When a Toy Hatchet is so Much More: Trench Art at Ferry Farm

Lead Hatchet - Flat Side

Lead toy hatchet excavated at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.

This is a Memorial Day story of a tiny hatchet excavated at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.  For such a diminutive object it speaks quite loudly to our local history in Fredericksburg, Virginia.  Initially, archaeologists at Ferry Farm assumed it was a pewter toy souvenir given out or sold in 1932, when our country and Fredericksburg celebrated the 200th anniversary of George’s birth.  Indeed, cheap pewter toys were very popular during the time period.


A closer look at the provenience, or the location on the Ferry Farm landscape, where the artifact was recovered paints a more complex picture.  Provenience is very important in archaeology because whatever is excavated around an artifact paints a more complete picture than one object all by itself.  A reexamination of all the artifacts from the context where the hatchet was found revealed that nothing from that strata (we excavate in layers) had any 20th century artifacts in it, nor did the two strata above it.  In fact, the youngest artifacts from these strata were all mid-19th century.  Additionally, although the archaeologists who excavated the hatchet didn’t know it at the time, the excavation unit from which the hatchet came sat right inside the Civil War-era trench that runs across the property.

Civil War Trench

Excavated area containing the footprint of the 18th century Washington house at Ferry Farm showing a 19th century Civil War trench running the length of the house and beyond.

This revelation shut the door on our ‘it’s a 20th century souvenir’ narrative but opened the door to an even cooler one.  A close examination of the hatchet showed that it didn’t have mold seams, which are always present on cast pewter toys.  Furthermore, for some reason, it had one smooth side and one textured side leading us to believe that it was handmade, not machine cast.  This was supported by a thorough internet search to find an identical toy hatchet, which came up empty, further supporting our new theory that this piece was a one of a kind.  The textured side resembled the grain of wood so we surmised it had been cast in a simple hand carved wooden mold.  All of these clues, combined with its location within a Civil War trench, made us suspect that the hatchet was crafted by a soldier, possibly from a lead minie ball.  The hatchet is likely ‘trench art’.

Lead Hatchet - Mold Side

Textured side of the lead hatchet. See photo at the start of post for at image of the smooth side.

Trench art is defined as objects either made by soldiers and POWs or by civilians using military items such as brass shell casings or lead bullets.  This simple lamp, owned by the author, was made using a 105 millimeter brass artillery shell casing.

Lamp - Artillery Shell

Lamp fashioned from a portion of a 105 millimeter brass artillery shell casing.

To further support our identification of the hatchet as trench art, we took the artifact to the Virginia Department of Historic Resources where the amazing Katherine Ridgeway analyzed it using XRF or X-ray florescence analysis.  This non-destructive technique determines the composition of metal.  We also brought along a few minie balls recovered from the same unit for comparison.  It turned out that what we thought was a pewter hatchet was actually a lead hatchet with a similar compositional profile to minie balls, which are mostly lead with trace amounts of other metals such as tin and nickel.  While minie balls vary in their composition due to their imprecise method of manufacture, the hatchet was still a close match.

Minie Balls

Minie Balls – rifled musket bullets. From left to right: .557 Enfield Minie Bullet, Burton Pattern Minie Bullets .58 Springfield (x 2), Williams Bullet missing zinc base, .69 Caliber Minie Bullet for modified 1843 Springfield Musket. Credit: Mike Cumpston / Wikipedia

One can just imagine a bored Union soldier whittling the mold and then melting down some of his bullets to pour into it.  He likely chose the hatchet form because of the famous cherry tree story, in which young George Washington owned up to hacking his father’s cheery tree with a hatchet by proclaiming ‘I cannot tell a lie’.  The soldier would have been well-versed in the Washington cherry tree myth, which was set at Ferry Farm by Mason Locke Weems in his first biography of Washington, published in 1800. By the 1860s, the story was nationally known.  Additionally, letters Union soldiers wrote while encamped at Ferry Farm indicate they knew the site’s connection to Washington. They even went so far as to send home cherry seeds for their families.

