May is a month that looms large in the annals of the Civil War. Battles fought in northern Virginia during that month had major implications for the war’s outcome. Today, visitors can walk the hallowed ground of Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park and reflect on the deeper meaning of the pivotal events, gallant deeds, and unspeakable suffering that took place there nearly a century and a half ago.
This 8,535-acre park – the second largest military park in the world -- commemorates major battles that occurred there during late 1862 (first battle of Fredericksburg), May 1863 (Chancellorsville and 2nd Fredericksburg/Salem Church), and May 1864 (the Wilderness and Spotsylvania Court House). The Union’s Army of the Potomac initiated them while conducting the North’s repeated “On to Richmond” offensives intended to win the war by capturing the Confederate capital.
Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia barred the way, maneuvering as circumstances dictated along and south of the Rappahannock River – the east-west trending water body that served to separate the two armies for much of the war. Lee’s army contested the Union advances in battles fought with astonishing ferocity. This is certainly one of the bloodiest landscapes in America. About 100,000 soldiers were cut down in the battles this park commemorates, and 15,000 of them died.
In December 1862, Union forces under General Ambrose Burnside attacked Fredericksburg, a town strategically located on the Rappahannock between Washington and Richmond. The offensive had been stalled for weeks on the north side of the Rappahannock, giving the Confederates time to assemble a strong force before Union engineers put pontoon bridges across the river on December 11. After making what may have been the first-ever amphibious landing of U.S. troops under fire, the federals cleared the town in house-to-house combat, a Civil War rarity. They were then ordered to assault Prospect Hill and the virtually impregnable position atop Marye’s Heights on December 13.
Protected by a stone wall and sunken road, the Confederate troops on Marye’s Heights poured a murderous fire into the advancing ranks of well-disciplined Union soldiers, killing and wounding about 8,000. The staggering Union losses at Fredericksburg – around 13,000 killed, wounded, and missing -- went for naught as Burnside accepted defeat and abandoned the campaign. Burnside’s subsequent attempt to take Fredericksburg, the infamous “mud march,” failed miserably and he was soon relieved of his command.
The Battle of Chancellorsville occurred west of Fredericksburg on May 1-3, 1863, when Lee employed brilliant tactics to defeat a Union army (under new commander Gen. Joseph Hooker) that was more than twice the size of his own. This was Lee’s “perfect battle,” a victory so grand that it encouraged him to plan his ill-fated Gettysburg campaign. This was also the battle that cost the life of Lee’s best general, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. Reconnoitering on horseback, Jackson was wounded by friendly fire and died a week later at Guiney Station. Separate but related battles were fought at Fredericksburg and Salem Church in association with the Chancellorsville battle. At Salem Church, Lee’s men repulsed the Union VI Corps (under General John Sedgwick), ensuring that this large force of federals could not join the fray at Chancellorsville and swing the battle to the Union’s favor.
The Battle of the Wilderness took place May 5-7, 1864, after the recently appointed General in Chief of all Union armies, General Ulysses S. Grant, ordered the Army of the Potomac (under General George Meade) to cross the Rapidan River and initiate the long, costly, and eventually successful campaign to defeat Lee’s army and capture Richmond. This opening battle of the offensive was fought under terrible conditions and yielded appalling casualties – at least 29,800 out of the 163,000 engaged. The savage fighting took place in a tangle of trees and brush so thick that it was impossible to maintain formations. When the dry woods caught fire, many of the wounded burned to death. The Wilderness was a tactical draw, but the important thing is that Grant did not call off the campaign or even order a halt. Instead, he pressed the fight.
In the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House (May 8-21), which immediately followed the Wilderness battle, the 100,000-man Union army engaged heavily outnumbered Confederate forces in a series of bloody conflicts all along the Spotsylvania front. The most lethal of these conflicts took place at the Bloody Angle, a 200-yard stretch of the Mule Shoe salient in the Confederate defenses. There both sides suffered horrific casualties in a 20-hour melee that was the most sustained intense close combat of the entire war. The hail of bullets at the Bloody Angle was so thick and prolonged that it felled some large-diameter trees. Survivors of the carnage told of corpses piled in heaps before the breastworks, where they were shredded by flying metal and trampled underfoot.
