The May fighting in Spotsylvania and Orange counties 150 years ago left carnage on a scale rarely seen in the Civil War.
Fifty thousand casualties, nearly twice the population of Fredericksburg today.
Day after day after day, the combat was unrelenting, in a way few had ever seen.
Those are two points that Terry Dougherty and Liz M. Clayton hope shoppers at Spotsylvania Towne Centre will take home with them from the special exhibit there now on the war’s ghastly Overland Campaign.
Dougherty, director of the Spotsylvania County Museum, and Clayton, a museum specialist, created two large wall-mounted displays about the 1864 events that greet visitors to the mall’s Food Court.
Right now, their assemblage of images, anecdotes and quotes from participants in the bloodshed—military and civilian—is likely the largest batch of such material to be found in one place in Virginia.
The mall exhibits, as if to punctuate their import, include a participant in the war—a 12-pound Napoleon artillery piece, with its limber, made by Henry N. Hooper of Boston in 1863.
Loaned by the 6th New York Independent Battery re-enactment group in Rahway, N.J., the gleaming bronze artifact’s run there will end next Wednesday. (The 6th New York, a unit in Gen. Phil Sheridan’s cavalry, took part in the desperate fighting along the Brock Road on May 7–8.) The gun occupies the mall’s central crossroads, between the Aeropostale and New York & Company stores. The mall’s other exhibits will remain until Monday, May 5.
But while Dougherty, a re-enactor himself, has manned cannon and can detail every movement of a gun crew, what excites him most about these Civil War sesquicentennial exhibits are their small, human stories.
He quotes one soldier, Lt. George W. Burchell of Company G, 24th Michigan Infantry, who survived the multiday Battle of Spotsylvania Court House.
“I have fought eight battles in eight days, terrible engagements of musketry. Indeed this is the most horrible fight the world ever saw,” Burchell wrote at the time.
“This it the 9th day and they are fighting yet. God knows when it will end but it cannot last much longer I think. We shall whip them I believe but it is tough. I have seen it in all its horrible variations this time. Gettysburg is a skirmish compared with this fight.”
Dougherty, among others, says the Spotsylvania battles are too often overlooked today amid the great, weekslong sweep of the Overland Campaign, which ended in the siege of Petersburg.
That may be how soldiers looked at Spotsylvania in 1864, too, he said in an interview Friday.
“Because of the mass casualties, the horror of it, people then didn’t talk about it as much as the events deserved,” he said. “If you were lucky enough to survive, you tried to put it out of your mind—because it was so terrible.”
He quotes a young Spotsylvania woman, Katherine Couse, whose farm became a battleground and a field hospital for Union troops.
“Dilapidation and decay mark the course of every thing at old Laurel Hill. ... An air of suffocating loneliness reigns, as the shades of evening come on,” she wrote a friend right after the battle. “The wind has a peculiar howling sound, as if ghosts and witches were around mourning the sad remains. Do not think me superstitious. Troubles seem to be attracted to this spot.”
Her comments clearly resonate with Dougherty.
“I think she was referring to Spotsylvania as a whole because of all the fighting that took place here during the war,” he said.
And yet, the May 12 fight at Spotsylvania’s Bloody Angle stands out amid the years of bloodletting here.
“Can you imagine hand-to-hand combat for 22 hours, in the rain, into the darkness—the sound, the roar, the language?” Dougherty said. “It was war at its worst. It wasn’t chivalrous anymore. It simply wasn’t.”
Still, he relishes the individual stories that emerge from the smoke and din of battle. Ditto for Clayton, who didn’t know she had an ancestor who fought here until a chance remark led Dougherty to start digging.
He turned up Edward M. Derby, a Vermont native and Fitchburg, Mass., machinist who was conscripted into the Union army in 1864. Married to Miriam Blake, standing 5 feet 5 inches tall, with dark hair, Derby was assigned to Company F of the 57th Massachusetts Infantry, a new regiment that saw its first heavy fighting on May 12 on the eastern side of the Mule Shoe salient in Gen. Robert E. Lee’s earthworks at Spotsylvania.
The Union assault failed and in two hours, the 57th lost almost 20 percent of its men. Among the fallen was Derby, buried at Beverley’s Farm north of Fredericksburg Road (today’s State Route 208, near Whig Hill. He was 31.
After the war, Spotsylvania entrepreneur Joseph Sanford dug up his body for reburial in the new national cemetery in Fredericksburg. Today, Derby lies there in Section E, Row 2, Grave 28, just behind the old superintendent’s lodge inside the entrance.
“In this portrait that Terry found, he looks identical to my brother’s son, who is about 35,” Clayton said Thursday as she showed a visitor some of the 31 mall exhibit panels she helped create, including one about Cpl. Ed Derby.
Clayton’s family members had known about three other Derby men who fought in the war, but had forgotten Edward—until now.
“Perhaps somebody will put a flower on his grave come May 12th, on the anniversary,” Dougherty said.