While the identification of the hatchet is now secured, we have so many more questions.  Who was this soldier?  How many hatchets did he make and why did this one come to be left behind in his trench? Was it a souvenir for himself or did he send one home to his family or share with fellow soldiers?  Did he survive the war?  Unfortunately these are mysteries that will likely never be solved but that make for great pondering on this Memorial Day.

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Archaeology Lab Supervisor

Chock Full o’ Minie Balls: A Civil War Mystery

Old, crushed, and rusted food cans in and of themselves aren’t terribly interesting, at least not to me.  But when the can contains 150-year-old bullets, it becomes very interesting indeed.  Recently, while going through our artifact collection database, I came across an item excavated at George Washington’s Ferry Farm nearly 20 years ago and simply listed as a ‘can’.  Wanting to know the exact nature of this can (Was it a food can? Was it a paint can?), I looked at the database’s comments section, which sometimes describes an artifact in more detail.  The comment read:  “Smashed can containing Minié balls.”  Now this can had my full attention!  I had the can pulled from artifact storage and was not disappointed.  It was, as advertised, a flattened can with at least 3 visible Minié balls lodged inside. Furthermore, there was something not visible rattling around inside of it.  Because it had simply been cataloged as a ‘can’, it escaped the notice of our crack team of research archaeologists for two decades.  I began investigating!

Flattened Can Containing Minie Balls 1

Flattened can containing Minié balls excavated at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.

Flattened Can Containing Minie Balls 2

The end of Minié ball sticking out of the can.

First, I wanted to know the age of the can.  I knew the Minié balls dated to a little over 150 years ago when Union soldiers were stationed at Ferry Farm during the Civil War. The can, however, may have been from a later date.  In oral histories, people who lived at Ferry Farm in the 20th century have mentioned collecting Civil War bullets in cans so my initial assumption was that this was the forgotten treasure of a relic hunter.  The next step was to examine the other artifacts recovered with the can at the same time and in the same spot on the Ferry Farm landscape.  All of these artifacts were from the mid-19th century.  Furthermore, the can was excavated from smack dab in the middle of a Civil War trench that runs across Ferry Farm.  So the can and the bullets were from the same time period.

Minie Balls

Various types of Minié balls from left to right: .577 Enfield Minié Bullet, Burton Pattern Minié Bullets .58 Springfield (x 2), Williams Bullet missing zinc base, .69 Caliber Minié Bullet for modified 1843 Springfield Musket. Credit: Mike Cumpston / Wikipedia

But the can didn’t look anything like a typical cartridge box.  It looked like a run of the mill tinned food can and what was rattling around inside?  It was time to do some science!  I took the can to the Virginia Department of Historic Resources where their awesome conservator Katherine Ridgway was kind enough to x-ray the can.  The x-rays proved the can was a food can and that the rattling object inside was another Minié ball.


X-ray images of can containing Minié balls. Credit: Katherine Ridgeway / Virginia Department of Historic Resources

While we now know a lot more about our can now, one mystery still remains. Why did a soldier store some of his bullets in a can?  What we do know is that, at some point, the can was abandoned or forgotten at the bottom of the trench and then crushed either under a boot or by the weight of the dirt once the trench was filled in after the war.  A 150 year old moment in time captured in the archaeological record.

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Archaeology Lab Supervisor

A Thimble of My Love


A sample of the 30 historical thimbles found to date by archaeologists at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.

Thimbles were once a popular token of affection given to ladies by family members, close acquaintances, or sanguine suitors. These essential tools formed an ideal gift for a beloved family member or an appropriate token of affection during those early, initial stages of a budding romance.  They were considered a less intimate gift than perfume or jewelry – all of which had more serious, romantic connotations. Gifting thimbles to cherished daughters or sweethearts developed as an esteemed tradition by the 1500s in Europe.

Thimbles served as an emblem of female domesticity and skill.  Thimbles possessing a domed end were employed to protect the tip of the finger as a seamstress pushed a needle through cloth. Such thimbles typified domestic use, where tasks were dominated by sewing and mending. These duties were associated with a well-run home, and these skills grew to define womanhood.

