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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‘It’s a monumental occasion’

MORE: Read more news from Fredericksburg

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Union re-enactors attack Trench Hill on Saturday as hundreds of Confederate troops fire on them during the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Fredericksburg. (ROBERT A. MARTIN/THE FREE LANCE–STAR)




No photographer captured the carnage of the Battle of Fredericksburg in 1862.

This time around, 150 years later, thousands of spectators left with photos of the action and aftermath.

One was Kathy Boyer, of Philadelphia. In period garb, with a hoop skirt, she held up a pink iPad to snap a picture of Confederate re-enactors gathering Saturday afternoon on Trench Hill above Sunken Road.

Boyer and her husband, Dan, a big believer in states’ rights, joined the 44th Georgia Infantry Regiment re-enactment unit in August.

“It’s a monumental occasion,” Boyer, who brought her two children, a full picnic basket and her Southern hospitality, said of the battle’s sesquicentennial. “It’s not going to happen again.”

Matt Borror (center) of Kingwood, W.Va., salutes the American flag as Union re-enactors retreat across the floating bridge over the Rappahannock River late Saturday. (SUZANNE CARR ROSSI/THE FREE LANCE–STAR)

Thousands of people—many from distant states and foreign nations—filled Fredericksburg’s streets all day long.

In the morning, as fog along the Rappahannock burned off (just as it did on the day of the Dec. 13, 1862, battle), people lined up to watch hundreds of Union troops cross the river into the city.

Meeting fierce resistance from Confederate Brig. Gen. William Barksdale’s Mississippians, the re-enactors fought their way through town, street by street and house by house, clearing snipers and sharpshooters who bought precious time for other Confederate defenders.

But when the men in blue finally reached Marye’s Heights, they suffered one of their worst drubbings of the Civil War.

That’s exactly why Douglas Ferrell wanted to watch this particular battle.

“It’s one of the ones where the South wins, which makes it a little better,” said Ferrell, a Maryland native who has lived in Brazil for 40 years.

Carl Tomlin of the Sons of Confederate Veterans places a wreath at the Fredericksburg Confederate Cemetery. (SUZANNE CARR ROSSI/THE FREE LANCE–STAR)

In the morning hours, a few Yankees marching into downtown stopped by a road barricade at Frederick and Sophia streets to empty their boots, which were full of water from having crossed the Rappahannock—and having to wade the final stretch at City Dock.

“It felt like I was standing in a bucket,” said Dick Watters, a re-enactor with the 116th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, part of the Irish Brigade.

Wringing out his socks, he said the floating bridge built by Virginia Army National Guard engineers was about 8 feet short of the bank. The tide was lower than planners anticipated, dropping the bridge.

That meant the Union soldiers coming from Ferry Farm got fairly wet, jumping into water up to their knees and thighs, and getting help up the muddy bank from National Guard troops.

Watters joked that the water from his boots was enough to make soup.

“Two soups for dinner!” said 9-year-old Nathan Guilbert, as he watched another re-enactor do the same thing.

Union re-enactors march from Ferry Farm to City Dock across a floating bridge over the Rappahannock River during Saturday’s sesquicentennial events in the Fredericksburg area. (SUZANNE CARR ROSSI/THE FREE LANCE–STAR)

The guard’s 189th Engineer Company, 276th Engineer Battalion, based in Bowling Green in Caroline County, deployed the American military’s most-modern bridging gear to support the 19th-century scene.

The Virginia guard’s top brass observed the training operation from the fields above at Ferry Farm, George Washington’s boyhood home.

As pickets traded fire across the water, Union engineers paddled the first pontoon boat to Fredericksburg’s shore to establish a bridgehead.

The river crossings were filled with meaning for re-enactors and the guardsmen, they said. The morning phase of “Fire on the Rappahannock” commemorated the first amphibious assault undertaken under fire in U.S. history—the sort of thing for which today’s Marines are known.


Nathan Guilbert and his sister, Joanna, 7, were watching the re-enactments with their grandparents. Nathan hoped to see a special type of pistol that generals carried, while Joanna said she had already learned lots about the women of the era.

Earlier, Joanna covered her ears and nose as the Northern troops began their assault on the city, said her grandmother, Jackie Kotowsai, a history teacher in Spotsylvania County.

“I bet in the old days it would smell terrible,” Nathan said.

