We arrived at the Marriott in Historic Fredericksburg, VA late Friday afternoon after fighting the famous I-95 Washington traffic for a few hours.
Once unpacked we strolled the historic district, had dinner at Sammy T’s, bought some frozen yogurt and found our way to the last “Sounds of Summer” concert at the Fredericksburg Area Museum. We happily listened to a few tunes by the group Wylder.
We came to Fredericksburg to visit several famous Civil War battle sites. The experience of walking those revered grounds with impassioned tour guides was truly meaningful and special for us, but understanding that battle specifics are not everyone’s forte, I have placed that part of the post at the end (easy to read, easy to skip). Here is how we spent our time when not on the battlefields:
Saturday, as previously noted, we returned to Annapolis for the Navy football game. Once back in Fredericksburg we had dinner at a popular Mexican restaurant called Soup and Taco. Not really noteworthy except to say that we’ve discovered you can find Mexican and Chinese food in any town in America.
Walking around Fredericksburg’s historic district is pretty interesting. Besides the Civil War battle once fought on these streets, the area is also well-known for housing a few members of the Washington family. George’s sister Betty married into the very well-to-do Lewis family who owned a shipping business in Fredericksburg. As George and Betty’s mother Mary was getting older, George purchased a cute little home down the street from Betty’s Kenmore plantation, expanded it, and moved Mary to Fredericksburg where she lived another seventeen years before passing away at age 80. Guess there just wasn’t any room at the plantation for poor old mom. We had a wonderful tour of the house which has been painstakingly restored to look as it did when Mary lived there. Fredericksburg is now also the home of Mary Washington University.
We left Fredericksburg on Wednesday and headed for Charlottesville, home to Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello and the University of Virginia. During our travels last year we planned to visit Monticello on our way from the Shenandoah National Park to Richmond, but the day was just one big thunderstorm so we had to pass on the visit. Well, better late than never.
The home and its history are remarkable. Jefferson acted as architect, designer and builder of the hilltop property over the forty years it took to complete. His extreme intelligence and ingenuity are evident in every aspect of the estate, which he determined should be devoted to making every aspect of daily life easier. He incorporated many European design concepts (learned during his time as minister to France) and various gadgets, such as this weather vane on the ceiling of the front porch (connected to the one on the roof), allowing him to see wind direction without leaving the house.
We took the tour of the first floor of the house and the slave tour. Unfortunately picture-taking is not allowed inside the house, but here are a few from the basement work and storage areas and the kitchen.
The slave tour was really thought-provoking. The guide spent a lot of time discussing the paradox of Jefferson being the author of the Declaration of Independence while at the same time being a slave owner. How could one’s philosophy of “all men are created equal” and have the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” justify owning slaves? The consensus being that because Jefferson, his family, and his livelihood depended on slaves, and the new country had just achieved independence, he felt the difficult problem of ending slavery would have to be resolved by future generations.
The guide told several amazing stories about a couple of Jefferson’s slaves, including the slaves he fathered. The “Getting Word” project was started at Monticello in 1993 and is dedicated to memorializing the history of Jefferson’s slaves through interviews with actual slave descendants and other archival research. Jefferson was a meticulous record keeper which has greatly aided today’s genealogical work. You can find the stories on the Monticello website. Well worth reading.
It was interesting to learn that when Jefferson died he was in extreme debt. To pay the creditors the family eventually had to sell all their positions, including Monticello and its slaves. Ironically most of Jefferson’s assets were his land holdings, which suffered extreme devaluation as a result of the Louisiana Purchase, negotiated by President Jefferson himself!
After the tour we headed to the UVA campus, founded (1819) and designed by Jefferson during his retirement. While driving by the campus in rain last year, we passed in front of the Rotunda and thought the campus and grounds to be extremely pretty. With an opportunity to now walk the campus we eagerly parked the Old Home and set out to see the Rotunda and the lawn with its colonnaded walkways and pavilions. The campus, along with Monticello, are UNESCO designated World Heritage Sites.
So……we were kind of disappointed. First of all, this is what the Rotunda looks like today:
I guess after 200 years it was in need of some much-needed repairs. We found that the lawn, the walkways, and pavilions are also in great need of refurbishing. It was very surprising that the most historic part of UVA is in such poor condition. Walking through the maze of untended gardens and past the buildings that once housed students like Edgar Allan Poe and Woodrow Wilson, you get a real sense of what a glorious place it once was. Hopefully they continue their restoration project. I bet Thomas would not be happy to see his grand design in such a dilapidated state!
The rest of the campus appears very nice with many of the newer structures built in the same architectural style as the original campus. The grounds are very hilly and filled with hundreds of mature trees. Maybe we’ll come back in 5 years and give it another chance.