Thimbles came in a variety of graduated sizes to accommodate the young as well as the experienced. Accomplished girls were expected to produce elaborate samplers and embroidery by the age of seven. The products of these young artisans were ostentatiously displayed throughout the house, where prospective suitors and visiting families could appreciate the budding skills and diligence of their daughters. Thimbles were such essential tools in the daily lives of women that they were part of everyday dress, often worn on the body as part of a chatelaine or belt-hung tool kit that included scissors, needles, and a thimble (think of Downton Abbey’s Mrs. Hughes).

FF-Graduated Thimbles-shoptSmall

A variety of sizes accommodated a child’s growth to adulthood. These examples were uncovered by archaeologists at Ferry Farm.

Commercially-used thimbles were typically open ended and known as thimble rings. They proved to be popular amongst tailors who used these special thimbles “sideways” to protect the side of the finger. An open ended, ‘thimble ring’ provided a better option for use with thicker materials, such as leather. Such sturdy fabrics were associated with upholstery manufacture. Products that employed leather, such as saddles and tack, also required thimble rings. Tailors were often male, and many assert that thimble rings were used by men exclusively. Like all assumptions, they should be made with care: no doubt women who worked in industries associated with thicker materials employed thimble rings, and men who needed to mend their clothes in the absence of female family members made ready use of thimbles (soldiers in camp, for instance).

Archaeologists have recovered over thirty functional (not souvenir) thimbles from the soils surrounding the Washington home. The majority date from the 18th and 19th centuries and – given their context – likely represent those used by women and girls for sewing hems, mending tears, and stitching. These historical examples from Ferry Farm were typically made from brass, reflecting both the popularity of that metal for manufacture, but also its durability and stability over time. A few examples feature copper sides with steel tips. Iron thimbles were also popular, but they decompose quickly and are rarely encountered by excavators.

Sometimes, when given as gifts, thimbles were enhanced with mottos, a tradition that was especially popular during the 1800s. They might be friendly, such as “Live Happy,” or didactic: “Pray and Work.” Slogans included “Remember Me,” “I Live to Die,” “A Friend’s Gift,” “Amor,” and “Pray and Prosper,” to mention a few. Two thimbles embossed with the sentimental idiom “Forget Me Not” were unearthed at Ferry Farm, each recovered from layers dating from the antebellum era (the time before the American Civil War). During this time, the ownership of the Ferry Farm lands was dynamic, and the property changed hands frequently.

Chatham resident, and Commonwealth of Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals Judge, John Coalter purchased the property in 1829. However he never resided at Ferry Farm. Less than a decade later, in 1838, John Teasdale and Joseph Mann attained the property. Just five years after that, the land was transferred to Lewis G. Sutton. By mid-century, in 1846, John R. Bryan owned the farm and in December of that same year Winter Bray purchased Ferry Farm.


“Fredericksburg, Virginia — [From a Drawing by Mr. A.R. Waud]” in the December 20, 1862 edition of “Harper’s Weekly.” This image was drawn on the Ferry Farm side of the Rappahannock looking across the river into Fredericksburg. Buildings of the Bray farmstead can be seen along the river bank in the image’s left middleground. Public domain.

Bray engaged an overseer at Ferry Farm to manage the property. Importantly, they constructed a dwelling on the property in 1851, where the overseer resided. The George Washington Foundation’s archaeologists unearthed this structure as well as a kitchen related to this occupation in 2004. The construction of these dwellings is significant, since it demonstrates that people were residing on the land. Thimbles are more likely to derive from such a residential occupation as opposed to an absentee owner who devoted the land to pure farming.

We know from their method of manufacture that the “Forget Me Not” thimbles date from the 1800s. Given the dynamic history of property ownership and occupation that characterizes Ferry Farm at this time, it might at first seem challenging to determine which land owner – or rather which land owner’s family of resident workers – purchased these touching thimbles. However one thimble was found in the center of one of the Bray era dwellings, from a stratum dating from sometime between 1800 and 1860. The other thimble was discovered in the yard east of the Bray era structures, recovered from a layer that also dated from the antebellum era. It’s possible that both of these thimbles relate to the Bray era of ownership, and specifically to the overseers who occupied the property on the Bray family’s behalf.


