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Events commemorate beginnings and battles

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When Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s men crossed from Culpeper into Orange County on May 4, 1864, soldiers steeled themselves for what was to come.

Everyone sensed that the spring campaign would be tough, with two able commanders—Grant and the Confederacy’s Robert E. Lee—leading armies that had rested and refitted that winter in camps a few miles apart on either side of the Rapidan River.

But no one could have imagined the horrors that were immediately in store.

“The war that Grant intended to fight in 1864 would demand vastly more from the men, in terms of their personal energies, and the risk to their lives, their limbs,” said John Hennessy, chief historian of Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. “I am constantly struck by the degree to which the soldiers were willing to undertake that.”

In the woods of Orange and Spotsylvania’s Wilderness, men fired blindly toward enemies they couldn’t see. Some shot themselves rather than be burned alive in the terrifying fires ignited by their musketry and artillery. And with Grant keeping the pressure on, the Battle of the Wilderness rolled right into the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House.

Starting with prayers today at Spotsylvania Courthouse, the Fredericksburg area will mark the 150th anniversary of that unrelenting combat with 26 days of commemorative events. Spotsylvania County hosts 3,000 re-enactors this weekend for three days of living history and faux battles. On Saturday, Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park kicks off its most ambitious batch of special tours and programs ever, continuing until the armies left the region, a century and a half ago. For both re-enactors and the Park Service, plans call for a national “maximum effort” set of events.

“Over the next month, visitors will have a once-in-a-lifetime, opportunity to hear stories, touch, smell and feel the sites that engaged Generals Grant and Lee and their thousands of troops in the spring of 1864,” park Superintendent Lucy Lawliss said Wednesday. “One hundred and fifty years ago, the course of the Civil War moved into its final phase. Virginia’s landscape and families, north and south, changed forever as a result of the events that reverberated from the fields of Spotsylvania and Orange counties. Join us to remember and commemorate these hours, days, weeks and months of war most uncivil.”

A week after the campaign’s first clash at Saunders Field in Orange, Spotsylvania’s “Mule Shoe” salient saw hand-to-hand brutality unparalleled in the war. “Instead of being human we were turned into fiends and brutes, seeking to kill all in our way,” one Union soldier wrote.

The Union’s surprise attack on the bulge in Southern lines captured thousands of Confederates, including two generals. But the breakthrough didn’t last.

As Lee counterattacked, men fought savagely over a bend of earthworks, in the rain, for 22 hours. Wounded soldiers fell into the mud and were trapped beneath the bodies of the dead.

“Skulls were crushed with clubbed muskets, and men were stabbed to death with swords and bayonets thrust between the logs in the parapet which separated the combatants,” recalled Horace Porter, one of Grant’s aides.

Shot and shell peppered and blasted trees near the “death angle.” One big oak was shattered and fell onto troops. Its stump, still embedded with bullets, is exhibited today at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

The multi-day battle cost Grant’s army about 9,000 casualties, Lee’s about 8,000, according to historian Gordon Rhea, an authority on the campaign.

Two weeks later, they fought again at the North Anna River. Two weeks after that, Lee trounced Grant at Cold Harbor.

The latter defeat bled Grant’s army, but the general didn’t lose sight of his initial strategy: To keep attacking Lee, and never let up.

Debbie Aylor, coordinator of Spotsylvania County’s weekend of special events, hopes that visitors will come to understand that history by experiencing something akin to it, and by sharing it with their children.

This isn’t just about the military men, Aylor said, but also “the everyday life of people in our communities during, before and after the battles.

“Imagine their hardships, what families were feeling at home while their sons and husbands went off to war,” she added. “How did they manage when they had two armies all around them, eating their food and burning their fences?”

But for men in the opposing armies, the stakes couldn’t have been higher.

A lot depended on which side won those brutal spring battles—the outcome of that fall’s presidential election, the survival of the combatants’ respective societies and freedom for enslaved African–Americans.

Clint Schemmer: 540/374-5424


May 2–4: Live music, battle re-enactments, sutlers, living history and Civil War descendants at Spotsylvania Courthouse Village.

May 3–26: Locally, the National Park Service’s Overland Campaign commemoration lasts 23 days, just as the battles did, with special events continuing later at Richmond and Petersburg.

May 3: 10 a.m. opening ceremony at Bloody Angle, with remarks by Dr. James I. Robertson Jr., historian and author, and National Park Service Northeast Regional Director Mike Caldwell. Noon battlefield preservation announcement by Caldwell, Civil War Trust President James Lighthizer and park Superintendent Lucy Lawliss in Saunders Field at the Wilderness. Special programs at nearby Ellwood Manor, noon–4:30 p.m.

May 6: James Longstreet’s Flank Attack program may equal the Chancellorsville 150th’s death march tracing “Stonewall” Jackson’s flank attack.

May 10: Culminating Event, Spotsylvania Battlefield. 7:30 p.m. sunset program will marry music, power of place, sounds of 20,000 men in battle, and flower-bearing procession to the Bloody Angle.

May 12: Unique tours of Bloody Angle, with historians on the field for 22 hours, just as soldiers were, from 5 a.m. to 3 a.m. May 13.

May 17: Re-enactors will retrace the march into combat of the 23rd Regiment, U.S. Colored Troops—black soldiers’ first fight in Virginia. That morning, the National Park Service will officially re-open its Chancellorsville Battlefield Visitor Center, packed with new exhibits.

May 24: National “Reverberations” observance will link Virginia battlefields with communities north and south that bore the brunt of 1864’s spring fighting.

Free, special publications: Grab a copy of Spotsylvania’s 150th guide at area visitor centers or county offices. The Park Service offers The Sentinel magazine and an Overland Campaign 150th booklet at its sites.