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Recalling those winter days in 1862 that forever changed Fredericksburg

BY CLINT SCHEMMER

The Battle of Fredericksburg lasted but a few days. Yet it left such ruin and rubble that it took decades for the town to recover.

The greatest catastrophe—save the whole Civil War itself—to ever befall the community disrupted local commerce, vaporized millions of dollars in property, splintered families and cost thousands of lives.

“Fredericksburg is a deeply human story. It’s a story of soldiers. It’s a story of fighting men who are also members of families, and who are citizen–soldiers,” historian George C. Rable said. “It’s a battle whose effects reverberate throughout the Western world.”

That’s how Rable set the stage Saturday for a four-hour exploration of the fight for which Fredericksburg is most famed.

“Years of Anguish: Struggle at Fredericksburg,” the region’s fourth speakers’ forum on the war’s sesquicentennial, featured the world’s finest scholars on the battle: Rable, Susannah J. Ural and Francis A. O’Reilly.

The trio of historians enthralled an audience of about 200 people in the Fredericksburg Baptist Church, a bastion for Brig. Gen. William Barksdale’s Mississippi sharpshooters during street fighting before the Dec. 13, 1862, battle.

“To most students of the Civil War, Fredericksburg appears to be a major blunder by Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside with little significance for the larger course of the war. It seems the horrific bloodletting didn’t really accomplish anything,” Rable said.

But Rable, whose “Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg!” is one of the two definitive histories of the battle, said Fredericksburg was vitally important at the time and remains a key conflict for people to study.

“It was a false high point for the Confederacy and a false low point for the Union,” he said. “It points out that the war could have turned out in many different ways than occurred.”

The battle left 12,653 Union dead, wounded and missing and 4,201 Confederate casualties. When President Lincoln heard the news, he moaned, “If there is a place worse than hell, I am in it!”

Lincoln, after all, had pressed Burnside and other generals to carry the war to the Confederates in an unheard-of winter campaign. He desperately needed a battlefield victory. His Republican party had been shellacked in midterm elections; he’d sacked Gen. George B. McClellan after he failed to chase Robert E. Lee’s forces into Virginia after Antietam; and his threatened Emancipation Proclamation had ignited a firestorm of criticism. With the terrible Union defeat here by Lee’s army, Lincoln’s political stock hit bottom.

Ural focused on politics of another kind—those of the Catholic immigrants who formed the Irish Brigade, probably the most famous unit to fight in the battle.

Author of “The Harp and the Eagle: Irish–American Volunteers and the Union Army, 1861–1865,” Ural explained how defeat at Fredericksburg—coupled with the first federal draft and Lincoln’s call to free slaves in occupied Southern states—dissuaded many Irish Catholics from enlisting in the Union army after 1862.

Using the Irish Brigade as a lens, she vividly sketched the combat and carnage experienced by soldiers as they advanced through the city’s streets and tried to do the impossible in assaulting Marye’s Heights.

Writing his father the day afterward, Capt. William J. Nagle of the 88th New York expressed his horror over the losses: “Oh! It was a terrible day. Irish blood and Irish bones cover that terrible field to-day We are slaughtered like sheep, and no result but defeat.”

O’Reilly focused attention on the field’s south end in Spotsylvania County, where the battle was lost when Confederate Gen. Jubal Early sealed the breach that Union Gen. Meade’s men had blown in the Confederate defenses at Prospect Hill.

Union troops’ more famous assaults against the Sunken Road at the field’s north end began as a diversion, he said, but ended as a desperate bid to save their army from annihilation.

That was all set in motion “150 years ago, at this very hour, in this very place,” he noted, when the Union Army of the Potomac arrived on the Rappahannock River’s north shore and prepared to occupy the town.

What came a few weeks later had powerful and long-lasting reverberations, all the speakers agreed.

“Fredericksburg didn’t change the war, per se. But it did change those who would change the war, someday,” said O’Reilly, the National Park Service historian who wrote “The Fredericksburg Campaign: Winter War on the Rappahannock.”

Clint Schemmer: 540/368-5029

cschemmer@freelancestar.com

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