Look closely and you can read the word “NOT” upon this unconserved “Forget Me Not” thimble found in 2014. It was found in the yard east of the Bray era structures in a layer dating from sometime between 1800-1860.


It’s easier to see the letters “FORGE…” of the phrase “FORGET ME NOT” upon this conserved Ferry Farm thimble. It was found in 2004 in direct association with one of the Bray era dwellings.

Over the centuries, sentimental tokens similar to the thimbles excavated from the Bray dwelling cemented relationships, expressed affection, and inspired diligence among sisters, daughters, and sweethearts.

Laura Galke, Archaeologist
Small Finds Analyst

“They gave me grog…and put me to sleep with opium pills”: Kenmore as a Civil War Hospital

Kenmore sometime before the end of 1862.  The wooden structure to the mansion's left is the kitchen, which would be destoryed during the Battle of Fredericksburg.

Historic Kenmore sometime before the end of 1862. The wooden structure to the mansion’s left is the kitchen, which would be destroyed during the Battle of Fredericksburg.  An enslaved woman can be seen standing at the corner of the kitchen while an enslaved man is visible under the tree at the far left.

As the sesquicentennial of the Civil War draws to a close, we are remembering the war at Kenmore, and its aftermath.  Although Kenmore is best known as a house of the colonial period, it had quite a history during the Civil War.  Visitors to Kenmore have long heard that the house survived bombardment during the Battle of Fredericksburg in December, 1862.  At least 11 cannon balls hit the house, with at least one penetrating the interior, damaging the famous plasterwork ceiling in the Drawing Room.  While that battle was intense and destructive, the true lasting effects of the war on Kenmore came later, when the house was used as a Union field hospital during the early stages of the Overland Campaign.

Cannon ball hole in Kenmore's roof.

Cannon ball hole in Kenmore’s roof.

In May of 1864, Union and Confederate forces clashed at The Wilderness just west of Fredericksburg, with further hostilities throughout the month at nearby Spotsylvania Courthouse.  The wounded from these battles were evacuated from the front lines to Fredericksburg.  The city was soon overwhelmed with soldiers in dire circumstances, needing far more medical attention and resources than were available.

A memoir of experiences during the war written by Amos Rood, an officer in the 7th Wisconsin Infantry who was wounded at Spotsylvania, gives a vivid account of the situation in Fredericksburg and at Kenmore specifically (a transcription of the memoir is in the Kenmore manuscript collection).  Rood writes, “…where to put the thousands who were being brot [sic] in! City already full: every house, barn, shop, factory, shed: all overcrowded and thousands laying on the sidewalks and gardens and fields!”[1] Rood was in a wagon which had been left on a crowded street in the city, but a chaplain who he knew happened by and helped him find shelter at Kenmore.  He describes the scene upon his arrival, “…took me out of the rig and had me carried into Kenmore house and (no room on the ground floor so they toted me up one flight and laid my cot down on the floor by the bannister or balustrade) so I could see people (Drs & c.) coming up and going down…Surgeons noticed me…They gave me grog…and put me to sleep with opium pills.”

The second floor landing where Rood was treated for his wounds.

The second floor landing where Rood was given medical treatment.

Rood would stay at Kenmore, in increasingly dire circumstances, from May 14th through the 17th.  Although he describes a serious leg wound that was obviously infected, he was given no medical treatment other than doses of opium and liquor.  The fact that a man in such a condition did not rate top billing for treatment perhaps speaks to the situation of the other soldiers being brought into Kenmore by the hundreds every day.  It has long been believed that Kenmore’s glorious dining room was used as the surgery, as evidenced by the fact that all of its original floorboards had to be ripped up and replaced after the war.  War era graffiti left on the rafters of the attic attest to the fact that wounded soldiers were crammed into every available space in the house.  Eventually, more than a hundred bodies and at least one horse were buried on Kenmore’s grounds, mostly in hastily dug shallow graves.

