This week marks the 160th anniversary of the Battle of Fredericksburg, arguably one of the Civil War battles that affected ordinary citizens the most. You can view the battlefield while visiting the quaint little town of Fredericksburg!
Fredericksburg was an important place in colonial history, serving as the childhood home of George Washington at Ferry Farm and the final home of his mother, Mary. During the Civil War, it found itself stuck between the warring capitals of Washington, DC and Richmond. It was a strategic location with many battles taking place in the surrounding countryside, including Chancellorsville (1863) and the Wilderness and Spotsylvania (1864). Plus with the Union lines just across the river, it became a beacon of freedom for the enslaved population. If they could make it to the other side, they could become part of the Union camp and were considered free.
The Battle of Fredericksburg began on December 11, 1862 as Federal troops began pouring over the Rappahannock River into downtown Fredericksburg. The new Union Gen. Burnside was delayed in starting the battle while waiting on pontoon bridges to arrive, giving the Confederate Army time to set up in the town. As the Union forces finally began crossing the river in the wee hours of the 11th, Confederate sharpshooters picked them off. Union forces shelled the town to flush out the Confederates, and Union infantry arrived in mid-afternoon, fighting street-by-street through the city and resulting in the first major urban combat in American history.
Fighting continued on the 12th, and by the 13th, the Union found some fleeting success under Gen. Meade at Prospect Hill and began pushing up a hill just south of town known as Marye’s Heights. The sheer carnage of this battle was horrendous, with the Confederates being entrenched behind an impenetrable stone wall along the infamous sunken road. Just imagine the horror of the Union soldiers advancing, falling, and then more men advancing right after – or on top of – them. Gen. Burnside kept sending his men to the slaughter, resulting in eight Union casualties for every one Confederate.
The Federal forces retreated across the river on the 14th, beaten back both physically and mentally. The Union wounded were taken to a hospital at Chatham Manor where Clara Barton worked and much of the Confederate wounded were sent to Richmond. Gen. Burnside was relieved of his command while the Southern newspapers crowed about the victory. It was a low point for the Federal Army and President Lincoln and one of the high-water marks for the Confederacy. It also inspired one of the best known quotes by Robert E. Lee: “It is good that war is so terrible; otherwise we should grow too fond of it.”
Located just an hour south of Washington, DC, Fredericksburg is a quaint historic town that makes a great day trip. The downtown is adorable with its local shops and restaurants located in the very same buildings which once housed sharpshooters. Some still bear the scars of the battle.
The best place to start your tour of the battlefield is the Fredericksburg Battlefield Visitor Center where you can pick up maps, get your Junior Ranger badge, and look through exhibits. There is a movie about the battle available, and the discussion of the battle’s effects on the civilian population is very educational. Your kids will like the various hands-on activities, such as creating your own pontoon bridge.
Leave your car here to explore the Sunken Road Walking Trail, which begins in the visitor center’s parking lot. You can walk along the stone fence and imagine the horrors that occurred here on December 13, 1862. There are several monuments and sites to see along the trail including the Innis house, which still has damage from the gun barrage.
You can also pay your respects in the cemetery just south of the Sunken Road.
As you stand on its heights, you can see how the ground below would have been a field of slaughter on that terrible day.
Located across the river, this stately antebellum home, abandoned by its Confederate owners, was occupied by the Union Army and used as its headquarters during the battle. Its most famous event, however, occurred when the house became the Union hospital for injured soldiers from the battle. Clara Barton, the “angel of the battlefield,” and the poet, Walt Whitman, assisted the medical teams at Chatham.
You can tour the interior of the home and learn about the desperate fight for survival that took place here. So many ghastly amputations happened in one of the rooms that the pile of amputated limbs tossed outside grew to a large heap under one of the trees still standing.
My favorite part, however, is the exterior with its beautiful views of Fredericksburg across the Rappahannock. You can just imagine the Union generals standing in this very spot to plan their attack across the river. Children can run and get their energy out on its grounds before getting back in the car to visit the other sites.
Drive back across the river and visit the next stop on the tour, Lee’s Hill, where there is an educational shelter and a steep trail leading to Lee’s view of the battle. Drive from there to Prospect Hill, stopping at Howson Hill if you have time. Prospect Hill is where the Union had its only breakthrough of the battle under the leadership of Gen. George Meade (one of my favorite military leaders from the war!). There are several walking and biking trails here while you take in a great view of the area. You can also visit the site of the actual breakthrough as well.
Before you leave, don’t miss paying your respects to the thousands of mostly unknown Union dead at the military cemetery established in the years following the war.
To get a better visual of the battle, check out the YouTube videos by The History Things podcast. They’ll take you to the battle virtually and explain the history under your footsteps!
To make it a day of Civil War history, be sure to visit the military park’s additional battlefields, Chancellorsville and the Wilderness, located just a few minutes west of the city. The Spotsylvania battlefield and the Stonewall Jackson death site are also nearby.
Fredericksburg is rich in colonial and Civil War history. With the 160th anniversary of the Battle of Fredericksburg occurring this week, it’s a great time to plan a visit!
- Cost: Free
- Recommended: 10 and up
- Tour time: 2 -3 hours (including driving time)
- Gift shop located at visitor center
- Transportation: The entire tour is best seen by car. You can also take the train to Fredericksburg and walk or cab it to the sites.
- Dining options: Downtown Fredericksburg has many cute and delicious restaurants. We really enjoyed massive slices of pizza at Benny Vitali’s, and you can check out the other options here.
- Nearby hotels: Fredericksburg has many chain options – check out the listings on the visitor information site.
- Nearby attractions: George Washington’s Ferry Farm, Kenmore, Mary Ball Washington House and other Washington heritage museums, James Monroe Museum, Rappahannock Railroad Museum, Wilderness Adventure Park, and Fun Land
Books to Read:
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