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With fascination, not fear, Civil War battle is relived



Anyone who was unaware that something unusual was happening in Fredericksburg yesterday afternoon must have been an exceptionally sound sleeper.

Shells exploded overhead, church bells pealed and howitzers roared as the region—and the nation—commemorated the Battle of Fredericksburg, fought 150 years ago this week.

Mimicking for a few minutes the Dec. 11, 1862, bombardment of the city by Union gunners, the noise and vibration thumped people’s chests, frightened young children and echoed back and forth off buildings and distant ridges.

Only a small taste of what the community experienced in the run-up to the battle, it was still enough to make people stop in their tracks, transfixed, looking up at the skies.

The drama began at 1 p.m. with a public assembly in Riverfront Park, launch point for a procession from the Rappahannock to Marye’s Heights that followed in the steps of Union soldiers who crossed the river to traverse a wide plain and assault Confederate defenses on the ridge beyond.

Participants—who may have numbered a thousand—carried carnations from the river to Sunken Road in remembrance of those who fell here, North and South.

Historians Frank O’Reilly and John Hennessy of the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, park Superintendent Russ Smith and Mayor Mary Katherine Greenlaw welcomed the crowd. Attendees included people from across the United States, dignitaries from the Republic of Ireland and other international visitors.

Mayor Greenlaw, descendant of several prominent families dating to well before the Civil War, extended her Southern hospitality and sounded some somber notes.

“Fredericksburg stands in the ranks of a handful of America’s communities whose histories have been bisected by a single, tumultuous event—alongside places like New Orleans with Hurricane Katrina, Chicago and its fire and Joplin and its disastrous tornado. In Fredericksburg, everything either happened before or after ‘the war,’ and here no one ever doubts which war you’re talking about.

“We hope by coming here today, you will learn something important not just about Fredericksburg, but about our nation, and the heavy cost, immense effort, and bright triumphs building both a community and nation requires.”

Following thunderous fireworks fired from Stafford Heights across the river, the group—which filled the park—began a mostly silent, mile-long walk to the Sunken Road, red and white flowers in hand. (Red for soldiers killed in the battle, white for the wounded.)

An interesting mix of civilians, Civil War re-enactors, foreign VIPs and soldiers of the U.S. Army National Guard and Irish Defence Forces, the group stretched at least three blocks long and two lanes wide along downtown’s streets.

The bells of St. George’s Episcopal Church and The Presbyterian Church of Fredericksburg—themselves survivors of battle damage—tolled as the people passed.

First stop, Hurkamp Park, a spot where Union troops assembled before crossing a deep canal ditch (today’s Kenmore Avenue) that cost many lives. There, martial drums sounded and O’Reilly told how some troops bid farewell to their comrades and one unit’s chaplain, expecting to perish in the attempt on the heights.

Second stop, Maury Stadium, where people climbed the grandstand and spilled out onto the grassy area behind the football field. O’Reilly reinforced how soldiers went on despite their fears.

There, the procession split up into three avenues of attack, just as different Union elements did in the vicinity.

Like those soldiers, on and on the crowds came. Residents tumbled out of their homes’ doors to witness the spectacle.

Converging on one street, the entire group reassembled and passed in silent review of rank after rank of Union and Confederate re-enactors, Irish Defence Forces troops, soldiers with the Irish Brigade’s descendant unit, the New York Army National Guard’s 69th Infantry; and the 69th Infantry Veterans’ Corps.


Reaching the base of the heights (and getting farther than did any Union soldier), the procession filed onto Sunken Road within the national park and gathered beyond the Innis House, a small wooden building that’s one of the few surviving structures on this part of the battlefield.

There, O’Reilly noted how events of 1862—including the Battle of Fredericksburg—helped transform the Civil War.

“By increments, it became something more than a war for Union or independence—something vastly more complicated,” he said. “On Jan. 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln was to issue the Emancipation Proclamation.

“The prospect outraged Southerners and caused deep schisms in the Northern populace. President Lincoln hoped that an increasingly divided, restless Northern public might be rallied by victory in the field.”

At Lincoln’s insistence, the Union army came here and clashed with Robert E. Lee’s army 19 days before Lincoln signed the proclamation.

Fredericksburg was decimated by the shelling, which began as an attempt to stop Confederate snipers from delaying the Yankees’ crossing, followed by Union looting and the battle.

