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Interpretation Of Civil War's Impact Deepens at Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park


A new exhibit at the Chancellorsville Visitor Center looks at how the Civil War shattered families. NPS photo.

Civil War history already ran deep at the Chancellorsville Visitor Center at Fredericksburg and Spotyslvania National Military Park, but a new exhibit adds to the breadth of that history.

The exhibit focuses not only on the tragedy of a lost life, but on the very real consequences of a family's loss of its breadwinner. "A Family Shattered" uses a very rare wooden cemetery headboard as the centerpiece to reveal the story of the family of Colonel John W. Patterson of Pittsburgh.

"A Family Shattered" is vivid illustration of how what happened on battlefields during the Civil War reverberated through homes, families, and lives often hundreds of miles away, notes park historian John Hennessy.

The exhibit follows John Williams Patterson, an engineer who became a soldier during the Civil War. He was solid, patriotic, devoted to his cause, the exhibit points out. But beyond his commitment to the cause, you learn through the exhibit that he aspired more than anything else to return to his wife Almira and their young family.

Shot at the Battle of Seven Pines, he survived and continued on until the Battle of the Wilderness, when, on May 5, 1864, he was killed instantly. His wife soon had to sell their house through the "Orphans Court" to support her now fatherless family. For more than 40 years, she struggled on, never remarrying, subsisting on a meager government pension, always identified as a widow.

Their story is told through images, letters, and artifacts, including a rare Valentine's Day card sent to Col. Patterson by his children and the headboard that marked his temporary grave at the Wilderness – the only surviving example of those makeshift headboards that once numbered in the thousands. It is one of the most vivid artifacts in existence relating to the Battle of the Wilderness.

The Pattersons' story is a common one to both sides. It speaks to the horrific human toll taken by war, both in the form of lives lost and lives transformed.


Is the NPS aware that Chancellorsville is in VA? You couldn't find a Virginia family that went through the same thing? (Heck, it's hard to find one that didn't.) Why does the NPS always default to a northern story for the war, even in the south?

Knowing some of the rangers who set up these displays at several Civil War parks, I don't believe it's a conscious effort to exclude the Southern story, but rather developing a display around the artifacts that the park has. Manassas has a nice display on the Wilmer McLean family and how they were forced to move (to Appomattox, ironically) due to the war--but they also have several artifacts from the family that help tell the story.

Thanks CWB, but I remain convinced that the NPS could have found a family in the state in which the battlefield is situated.

Col. John Williams Patterson is/was my great great grandfather. He was wounded, shot through the left chest, at The Battle of Fair Oaks. He was captured at The Battle of Salem Church and set to Libby Prison in Richmond. On his 29th birthday (5.5.1864) he was shot through the face and killed at the corner or Brock & Orange Plank Road.
When I was born his wooden grave marker, his dress sword, canteen, flasques etc were put on my dresser. The Union Army and the Confederate Army were all Americans and I respect them all.

I just came across this (July 30), so any value in following up has probably vanished into the ether... But, let me say that two things drove the development of this exhibit. First, and most importantly, we received the headboard and related Patterson items from Bill Phillis. It's a collection unmatched in its ability to portray both the experience of war for a soldier and the war's impact on his family back home. This exhibit truly grew out of the interpretive opportunity presented by the range of artifacts and letters in the collection. Secondly, we wanted to illustrate the geographic reach of what happened on our battlefields--that the losses here reverberated across the American landscape. I think most people understand fairly well that the war took a heavy toll on Virginia (we certainly do many programs that illustrate that), but not everyone realizes that the weight of war reached to areas not physically touched by the armies' presence, like Pittsburgh. The message of the exhibit is not sectional--indeed, which side Patterson fought for is completely irrelevant to the overall message of the exhibit. It's a universal human story: the father and husband off to war, the wife at home fretting and, at times, scolding, and finally the family devastated by the loss of its patriarch. The same things happened to families of the South, of course, but we do not have (nor have I ever seen) such a vivid collection of artifacts (highlighted by the headboard, which as far as we know is the only surviving example from our battlefields) and documents) that illustrate the powerful impact of the war. If Patterson had been from South Carolina, we would have done the exhibit. His origin doesn't matter. His story in human terms emphatically does, and represents a commonly tragic experience for families North and South.

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