An African American waiter and the bullet-shredded "Spotsylvania Stump"

On the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Spotsylvania, Museum Fellow Jesse Gant shares the story of one dramatic Civil War relic.

On May 12, 1864, the combined fire of Union and Confederate guns near the "Bloody Angle" at the Battle of Spotsylvania managed to annihilate this tree, leaving a bullet-riddled stump. Many have spoken on the stump's significance as a symbol of the war's carnage. What most commentators have neglected to point out, however, is that without the help of an anonymous tip from an African American waiter, it might never have made its way to the Smithsonian.

Until May 12, 1864, this piece of wood was part a large oak tree in a meadow lined by rolling, parallel ravines just outside Spotsylvania Court House, Virginia. Early that morning, entrenched Confederates, the front line of General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, awaited the assault of thousands of Union troops. Some twenty hours of sustained fighting later, the once-peaceful field became had become the scene of some of the war’s worst horrors. The same fury that destroyed thousands of combatants tore away all but twenty-two inches of the tree’s trunk. Soldiers remembered the moment the tree fell, sometime during the grisly night of May 12th, for years.
Until May 12, 1864, this piece of wood was part a large oak tree just outside Spotsylvania Court House, Virginia. Early that morning, entrenched Confederates awaited the assault of thousands of Union troops. The same fury that destroyed thousands of combatants in about 20 hours of sustained fighting tore away all but 22 inches of the tree's trunk. Soldiers remembered the moment the tree fell, sometime during the grisly night of May 12th, for years.

Yet a trip back to antebellum Virginia is probably the best place to begin the stump's story. Before the Civil War, this tree was simply one of thousands that stood in the plantations, fields, and farmyards west of Fredericksburg, Virginia. When Abraham Lincoln and the Republican Party won their resounding victory in the 1860 elections, Virginia and the other slaveholding states of the South decided to secede from the Union. The Civil War that followed brought the tree and the region's workers into a collision course with history.

Minie ball, a type of rifle bullet from the Civil War
Minie ball, a type of rifle bullet commonly used during the Civil War

The contending armies sought northern Virginia's trees for a variety of reasons, including fuel, shelter, transportation, and, of course, for the construction of earthworks. The Union Army often used escaped and unpaid African American workers in its wartime camps. Even harsher Confederate policies mandated that enslaved African Americans work on the Confederate Army's behalf. But until the horrendous fighting at the Bloody Angle on May 12, 1864, this particular tree managed to survive unscathed.

“The battle of Spotsylvania Court House” by Edwin Forbes. Morgan collection of Civil War drawings, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. Gift of J.P. Morgan, 1919.
"The advance upon Spotsylvania" by Alfred R. Waud. Morgan collection of Civil War drawings, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. Gift of J.P. Morgan, 1919.

A year to the month after it fell in a hail of gunfire, and with a 13th Amendment ending slavery passed by Congress, Union troops were marching back to Washington. A group of soldiers under the command of General Nelson A. Miles stopped at the Spotsylvania battlefield to tour the grounds and reminisce once more about the fight. Noticing that the now-famous stump of the old oak had been removed, the soldiers went to a nearby hotel, the Spotswood Inn, and asked the locals if they knew anything about its location.

The owner of the hotel pretended he had no idea of its whereabouts. But when the Union soldiers were about to leave, as officer John D. Black later recalled, a "colored waiter," told them where it might be found. He said that his boss was hiding the stump in a nearby outbuilding. The Union troops confronted the hotel owner, and when he refused to open the door, they cut it open with an axe. They found the bullet-riddled stump inside and carted it off to Washington.

A small marker indicates the place where the Spotyslvania stump once stood. Photograph by the author.
A small marker indicates the place where the Spotyslvania stump once stood. Photograph by the author.

The man who tipped the Union soldiers off to the stump's location never was identified. Yet while the waiter's bold actions have long since been forgotten, the stump went on to an illustrious postwar career. It was shipped to Washington, presented to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, and put on display at the old War Department, where it originally stood atop a pedestal facing Pennsylvania Avenue.

Years later, the stump also made an appearance at the 1876 Centennial Celebration, where President Ulysses S. Grant served as the master of ceremonies. It would also be featured at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893. Today, after having been transferred to the Smithsonian in 1888, it remains on display on the third floor of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, within the Price of Freedom: Americans At War exhibition.

Jesse Gant (@GantJesse) is a pre-doctoral fellow at the National Museum of American History and a Ph.D. Candidate in History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Posted at 1:33 pm EDT in Civil War 150,From the Collections

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