I believe a case can be made for considering Fredericksburg, Virginia, one of the most strategic cities of the Civil War. Certainly the colonial city, steeped in history and Old Dominion tradition, did not have the transportation significance of Vicksburg or Petersburg. Nor was it an important manufacturing center like Clarksville, Tennessee, or Pittsburgh. What was unique about Fredericksburg was the psychological barrier it posed to forces, especially the Union Army of the Potomac, as the midway point between the Federal and Confederate capital cities when, during much of the war, the defense of, or taking of, those capitals was considered vitally important to both sides. Fredericksburg was partly responsible for the undoing of three Army of the Potomac commanders: Ambrose E. Burnside, Joseph Hooker and George B. McClellan.
For the latter, the city’s abandonment by a 40,000-man force under Maj. Gen. Irvin McDowell, in reaction to Maj. Gen. Thomas Jackson’s 1862 Shenandoah Valley maneuvers, scuttled the two-prong approach envisioned by McClellan in his Peninsula campaign. With McDowell marching south from Fredericksburg to Richmond while McClellan’s force advanced on the capital from the southeast, the successful pincer strategy would have surely encouraged even overly cautious “Little Mac” to mount a vigorous assault. Such a successful campaign might have even redeemed McDowell from the tarnish of First Manassas. Then too, under these circumstances, General Joseph E. Johnston might have kept his Confederates inside the capital’s defenses, and never ventured to attack at Seven Pines, where he would receive a serious wound—which would pave the way for…
Ah, projecting the what-ifs! That has always been an entertaining staple of Civil War study. I had the opportunity to return to Fredericksburg last December, one of my favorite times of the year to visit. In addition to taking my first look at the improvements made by the National Park Service to the Stone Wall and Sunken Road, I also got a chance to hear a portion of a Smithsonian Associates tour given by my friend and mentor Edwin C. Bearss, former chief historian of the NPS. Fredericksburg is especially delightful when holiday decorations are on display. Like other small cities with significant Civil War ties, the organizations, businesses and people of Fredericksburg do a credible job of balancing the historic, contemporary and commercial aspects of the community.
This tour will focus primarily on Fredericksburg itself and the December 1862 battle. Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park has seven units covering important battles and events of the war’s three middle years. The park spills over into four counties, and the history it covers is much too broad to be covered in just one issue. However, if one chooses to tour additional aspects of the park to the west and south, a visit to Salem Church on Virginia 3 is a must. Here on May 3, 1863, Confederates held off a determined attack by Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick’s VI Corps in the Battle of Chancellorsville, preventing the two parts of the Federal force from uniting.
By necessity, this tour requires a car and takes about a day. Travel in and around Fredericksburg east of I-95 is relatively easy any time of the day or year. For those who don’t have access to a private car, alternatives might include tours given by national Civil War tour operators or limited stops on a locally operated bus tour of Fredericksburg. The city has Amtrak rail service from the north and south. Start the tour at the Fredericksburg Battlefield Visitor Center. To reach the center leave I-95 at exit 130 and follow William Street (Virginia 3) east to Lafayette Boulevard, Business U.S. 1. Turn left on Business U.S. 1 and follow the signs to the Fredericksburg Battlefield Visitor Center—not the Fredericksburg Visitor Center, a commercial tour depot.
The Battlefield Visitor Center offers exhibits and a film, as well as a bookstore in a separate building to the rear. An audiotape tour of the Fredericksburg battle is available. Payment of a fee at the battlefield center covers all sites in the national park. Also nearby are the Sunken Road and Fredericksburg National Cemetery, later stops on this tour. Continue northeast on Business U.S. 1 through town, turn left on Sophia Street and right on William Street (Business Virginia 3). Cross the Rappahannock River, which borders Fredericksburg to the east and north, and turn left on Virginia 212. Follow the signs to Chatham Manor.
Park and walk to the main house. The 18th-century Georgian mansion was built by William Fitzhugh and was known as the Lacy House during the Civil War. Shortly after General Burnside assumed control of the Army of the Potomac in November 1862, he began to move rapidly toward Fredericksburg, hoping to outflank his opponent, General Robert E. Lee. First to arrive at Falmouth, across the river from Fredericksburg, were units under Maj. Gen. Edwin V. Sumner that formed the Right Grand Division of the Army of the Potomac in Burnside’s reorganization. Then the Federals hesitated, and heavy rains flooded the fords. This made the river impassable without pontoon bridges, because the Rebels had earlier destroyed every bridge over the Rappahannock. Sumner established headquarters in the Lacy House to wait for the pontoon trains and the rest of the army to arrive.
