City to revisit its history in weeklong observance
BATTLE OF FREDERICKSBURG RE-ENACTMENTS PLANNED
BY CLINT SCHEMMER
Some might have said it couldn’t be done.
But “Pete and his boys” have long had an obsession, and on Sunday, it took to the water.
For the first time in 150 years, a full-size, true-to-form pontoon boat slipped into the Rappahannock and ferried men across the river. It was a test run, to make sure all is in order for next weekend’s re-enactment of the 1862 crossings that will be one highlight of the mammoth, multifaceted commemoration of the Battle of Fredericksburg.
Sunday’s crossing didn’t happen under sniper fire, unlike that of the Union engineers the boat-builders intend to emulate.
But next Saturday, at Fredericksburg’s City Dock and Stafford County’s Ferry Farm, the air will be thick with gunsmoke, the crack of rifles and the booming of artillery.
Peter M. Berezuk can hardly wait.
“As we get closer to the actual event, we’re very like the original engineers in 1862—under the gun to get our task completed,” he said.
Berezuk and 24 fellow re-enactors worked many a weekend since July to reach Sunday’s boat-launching.
Their “reserve train” pontoons, built from original plans, haven’t been seen in these parts since the end of the Civil War. They custom-built each one-ton, 31-foot-long, 5-foot-wide boat of thick oak planks from trees in Carlisle, Pa.; Gordonsville; and Rapidan.
Next weekend, they will help re-create the landing of the 89th New York Infantry Regiment during “Fire on the Rappahannock,” the 150th anniversary re-enactment of the Battle of Fredericksburg.
They’re part of what’s called the “Pontoon Boat Adjunct.” Its volunteers have invested nearly 1,000 man-hours in constructing the boats.
On Dec. 11, 1862, the New Yorkers paddled their pontoons across the river, under withering fire from Confederate sharpshooters, and gained a foothold for floating bridges that followed.
It was the first major opposed river crossing in American military history.
Union Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside ordered the bridges finished “whatever the cost” in human lives.
At the army’s middle and upper crossings, enemy fire swept the engineers’ ranks again and again and again as they tried to lay planks across the bobbing pontoons, killing men right and left. “There was nothing left of us to do but die,” one captain wrote.
On Saturday morning, as one of the commemoration’s dozens of public events, two groups of Federal re-enactors will stage such a scene.
One group, portraying the 15th New York Engineers, will handle the pontoons. A second group, portraying the 89th N.Y., will storm the City Dock and clear it for the rest of the army to advance across the Rappahannock from Ferry Farm, George Washington’s boyhood home.
(There will actually be two separate pontoon operations—the two wooden craft and a metal floating bridge deployed by the Virginia Army National Guard’s 189th Engineering Company to carry hundreds of re-enactors across the river.)
In a nod to the Washington family that called Ferry Farm home, Berezuk & Co. have christened their boats Mary, for the first president’s mother, and Betty, for his sister and the wife of Fredericksburg patriot Fielding Lewis, the builder of Kenmore.
That seemed appropriate, Berezuk said, since today’s steward of Ferry Farm and Kenmore—The George Washington Foundation—contributed $2,000 and use of Ferry Farm’s grounds for the boat-building venture. The re-enactors provided the rest of the money, with everyone chipping in.
“The construction of these two pontoon boats, styled after those seen on the Rappahannock during the Civil War and hand built by volunteers with The Battle of Fredericksburg Commemoration Committee in partnership with The George Washington Foundation, is a notable chapter in the 150th anniversary remembrance,” foundation President William Garner wrote in an email.
“It will be truly memorable to see the re-enactors on the river in these period-style watercraft. And we are grateful that one of the pontoon boats will return to Ferry Farm for display and educational programming.”
At Ferry Farm, curious onlookers have received brief lessons in period craftsmanship and the Union army’s race to cross the river before Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee could strengthen his defenses on the western side. As many know, the Union army’s pontoon boats arrived far later than Burnside had planned—setting the stage for his army’s sensational failure.
The volunteers’ months of sawing, drilling and hammering have also drawn plenty of online comments in re-enactors’ forums. One woman, many states away, wrote: “This will be something to see! How often can something on that grand a scale be re-created?”
Berezuk and his comrades said they’re eager to provide living-history demonstrations to the public and to get a truer feeling for what the New York soldiers experienced in riverine combat.
“For me, it is about gaining a glimpse of what occurred on Dec. 11, 1862, and commemorating the soldiers’ sacrifices,” he said.
