While most visitors to the Fredericksburg battlefield think of the Stone Wall and Sunken Road, or perhaps more recently of the Slaughter Pen Farm saved by the American Battlefields Trust, there’s another feature on the battlefield that’s nearly as familiar by which gets less notoriety: the battle map painting.
Tens of thousands of visitors annually have stood in front of the old battle map painting, located between the visitor center and the bookstore, and studied the action on the field. From that location, the Park Service begins its daily Sunken Road tours (offered in season). I’ve stood there many times myself, in uniform and out of it, pointing to the “You are Here” gold star that oriented visitors to their location on the battlefield.
Painted by Sidney King as one of several such maps and murals located throughout Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, the Fredericksburg battle map focused on the action that took place in front of Marye’s Heights. For more than a century, historians and buffs focused their attention on that north end of the battlefield as the scene of the most dramatic action. It was only through research by historian Frank O’Reilly in the 1990s did the importance of the southern end of the battlefield—the area around Prospect Hill and today’s Slaughter Pen Farm—become fully understood.
By then, the futile attacks against the stone wall had not only become enshrined in public memory but also in battlefield interpretation—including the battle map, used at the start of all daily tours at the visitor center.
Plans have been underway for a while to replace the battle map, but a few weeks ago, Mother Nature helped the process along. A furious storm took the painting down one night.
Fortunately, because a replacement was already in the works, the Park Service was able to get the new painting up in time for this week’s anniversary. The new painting shows a broader view of the battlefield, including the all-important southern end of field, properly situating the Sunken Road into the larger context of the battle. Painted by artist Brian G. Kammerer, the image is rich in detail and bears close and prolonged study and appreciation.
The new display also includes a pair of sidebars that provide additional perspective: one panel shows a wartime view of the battlefield in front of the heights, which is now occupied by a neighborhood, and a second talks about the topography of the battlefield. Both images help visitors see beyond the landscape depicted in the excellent painting.
A similar modern update is also slated for installation at the Chancellorsville Battlefield visitor center, where another Sidney King battle map will be replaced. In the meantime, fans of King’s work can see it on display at the Sidney King Art Center in Bowling Green, Virginia, just a few miles south of the Jackson Shrine.
(with thanks to historian Nathan Varnold for the photographs!)