What happened here?
The region around Fredericksburg saw more fighting than in any other place during the Civil War. Four of the war’s bloodiest battles happened in or near the city: Fredericksburg (1862), Chancellorsville (1863), the Wilderness (1864), and Spotsylvania (1864). At Fredericksburg, from December 11–15, 1862, Lee's Army of Northern Virginia squared off against the Union Army of the Potomac, led by Maj. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside in one of the most lopsided battles of the war. Five months later the two armies would meet again just west of town at a crossroads known as Chancellorsville, where once again Lee was victorious but lost his most trusted general in Jackson.
Legacy and Aftermath
Over the course of the five-day Battle of Fredericksburg, the Union army suffered over 12,000 casualties, with more than 1,200 killed. The Confederates suffered far fewer casualties – approximately 5,300 – with 608 killed. For the South, it was a great victory that once again exemplified the superiority of the Confederate leadership on the battlefield. For the Federals, it was both a great defeat and a public embarrassment, further demonstrating the incompetence of their generals. The Battle of Chancellorsville exemplified Lee’s genius in battle strategy, and the victory gave his army an air of invincibility. The loss of Jackson, however, was a blow that the Confederates never truly recovered from.
I knew today was going to be a good day when the hotel replaced the usual undercooked bacon and scrambled egg-like substance with undercooked sausage patties and cheese omelets, also made with an egg-like substance. For me, anything different is good.
Today would also be different because, instead of spending the day walking, we were going to take a guided bus tour of two battles: Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. Our guide was Scott Walker, tourmaster of Hallowed Ground Tours in Fredericksburg. We picked him up in front of the visitor center along Caroline Street, a charming, tree-lined street dotted with eateries, antique shops, boutiques, and more.
Scott used to be a middle school history teacher and later a high school principal, and his enthusiasm for the town’s history was palpable. “Fredericksburg is a great history lab,” he said, pointing out how the town was also the boyhood home of George Washington.
Our first stop on the tour was a landing down along the edge of the Rappahannock River, where several fishermen where casting their lines into the water. “It’s not as wide as the Allegheny, Monongahela, or that other thing they form up there in P-Burgh,” Scott said. “But it’s still a formidable stream, nonetheless.” He then showed us two pictures, taken six hours apart, showing the drastic tide changes that occur on the river. The striking visual produced a “Wow!” from the students.
Next, he showed us photos of the town after it was almost completely destroyed by artillery during the battle in December 1862. “Let’s be clear,” he was quick to point out. “The town was hit by artillery from both sides.” Not exactly what I expected from this gray-haired gentleman with a Southern drawl. His unbiased view of the battle was both surprising and refreshing.
Throughout the tour, Scott held the students’ interest by making connections between Fredericksburg’s history and that of Western Pennsylvania. Driving down Caroline Street, he pointed out the office and home of Hugh Mercer, for whom Mercer County, Pa., is named. Later, as we followed the path of Union soldiers into the town during the battle, we turned left onto Pitt Street, named for - you guessed it - William Pitt.
Scott also helped bring the War alive when he showed us a beautiful, Georgian-style home that had a clearly visible Confederate cannonball still lodged in the brick. “In Fredericksburg, you can’t escape the Civil War,” he said.
Eventually, we arrived at Chatham (see photo). This striking brick home built in 1771 sits on a 1,280-acre estate and overlooks the point on the river where Gen. Ambrose Burnside’s army built a pontoon bridge while under heavy fire from Confederates in town. Also known as the Lacy House, the home was used as a makeshift hospital during the battle. Here, Clara Barton, founder of the American chapter of the International Red Cross volunteered to help the wounded. Following the battle, the poet Walt Whitman came here looking for his wounded brother and ended up spending the rest of the war caring for wounded soldiers. It is also the only residential building that was visited by both George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.
Inside, Scott led us first into the dining room. “Look around you,” he told the students. “You’re in a room where both Lincoln and Washington ate a meal.” We then made our way over to the parlor, where he showed the students a Beardslee telegraph machine, which was used by the Union army to send messages during the battle. “It’s basically the same as this,” he said, holding up his cell phone with the keyboard opened for texting.
