Hallowed ground of Blue and Gray Battlefields: Four major engagements of the Civil War were fought in or near Fredericksburg, Va., and the sites can be toured in a long weekend.

November 02, 1997|By Charley Mitchell | Charley Mitchell,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Few acres in America have endured more brutal, concentrated fighting than the small area in eastern Virginia below the fork of the Rappahannock and Rapidan rivers. During two years, four major battles in the Civil War claimed almost 90,000 men there -- 15 percent of all those who died in the conflict. These battlefields make up the 8,000-acre Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, and all four can be seen in a long weekend.

The battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862 was the first of these bloody clashes; Chancellorsville came the next spring, the Wilderness and Spotsylvania a year later. Though substantial parts of these battlefields have fallen to the backhoe, vast portions remain pristine and retain well-preserved earthworks. History trails abound. The Fredericksburg Visitors Center and Museum is a good starting point, with their film, dioramas and artifacts. (And where a surprise awaited me: display of the vest and pistol of my ancestor, Carter Braxton, a Confederate artillery officer who fought there and at Spotsylvania.)

In December 1862, Union Gen. Ambrose Burnside, pushing toward Richmond, encamped on the east bank of the Rappahannock across from Fredericksburg, a sleepy city of 5,000 people halfway between Washington and the Confederate capital. For two weeks, he awaited pontoon bridges to get his 120,000 men across the river, giving the Confederates time to dig into the hills behind the town, known as Marye's Heights, and along seven miles of river front. Civilians and rebels fled as Union cannons nearly destroyed the city. Burnside's poor judgment then led to a debacle: He sent wave after wave of troops across an open field toward 2,500 rebel riflemen, who stood four deep in a sunken road behind a stone wall, below the heights. "A chicken won't be able to cross that field when we open on it," exulted a Southern commander, whose men then annihilated 15 Union brigades on the cold afternoon of Dec. 13.

A 30-minute walking tour of Marye's Heights -- the left of the Confederate line on the Fredericksburg battlefield -- starts at the Visitors Center, just below that sunken road and stone wall. Several houses survived the fighting and stand vigil over the field that saw 8,000 Union casualties, and where blue-clad corpses offered the only protection for Northern men trapped in the open that night. Many Union dead are buried in Marye's Heights National Cemetery, while more than 3,300 Confederate soldiers lie in the Fredericksburg City Cemetery at William and Washington streets. Both cemeteries are open to visitors and offer Memorial Day observances.

On Dec. 13-14, Fredericksburg will commemorate the battle with a re-enactment of street fighting, shopkeepers dressed in 19th-century garb and replicas of Union and Confederate headquarters. At Kenmore Plantation, the home of George Washington's sister, visitors can see soldiers' camps and a Civil War field hospital, learn how food was prepared and preserved during the era and dance to Civil War music. Ferry Farm, Washington's boyhood home across the river at Falmouth, will be the site of period children's crafts, and music, song and dance around a bonfire as part of "Christmas in the Camps."

South of Fredericksburg, Lee Drive winds for three miles and parallels a Confederate railroad bed now used by Amtrak. Maps and signs along the road explain the action on that part of the battlefield. Union troops poured through the marshy woods west of the tracks and breached the rebel line at Prospect Hill. Here Braxton's artillery fired on a Pennsylvania regiment that included Pvt. Will Hosack, my wife's great-uncle, and forced the Yankees to retreat, rebel prisoners in tow. A granite pyramid marks the Union breakthrough, and along Lee Drive the trenches on the battle line lend an eerie realism.

High on the east bank of the Rappahannock, across from Fredericksburg, stands a majestic Georgian mansion affording a panoramic view of the city. Known during the Civil War as the Lacy House, and now as Chatham, it was the headquarters of Union Gen. Edwin Sumner during the assault on Fredericksburg and served at other times as a communications center.

Just below Chatham, Union troops braved rebel sharpshooters as they crossed the river on pontoon bridges to begin their

attack. Hundreds later hospitalized there were cared for by Clara Barton and Walt Whitman, among others, and on display is a poignant letter from Barton to her cousin describing the atmosphere the night before the battle.

Chatham is under the stewardship of the National Park Service, and five of its 10 rooms are open to the public -- including one where Washington and Lincoln were entertained.

Fredericksburg's wake

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