Looking out from the south lawn of Chatham Manor, one can see Fredericksburg across the river. Three spires were extant during the war. At first the Confederates were severely undermanned at Fredericksburg, but delays in the arrival of the pontoon trains and in the formulation of Federal strategy allowed Lee to move his 75,000 veterans to Fredericksburg and the heights behind the city. A reconstruction of a portion of a pontoon bridge and a large artillery piece that is representative of one of the heavy guns used in the battle are displayed on the manor lawn. Burnside lined Stafford Heights, as the long ridge paralleling the river is called, with 146 cannons prior to the December battle.
Inside the mansion are exhibits on medicine during the Civil War. Immediately after the battle, the house was turned into a hospital. Among those who cared for the wounded here were Clara Barton and poet Walt Whitman. Graffiti inscribed by wounded soldiers is still visible. President Abraham Lincoln visited the Lacy House prior to the battle with Maj. Gen. Henry W. Halleck. Burnside’s headquarters was at the Phillips House, identified by a roadside marker half a mile east of the railroad crossing on White Oak Road (Virginia 218.) Five miles east of Fredericksburg, at the intersection of Virginia 218 and Virginia 603, is White Oak Church. It was surrounded by Federal camps. Across the road, the White Oak Museum has exhibits on Civil War camp life and reconstructed soldier huts. South of Chatham on Business Virginia 3 at Ferry Road is Ferry Farm, George Washington’s boyhood home, which was also occupied by the Federals on Stafford Heights.
Northeast of Falmouth near Dafflan (Leeland Road east of Virginia 626), a Virginia Civil War Trails marker locates the Potomac Creek Bridge that carried the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac Railroad across the creek. Each side controlled this section of track for a time during the war. About four miles east of Brooke at the end of Brooke Road (Virginia 608) is the site of Aquia Creek Landing. Here another Virginia CWT marker indicates the location of the important Federal supply base.
From Chatham, follow the exit toward the river. At the bottom of the hill, turn left on the paved road. Return across the river to Sophia Street. At the south end of the street in City Dock Park is the Middle Pontoon Crossing, and to the north at the foot of Hawke Street is the Upper Pontoon Crossing. These are the terminals of pontoon bridges built under fire from Rebel snipers in the nearby streets and buildings. The engineering project was completed after Burnside had infantry units cross the river in pontoon boats to drive the snipers out. In angry reaction to the sniper fire, Federal units looted the town after crossing and forming in Fredericksburg on December 11 and 12.
Take the opportunity at this time to walk the downtown streets and visit the many colonial and 19th-century buildings, or return for an evening meal at one of the fine restaurants in historic buildings. The city visitor center, 706 Caroline St., offers free walking tour brochures. Walking, carriage and bus tours of Fredericksburg are available in season for a fee. Here visitors will also find the Fredericksburg Area Museum and Cultural Center at 907 Princess Anne St., with exhibits on local history as well as Civil War artifacts and displays.
Continue driving south on Business U.S. 17. This road intersects the portion of the December 13 Federal advance made by Maj. Gen. William B. Franklin’s Left Grand Division. The Lower Pontoon Crossing is inaccessible, but a roadside marker indicates where Franklin’s forces formed for the attack. At the corner of Business U.S. 17 (Virginia 2) and Virginia 608 is the Pelham marker. Parking in this area is difficult, but visitors will find these sites well worth a stop. Here, horse artillery under Alabama’s youthful Major John Pelham held off the first advance of Franklin’s Grand Division until the troopers were forced to withdraw.
Lee had massed artillery, supported by infantry, on the hills behind Fredericksburg to form a continuous line seven miles long. He assigned “Stonewall” Jackson’s Second Corps to occupy the southern portion of the line and Lt. Gen. James Longstreet’s First Corps to occupy the north. Continue on Virginia 608 past Hamilton’s Crossing a short distance to Mine Road (Virginia 636). Turn right and go west about two miles to Lansdowne Road (Virginia 638). Turn right and proceed less than half a mile to Lee Drive, a park road, and then turn right toward Prospect Hill (a key position for Jackson’s artillery) and the site of the Federal breakthrough. A number of hiking trails emerge from Lee Drive along its length.
