Past is Prologue

Clint Schemmer writes about history, heritage preservation and the American Civil War.  On Facebook: Past is Prologue  On Twitter: @prologuepast  ContactEmail Clint or call 540/374-5424.

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Courthouse dig: ‘More remains to be discovered’

MORE: Read more news from Fredericksburg

CRI archaeologists prepare Building X’s cellar for final photography from a Fredericksburg Public Works boom truck. (CLINT SCHEMMER/THE FREE LANCE-STAR)

Within a couple of weeks, the antebellum building’s cellar uncovered in Fredericksburg’s Historic District will vanish. It must make way for the city’s new courthouse.

But much of this house’s Civil War-era contents will remain, to be analyzed at Cultural Resources Inc.’s laboratory in Glen Allen, Va. Eventually, they’ll come home to Fredericksburg, where the city will permanently preserve the collection.

Yet, before these small bits of history had even been bagged and boxed and taken off-site, they began to yield information that no one had dreamed of.

They hint at the chaotic scenes in town immediately before, during and after the Battle of Fredericksburg on Dec. 13, 1862.

The salvage dig yielded thousands of artifacts, including many items from U.S. troops who occupied the house built by local businessman Peter Goolrick, the town’s mayor before the Civil War. Metal parts from their uniforms include a “2″ and a “C’,” thought to represent their regiment and a company.

“We have a picture in our mind’s eye of the way things were, what the soldiers carried and what they did,” said Taft Kiser, CRI’s project manager. “But this is the reality. This is what they dropped, those guys from Company C.”

“This may be the only scientifically collected group of artifacts from the battle, at least as far as I know.”

Across the Rappahannock River, at the headquarters of Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, data from the discovery prompted Chief Historian John Hennessy to change the park’s incredibly detailed digital map of 1860s Fredericksburg.

After visiting the archaeological dig and then checking some records online, he marked Goolrick’s house as “destroyed,”  based on the archaeology funded by the city.

“It’s is a pretty neat discovery,” he said. “The archaeologists found something we didn’t realize was there.”

City Councilman Matt Kelly said of the excavation: ”A lot was learned from the dig, and more remains to be discovered.”

The archaeologists recovered thousands of artifacts from the courthouse property, which includes the sites of Goolrick house and George Gravatt’s livery stable.

Intriguingly, a close neighbor to Goolrick’s house was the post-battle division headquarters of Union Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker, across Princess Anne Street, roughly opposite City Hall.

The day after the battle, Hooker wrote Col. Lewis Richmond, assistant adjutant general of the Army of the Potomac:

COLONEL: I desire to call the attention of the major general commanding the Army of the Potomac to the great number of troops and batteries in this city, and to the danger to which they are exposed.
Should the enemy be disposed to shell it, the consequences of this would necessarily cause loss of life and destruction of property. I respectfully suggest that all the troops be transferred to the opposite side of the river, except two divisions, that number being all that will he required to hold the city. The troops will be much more comfortable and much less likely to demoralizing influences in their camps than here. I also recommend that instructions be given the provost-marshal-general to have every house in town searched, and all soldiers found in them sent to their regiments.
I make these suggestions on the presumption that no immediate advance is contemplated from this point.
Everything is quiet here to-night.
My headquarters are at the corner of Hanover and Princess Anne streets.
I am, colonel, very respectfully, your obedient servant,