December 1864, Van Buren was placed aboard the transport ship Northern Light for the 1,000-mile journey home from South Carolina.

He never made it to Massachusetts.

Weakened by months of confinement, Towle died aboard the ship and was buried at sea. "I last saw him on the seventh day of December A.D. 1864 in Florence, S.C. in a rebel prison," Carroll Towle noted on April 24, 1865, 15 days after the Civil War effectively ended.  "He left said prison that day in feeble health. Since that day I have never heard from him." He left behind a 19-year-old wife, Tryphena.

* * * 

James Zachariah Branscomb was one of seven sons of a cotton farmer named Bennett, who owned a 400-acre spread and slaves in Union Springs, Ala., once described as "a healthy land where lived the wealthiest plantations." Seeking to fulfill his dream to own a cotton farm, Bennett had moved his growing family from South Carolina in 1842. Although of more modest means than the wealthier families in the region, the Branscombs lived comfortably in Union Springs, which before the Civil War was home to thriving tanneries, hotels, and several factories. Shortly after war began in April 1861, four of 57-year-old Bennett's sons -- William, John, James and Lewis -- joined the 3rd Alabama in Montgomery, undoubtedly causing great angst for their mother, Eliza, 57.

A little more than a year into the war, tragedy landed on the Branscomb's doorstep when word arrived of the death from measles of 31-year-old William at a military hospital in Richmond. "Don't grieve Ma," Private James Branscomb wrote to his mother on June 25, 1862, 10 days after his brother died. "He is better off though tis hard to lose him. You may have more to grieve for than him before this war ends."

On May 18, 1864, the day before the Battle of 
Harris Farm, 3rd Alabama Private James Branscomb wrote 
this letter to his sister in  Union Springs, Ala. "We have killed
 thousands," he wrote. 
 (Image of letter courtesy Frank Chappell)
For James, a 25-year-old sharpshooter in Company D, there would be awful battles to come at Antietam, Chancellorsville and Gettysburg. But the continuous, savage fighting at the Wilderness (May 5-7, 1864) and Spotsylvania Courthouse  (May 8-21) was especially brutal for an outnumbered Confederate army.
As he took pencil in hand to write a letter home from the front lines on May 18, 1864, James and his comrades in the Army of Northern Virginia must have been exhausted -- and no end to the fighting was in sight.

"Dear Sister," Branscomb's letter to Lucinda Hunter began, "I can almost feel the anxious throbbing of your heart but could not write sooner. Today is the first mail we have had since the fight began. Today makes two weeks of fighting. Our regiment has been engaged four times. I have never seen any fighting to compare with this. Our loss has been heavy but nothing to compare with the enemy.

"We have killed thousands. I have killed two myself."

James' unsigned, two-page letter was never sent. The next day, he was killed at Harris Farm. (Less than two months later, another Branscomb boy, 21-year-old Lewis, was killed by a sharpshooter in Harpers Ferry, Va.)

Despite suffering 1,500 casualties compared to only 900 for the Rebels, the Yankees were considered the victors that late spring day nearly 150 years ago. Soldiers from Maine, North Carolina, New York and Virginia were also killed at Clement Harris' farm. And so my curiosity was piqued about a battle that had long ago been pushed into the margins of  history:

Where did privates Towle and Brancomb fight?

How are the soldiers honored there? 

Where was the young soldier in the 3rd Alabama buried?

And what ever happened to Harris Farm?

THEN AND NOW: Dedication of the 1st Massachusetts Heavy Artillery monument on 
May 19, 1901,  37 years after the battle, and the monument today. 
(Dedication photo courtesy John Cummings)
Bespectacled and with streaks of white in his long, black beard, John Cummings looks like he stepped out of Rebel camp and into the 21st century. A native of Fairfax, Va., a suburb in the ugly, urban sprawl of Washington, the 53-year-old author of two Spotsylvania County history books has a passion for the Civil War -- especially photography of the era. When he was 14, Cummings received as a Christmas present a copy of  Gettysburg: A Journey in Time by William Frassanito, whose ground-breaking books have set the standard for revealing information in Civil War-era photos and earned him a legendary reputation among avid Civil War enthusiasts. Often channeling his inner-Frassanito on his Spotsylvania Civil War blog, Cummings dissects images of everything from Gettysburg death scenes to Fredericksburg battlefield latrines.

