Wednesday, October 27, 2010


We had a very nice four-day weekend up in the Fredericksburg area, visiting battlefields. I had not realized there were four battlefields there, and I had this idea that we would spend a day or two in Fredericksburg, then go down to the Cold Harbor battlefield in Richmond, and then take in Petersburg and Appomattox at the end of our weekend, but as soon as we got to Fredericksburg I realized we'd be spending our whole weekend there, and gladly!

We took the battlefields in chronological order, starting at the Fredericksburg battlefield, which is right in town. In December 1862, the Union army attacked the town, and the Confederates were well-placed on a ridge just outside town (at the time) to the west. Thousands of men died charging this stone wall and the sunken road behind it, as the Confederates sat behind the wall and their guns on the hill behind it and basically picked off Union soldiers as they charged.

On a cool fall day with the traffic noise and the houses and trees all around, it's very hard to imagine such mayhem.

This is the Federal cemetery on top of the hill. The Confederate soldiers are buried in a cemetery in the middle of town.

We took a driving tour of the Fredericksburg campaign, which took us to this gorgeous house, built in the late 1700s, called Chatham, just across the Rappahannock River from the town. It served as Federal headquarters, and later, a hospital, during the battle.

I'm envious of the people who got to live in this house, especially the owners of the early 20th century who turned it into a showplace and a Gatsby-esque retreat. Now even with the dull National Park Service paint and the empty rooms and the displays, you can still get a feel for the luxury of the place, especially when you wander out to the terraces that descend to the river. This is the view of Fredericksburg from the yard.
I could have sat here all day--and I wanted to! It was so peaceful and so beautiful. I want to live in this house! Again, it takes a real effort of imagination to picture the place surrounded with troops and wagons and horses, and the yard and house filled with bleeding, mutilated, dying men.

The driving tour took us all afternoon and part of the next morning. Once we got done with that, we headed out Route 3 to the Chancellorsville battlefield, a few miles west of town.

This very busy crossroads was the site of the Chancellorsville tavern (owned by a family named Chancellor) that was at the epicenter of the battle. The family hid in the basement during the battle, and then were led to safety by Union soldiers when the house and the surrounding fields and forest caught fire. The blocks mark the site of the house.

The Chancellorsville battle was fought in May 1863, and it was another defeat for the Union army. However, Stonewall Jackson was mortally wounded during this battle, just a few yards to the left of the visitor center below, and that was a huge loss for the Confederates.

We took the driving tour of Chancellorsville on Saturday, and again, it was a most-of-the-day event. We got to drive down beautiful country roads, through forests and fields--much nicer than the traveling that took place there 150 years ago!

Sunday was the Wilderness battlefield, just a mile or two down the road from Chancellorsville, a battle that took place exactly one year after Chancellorsville, in May 1864. This battle was different--Ulysses S. Grant was in charge of the Union armies now, and although it was technically a stalemate, it was the beginning of Grant's Overland Campaign that tore up the Confederacy in Virginia and ended in victory at Appomattox in 1865.

These are the remnants of Confederate earthworks (trenches) that run all over the battlefield. They were originally four or five feet deep, and topped with another foot or two of logs.

We had an excellent tour from one of the Park Service guides here--since it was late Sunday morning, we were the only two people in the tour, so he gave us the expanded version and answered lots of questions. Then we were off on another driving tour, more fields and forests.

The Wilderness was an especially awful and chaotic battle, because much of it was fought in the woods. Then the woods caught fire from the shelling, and wounded men were burned alive where they lay. One of the more horrible battles of a horrible war.

In the late afternoon on Sunday, we arrived at our last battlefield, Spotsylvania, which is in what used to be rural Spotsylvania County southwest of Fredericksburg. Spotsylvania was sort of a continuation of the Wilderness battle, taking place about a week later as the Union soldiers headed south toward Richmond and the Confederates tried desperately to stop them.

We had another terrific tour guide who walked us through the part of the battlefield known as the Bloody Angle, and I probably don't need to tell you why it was called that. Another desperate situation with Confederates defending a small rise, behind earthworks, and Union soldiers pouring over it, both sides bayoneting and shooting anybody they could reach, until the dead lay in the trenches three and four bodies deep. All of this in a torrential downpour, too.

The monuments mark different regiments that fought and died over this tiny scrap of ground.

We didn't manage to get to the driving tour of Spotsylvania that evening, so we got up early Monday morning and did it then.

The fall colors in this field were stunning--I don't think the photo does it justice at all. For some reason the woods on this morning were particularly beautiful.

Todd peeks through the reconstructed Confederate earthworks to see if he can find some pesky Federals to shoot at.

It certainly looks, from the photographic evidence, that all we did for four days was tour battlefields, and it kind of feels that way, too! I certainly learned a lot. But we also spent a few hours here and there in the downtown part of Fredericksburg, which is very old and very charming. Lots of fun places to eat and three used bookstores, which I enjoyed very much! We ate lunch there on Friday and returned on Friday and Saturday nights for dinner and more walking around.

It was hard to take pictures in the dark, so I didn't get any, but I was completely delighted with a town where one can buy books, get coffee or ice cream, and hear live music, all after 8 or 9 PM on a Friday night. What a concept! I'm a big fan of Fredericksburg--at least the downtown part. The outskirts are insanely congested with strip malls and traffic. So in a way I wish I lived there, but in another way I'm glad I don't. I can't wait to go back, though.