“Most outsiders look at ‘re-enactors’ and think we’re all a bit daft for putting on a costume and living in the past for a few days every month but it provides us with an appreciation for our history and the people who forged it 150 years ago.”
The chance to build Betty and Mary involved men from New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia, including a naval architect from Annapolis, a park ranger from Washington’s National Mall, and a number of ex-service members like Berezuk.
New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia. I want to be sure to mention New York… Raymond Ball from Buffalo, New York found a copy of the 1870 plans for the pontoon in the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library and they digitized it for us for 10% of the normal price.
A former Marine captain who served in the Mideast and Central Asia, Berezuk now lives in Fredericksburg and works as a systems engineer for a U.S. government contractor.
Next weekend, the native of Rochester, N.Y., will portray the lieutenant colonel of the 89th New York.
He credits Raymond Ball of Buffalo, N.Y., for finding 1870 plans for the pontoons in the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library and securing a digital copy of them.
On Saturday morning, 104 men of the 89th New York will guard the Rappahannock’s middle crossing as troops cross, secure points in town and create living-history displays at field hospitals and “looted” homes.
In the afternoon, it will be the last unit to assault Marye’s Heights (depicted by Trench Hill at the University of Mary Washington’s Jepson Alumni Center), then march back to City Dock and retreat across the Rappahannock into Stafford.
But right now, Berezuk and his crew are still focused on ensuring their boats are good to go.
“Kimberlee has told me I’ve let my life revolve around a boat these past few weeks,” he said of his girlfriend, Kimberlee, “and I can’t blame her for that accurate assessment.”
Clint Schemmer: 540/368-5029
BATTLE 150th HIGHLIGHTS
Apparently, many Fredericksburg residents are unaware that war is about to revisit their town.
Next weekend, expect the roar of an artillery bombardment, the blast of musketry, the beat of drums and tolling of church bells. Yankees will fight their way over the Rappahannock. City streets will fill with wounded, prisoners, troops in formation, and the smoke and chaos of battle. Park rangers will guide visitors across the battlefield that is Fredericksburg. On Sunday, everyone’s invited to a procession from Riverfront Park to Sunken Road, at the foot of Marye’s Heights, to honor the fallen—23,000 men, South and North.
It’s all to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Civil War clash for which this city is known. Dozens of programs will be offered, including historian-led tours and talks, soldiers’ camps, a river crossing, battle re-enactments, a hot-air balloon and military units descended from the war’s Stonewall and Irish brigades.
It’s mostly free; Ferry Farm will charge $1 per person to cover expenses.
Starting Friday, buses will shuttle visitors on a loop that includes Stafford’s Ferry Farm, Spotsylvania’s Bowman Center and Slaughter Pen Farm, the city’s Visitor Center and Hurkamp Park, and the Park Service’s visitor center on Lafayette Boulevard. At 3 p.m., walk Slaughter Pen Farm in Spotsylvania, where Union Gen. George G. Meade broke “Stonewall” Jackson’s line. At 7 p.m. at the Presbyterian Church of Fredericksburg, historian Frank O’Reilly will describe the eve of battle.
Saturday at 10 a.m. at City Dock and at 2 p.m. at Trench Hill, “Fire on the Rappahannock” re-enactors will stage a river crossing and street fighting, and then the Battle of Marye’s Heights, respectively.
On Friday, Virginia’s HistoryMobile will be at the Fredericksburg Battlefield Visitor Center; Saturday and Sunday, it visits Chatham Manor atop Stafford Heights.
Sunday brings a Prospect Hill tour and the sesquicentennial’s 3 p.m. “Culminating Event” at Sunken Road.
Rangers will guide “real-time” tours Tuesday through Thursday, 150 years ago to the hour of major battle events.
On Thursday evening, three of the nation’s finest Civil War historians–Gary Gallagher, Robert K. Krick and Ed Bearss–will headline a battlefield-preservation fundraiser for the Central Virginia Battlefields Trust at the Fredericksburg Hospitality House. Gallagher and Krick will lecture and Bearss, the chief historian emeritus of the National Park Service, will sign copies of his recent book “Receding Tide: Vicksburg and Gettysburg – The Campaigns That Changed the Civil War.” See cvbt.org to register.
On Saturday, the public is offered rare visits to the sites of the Belvoir plantation and Franklin’s Crossing on the Rappahannock River, both in Spotsylvania County; and a 3:30 p.m. walking tour of the “City of Hospitals” (aka Fredericksburg), led by John Hennessy, chief historian of Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park.
Thursday’s Weekender section will have more details.