In 1868, the removal of soldiers’ remains from temporary graves all over the city began, when a national cemetery was established in Fredericksburg.  Eventually more than 13,000 remains were re-interred.  The process took decades.  In fact, the last known grave of a soldier buried at Kenmore was discovered in December, 1929, when the Kenmore Association began excavations to rebuild the kitchen dependency.  An article in the Free Lance-Star on December 5th said, “The finding of soldier’s [sic] remains in Fredericksburg and its environments is not unusual and often workmen engaged in digging ditches…or in excavating for new building projects, come across all that is left of a once youthful soldier.”[2] The ladies of Kenmore made arrangements with the American Legion to have the remains re-interred with full military honors on the 66th anniversary of the Battle of Fredericksburg on December 13th. An account of the ceremony reads, “…the cortege left ‘Kenmore’.  The body had been placed in a new casket and this draped with a large United States flag, which often floated from the ‘Kenmore’ flagstaff.”[3]

Fredericksburg National Cemetery

Gravestones at Fredericksburg National Cemetery

With that last re-interrment, the war finally came to an end for Kenmore.  150 years later, we still remember its lasting effects.

Meghan Budinger
Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations

[1] Rood, Amos. Memoirs of the War. Trans. Steven L. Acker.  Kenmore Manuscript Collection.

[2] “Remains of Union Soldier are Found.” The Free Lance-Star [Fredericksburg, VA] 5 December, 1929: Kenmore Manuscript Collection.

[3] “Unknown Soldier Buried in Kenmore.” The Chattanooga Times 12  January , 1930: Kenmore Manuscript Collection.

The Civil War at the ‘Old Washington Farm’

Editor’s Note: Lives & Legacies continues to remember the Civil War as that conflict’s 150th anniversary concludes this April and May.  During the Civil War, the homes of George Washington and Fielding Lewis – both indispensable to securing American freedom in the Revolution — served as campsite and hospital in a bloody struggle over the definition of that same freedom.  This brief overview of Ferry Farm’s Civil War history is adapted from Report on the Excavation of the Washington Farm: The 2006 and 2007 Field Seasons by Dave Muraca, Paul Nasca and Phil Levy, Site No. 44ST-174, Department of Archaeology, George Washington Foundation, 2010, pg. 27-32.

On two separate campaigns in 1862, Union forces occupied the north bank of the Rappahannock River, including Ferry Farm, in an attempt to take control of Confederate Fredericksburg. The military objective of each campaign was the same; however, the circumstances under which the two were executed differed greatly.  The first occupation employed the Union Army’s strategy of ‘peaceful’ occupation while the second employed ‘hard war,’ resulting in a major impact on the social and physical landscape of the area.

In late April 1862, the Army of the Rappahannock, under the command of Major General Irvin McDowell, advanced south from Warrenton, Virginia. His military objective was to take control of Fredericksburg. This move was intended to help protect Washington, D.C., located 50 miles to the north, while the main body of the Union Army pushed toward Richmond on the James and York River peninsula. McDowell’s forward cavalry encountered, and quickly defeated, the Confederate forces defending Fredericksburg. In retreat, the Confederates burned the two foot-traffic bridges spanning the Rappahannock, as well as a vital railroad bridge. The Mayor of Fredericksburg surrendered the city to the Union Army.

The occupying Federals quickly established their encampments on the north side of the Rappahannock, including the land at Ferry Farm, and set about the task of erecting two floating bridges across the river and constructing a new railroad bridge.

Union Army wagons cross the Rappahannock River on a floating pontoon bridge at Ferry Farm. This photograph was taken from the present-day City Dock on the Fredericksburg side of the river looking across to Ferry Farm.

The Union soldiers encamped at Ferry Farm were the muscle that enforced the occupation of Fredericksburg. Their officers ordered them to respect people and property, and the men – for the most part – followed their command. Still, local residents, like the overseer living at Ferry Farm, complained bitterly to Federal authorities about barnyards raided for livestock, hay stolen for bedding, and fences dismantled for firewood.

