Past is Prologue

Clint Schemmer writes about history, heritage preservation and the American Civil War.  On Facebook: Past is Prologue  On Twitter: @prologuepast  ContactEmail Clint or call 540/374-5424.

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CIVIL WAR 150: The Battle of Fredericksburg remembered


What will transpire here starting Friday won’t resemble grandpa’s Civil War anniversary shindig.

There will be no grand ball with ladies in hoop dresses. No celebrations.

Commemoration is certain, with tributes to those—South and North, military and civilian—who staked all on the Battle of Fredericksburg 150 years ago.

It’ll be the biggest Civil War event since 2004’s Battle of Spotsylvania Court House at Belvedere Plantation. Unlike that event, the “Fire on the Rappahannock” re-enactments will occur on the sites where history was made, limited to 1,500 re-enactors (1,200 soldiers and 300 civilians).

This, after all, was the fight that anguished Abraham Lincoln, causing the president to wonder how the nation would greet the ghastly news from Virginia. For Gen. Robert E. Lee, it was a victory so big that he mused about growing too fond of war.

Yet, the coming nine days of sesquicentennial events won’t all be deadly earnest.

They’ll offer something for everyone, of all ages: games, tea time with the ladies, 1860s hairstyles, horses and saddles, videos and interactive exhibits, quilting, cooking, laundry, women’s fashions, a hot-air balloon, a field telegraph, an art exhibit, a flower-carrying procession through town, the simulated shelling of the city by the Union army, family portrayals, house tours, memorial wreath-laying, a lesson on looting, regimental formations, artillery and infantry demonstrations, field hospitals (one with a re-created amputation), church services, historian-led talks and walks, visits to rarely seen historic sites, a presentation on black women’s experiences, and “real-time” tours faithful to places and hours when events occurred.

By the time the smoke clears, it’ll be clear that something extraordinary and transformative happened here in mid-December 1862.

John Hennessy, chief historian of Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, tells people “there is no greater laboratory for understanding the Civil War in all its forms than the Fredericksburg region.”

So, let’s try to break the battle’s 150th down by group activities that may appeal to different tastes:


Have only an hour to get a feel for the hoopla?

Your best bets are probably music and living-history programs at Chatham Manor on Saturday or Sunday; a tour of Sunken Road and Marye’s Heights or a peek inside the battle-damaged Innis House; visiting Virginia’s Civil War 150 HistoryMobile at the Battlefield Visitor Center on Friday or Chatham on Saturday and Sunday; hearing a park historian’s talk Friday or Saturday night in a prewar church; dropping by the Fredericksburg Area Museum and Cultural Center from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday to see its Silver Family Collection of historical artwork (with several artists on hand to sign prints); or visiting the field hospital at Brompton atop Marye’s Heights, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday and noon to 3 p.m. Sunday.

If you have mobility issues, those options above may be for you, too.


Pay dirt for children likely lies in the re-enactors’ camps on Saturday or in the children’s musters at the Fredericksburg Battlefield Visitor Center on Saturday and Sunday.

Union troops will camp at Ferry Farm in southern Stafford County, off State Route 3 across Chatham Bridge. The Confederates will pitch their tents at Slaughter Pen Farm in Spotsylvania County, on Routes 2 and 17 east of Fredericksburg, just past Shannon Airport.

Both camps are open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, with shuttle buses looping between them and parking areas in all three locations. Programs at Ferry Farm cost $1 for ages 6 and up. Everything else is free.

Ferry Farm, which overlooks Fredericksburg and its steepled skyline, will host professor Thaddeus Lowe and his reconnaissance balloon (Friday through Sunday), the ladies’ tea, African–American history program and women’s fashion demonstration.

It’s also where cannons will roar as the Union bombardment of Fredericksburg begins at 10 a.m. Saturday, before attacks on, and in, the town. Slaughter Pen Farm will have a firepower demo from 1 to 2 p.m. Saturday.

Glimpses of civilian life in evocative settings can be had from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday at the Rising Sun Tavern, Kenmore Inn, Mary Washington House and Kenmore Plantation in Fredericksburg. The tavern and Kenmore will have field hospitals. Kenmore will also demonstrate 19th-century cooking. The Mary Washington House will depict the looting of town by Union troops.

On Saturday, meet the battle’s generals at Slaughter Pen and Ferry Farm from 9 to 11 a.m. and at Riverfront Park from 1 to 2 p.m. Kids can learn about a drummer boy’s life or speak with re-enactors from 1 to 3 p.m. at the Fredericksburg Area Museum. Young folks will learn what the war meant to the men, women and children who experienced it.


Only mildly interested in the nation’s costliest conflict? Well, OK.

First, see “time-starved,” above. Then, consider an exhibit at the Fredericksburg Area Museum (“Picturing the Civil War” in the McKann Center’s Documents Gallery or “We Can Never Go Back” in Old Town Hall); or at the Central Rappahannock Regional Library’s headquarters (atrium and first-floor hallway). Or choose sheer spectacle: Watch Saturday’s pontoon-bridge crossing, urban combat around City Dock and Sophia Street or the Irish Brigade’s assault on the stone wall at Trench Hill. And who knows? One of the park rangers’ walks Friday through Sunday, or Dec. 11–13 and Dec. 15, might grab you. Sutlers, provisioners to the army, will set up in the city’s Riverfront Park all weekend, selling their wares much as their 19th-century predecessors did.

Historic Fredericksburg Foundation Inc.’s Christmas Candlelight Tour, centered on Hanover Street, provides another choice. Some of its sites—most notably Brompton—figured in the battle, but lots of folks go just to see the beautiful holiday décor.


Many options: Friday’s bus tour; Saturday’s battle scenarios (10, 10:20 and 11 a.m. and 3 p.m.); Saturday’s 2 p.m. military formations and inspections at Federal Hill and Trench Hill; Sunday’s 1 p.m. procession from Riverfront Park to Sunken Road and the 3 p.m. culmination at the Kirkland Monument on Sunken Road; a reception, dinner and lectures by historians Gary Gallagher and Robert K. Krick at 6 p.m. Dec. 13 with the Central Virginia Battlefields Trust; any of the park’s “real-time” tours Dec. 11–13; and the Dec. 15 tours of Belvoir, Franklin’s Crossing and the “City of Hospitals.”





Clint Schemmer: 540/368-5029