Thursday, December 13, 2012

"Across the Bloody Plain"

The 150th Anniversary of the Battle of Fredericksburg

To mark the sesquientennial of one of the costliest and most unique battles of the American Civil War, I would like to share some photographs and reflections of the events commemorating the clash at Fredericksburg, Virginia in 1862.  Doing a stellar job as always, the National Park Service had no shortage of walks, talks, programs, and ceremonies to attend.  Their events, entitled "A Nation Remembers," examined the confrontation in a holistic sense, remembering the battle, its soldiers, but also the civilians trapped in the maelstrom.  The motto of the signature events was "The sacrifice of the soldiers...The Ordeal of a town...The grief of a nation...On the eve of emancipation."  That says it all. 

Following a lengthy drive from Pennsylvania, our small caravan arrived just in time on December 7 for the first of dozens of programs to follow.  Our tour leader was park ranger Donald Pfanz, who led an in-depth tour of the portion of the battlefield south of town known as the "Slaughter Pen Farm."  This pristine 208 acres of land was purchased by the Civil War Trust only a few years ago for an astounding $12 million.  Given that much of the Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park is composed of islands of green surrounded by seas of urban sprawl, we are extremely fortunate that much of this tract has been preserved.

Ranger Pfanz's tour covered subject matter here at the Slaughter Pen that I had not expected.  Rather than try to cram the entire battle action in this area into a single two hour program, he chose to focus on five men who crossed these fields--five Federals who earned the Medal of Honor.  I found this refreshing.  The audience gained six intimate, courageous, (and sometimes comical) perspectives of these soldiers, learning what they thought and felt.  Furthermore, we gained insights regarding their devotion to their fellow comrades, which ultimately earned some of them their nation's highest honor.  In the far background of this photo, we can see another tour group (led by park ranger Eric Mink).  About 100 visitors were in each of the two groups.  Not bad for a Friday afternoon program in the December drizzle!

That evening, 350 packed into the quaint confines of the historic Presbyterian Church of Fredericksburg on Princess Anne Street to listen to National Park Service historian Frank O'Reilly talk about the eve of the battle.  Here, visitors learned of what was going through the minds of soldiers and civilians as the dark clouds of battle began to hover over the city of 5,000 residents.  The subsequent fights in their streets and yards would create devastation that took decades to recover from.  (NPS Photo.)

The first tour the next morning began at 8 a.m. in Fredericksburg's rain-soaked streets.  Converging on Caroline Street, a large group led by ranger Peter Maugle heard about the intense street fighting and urban warfare.  In the pre-dawn darkness of December 11, 1862, Union engineers began lugging the much-delayed pontoon boats down Stafford Heights opposite the town in the hopes of creating a bridge to enter the city.  The biggest of many problems for them: the Mississippi brigade of ardent secessionist William Barksdale sat across the river, waiting.

With their pontoon bridge only partially completed, northern engineers tried desperately to complete their work--dashing out onto the half-baked bridge at least nine times.  But on each occasion, they were turned back by a withering fire.  Watching the spectacle from his headquarters at Chatam (above), Union commander General Ambrose Burnside eventually ordered some 150 cannon to fire into the city to drive the Confederate marksmen from their hideouts.  It failed.

Fuming from the lack of progress, Brigadier General Daniel Woodbury (leading the engineers) gathered about eighty Connecticut infantrymen who volunteered to cross the river and sweep the rebels out of their shore-side hiding spots along the Rappahannock. The result was the first river crossing under fire and first bridghead establishment under fire in U.S. military history.  Here, ranger Maugle discusses the struggles of the Union invaders to obtain a footing in the city.

What ensued was a desperate struggle that was also one of the first instances of urban warfare in U.S. History.  With Civil War battles typically moving from field to field or woodlot to woodlot, Fredericksburg was different because battle raged from house to house.  At this intersection of Hawke and Caroline Streets alone, over 100 casualties were inflicted.  The men of the 7th Michigan and 19th Massachusetts slugged their way into this area at a great price, bashing in doors and breaking windows to push out the Confederates.  This house above was a Dry Goods Store when battle engulfed it.

This moment and house is depicted in artist Don Troiani's work "Fire on Caroline Street."  Coming up to reinforce the 7th Michigan and 19th Massachusetts, the 20th Massachusetts men were wearing gray overcoats even though they were Union troops.  As it turns out, the Federals were amidst a shortage of blue winter greatcoats--forcing them to wear all different colors including shades of blue, black, and gray.  Talk about making an already chaotic situation more confounding.