“No community in America suffered a harsher payback for going to war than did Fredericksburg,” O’Reilly said. “No place in America more vividly demonstrates how this war changed than Fredericksburg.”

The Jan. 7, 1863, issue of the Central Georgian newspaper described the scene:

“There is scarcely a house in the town that has not some mark of the [battle], chimneys knocked off, roofs torn up, and walls scarred with holes of various sizes, some as large as a man’s head and others as large as a barrel. The streets are covered with broken glass, window shutters, and furniture of various descriptions. The large tall houses suffered more than the low buildings. A large Baptist Church has 15 large holes through its walls, four through the steeple, and the roof torn up in many places. I think there are 25 or 30 houses burned.”


The shelling of town and the looting that followed horrified even some Northerners and made Fredericksburg’s refugees—one of the war’s largest exoduses—a charitable cause throughout the South.

“Fredericksburg was the first American town looted by Americans,” Hennessy said.

One New Yorker wrote home amid the bombardment to say that the war had broken the bounds that had once contained it, O’Reilly noted.


The two historians, interspersed with another fireworks barrage and narrators reading battle participants’ accounts, briefly sketched the seven-hour battle.

While Confederate riflemen along the Stone Wall fought in relative safety, many of their more exposed officers were killed and wounded—73 percent were casualties, Hennessy said.

“As we leave this place, remember this: One of the things that made it possible for the men who trod these fields to do what they did was their confidence that those who followed would not forget what they had done,” the park’s chief historian concluded.

“That is the hope of every soldier, in 1862 at Fredericksburg, or in 2012 in Afghanistan and all around the world. We are part of their drama; they are part of our fabric.

“And today, the two have come together.”

Clint Schemmer: 540/368-5029





It wasn’t the main event, but Sunday’s commemoration of the Battle of Fredericksburg began with a moving nod to the valor of one of its most famed participants: The Irish Brigade.

At noon, families, history lovers, Irish dignitaries and Irish–Americans gathered at City Dock on the Rappahannock to rededicate the monument there honoring the Irish immigrants who fought the South on this soil.

Taking part were an Irish Defence Forces honor guard; National Park Service historian Frank O’Reilly; Ralph Victory of the Embassy of Ireland, representative of Irish Ambassador Michael Collins; the brigade’s descendant unit in the U.S. military; members of the 69th Infantry Veterans’ Corps; Fredericksburg Councilman Matt Kelly; and an area Sons of Union Veterans officer.

“What they did on the streets of Fredericksburg did make them Americans so every soldier on this battlefield became a piece of the Irish Brigade as well,” O’Reilly said during the brief ceremony.

Afterward, Richard Ehrle explained the small, stone monument to his two children, Elisabeth, 7, and Christian, 9. The Stafford County family has several ancestors who fought in the war.

“This is my way of putting my kids in touch with the Civil War,” Ehrle said.

Last year, he had driven past the monument and noticed a wreath falling apart. He righted it, and that led him to join the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War.

The Irish Brigade’s descendant, the New York Army National Guard’s 1st Battalion, 69th Infantry, sent 75 soldiers to join in the battle’s commemoration on Sunday.

They rededicated the Irish Brigade monument alongside the Irish Defense Forces members. Then, with drums beating and flags flying—including the battalion’s battle flag—all of the participants marched up Sophia Street to join the larger public procession from Riverfront Park to the Sunken Road.

The experience of the Irish Brigade is by far the best known of any military unit—a powerful symbol of the sacrifice and bloodshed extracted by the nation’s deadliest conflict.

Attacking the stone wall in front of the now-famous Sunken Road below Marye’s Heights, the brigade saw its fighting strength cut from 1,600 soldiers to 263 in a matter of minutes.

Capt. John H. Donovan of the 69th New York, blinded in one eye in combat at Malvern Hill near Richmond in July 1862, recounted the Battle of Fredericksburg for Northern readers on Jan. 3, 1863.

“What the government intend to do with the remnant of the brigade I know not,” he wrote, in an account published in the New York Irish–American paper.

“I can only say that as an ‘Irish Brigade’ it has ‘fought its last battle.’ [C]ould the spirits of its honoured and immortal dead, whose rude graves spot the soil of Virginia and Maryland, but have the privilege or power to look down upon the future of this Republic, they can now tell whether or not the cause for which they have offered up their lives is to perish.”

Clint Schemmer: 368-5029