Jackson’s men formed behind a railroad embankment and held off the charging Federals until Brig. Gen. George G. Meade’s division found a seam in the line. Brigadier General John Gibbon’s division achieved a breakthrough, but Franklin, misinterpreting Burnside’s unclear instructions, failed to support the advance. Jackson beat the Northerners back with a savage counterattack.
Turn around and proceed north on Lee Drive away from the Lansdowne Valley. The road continues into the portion of the line held by the First Corps. Stops here include Pickett Circle, where there is a picnic area, Howison Hill and the Lee Hill Exhibit Shelter. At the north end of Lee Drive, turn right on Lafayette Boulevard and follow the same route as before to the Battlefield Visitor Center. Park in the lot and walk to the Sunken Road. The original wall has been augmented with a reconstructed portion that extends to the visitor center. The walking tour along the Sunken Road, now completely closed to traffic, passes Willis and Marye’s heights.
Here, the reinforced brigade of Brig. Gen. T.R.R. Cobb held a strong position behind a stone wall flanking sunken Telegraph Road, as it was known during the war. Shortly after 10 a.m. on December 13, when the morning fog lifted, Sumner’s Right Grand Division, supported by portions of “Fighting Joe” Hooker’s Center Grand Division, advanced over some two miles of open fields against a hailstorm of Confederate fire. Adding to the Federal woes was a drainage canal (along present-day Kenmore Avenue) that had to be crossed. The futility of this attack is obvious in its accounting for more than half the Union’s 12,653 casualties in the battle. Darkness put an end to the carnage. All surviving Federal soldiers were withdrawn east of the Rappahannock on the night of December 15-16.
Interpretive markers here include a plaque for Brompton, the private residence on Marye’s Heights that survived the attack; the Cobb monument; a reconstructed Innis House; and the site of the Stephens (or Stevens) and Ebert homes. A monument to Richard Rowland Kirkland, “the angel of Marye’s Heights,” is a short distance from the wall. Kirkland, a South Carolina sergeant, carried water to the wounded Federals stranded between the lines on the night of December 13-14. After the battle, the Confederates continued to hold the heights behind Fredericksburg.
With a new Federal offensive in the spring of 1863, Lee withdrew most of his force, leaving a division under Maj. Gen. Jubal Early. On May 3, the position was attacked by the Union VI Corps, and the Stone Wall was overrun.
In April 1865, Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman passed by Salem Church on the march to Washington and expressed displeasure with the manner of burial of Union soldiers there. His subsequent efforts led to the establishment of the Fredericksburg National Cemetery. The cemetery entrance is just across the Sunken Road from the visitor center. The Confederate Cemetery is a short distance north, at the corner of Washington Avenue and Amelia Street.
There are other Civil War sites south and east of Fredericksburg that don’t fall into any other major campaign but are worth a visit. East of Fredericksburg, Belle Plain, on Potomac Creek at the Stafford County line north of Virginia 218, was a holding point for Confederate prisoners after the May 1864 Battles of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania. Cleydael, on Virginia 206, a little over a mile west of Virginia 218, was a summer home in 1865 when Dr. Richard Stuart turned away David Herold and John Wilkes Booth on the evening of April 23. Stratford Hall Plantation, on Virginia 3, 21 miles east of U.S. 301, is the birthplace of Robert E. Lee.
When Halleck and Lincoln visited Burnside, the general-in-chief suggested that Burnside outflank Lee by crossing the Rappahannock at Skinker’s Neck, near Graves Corner on Virginia 3 between Fredericksburg and Stratford Hall. That plan was abandoned when Lee moved two divisions to contest the crossing. Two miles south of Port Royal on U.S. 301, on the Fort A.P. Hill Military Reservation, a marker indicates the site of the Richard Garrett Farm, where on April 26, 1865, Booth and Herold were tracked by pursuing New York cavalry. Herold was captured and Booth was shot and died here.
This article was written by Jay Wertz and was originally published in the May 2006 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.