Tragedy at the “Sunken Road”: a visit to Fredericksburg, VA

A few years back, I read The Killer Angels, Michael Shaara’s Pulitzer-winning novel about the Civil War. Centered on the events of the Battle of Gettysburg, it is a work of historically meticulous fiction and, if you are only going to read one book about the American Civil War, this would be a good candidate.

Considered the “classic novel” of The Civil War

But there is a danger in reading this book: it will make you want to know more. Since thousands of books have been written about the Civil War and the viewpoint can vary depending upon which side of the Mason-Dixon line one resides, an interest in this war can lead you down the rabbit hole of history for years, or even decades. Not to mention making you a colossal bore at cocktail parties.  Don’t say I didn’t warn you, but here is the New York Times recommended reading list just in case you want to join the club. Your timing would be excellent given that the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg is coming up in July of 2013.

The Battle of Gettysburg was fought July 1-3, 1863

Reading about Gettysburg will invariably take you back to the Battle of Fredericksburg, which was fought December 11-15, 1862 – the 150th commemoration is coming up next month. Often referred to as “the most lopsided Confederate victory of the Civil War”, the Battle of Fredericksburg was a strategic and tactical disaster for the Union army, led by General Ambrose Burnside.

The term “sideburns” was inspired by General Burnside. Guess you can see why here. (Wikipedia image)

The much-maligned Burnside was playing catch-up after replacing General George McClellan and was desperate for a Union victory in advance of Lincoln’s announcement of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. None of this, however, can erase the memory of the “slaughter pen” of the Battle of Fredericksburg, where Union soldiers fought bravely but futilely against the Confederate troops under Robert E. Lee and “Stonewall” Jackson. The defeat was so crushing that when Union soldiers rebuffed Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg, they were heard to cry “Give them Fredericksburg!”

Since we were going to be in the WDC area one last time to see Taylor, we decided to visit the Fredericksburg battlefield. In preparation, I read George C. Rable’s recent book Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg! which, at nearly 700 pages plus notes, is a reasonably thorough account.

(image from University of North Carolina Press)

Our first impression of the town of Fredericksburg was that although we were just an hour’s drive from Washington, D.C., we felt like we had entered the South. The CE made a few weak jokes about us being “Yankees” until he noticed no one was laughing. When he expressed interest in purchasing Civil War memorabilia beyond the bullets for sale at the military-themed storefronts in the town, he received a rather brusque brush-off from the proprietors. After checking in at a B&B where there was no host and no breakfast, just us alone in creaky old house, we packed up and headed to the more welcoming (if generic) Courtyard Marriott down the street.

Downtown Fredericksburg

We felt much more welcomed at the Fredericksburg Visitors Center (note: there are TWO Visitors Centers in Fredericksburg, one in-town and a separate one at the battlefield site) where a very knowledgeable volunteer helped us plan our tour. She insisted that we first head back across the Rappahannack River and visit Chatham Manor, where the Union Army camped in advance of the battle. A key to Burnside’s loss centered around a timing delay in the delivery of pontoons crucial to the Army’s crossing of the river and Chatham Manor affords a view of the town and of the river where Union engineers trying to assemble the pontoons were picked off by Confederate sharp-shooters across the Rappahannack. You can also see a film there that focuses on the experience of citizens of Fredericksburg before, during and after the battle.

Chatham Manor served as Union headquarters during the Battle of Fredericksburg. (polloplayer photo)

View of the town of Fredericksburg from Chatham Manor (polloplayer photo)

Reproduction of a pontoon like those that Union soldiers used to cross the Rappahannack River at Fredericksburg

From Chatham Manor, we re-crossed the river and drove through town and up the steep hill where Union soldiers marched to the site of the infamous “Sunken Road”. Docents at the Fredericksburg Battlefield Visitors Center here knowledgeably describe General Burnside’s strategy to split the Confederate Army at Fredericksburg and make a drive toward Richmond with the aim of ending the war.

Tragically and inexplicably, Burnside discounted (or underestimated) the enemy’s advantage in holding the higher ground at Marye’s Heights. Of Burnside’s 30,000 troops, none were able to penetrate the Confederate stronghold behind the “Sunken Road” stone wall, and 8,000 of them died there, making Fredericksburg one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War.

What remains of the original stone wall in front of the “Sunken Road” at the battlefield.

Photo of an artist’s rendering of Confederate soldiers shooting from behind the stone wall along the “Sunken Road” at Marye’s Heights

The battlefield is now the site of the Fredericksburg National Cemetery where more than 15,000 soldiers, most from the Civil War, are buried. Notably, it was at the Battle of Fredericksburg where Robert E. Lee uttered his famous quote  “It is well war is so terrible — we should grow too fond of it.”

Graves at the Fredericksburg National Cemetery (polloplayer photo)

There was much more to see than our time allowed. I would like to have visited the Chancellorsville and Spotsylvania battlefields and the nearby Stonewall Jackson Shrine , as well as George Washington’s childhood home at Ferry Farm . We did manage to squeeze in a partial walking tour of the town of Fredericksburg, where we wandered the historic Hanover Street neighborhood. Nearby is the Fredericksburg Courthouse and the Presbyterian Church, where Clara Barton ministered to wounded soldiers after the battle. It was at this site that General Robert E. Lee and General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson planned their strategy for the Battle of Fredericksburg.

The Presbyterian Church where Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross, cared for wounded soldiers.(polloplayer photo)

The Battle of Fredericksburg spurred yet another famous quote, this one by Abraham Lincoln. It was after the disastrous loss that Lincoln said “If there is a worse place than hell, then I am in it.”

We ended our Fredericksburg visit with dinner overlooking the tranquil Rappahannack River, a century and a half removed from the tragedy of December, 1862. Hard to believe that so much blood flowed alongside that river: we can never forget that war changes everything.

Evening view of the railroad bridge over the Rappahannack at Fredericksburg (polloplayer photo)

About polloplayer

Empty nester searching for meaning of life through the occasional chicken epiphany.
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4 Responses to Tragedy at the “Sunken Road”: a visit to Fredericksburg, VA

  1. Katherine says:

    Fabulous photos – hard to believe that so much ugliness can happen in someplace so beautiful. Breathtaking and yet breath-taking. (Oh, I’m on a cheesy-roll. Great… now I’m hungry.)

    I sure hope you have a Kindle, because my shoulder hurts just thinking about how heavy those books would be in hardback.

    I dare-say, Burnside’s first tactical error was the mutton chops.

    Thanks for yet another informative blog entry! What I can’t believe is that you left out that other famous quote (seriously) by Porter Alexander, commander of the artillery battalion at Fredericksburg, December 1962: A chicken could not live on that field when we open on it.

  2. dizzyguy says:

    CE here: Chicken Lady has provided an excellent summary of the Fredericksburg experience we enjoyed. At times you can feel guilty about enjoying the beauty of the location, knowing how many brave men charged that stone wall as their last act on earth. An important history lesson that can be appreciated by all visitors to this historic example of the old South

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