Grant eventually disengaged at Spotsylvania and continued his advance on Richmond. At the Wilderness and Spotsylvania Courthouse he had shown how the war would be won. Following these battles, Federal troops remained in contact with Lee's army for the rest of the war as “On to Lee’s Army” functionally replaced “On to Richmond” as a war-winning strategy. Grant was one of the early and best practitioners of modern industrial warfare. He understood the value of “meat grinder” battles – or to put a finer point on it, the worth of the attrition that resulted. Whereas he could replace his battle losses, Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia could not. It was this simple arithmetic that doomed the Confederacy.
This park, whose full title is Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania County Battlefields Memorial National Military Park, includes portions of the City of Fredericksburg, Spotsylvania County, Stafford County, Caroline County, and Orange County. In addition to the battlefields, the park preserves four associated historic buildings -- Chatham, Salem Church, Ellwood, and the Guiney Station house in which Stonewall Jackson died. For a virtual tour of the military park, go to this site.
Park visitors will notice that the battlefields and related historic structures now exist as a series of “islands” of hallowed ground hemmed in by suburbs and other products of northern Virginia’s relentless urban sprawl. Traveler will have more to say about this later.
Essential Stops: The military park has two visitor centers -- one in Fredericksburg and one at the Chancellorsville Battlefield. First time visitors will find both stops to be very worthwhile and should plan two full days for visiting the battlefields if possible. The Fredericksburg Battlefield Visitor Center is located in Fredericksburg at 1013 Lafayette Boulevard (which is at the base of Marye’s Heights). The various self-guided walking trails are excellent, and the 35-minute historian-led tours along the Sunken Road and Stone Wall are even better. A five-mile driving tour begins at the Visitor Center and includes both the Marye’s Heights and Prospect Hill sections of the battlefield. Traffic is heavy and the signage is poor; get directions at the visitor center. The bookstore rents CD/tape tours that last about three hours.
The Chancellorsville Battlefield Visitor Center is on Route 3 (the Blue and Gray Parkway) about 12 miles west of Fredericksburg. This is an excellent driving tour, but traffic is heavy and you need to pay attention. Visitors can spend a little time at Chancellorsville or a lot. There’s a 22-minute film, a nice museum, a well stocked bookstore, five walking trails, a seven mile self-guided auto loop with informational waysides, 35-minute historian-led walking tours, and three-hour tape tour rentals. Visitors interested in a driving tour of the 2nd Fredericksburg and Salem Church sections of the battlefield can pick up a brochure at the visitor center.
Traveler’s Tips: There are no visitor centers at the Wilderness Battlefield or at the Spotsylvania Battlefield. Don’t let this deter you. Do stop-and-walks at the Mule Shoe/Bloody Angle and at the Saunder’s Field exhibit shelter. The Mule Shoe/Bloody Angle site on the Spotsylvania battlefield has reconstructed earthworks and great monuments. (Rangers don’t like to tell visitors about the actual earthworks nearby, for fear they’ll be damaged.) You might be able to go along on one of the special torchlight tours (inquire beforehand). The Saunder’s Field open air exhibit shelter is the only exhibit shelter at Wilderness, and there’s an awesome hiking trail too. It's a loop trail that takes you to the extreme Union right -- the sight of Gordon's flank attack. The earthworks you see there are original, whereas most of earthworks you see in this park are CCC-era reconstructions.
Factoid: On the final day at Gettysburg, Robert E. Lee ordered Gen. James Longstreet’s Assault (“Pickett’s Charge”) on the Union center at Cemetery Ridge. The Union troops who repelled this assault were partly protected by a stone wall similar to (but lower than) the one the Confederates had used to their great advantage atop Marye’s Heights eight months before. After beating back the rebel charge, the victorious federals raised a taunting cheer: “Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg!”