The Federal river crossing and slow advance into the city were recreated later that morning at a reenactment at Ferry Farm, the other original pontoon crossing location downriver.  Union reenactors made several trips back and forth across the river using similar pontoon boats to those used exactly 150 years earlier.

To cross the river by foot, the (modern) Army Corps of Engineers constructed a pontoon bridge with likewise modern equipment and materials.  Not only was this a bit of an awkward sight, but the bridge was also seemingly not constructed as well as the originals of 1862.  As you look to the far side of the bridge, you'll notice a wooden gangplank that connected the shore to the bridge.  Apparently, nobody thought to throw down some mud on it.  With their leather brogans, reenactors began slipping down the plank on the backsides.  It made for a comical and painful scene.  More troublesome, the bridge eventually began detaching itself from the western shore, forcing some reenactors to wade through knee-deep water once they crossed.  Brr.

Nevertheless, the scene was a rather cool one to take in.  I think this photo perhaps more than any other captures the scale of the event, especially as one looks to the river crossing in the background.  Above, historian Michael Kraus leads the men of the National Regiment toward town.

No old or fat reenactors in this unit.  Good impression guys!

Following a visit to Chatam, we joined the afternoon tour that followed the route of Union soldiers across the plains beyond town (now developed as seen above).   This path led us toward the infamous Sunken Road and stonewall occupied by Confederate troops at the base of Marye's Heights.  This tour was led by park ranger Beth Parnicza, who did a great job of interweaving the bigger picture of the battle with personal stories of sacrifice.  We walked in the footsteps of General Andrew Humprheys's 2,200 Pennsylvanians and learned how they were decimated trying to reach the high ground.

Humphreys (whose statues is silhouetted above) had two horses shot out from under him that day.  Taking the loss of his me into consideration, ranger Parnicza concluded the program in Fredericksburg National Cemetery.  Union General Joseph Hooker commented of the advance: "No campaign in the world ever saw a more gallant advance than Humphreys's men made there."  The cemetery marks the final resting place of 15,000 Union dead who perished here and in surrounding battles.  Over three-fourths of them are unknown.  This hillside was the ideal location to reflect on what was lost in this war, but what was also gained.

This disastrous attack on the Sunken Road too was recreated that day, with Union reenactors repetitively charging up the slopes of an original portion of the Confederate line.  As with most reenactments, there was a degree of cheesiness to it all.  This very small patch of hillside is surrounded by residential neighborhoods and the University of Mary Washington.  Plus, the "stonewall" Confederate reenactors used for protection was actually treated lumber painted to look like a stonewall.  Nevertheless, there were two aspects of it all that I appreciated: the sight and sound.  Being a windless afternoon, the smoke of hundreds of rifles quickly covered the neighborhood in a dense and still white smoke that all but blinded some spectators.  Secondly, the volume of the display was immense.  The sounds of the muskets reverberated throughout the community as the southerners loaded and fired their weapons in assembly line fashion.  Imagine such a volume that was 100 times greater.  That is what this battle sounded like.

In conjunction with many of the anniversary activities, several historic homes of Fredericksburg were opened to the public.  These homes included Brompton (or the Marye House), located on Marye's Heights.  Confederate defenses were constructed directly in front of this house and the structure sustained significant damage in 1862 and during the second battle for Fredericksburg in May 1863.  The building is now home to the president of the University of Mary Washington.

A view of Brompton (Marye House) taken on May 15, 1864.  Notice the battle damage on the house in addition to the remnants of trenches and debris.  Brompton has undergone significant restoration since the 1860s, but much of it remains the same.  Many of the trenches are still visible in the front yard today.  (Library of Congress Photo.)

After the nearby reenactment, Union reenactors paraded past the original Confederate-held stonewall (at right) in an impromptu ceremony of sorts.  As they marched by, portions of the line filed out and touched the stonewall that no Federal soldier could reach in 1862.  Some of them were overcome with emotion during this procession.

But before darkness settled in, the National Park Service still had more programming available following the nearby reenactment.  Here, we rejoined Donald Pfanz as he discussed the much-fabled act of mercy performed by South Carolinian Richard Kirkland.  The nineteen year-old sergeant purportedly gathered the canteens of his comrades, scaled the wall that protected him, and began caring for wounded Federals at a moment of informal truce.  While some scholars suspect that this often-repeated tale may be nothing more than post-battle reconciliation sentimentality, the legend in and of itself has become part of the battle's history.  The statue depicting this tale is a prime example of how we remember the past, whether accurate or not.  (P.S. Sculptor Felix DeWeldon also created the Marines Corps Memorial depicting Iwo Jima.)