John Cummings  points out where a large tree
 that was cut down  by gunfire during the Battle 
of Spotsylvania Courthouse  once stood.
Having turned an avocation into an occupation, Cummings gives tours of the many Civil War sites in Spotsylvania County, where three years of fighting and four major battles caused more than 100,000 casualties. Armed with his tour book jammed with photographs and maps, he rode shotgun as I drove from site to site during a recent sun-splashed Sunday afternoon.

Spotsy County, as the locals call it, is a crazy quilt of Civil War battlefields, housing and high-density business development, much of it haphazard and with no regard to the region's rich history. Along traffic-snarled State Route 3 (historic Orange Turnpike) leading from Fredericksburg to battlefields at Chancellorsville and the Wilderness, you'll find historical signs amid fast-food restaurants, auto dealerships and Battlefield Dental of Fredericksburg. The six-lane monster long ago nearly swallowed whole the Salem Church battlefield, where a clash on May 3, 1863, resulted in more than 9,500 casualties. Even the National Park Service web site cautions: "Salem Church is located amongst a virtual sea of shopping malls." Business sites and housing tracts have not only carved up battlefields, but also strained the nerves of preservationists such as Cummings, who has persuaded a developer or two to tweak plans to save a slice of history.

"There have been some major preservation victories in Spotsy, like stopping a huge development on the site of the May 1 fighting at Chancellorsville," said Cummings, whose ancestor, Frederick Unger of the 7th New York Heavy Artillery, was wounded at Harris farm. "But there are also some horrific losses..."

See a battlefield and then get your teeth cleaned at 
Battlefield Dental of Fredericksburg!
It isn't exactly breaking news, but many other Civil War battlefields in Virginia have been destroyed by development. At Chantilly, near Washington, the battlefield where Union generals Phillip Kearney and Isaac Stevens were killed was long ago plowed under for housing and business parks and only a few acres remain undeveloped. During my first visit four years ago to postage-stamp sized Beaver Dam Creek, near Richmond, I walked through a small clearing only to find a housing development a short distance from where the battle was fought. When asked in 2010 to explain the fighting at Cold Harbor, a National Park Service ranger told me it was "the battlefield of the mind." Although much of that field remains, so much of it is in private hands or otherwise developed that it's hard to understand what happened there. Organizations such as the Civil War Trust and Central Virginia Battlefields Trust have done terrific work to preserve what battlefields remain throughout the state.

My two-hour Spotsylvania Courthouse battlefield tour with Cummings included a stop at the infamous Bloody Angle, a walk in the woods to see where Confederate soldiers once were buried, a discussion of skulls found on the field after the war and a visit to the spot where Connecticut's "Uncle John" Sedgwick was killed by a sharpshooter. As I drove back to where the tour started, I asked Cummings to work overtime:

"There's something I have never seen -- I want to see Harris Farm."

Bloomsbury Farm Estates, a development of upscale houses, has nearly 
obliterated the Harris Farm battlefield.
     Click upper right for panorama of 1st Massaschusetts Heavy Artillery monument site.
The Harris farmhouse, built in the late 18th century,  is the only historic  structure that remains from battle.
From busy State Route 208, there's little to indicate that a battlefield is tucked in a neighborhood nearby. A black-and-white historical marker placed along the highway decades ago by the state of Virginia provides a short summary of the battle, but there's nowhere convenient to park to stop to read it, so few probably bother. A large yellow-and-brown sign 20 yards away trumpets a real estate development: "Bloomsbury Farm Estates. Now Selling! Make U-Turn."

TOP: An out-of-the-way historical marker
 provides  information on the Battle of 
Harris Farm. BOTTOM: 20 yards
 from that state marker, a large sign touts
 an upscale housing  development on what's 
left of the battlefield. 
To get to the site of the Battle of Harris Farm, we turned left off Route 208 on Bloomsbury Lane, went another half-mile or so past some ranch-style houses before making a right into the Bloomsbury Farm Estates sub-division. It could have been Anywhere in Affluent, U.S.A., where large McMansions sit on oversized lots.  I drove down a hill, made a left and parked briefly in front of the only historic structure remaining from the battle: the white Harris farmhouse. Isolated within the sub-division, it was used as a field hospital during the battle. A large cement-and-brick marker notes the property dates to circa 1740. Another sign in a strip of grass near the street reads "For Sale."

"What's left to see here?" I asked Cummings. He suggested we go to the bottom of the hill and park in a small gravel lot a stone's throw from a 4,000-plus square-foot house -- the one with a child's play set in the side yard. Nearby, a lawn mower buzzed and two teen-agers washed a car while a man in his 70s played in a large front yard with his grandson.