So that was a pretty busy day for us. We originally intended to visit Monticello on Thursday, but the weather forecast was for daylong thunderstorms so we squeezed it all in on Wednesday. Afterall, we didn’t want to get rained-out two years in a row!
Thursday it did indeed rain. Robin had a lot of work to do so we decided to hang around the hotel most of the day.
I watched tennis and CNBC while Robin slaved away (poor choice of words?). Once done with work we decided to go to the movies. The theatre complex next door to the hotel had several good choices and we eventually settled on the movie Inside Out (instead of Jurassic World). We read the story line; a girl and her family move from Minnesota to San Francisco…the girl’s emotions (played by people such as Amy Poehler, Bill Hader and Mindy Kaling) guide her through the transition. Interesting plot, good cast…..right?
Robin started questioning if we were in the correct theater during the very G rated coming attractions (this is theatre 10, isn’t it?). We got real nervous when the movie started with an awful animated short about two lonely singing volcanoes (what?). Finally the movie started and we quickly came to realize that we were watching a Disney Pixar animation with the above cast of stars doing the voice-overs. Looking around we saw families with youngsters. OK…….had we done some real research we would have been watching genetically engineered dinosaurs wreaking havoc on a resort in Costa Rica. Instead we figured it was good practice for when we start taking baby girl Feldman to the movies. BTW, Inside Out was very cute and had some really funny scenes. If you have small children available (and even if you don’t), we highly recommend it.
OK. On to the Civil War………….
Some may recall our fascination with Civil War battlefield sites from last year’s blog posts. Our interest in the war can largely be traced to Ken Burns 1990’s TV documentary, as well as the Civil War Trilogy of books by Michael and Jeff Shaara. Both do a tremendous job of captivating the reader/viewer by not only focusing on the specifics of various battles, but also by vividly describing the mood of the nation, the politics of the time, and the personalities of the key protagonists. After all the reading and viewing we wanted to further explore that period in our nation’s history, that was so divisive, 150 years later we still see its lingering resentment occasionally rise to the surface…..especially here in the South.
So what is it about these sites that creates such a draw? You would think (as we did) that after visiting a few of the major battlefields any questions about how the war was fought, what it may have looked like, the dispositions of the participants, and any other lingering curiosities would be satisfied. Instead we discovered that each battlefield’s distinct characteristics led to unique battle strategies (often leading to horrific outcomes), the participants’ attitudes and temperaments changed dramatically throughout the campaigns, the aptitude and resolve of the commanders absolutely determined outcomes, and the “rules of war” evolved from conventional strategies to scorched earth. We discovered that watching and reading was interesting; visiting the actual locations…. …exceptional.
We came to Fredericksburg because of its close proximity to several significant and famous battles fought between the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia, commanded by Robert E. Lee: Fredericksburg Dec 1862, Chancellorsville May 1863, The Wilderness May 5-7, 1864, and Spotsylvania Court House May 8-21, 1864. The Army of the Potomac underwent a series of command changes throughout the war due to crushing defeats or its failure to pursue a retreating enemy.
Fredericksburg: This battle took place shortly after Lee’s retreat from Antietam. Lincoln replaced General McClellan with General Burnside due to McClellan’s refusal to use his reserve troops at Antietam to pursue the retreating Lee. Burnside did not want the position because he felt incapable of commanding multiple divisions (Lincoln should have listened).
Fredericksburg is situated on the south side of the Rappahannock River and was considered by Burnside to be strategic for an assault on Richmond. He managed to get to the city several days ahead of Lee’s army but couldn’t get across the river because the requisitioned pontoon bridges were caught-up in red tape in Washington. By the time the bridges arrived Lee was firmly entrenched in great defensive positions on the high ground west of the city. Union forces eventually got across the Rappahannock and occupied Fredericksburg. The ensuing battle is probably best known for the literal slaughter of Union troops in the fields in front of Sunken Road and The Stone Wall on Marye’s Heights. It is hard to imagine ordering troops up a hill through a large open field against infantry protected behind a stone wall and supported by artillery, but the Union commanders sent wave after wave into the maelstrom. The charge was meant to be a diversion for an attack by General Meade on the Confederate flank, but Burnside’s orders were so ambiguous that Meade didn’t realize his battle was the primary objective. As a result he never fully engaged. Burnside sent Union troops up the hill toward the stone wall 14 times, resulting in over 8,000 casualties in one day of fighting (18,000 for the entire conflict). The battle of Fredericksburg is considered one of Lee’s most lop-sided victories of the war. The Cincinnati Commercial wrote, “It can hardly be in human nature for men to show more valor or generals to manifest less judgement, than were perceptible on our side that day.”