Leaving Chatham, we drove out to Slaughter Pen Farm, a property recently acquired by the National Park Service (NPS) for $12 million, effectively saving it from a planned shopping development. Leading the students out in the field where much of the fighting took place, Scott went through the details of the battle (see photo). This was an especially poignant moment for Eric, a sophomore social science major from Pittsburgh, who hopes to work for the NPS one day.
“When I'm at the battlefields,” he said, “I imagine everything going on around as it was back then. To me, history is continuous. And even though the people are no longer there, they are in spirit, doing the exact same thing they were during the battle.”
Our final stop in Fredericksburg was the famous “Stone Wall” at the “Sunken Road,” where the Confederates successfully fought off wave after wave of Union soldiers in one of the bloodiest, most mindless attacks of the War (see photo). Students also viewed bullet holes from the battle still visible in the Innis House, just off the road.
After breaking for lunch, we reconvened on the bus where Scott began our tour of the Chancellorsville campaign.
Following the Union disaster at Fredericksburg, Lincoln replaced Burnside with Gen. Joseph Hooker, who the president instructed to come up with a new plan to get to at Lee, who was still camped on the heights above the town. Hooker decided to cross the river some 30 miles upriver and come in behind Lee in a sneak attack; however, Lee figured it out and sent his men out to find Hooker first. The result was the Battle of Chancellorsville.
We drove out of Fredericksburg following the Plank Road – the same route used by Lee and Jackson’s men. Along the way, Scott kept pointing out the commercial development that had taken over much of what was once battleground. At one point, we saw a forlorn Civil War monument that was lost among the multitude of fast food joints and strip malls. “There’s nothing left,” he said of the historic grounds. “We lost it all.”
I was interested in what the students thought of this ongoing struggle between the past and the present.
“I think historic preservation is extremely important,” said Erin, a senior elementary education major. “It’s an ongoing battle. I took Dr. Barr's Civil War class my junior year, and I learned a lot. But being able to physically see what the battlefields look like really drives home what we've been taught.”
Beth, a junior business management major from Sewickley, Pa., agreed. “Once it's gone it's gone,” she said. “It’s really cool to see where everything took place. It’s a different way of learning than just by a textbook. I think everyone should have the opportunity to experience this.”
Over the next hour or so, the tour followed the same roads that Jackson’s men did during their 12-mile march en route to surprising the Union’s flank. Along either side of the road, the woods were thick with tangled growth – the same type of vegetation that made the fighting here so hard-fought and unforgiving. The realism of the scene wasn’t lost on the students.
“Riding the bus along the same trail that the Confederate soldiers took made things much more vivid and clear than simply reading about it in a book,” said Tom, a senior business management major from Beaver Falls, Pa. “Seeing is much better than believing.”
Next, we stopped at a place known as the “Lee-Jackson Bivouac site.” Located at the intersection of two back roads, it’s not much to see – nothing more than a plain wooden bench and two NPS informational markers. But to many Southerners, this spot is a shrine. This spot and what happened here was the inspiration for Everett Julio’s famous painting “The Last Meeting of Lee and Jackson” (1869), which the students saw during their visit to the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond.
“This is where St. Robert of Lee and St. Stonewall of Jackson met for the last time,” Scott said, producing laughs among the students. “It’s no joke. People walk around this place with heads bowed. To them, it’s sacred ground.”
Sara, a junior marketing major from St. Marys, Pa., thought the tour was an engaging educational experience. “Seeing the actual spot where Jackson and Lee last met and driving through the last marching miles of Jackson with his troops was an eye-opening experience,” she said.
Our final stop was the Chancellorsville Battlefield Visitors Center, which sits near the spot where Stonewall Jackson was shot by friendly fire during the night of May 2, almost 147 years to the day of our visit. The legendary general would succumb to his wounds and pneumonia just eight days later. The students got to stand on the very spot where Jackson fell (see photo).
To end the tour, Scott took the students a short distance away to a stone obelisk erected in 1888 to commemorate that fateful moment in the Confederate cause. He pointed out that on the monument, inscribed in stone, was an inscription saying that Stonewall had been mortally wounded on that exact spot. The students had just seen the actual location of Jackson’s wounding and, therefore, knew that this statement wasn’t true. And that’s just was Scott wanted them to see.
“Use your brains,” he said. “Don’t always just believe what you read or what people tell you. Keep reading. Keep learning.”
Tomorrow, we head to Antietam, scene of the bloodiest battle in American history...
-- Valentine J. Brkich