Years ago, this was beautiful, rolling farmland. Longtime Virginia relic hunter Gary Williams, whom I wrote about here, remembers searching the remains of Civil War trenches that once dotted this landscape. In 2000, the farm was described in this National Register of Historic Places form as "an intact dairy farm with large open houses surrounding the main house/dairy operation. It has high integrity and is significant for its open terrain that it had during the Civil War." But in 1989, a deep-pockets developer bought the land, outmaneuvering preservationists, and massive houses pockmarked the area by the early 2000s. The builder's web site touts single-family homes starting at $500,000 "with spacious home sites up to five acres."

                                        Google Maps view of the Bloomsbury Farm Estates.
         1st Massachusetts Heavy Artillery monument is large white object near upper left.

After I parked, Cummings and I walked about 60 yards down a strip of grass bordered by a double row of cedar trees to the lone monument on what remains of the battlefield. In an open field near woods when it was dedicated on May 19, 1901, the 37th anniversary of the battle, the 1st Massachusetts Heavy Artillery monument now sits practically in the front yard of a Bloomsbury Farms Estate McMansion. During a mid-1990s permit review by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers of the proposed housing development, Noel G. Harrison of the National Park Service came up with the initial idea to save the 4.5-acre sliver of property, which includes a small portion of the original Harris farm lane. Three nearby Central Virginia Battlefields Trust markers explain what happened at the farm in May 1864.

On May 8, 2009, near the 1st Massaschusetts Heavy Artillery 
monument, descendants of James Branscomb sprinkled
 dirt from Alabama near a small tree and a plaque 
dedicated to the private's memory.
 (Photo courtesy Clint Schemmer,
 Fredericksburg Free-Lance Star
Two years after raising $1,100 to purchase the block of New England granite for the monument, Massachusetts veterans returned to the battlefield for a dedication ceremony -- an event that was described at the time as "by far the most interesting and important event in the history of the regiment." Among the old soldiers were five former adversaries of the "Heavies," one of whom gave a short speech.
"Men do not mark by shaft or pile, a spot where ignoble deeds are done," said C.B. Winston, who was a sergeant in the 45th North Carolina. "Had you retired before our advancing lines that day, this field would not have become historic. Had you done so, I, as your contestant on the field, would not have troubled myself to quit business and travel three hundred miles to meet you here and witness your ceremonies."

At the end of the speech, he received an ovation.

No effort was made to memorialize Confederate sacrifice at Harris Farm until  May 8, 2009, when descendants of James Branscomb from Texas, Alabama, Georgia and Northern Virginia dedicated a bronze plaque in the soldier's memory near the Massachusetts memorial. The genesis of the ceremony was an odd source: a BVD underwear box, which contained war-time correspondence between James, his brothers and sister that was discovered in 1991 by Lucinda's Hunter's great-grandchildren. Several of James' letters were read at the ceremony and each descendant sprinkled a vial of Alabama dirt from the old family homestead near a Virginia juniper tree planted in James' memory. One of the descendants, Frank Chappell, a retired Army missile program engineer from Huntsville, Ala., self-published a book about the letters called "Dear Sister." Another descendant, blue grass composer Louisa Branscomb, even co-wrote a song with Claire Lynch about them. The lyrics begin:

This could be my last letter
I may never see the cotton fields of home again
I miss you, Dear Sister,
Tonight I never felt so all alone

Like Van Buren Towle, James Branscomb also never made it home. Despite efforts by his descendants to find it, the final resting place of the private is unknown.

The woods and farm fields where the son of an Alabama cotton farmer and his comrades fought against a Massachusetts shoemaker and the Yankee "Heavies" have been altered forever. I think that says a lot about us today.

Private James Branscomb 's descendants walk up the preserved Harris farm lane toward  the pre-war 
 farmhouse (left). This lane, lined by Virginia cedars, is the same road that  the "Heavies" came 
down -- in the  opposite direction - toward Confederates hidden in the woods on May 19, 1864. 
(Photo courtesy Clint Schemmer, Fredericksburg Free-Lance Star)

-- Have something to add (or correct) in this post? E-mail me here.

  • Chappell, Frank Anderson, Dear Sister, Civil War Letters to a Sister in Alabama, Huntsville, Ala., 2012
  • Nutt, Charles and Roe, Alfred, History of the First Regiment of Heavy Artillery Massachusetts Volunteers, Published by the Regimental Association, 1917
  • Page, Charles A., Letters of a War Correspondent, Boston, L.C. Page & Co., 1899
  • Van Buren Towle pension file, National Archives and Records Service, Washington, D.C.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for the information and your effort!