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Civil War History in a Copper Box . . .

07/03/2012

Copper box found in the cornerstone of Battle Abbey.

You all haven’t met me yet. My name is Graham Dozier, and I’m the managing editor of publications here at the Virginia Historical Society. I spend most of my time reading, fact-checking, and editing articles that appear in the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, the quarterly journal published by the VHS. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy my work and find it engaging enough to capture my interest. But sometimes, I admit, I have difficulty with some of the subject matter in the articles I edit. All of them are about some aspect of Virginia’s rich history, but some articles, to me at least, are more interesting than others.

That’s why I got very excited when we recently recovered the copper box from the cornerstone of Battle Abbey, the oldest part of the VHS building. I’m a Civil War buff. So, when Paul Levengood, our president and CEO, carefully pulled out four documents that dated from February/March 1863, my eyes lit up. What he held in his hands were three field returns and one monthly report concerning artillery units in the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia.

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Confederate artillery returns and report found in the cornerstone box at Battle Abbey.

At that time, Robert E. Lee’s army was resting and reorganizing after the December 1862 battle of Fredericksburg. In particular, the artillery was located in Caroline County, south of Fredericksburg, where it could find fodder for its horses and room for its soldiers to set up winter camps. These specific documents detail the condition of the artillery units of the 2nd Corps, of Gen. Edward Porter Alexander’s battalion, and of the Sumter (S.C.) Artillery Battery. Though they do not include vivid descriptions of officers and men in the units, they do provide an interesting snapshot of the condition of at least part of Lee’s army in early 1863. The artillery had just been reorganized into a battalion system, which grouped individual batteries together into more effective fighting units. I happen to be researching Confederate artillerist Thomas Henry Carter, so my eyes really widened when I saw Carter’s battery listed on the 2nd Corps return. Until now, the original source of that specific bit of information had been nestled in a box that was buried under bricks and mortar in the wall of Battle Abbey! Of course, I realize that the information contained in those documents may already have been included elsewhere in contemporary copies or in the published official records. But these handwritten originals, which date from 1863, are unique and fascinating nonetheless.

Everything that came out of the cornerstone box will soon be cataloged and available for people to look at in the reading room at the VHS. Just remember that of all the items that they chose to place in the copper box back in 1912, these are the only ones that directly relate to the very experience that Battle Abbey was built to commemorate.

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