Touring a Civil War battlefield can be a somber experience, and it can be one that opens doors into incredible history, one that gives you a better appreciation for the growing pains the United States experienced in the past.
Standing on a field where thousands of soldiers -- Blue and Grey, Union and Confederate -- died during the waging of seething battles fires the imagination. Staring down the barrel of a cannon oriented much as it was more than 140 years ago sharpens the perspective. As does standing a few feet from the bed where a general who stood larger than life to his men died from an unintended wound.
In northern Virginia at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park four battlefields await your visit. Here are some tips for touring them:
* The four battlefields are Wilderness, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, and Spotsylvania. Plan to spend a little time at each, as together they tell the many stories. Two days would not be too long of a visit; indeed, it might not be enough time to truly appreciate the park and glean all the history it has to offer.
* Before you travel to the military park, rent and watch Gods and Generals. This is a long and at times intricate movie, but it gives great insights into the battles that were waged here during the Civil War. After watching this film, when you find yourself on the Sunken Road at Fredericksburg looking down towards the Rappahannock River you'll almost be able to see the Battle of Fredericksburg playing out before you.
* Walk the Sunken Road. Less than a quarter-mile long, it won't wear you out, but it will lead you by some significant focal points of the Battle of Fredericksburg. There's the Innis House, which still holds the bullet holes that pockmarked both exterior and interior. There's the stone wall that provided protection for General Robert E. Lee's men. There's the Kirkland Monument that pays tribute to a young Confederate soldier who, at battle's end, received permission from his commanding officer to carry water to the wounded Union troops in the fields below the Sunken Road. Watch for the small monument to General Thomas R.R. Cobb, who was mortally wounded during the battle. As the primary writer of the Confederate Constitution, Cobb was the best known soldier killed in the Battle of Fredericksburg, according to the Park Service.
* At the Chancellorsville Battlefield, take time to tour the visitor center, which has some interesting artifacts -- uniforms, weapons, soldiers' personal belongings -- and be sure to go out behind the building to walk the short trail to where General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson was wounded by his own troops in a case of mistaken identity. Along the trail you'll find two monuments to Jackson -- one a small block of quartz that marks where he was initially tended after his wounding, the other a larger granite monument inscribed with the general's name. Near the visitor center, at the intersection of the Orange Plank and Furnace roads, is where Gen. Robert E. Lee and Gen. Jackson met for the last time, on the morning of May 2, 1863.
* There are a number of points at Chancellorsville where you can stand where both Confederate and Union did. Both Hazel Grove and Fairview are not far from the visitor center and can be reached by road. Out on these battlefields stand some cannons in the positions they held more than a century ago when, on May 3, 1863, the two armies battering each other with rains of artillery. The Union forces were no match for the Confederate troops that day. At Fairview you can see where hundreds of wounded Union soldiers were left laying on the ground around a cabin, many of them slowly dying.
* Visit the Stonewall Jackson Shrine, where the military giant spent his final days. While doctors initially thought he'd recover from his wounds, which required the amputation of his left arm, Jackson developed pneumonia, which led to his death. The building in which Jackson died was, at the time, owned by Thomas Coleman Chandler as part of the Fairview Plantation. While the plantation's main house no longer stands, the "farm office" where Jackson spent his dying days still does. Inside you'll find the bedroom, with many of the original furnishings, where the general passed away. Upstairs is a bedroom that was shared by some of his aides. At the family cemetery at Ellwood near the Wilderness Battlefield you can see the small monument to mark where Stonewall Jackson's amputated arm was buried.
* Don't overlook Lee's Hill, which is located just off Lee Drive. Known in 1863 as Telegraph Hill, this high point provided Gen. Lee with a great vantage point to watch the Battle of Fredericksburg play out below him. As the Park Service points out on its web site, this was the place where the general, as he watched the slaughter on the plains below, stated that, "It is good that war is so terrible, or we would come to love it." (In 2008 the view from the hill was blocked by the encroaching trees, but it was still worth the short walk from the road below to sense the atmosphere and inspect the cannons on display.)
For detailed information, visit the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park website. For maps and brochures, visit this site.
FRIENDS OF WILDERNESS BATTLEFIELD
The mission of the Friends of Wilderness Battlefield is to assist the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park in its efforts to preserve the Wilderness Battlefield in Spotsylvania and Orange Counties. The Friends provide advocacy, educational programs, and service projects for the battlefield.
Among the very worthy projects this group takes on is restoration of Ellwood Manor, the 18th century plantation manor that is surrounded by the Wilderness Battlefield and which today falls within the park. Phase III of that massive undertaking, the restoration of the four second-floor bedrooms, is scheduled for completion in time for the launching of the Civil War Sesquicentennial in 2011.