The program, broken down into four segments with different park rangers, covered a variety of stories associated with the clash at the stonewall.  These included the Innis House, which still bears dozens of wounds from the battle that ripped holes through its walls.

Park ranger Greg Mertz was also on hand to discuss the Confederate defense of the stonewall.  Here, Thomas Cobb's Georgia brigade made a stalwart stand.  Cobb said of the defense: "I think my brigade can whip ten thousand of them attacking us in front."  His men helped stave off a number four times that size.  But, the scrap ultimately cost Cobb his life.

That evening, park historian John Hennessy spoke to hundreds of people in the sanctuary of St. George's Episcopal Church (which was a field hospital at the time of the battle).  In short, his speech was inspiring.  Perhaps the most profound statement came when he concluded: "Many of you, perhaps, see the Civil War in a singular way. A war for Union. Or a War for Freedom. A war for independence. Resistance against aggression. An effort to end oppression. An effort to sustain oppression....Take your pick. You are all right."  Wars and their meanings represent many things to many people--and John hit the nail on the head.  (NPS Photo.)

The following morning included my final tour of the trip.  The program covered the fighting on Prospect Hill at the southernmost portion of the battlefield and was led by rangers Beth Parnicza and Ryan Longfellow.  Much like during the battle itself, the morning was foggy and mild.  As you can see from the photo above, a large number of people attended this program as well.  Prospect Hill is a unique place for numerous reasons.  Firstly, Confederate trenches there are in pristine condition.  Secondly, it is the most strategically important location of the battlefield.  Finally, despite this, less visitors come here.  The romanticized and infamous fighting on Marye's Heights trumps all so it seems.

But don't be fooled.  In the swampy woodlot behind ranger Longfellow shown above, the Federal troops under George Meade became the only northerners to breakthrough the Confederate defenses.  Southern General Maxcy Gregg was killed near here in the ensuing confusion.  In this advance, the Union men had in their hands the one true chance to compromise the southern defenses--if they could receive support.  They did not.  As was the battle as a whole, the fight was a lost opportunity.

We were not the only tour group on this part of the battlefield.  A private group was also discussing Meade's advance on the opposite side of the railroad tracks that divide this sector of the park.  A wayside describing the period in the background states, "Usually thought of as a Union monument, the large pyramid in front of you was in fact erected by the Confederate Memorial Literary Society. In 1897, the society contacted Virginia railroad executives asking them to erect markers at historically significant sites along their lines. The president of the Richmond, Fredericksburg, and Potomac Railroad embraced the proposal, but rather than simply erecting a sign, he constructed a stone pyramid modeled after the memorial to the unknown Confederate dead buried in Richmond's Hollywood Cemetery.  The Monument here marks the point where General George G. Meade's Union division penetrated the boggy gap in 'Stonewall' Jackson's lines on December 13, 1862. Over the years it has become known as the Meade Pyramid."  Thus, a monument to Confederates has since been renamed in honor of one of the Union's greatest heroes.  Gotta love history!

As was the case with the major Antietam anniversary, the strength of Frederickburg's sesquicentennial efforts rested in its many options for visitors.  There were stationary exhibits and talks both indoors and outdoors, small programs, children's activities, and in-depth battlewalks.  In other words, something for everybody.  I learned a lot throughout the whole process.  I hope many of you did as well.  Surely, the National Park Service will be examinig events such as this for blueprint ideas as we plan the massive sesquicentennial commemorations of 2013. 


  1. As always, great sharing. I feel like I was there. I wish I could have been. From Andrew

  2. Jared - Thanks for the photographs. By the way,I was the guide for the "private group" shown in your photograph of the pyramid. I took 76 descendants of soldiers who fought during "Meade's Assault" on a six hour battlefield walk in conjunction with the publication of my new book - "Meade's Breakthrough At Fredericksburg" - see photos at (Don Ernsberger)

  3. Jared - Thanks for the photographs. By the way,I was the guide for the "private group" shown in your photograph of the pyramid. I took 76 descendants of soldiers who fought during "Meade's Assault" on a six hour battlefield walk in conjunction with the publication of my new book - "Meade's Breakthrough At Fredericksburg" - see photos at