Federal regiments hailing from New York, Wisconsin, and Massachusetts passed the spring and summer at Ferry Farm performing drills pulling guard duty, and rebuilding the structures their fellow troops sometimes damaged. When off duty, the men had time to improve their camp, wash their clothes, write letters home, play games, and even go into town to shop and see the sights.

In August, newly-appointed Union General John Pope recalled Fredericksburg’s occupiers to defend Washington. Departing Union soldiers destroyed their pontoon bridges, the railroad bridge they had just finished rebuilding, and other new structures they feared would benefit the Confederates.  Apart from the superficial harm caused by their three-month encampment, they left behind a landscape largely intact with Ferry Farm’s buildings still standing.

Four months later, Union General Ambrose Burnside brought the largest number of Federal troops ever amassed to the north bank of the Rappahannock. His plan was to cross the river and march victoriously on to Richmond. But he delayed his army’s crossing waiting for pontoon boats. This gave General Robert E. Lee time to fully entrench his Army of Northern Virginia on the opposite side of the river. Burnside’s delay set the stage for a fierce battle, which devastated Fredericksburg and ended in a staggering Union defeat. Badly mauled, the Federals withdrew, pulled up their pontoon bridges, and hunkered down for the winter, turning Ferry Farm into part of their defensive front line.

Although the Washington family’s house had disappeared by 1830, our excavations of its location have revealed not only the Washington’s cellar but also a Civil War-era trench passing within inches of the cellar.

The massive Union Army that arrived for battle in November was far different from the modest occupying force that had spent the summer here. Battle-hardened and irritated by a string of defeats, these soldiers cared little for local concerns about property. Burnside’s men did not hesitate to take whatever they wanted, including trees, fences, livestock, and homes. Anything useful was commandeered, stripped clean, or torn down over the ensuing months to sustain the winter camp – including Ferry Farm’s buildings.

William F. Draper, of the 36th Massachusetts Infantry, recalls his experience at Ferry Farm in late-November, 1862. “Our picket duty here was especially interesting from the associations connected with the spot where that duty was performed. The part of the line that it usually fell to my lot to hold was on the old Washington Farm, where General Washington passed most of his earlier years, and where he cut the cherry tree with his little hatchet but could not tell a lie.

Inkwell dating from the Civil War excavated at Ferry Farm.

Military action was renewed in the spring of 1863, culminating at the Battle of Chancellorsville. During this engagement, Ferry Farm was again the location of a pontoon bridge, and the Federal guns overlooking it roared back to life. At Chancellorsville, the Union Army would yet again sustain a crippling defeat; however, Fredericksburg would ultimately come under Federal control. In May 1864, the last of the military pontoon bridges to span the Rappahannock at Ferry Farm was in place, and would remain in this location following the Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse.

After the war, attempts to restore peace and prosperity started with Ferry Farm’s first post-war occupants, the Carson family. They filled in trenches, cleaned up debris, and built a new farmstead that stood into the twentieth century.

Bells Across the Land: Historic Kenmore Remembers the Civil War’s End

Along with churches across the city of Fredericksburg and historic sites, public buildings, schools, and more across the nation, Historic Kenmore marked the 150th anniversary of the symbolic end of the Civil War on April 9, 1865 by ringing a bell for four minutes at 3:15 p.m. today.

Interested in learning more about Kenmore’s Civil War history?  Join us for River Jordan: Crossing to Freedom, a dramatic theater presentation at both Kenmore and George Washington’s Ferry Farm, and witness the challenges and hopes of families, soldiers, and enslaved persons as each faces a future made uncertain by the Civil War.  The presentation takes place this weekend on Saturday and Sunday from 10:00 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. each day. Visit http://www.kenmore.org/events.html for all the details.

Admission: $12 adults, $6 ages 3-17; free ages 3 and under.
Reservations required. Please call 540-370-0732 x24 or email hayes@gwffoundation.org.