Although development has covered most of the field leading to Marye’s Heights, you can still walk the same streets and past the same buildings that union troops fought through to get to the battlefield (the first urban fighting of the war). The visitors center is located next to Sunken Road and they give a great walking tour of the road and the stone wall (some of which is original). From there you can view the topography, some of the homes that shielded wounded troops during the assault, and easily visualize the carnage that took place on that very ground.
Chancellorsville: It was interesting to learn that there was no town called Chancellorsville. The location of this battle took place mostly near the Chancellor farm, which the family called Chancellorsville. The Chancellors had a beautiful Inn (unfortunately) located at a key crossroads in the Virginia Wilderness, an area of about 70 square miles of extremely dense second-growth forest. Union general Joseph Hooker (who replaced Burnside shortly after Fredericksburg) occupied the area on the crossroads but was quickly confronted by Lee’s troops. The battle is known as Lee’s masterpiece due to his risky but successful decision to twice split up his army to outmaneuver and defeat Hooker, even though his troops numbered less than half that of the Union Army. Seven days of fighting, 31,000 casualties.
Tempering Lee’s victory was the critical loss of his best field general, Stonewall Jackson, who was mortally wounded by friendly fire. Jackson had just won a very decisive battle with a surprise flanking maneuver that drove and scattered union troops into the dense forest. Throughout that night lost union soldiers kept stumbling into the confederate positions resulting in multiple small but fierce skirmishes. Jackson, while scouting the lines in front his troops that night, was mistaken as union by his own nervous men and fired upon. Before the mistake was realized, Jackson was hit. He was taken to a field surgeon who amputated his arm and then transferred him to a hospital 30 miles from the battle where he died from complications several days later. Of course Robin and I had to find the burial site of Jackson’s arm………
Following his huge victory at Chancellorsville, Lee decided to leverage his momentum by invading the North, leading to his defeat at Gettysburg (against General Meade who replaced Hooker after Chancellorsville). Because Meade failed to pursue Lee after Gettysburg, Lincoln reorganized the Army by appointing Ulysses S. Grant to Lt. General (the first since George Washington) and placing him in charge of all the Union forces. Grant placed himself with the Army of the Potomac (he kept Meade in charge) and soon started the Overland Campaign which eventually forced the surrender of Lee. Unlike the other generals, Grant was determined to wage a continuous war with Lee, taking advantage of his superior numbers and ability to resupply, essentially waging a war of attrition. The first two battles of the Overland Campaign were The Wilderness and Spotsylvania Courthouse.
The Wilderness and Spotsylvania Courthouse: Most of our guides treated these two battles as one major engagement since there was virtually no break in fighting between the two locations.
The Wilderness was not the place where Grant wanted to first engage Lee. Located just a few miles (and one year) from the battle at Chancellorsville, and in the same dense tangle of brush and forest, Grant wanted to get his troops clear of The Wilderness before forcing Lee’s army to confront him on his way toward Richmond. Lee understood the advantages that The Wilderness gave a smaller army (limited artillery and difficult troop movement) and rushed to confront Grant. Lee won the race, and after 3 days of bloody fighting to a draw (costing 28,000 casualties) in that difficult terrain, Grant ordered a night-time withdrawal south to Spotsylvania Courthouse, where he hoped to fight Lee on ground more advantageous to the larger Union Army. Of course Lee was able to beat Grant to Spotsylvania and take the better defensive positions, thus setting up some of the bloodiest hand to hand fighting of the entire war, the Bloody Angle at the Mule Shoe salient.
The Mule Shoe salient was the name given a portion of Lee’s fortifications that stuck out in the shape of a mule shoe, one mile from his four mile long line of trenches. Lee was unhappy his engineers created the mule shoe as the outcropping was an obvious weakness and therefore difficult to defend. Grant took advantage and focused his offensive on an angle of the mule shoe that also afforded his troops some cover. The attack came on a wet and rainy day and resulted in 20 hours of intense close quarters combat with both Lee and Grant constantly sending in reinforcements. The battle saw such intense concentrated firepower that a 22 inch thick oak tree was completely severed by rifle fire. Today a marker actually identifies the spot where the tree fell, and the stump can be found in the Smithsonian Museum of American History. As the day progressed the trenches filled up with corpses, upon which, hand to hand fighting continued. Union casualties for the day were 9,000, Confederate 8,000 with 3,000 captured. After two weeks of fighting to a stalemate, Grant again withdrew his forces and headed further south. Total casualties in Spotsylvania were 31,000 killed, wounded or missing.
While touring these particularly brutal battlefields you can’t help but be in awe of the valor exhibited by the soldiers that fought there. Their convictions so strong they were able to line up directly across from an enemy, in the open, with the full knowledge that their lives could end in an instant. Conditions most of us can’t begin to comprehend. Walking the grounds where so many fell is truly extraordinary.