Thursday, July 14, 2011

An Unmarked Watery Grave Hints At Precious Truth

If Mr. Krick hadn’t informed me, “The remains of the James River Squadron, including the CSS Fredericksburg, are not marked in any way,” my half-mile trek up the riverbank might have proved disappointing, but he had added, "Their location is indeed visible from the observation platform at Fort Drewry, on Drewry’s Bluff.”

View from top of Drewry's Bluff.
The corpse of David Welborn's
ironclad likely is buried in the
pictured section of the James River.
A cacophony of birds, insects and traffic on nearby Interstate 95 rang in my ears as I peered ninety feet down from Drewry’s Bluff, where the James River veers sharply east after flowing ten miles south from Richmond, the old Confederate capital.  Following instructions from Robert E.L. Krick, historian at Richmond National Battlefield Park, I peered a hundred yards downstream toward the opposite shore. 

Despite all the bad information I’d uncovered about the ironclad gunboat that my Confederate ancestor, David Lindsay Welborn, was assigned to only months before the Civil War’s end, there it was, the unmarked watery grave of the CSS Fredericksburg, at least according to Mr. Krick.

Not long before the Frederickburg's demise, David wrote to his father, Joseph Welborn of Randolph County, North Carolina, of his new position in the Confederate navy. (See July 6 blog in ARCHIVES.)

Richmond, Va   Oct 30 1864
Dear Father

            I will try to right you a few lines to let you know where I am      eight miles below Richmond on the Fredricksburg Stemer      That is an iron clad gun boat     We  have six long guns on this boat

           I have a hard time      I got here yesterday mornin and hav been sic ever sins night and day and am not well but I am told that cannons are moving hear every day    

          I would give the world to be home but can’t be thair    I thought that I would work in the navy yarde but they put me on the boat. . . and my. . . the lice

Historic photo of Confederate
battery at Fort Drewry atop
Drewry's Bluff along James River.
I get planty to eate sutch as it is       they have cald me on deck now so no more

From you son D.L. Welborn

This nearly 150-year-old, handwritten letter, which came to me in handed-down family papers, provided a compass toward precious truth.  In my research of the Civil War for my book-in-progress, Dear Father I Am Sorry To Tell You, I’ve found “truth” varies according to source. Some reports declare the scattered remains of the CSS Fredericksburg, which the Confederates blew up (along with the CSS Virginia) during the frantic evacuation of Richmond in April 1865, have not been located.

The battery at Drewry's Bluff today.
For more, go to PHOTOSl page.
Other reports claim the gunboat's wreckage was raised decades ago. Even the exact date of its scuttling varies.  (Some reports say the remains of the CSS Virginia, also assigned to patrol the James River in defense of Richmond, lie near the wreckage of the Fredericksburg.)

One lesson I’ve absorbed during my decades of exploring and research for my history/travel books is that a never-ending war rages among scholars, educators and historians about nearly every detail of American history.  Two things I’ve concluded: 1) You’ve got to believe the best sources, or cobble together facts from reliable sources to get at precious truth; and, 2) No one alive today lived during the Civil War. So, we’re all looking at historic accounts that might not be reliable in the first place, or we're imbuing reliable accounts with personal spin. There’s a lot of room for prejudice, misinterpretation and error.

As far as facts about the CSS Fredericksburg, I’m sticking with Mr. Krick, who further said, “I believe that the wreck, if it is there, is protected from the periodic channel dredging by being so close to the shore.” 

This is the kind of history I appreciate, the “to-the-best-of-my-hard-earned-knowledge” type of statement, one that claims no hold on elusive truth.  But the difficulties of tracking history didn't dilute the excitement I felt standing atop Drewry’s Bluff one summer day, amid what’s left of the Confederacy’s Fort Darling.  I had found another palpable link to my past. 

COMING SOON:  More on David and his trials aboard the gunboat.