The Rappahannock

Amphibious assault.2013aby Jason Klaiber, ECW Correspondent

One hundred and fifty two years ago today, the Union army made a harrowing crossing over the Rappahannock River as it prepared to do battle in Fredericksburg.

Now, a new documentary, Rappahannock, takes a fresh look at the 195-mile river’s historical legacy—as well as its economic and ecological significance. The film is the product of two years of extensive filming by Oscar-nominated documentary-making veteran Bayley Silleck.

On Nov. 9, the roughly 45-minute film debuted at a free premiere that was open to the public at the University of Mary Washington’s Dodd Auditorium. At that initial showing, the film concluded to the warmth of a standing ovation.

Friends of the Rappahannock (FOR), a non-profit conservation organization based in Fredericksburg, VA, assisted in the production of Silleck’s documentary.

“Bayley Silleck and his team have captured the spirit of the Rappahannock on film and shown us the beauty and value of the river from many perspectives,” said Kathleen Harrigan, the executive director of FOR.

Much of the film focuses on the river’s history—including its role in the battle of Fredericksburg. The Army of the Potomac spent most of December 11, 1862, trying to cross the river and secure the town. Confederates successfully slowed the crossing, setting the stage for the lopsided Union defeat that followed on December 13.

NPS historian Greg Mertz talks about the crossing at Germanna Ford (photo by Chris Mackowski)
NPS historian Greg Mertz talks about the crossing at Germanna Ford (photo by Chris Mackowski)

To further explore the river’s role in Civil War history, the FOR organizes events such as the Civil War Paddle, a canoe trip that navigates an 8-mile stretch of the Rappahannock from Germanna to Ely’s Ford. National Park Service historian Greg Mertz serves as the guide. This trip, which has annually taken place in June for more than a decade, teaches how the river played an important part in shaping events during the Civil War.

The Rappahannock and its largest tributary, the Rapidan River, generally flow west to east and thus created barriers for the Federal army movement that proceeded north to south from Washington D.C. to Richmond, VA.

At particular places where the water levels and riverbanks were more favorable for crossings, roads led down to fords—shallow sections of a river that allow for crossing. The further away the fords were from the Confederate army, the more lightly they were defended.

The Rappahannock was only navigable up to Fredericksburg, so anywhere west of Fredericksburg, including the Rapidan, was beyond the reach of the Federal navy.

“The tour generally consists of looking at the movement planned by the Federal army and the level of resistance and other issues encountered by the Federals as they approached the river at the various crossings we visit,” said Mertz.

Heavy rains made for a high river for the 2014 Civil War Paddle (photo by Chris Mackowski)
Rains made for muddy water for the 2014 Civil War Paddle (photo by Chris Mackowski)

Every year, the planning efforts of Mertz’s canoe tour depend on the river’s water levels.

“If water levels are too high, conditions are not safe, and the trip has to be postponed or even cancelled,” said Mertz. “I may not know until a day or two beforehand just which stretch of which river we can do, and we may have to cancel or postpone on a moment’s notice.”

Limited to 30 participants, the Civil War Canoe Float is a yearly sell-out and is the most popular tour sponsored by FOR.

“It attracts people who just wanted to take a canoe trip and thought that this one sounded interesting, and it attracts Civil War enthusiasts who want a chance to see some of these landmarks that they have read about but cannot get to any way other than by canoe,” said Mertz.

The Germanna Foundation preserves a number of the sites visited on the tour, while the other sections are preserved by the city of Fredericksburg. Much of the area along the riverbanks is in private hands, and FOR works with the landowners to share with them methods of safeguarding the river and its surrounding environment.

Founded in 1985, FOR works to play an active role in protecting and restoring the river. The organization has upwards of 2,000 members, a full-time staff of eight, additional part-time staff, as well as interns and volunteers hailing from the University of Mary Washington and elsewhere in the Fredericksburg community.

“My job as executive director is to lead the organization in fulfilling our mission to be ‘the voice and an active force for a healthy and scenic Rappahannock River,’” said Harrigan. “Along with our staff, I rely upon the strong support from our members, volunteers, executive committee members, and strategic partnerships across the basin to create a strong and sustainable organization to implement effective programs that benefit the river.”

FOR coordinates and focuses its efforts around education, restoration, and advocacy programs. Their education programs, which were presented to nearly 7,000 children in 2013, allow the opportunity for participants to sit alongside the banks of the river and “listen to the sound of the water, the birds, and the wind in the trees.”

By way of restoration programs, FOR engages in tree plantings, installation of landscaping, and river cleanups. Over the course of more than 1,000 volunteer hours in October, FOR held three cleanup efforts on the river, during which they collected more than 6,500 pounds of trash and educated people about the harmful effects of littering. In relation to that, their advocacy programs interact with everyone from homeowners to government officials in the area to solve problems of pollution in the Rappahannock.

FOR has alsoworked with local governments to develop low-impact development ordinances, which directly reduce the pollution from stormwater runoff. The organization’s pursuits in shoreline protection, which include the installation of living shorelines, help to prevent erosion of stream banks and to restore natural habitats at the edge of the Rappahannock.

“We work to educate individuals about what we can each do, and we create partnerships across the river basin so we work together to protect the river through thoughtful river stewardship,” said Harrigan.

FOR is working with the University of Mary Washington, Germanna Community College, Rappahannock Community College, Rotary Clubs, churches, and other organizations located throughout the Rappahannock River basin to schedule additional public showings “Rappahannock.” Future presentations of this film will be intended for smaller audiences to encourage a conversation between the audience and representatives from FOR about the steps that can be taken to protect and restore the river.

Future showings of “Rappahannock” will be announced on the Friends of the Rappahannock’s website at

Please leave a comment and join the discussion!