Women dressed in period garb watch the carnage at City Dock as Union and Confederate troops battle during Saturday’s ‘Fire on the Rappahannock.’ (ROBERT A. MARTIN/THE FREE LANCE–STAR)


The frightening sounds of rifle and cannon fire, which echoed off buildings and carried at least seven blocks away, led some small children to cry and pets to be skittish.

“It was like bombs were going off,” said Megan Miller, who lives near the river with her Cairn terrier, Toto, off Sophia Street. They woke to the sound of gunfire nearby, as the Yanks tried to advance up Rocky Lane and push Rebels back from Lower Caroline Street. “I didn’t know the battle was going to happen. But my dog sure let me know.”

Kids also plugged their ears across the river at the Union camp at Ferry Farm in Stafford County and downriver at the Confederate re-enactors’ camp at Slaughter Pen Farm in Spotsylvania as artillerists there demonstrated their weapons’ firepower.

Both sites held living-history programs throughout the day. Professor Thaddeus Lowe (aka Kevin Knapp) reappeared in Stafford to inflate a gigantic gas balloon and explain to excited children that aviation history was made there by Lowe’s pioneering U.S. Army Balloon Corps.

Back in town, from morning till dusk, as fighting raged from river to ridge, seeing blue- and gray-clad soldiers dead on the streets stopped people in their tracks.

Parents were heard reassuring their children that, this time, the men who dropped in the streets were, fortunately, not really gone.

Between the morning and afternoon battles, tourists roamed the Historic District’s streets, with many businesses reporting that they were mobbed. Some visitors had come from places like Ohio or Long Island or Hawaii just to be here on this weekend.


Many visitors lined up at a stand outside Wally’s Homemade Ice Cream Shoppe on Caroline Street, enticed by the smells of chili and Brunswick stew.

Up the street at Goolrick’s Modern Pharmacy, Confederate Gens. Henry Heth and George Pickett queued up at the counter to order lunch. Heth tried to pay with Southern currency, but had to whip out a credit card.


David Wasserman and his son Adam, 14, traveled from the Washington area on Friday night to stay in one of the city’s hotels.

“It’s just unusual to have a re-enactment taking place where the battle was originally fought,” said Wasserman, who has seen many.

Most of the time, the re-enactments occur on land nearby—but not on—the actual battlefields, he said.

Fredericksburg’s 150th anniversary commemoration is unique in that way, Wasserman said.

The father and son noticed some anachronisms Saturday morning, such as Confederates deploying off a school bus onto a street with moving traffic.

“You’re never in danger of thinking it’s a real battle,” Wasserman said.

But, just as on Dec. 13, 1862, the waves of Union attackers never reached the Sunken Road’s fearsome Stone Wall.

Caleb Dodd (left), Julie Dodd and Rodney Dodd of Stafford examine a dying soldier’s letter in the Virginia Civil War 150 HistoryMobile at Chatham Manor. (SUZANNE CARR ROSSI/THE FREE LANCE-STAR)


And yet, for many visitors and residents, a sense of time travel, however fleeting, was palpable.

“Twenty years in Fredericksburg and I’ve never felt its history as keenly as I did today,” said one woman.

At Chatham Manor in southern Stafford, atop the bluff overlooking Fredericksburg, the sounds of gunfire ricocheted off the river. It carried right up into the antebellum mansion where Union generals planned their attacks on the city and the Confederate defenses from Marye’s Heights south to Prospect Hill and Deep Run.

National Park Service volunteers at Chatham said they wished every day could be more like this one—as hundreds of people said they experienced a real connection with the past.


“The Battle of Fredericksburg Commemoration Committee was extremely pleased with today’s events,” Eric Powell, top commander of “Fire on the Rappahannock,” said afterward. “Re-enactors had a unique and thrilling experience. Recreating those scenarios on historic ground for the 150th anniversary was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

The committee thanks area officials, community members, volunteers and property owners “for allowing us this moment to honor those who hallowed this ground 150 years ago,” said Powell, a Spotsylvania educator.

All day long, people said they found the battle dramas and family oriented programs “delightful,” Stafford County tourism manager M.C. Moncure said.

“The effort by Eric Powell and others brought together so many moving parts, including the National Park Service programs, for an outstanding day of partnership among a lot of different groups and people,” she said.

Katie Thisdell: 540/735-1975