On the way back from our road trip to Savannah, we stopped in Fredericksburg, Virginia to spend the night there. As we wanted to stretch our legs after driving for many hours, we decided to take advantage of our stop to learn more about the history of Fredericksburg and visit the national historic battlefield there.
I knew that the city of Fredericksburg had some significance in relation to the Civil War, but I didn’t know much more than that. Upon our arrival in Fredericksburg, my partner and I therefore went directly to the visitor center of the Fredericksburg National Military Park in order to learn more about the history of Fredericksburg and its battlefield.
Located near the historic downtown, the Visitor Center offers an interpretative trail, walking tours and a self-guided driving tour to explore some of the significant locations from the Battle of Fredericksburg. As we wanted to walk a little, we opted for following the looped interpretative trail.
The battles of Fredericksburg and surrounding areas were pivotal moments in the Civil War. Located halfway between Washington D.C. (the U.S. capital) and Richmond (the Confederate capital), the Rappahannock and Rapidan rivers were a significant obstacle for Union troops. Over the course of 18 months, three major campaigns would be organized by the Union in an attempt to cross these rivers near Fredericksburg. The resulting battles caused more than 100,000 casualties.
The Battle of Fredericksburg was the first of these campaigns. In December 1862, Union troops bombarded the town and then crossed the Rappahannock River on pontoon bridges. What followed was a humiliating and bloody defeat for the North, an invigorating victory for the South, and a plundered and ravaged city.
The trail starting at the Fredericksburg Battlefield Visitor Center is about 1 kilometre-long, and first follows the Sunken Road, a road bordered by a stone wall, which the Union troops tried, without success, to take. The trail also passes by the Innis House, one of the only structures along the Sunken Road that was still standing after the battle of 1862. The walls of the small house are still riddled with bullet holes.
Then the trail climbs to Marye’s Heights, a hill overlooking the Sunken Road and Fredericksburg. From the top of the hill, it is easy to understand the strategic advantage that the Confederate troops had, as their defensive line was placed high, and well protected by heavy artillery.
The trail ends at the Fredericksburg National Cemetery, where more than 15,000 American soldiers who died during the Civil War are buried. Only 20% of the bodies buried in this cemetery have been identified. The others remain, to this day, anonymous, and are only identified by a number.
I always find it a little disturbing to visit old battlefields. On this beautiful spring day, it was hard to imagine the carnage and all those lives lost. But sometimes it is useful to remember these tragic moments in history to hopefully prevent them from repeating themselves.
Fredericksburg Battlefield and its Visitor Center are operated by the United States National Park Service. The visit is free. There are other battlefields to visit very close to Fredericksburg, but for us, it will have to wait until our next road trip through the area.