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.