Hi! Marketing Volunteer Pam Sanderlin here, blogging on another fascinating tour, Fredericksburg in the Civil War. The focus of this tour was the December, 1861 battle between General Ambrose E. Burnside’s 120,000-man Army of the Potomac and Robert E. Lee’s 70,000-man Confederate Army, the largest group of soldiers to participate in a Civil War battle. Our superb leaders were Ed Bearss, who gave life to the events through his stories and vignettes, and Gregg Clemmer, who provided additional facts and many poignant and emotional quotes from the period along the way.
We began the day at Chatham, a grand Georgian-style house overlooking the Rappahannock River with a wonderful view of the town of Fredericksburg. Built just prior to the Revolutionary War, the house is one of the few with documented visits by George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln.
During the Civil War, Chatham was initially used as a headquarters for Northern officers and later as a hospital. Clara Barton and Walt Whitman were among the famous people who assisted there. Whitman was shocked by the carnage - he noticed outside the house, at the foot of “witness trees” that still stand, “a heap of amputated feet, legs, arms, hands, etc… Several dead bodies lie near, each covered with its brown woolen blanket.” We viewed an excellent film that summarized the house’s amazing history before touring the grounds.
Our next stop was on the Fredericksburg side of the Rappahannock at one of the spots where Burnside’s army built a pontoon bridge. We learned that Burnside had reluctantly taken command of the Army of the Potomac, believing he was not qualified, a belief that was later justified in my opinion.
Burnside’s plan was to take Fredericksburg on the way to capturing Richmond. His plan had promise as he reached Fredericksburg long before Robert E. Lee’s army. But Burnside delayed and delayed, affording Lee more than ample time to re-unite his army and place them in strong positions. First the pontoon boats took over a week to arrive – then for no known reason Burnside delayed another 2 fateful weeks to begin the crossing. By that time, Lee had positioned snipers in buildings lining the waterfront and they easily shot soldiers trying to assemble the bridges. Surprised, in an attempt to suppress the snipers, Burnside bombarded Fredericksburg with a barrage of cannon fire, destroying much of the town. Once the canon fire stopped, the snipers reappeared having hidden in basements.
Ultimately Burnside’s troops cleared away the sharpshooters, the bridges were completed and Union forces took the city. Once again Burnside delayed moving forward by a full day – perhaps to rest the troops. Sadly these troops pillaged the town: “Every unoccupied house was plundered and every piece of furniture destroyed”.
From the pontoon site we went to the Battlefield Visitors Center where we watched another excellent context film which explained the next steps in Burnside’s plan and how miserably he failed.
Burnside had planned to use his “Left Grand Division” to crush Lee’s right flank, while the rest of his army held the Confederate left flank in what was supposed to be a diversionary tactic at Marye’s Heights. The topography of Marye’s Heights afforded the Confederate infantry a perfect vantage point in trenches formed by a stone wall bordering a sunken road. They had a wide open view of the open fields where wave after wave (up to 18 throughout the day) of Union soldiers advanced – not one soldier made it to the wall. 8,000 of Burnside’s troops were lost as compared to 1,000 fallen Confederates.
We walked along the sunken road and imagined what that day must have been like. Today there are trees and the encroaching town whereas in 1861, it was all open fields.
My favorite story of the day was about the “Angel of Marye’s Heights”. On the day after the fighting, moved by cries of wounded Northerners, Sgt. Richard Rowland Kirkland of South Carolina amassed as many canteens as he could carry, climbed over the stone wall, and after an initial barrage of fire from both sides, provided water and comfort to the Union Soldiers. A monument to his bravery is nearby.
Our next stop was a delicious lunch at Brock’s Riverside Grill. We enjoyed a buffet with great selections followed by cheesecake for dessert.
Refreshed, we went back to the Visitor’s Center and walked through the National Cemetery. Tragic reminders of the carnage that took place there are the small stones that represent numerous bodies of unknown soldiers buried underneath – there is a registration number and then number of bodies – 3, 4, and 5 were common numbers… The overwhelming majority of graves house unknowns.
A startling site in the cemetery is the wall at its highest point that still bears the wound of a cannon ball. Burnside’s cannon fire had a very long reach.
Our last stops of the day were focused on the defeat of Burnside’s “Left Grand Division”.
Members of Major General George Meade’s division found a hole in Stonewall Jackson’s lines and broke through, while simultaneously Major General John Gibbon’s division drove back a brigade of Rebels defending a railroad grade. The 2 attacks broke the Confederate line and would have rendered their entire position untenable if Union reinforcements were committed to the attack. But none came. The Federals were forced to fall back and the Confederates recaptured the area in a bloody field nicknamed the Slaughter Pen.
A pyramid of stones now marks the spot of Meade’s breakthrough near the railroad tracks. Visible from passing trains, it is unapproachable on land but can be seen out in the field.
Someone in our group asked why it was that the other divisions of Burnside’s army did not come to the aid of Meade and Gibbon. The answer was that orders were unclear and communications were often non-existent. A sad fact is that Burnside remained on the opposite side of the Rappahannock the entire time and therefore could provide no direction.
What an amazing and tragic time in American history. My interest is piqued to experience more Civil War tours!
View upcoming Smithsonian Associates tours here.