Deer Discovery Atop Marye’s Heights

Every so often, I am reminded in the most delightful of ways that the battlefields we love are not just historic sites but habitats.

The other day, my 3.5-year-old son Maxwell and I were walking along the top of Marye’s Heights on the Fredericksburg battlefield, enjoying a beautiful view  on a sunny day, with temps in the low forties. We intended to circle past the two artillery pieces along the crest and into Fredericksburg National Cemetery, where we’d follow the path down off the hill and back to the parking lot.

In a muddy patch just outside the cemetery gate, several wayfarers had managed to leave their booted impressions in the mud next to the rubberized path. I wouldn’t have given the bootprints a second notice except scatted among them were a number of hoofprints.

“Hey, look!” I said to Maxwell. We stopped to inspect the prints, and I traced out the inverted heart shape of the hooves for him so he could better make sense of what he was looking at. He knows horse hooves—not only because his sister owns horses but because I can be tedious when it comes to explaining the Mule Shoe Salient at Spotsylvania, even to a toddler—but I wasn’t sure if he know what deer hooves looked like. Fortunately, Google knows everything and cell reception atop the heights was good.

The hoofprints surprised me because, after all, the cemetery sits on the southwest of town, surrounded by development. Farther south along Lee Drive, I see signs of deer all the time, but the cemetery seemed to be a somber island in the middle of a lot of commercial and residential space. Where did these deer go during the day?

At home, I again consulted Google—this time, Goole Maps. A satellite shot of the cemetery shows its isolation, but I could also see a number of small forested areas all relatively connected to each other: eastward along Hazel Run down to the Rappahannock River; southward to an extended stretch of woods along Lee Drive; and back-stopped in the west against Route 1. Roads bisected all of these green areas, so wildlife would have to run gauntlets of pavement here and there, but there did seem to be at least some space for wildlife to move about even if it wasn’t the richly forested area it used to be once upon a time.

Fredericksburg National Cemetery is at the middle of the photo (image courtesy of Google Maps)

I reminded myself, though, that these green areas look larger on the map than I know them to be in real life. Those deer do have places to go—but not many. That we don’t see more of them in the day is maybe even a little surprising to me, but it just might be there aren’t many of them to begin with. Any habitat can sustain only so many animals, after all.

I might not ever see these deer (I see them all the time at Chancellorsville and Spotsy), but I’m glad to know they’re there, somehow. I hope they stay clear of people’s cars (which would be good for everyone involved).

In any case, nature always invites me to take a closer look when I’m on a battlefield. I often find wonder written in the smallest of ways, but those discoveries always leave me a little bit richer.

————

For more on this topic, check out:

A Different View of Chancellorsville” from June 11, 2014

A Nature Trail Through a History Park” from June 5, 2013

Preserving Our Battlefields: ‘History’ and ‘Nature’ are Not Mutually Exclusive” from March 13, 2013

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10 Responses to Deer Discovery Atop Marye’s Heights

  1. Douglas Pauly says:

    Now if somebody really wanted to try to be inventive, they would have created ‘tracks’ that would have left everyone asking “Has Bigfoot been here?” It’s been known to happen!

  2. I am often amazed at where wildlife choose or manage to live in urban settings. I live on a 1/3 acre in the middle of a little old city (goes back to the Dutch in Upstate NY) north of Albany/then Fort Orange. I have rabbits, opossum, groundhogs, not to mention the more common squirrels and lots of birds. We do maintain a National Wildlife Foundation certifiable garden — but still. 1/3 acre is not very big, especially when surrounded on all four sides by paved streets. The critters seem to thrive.
    No deer, though. There would be nowhere for them to hide.

  3. Max Terman says:

    Besides being interested in the Civil War, I am an ecologist. Even some golf courses harbor wildlife
    (see http://www.mhhe.com/Enviro-Sci/CaseStudyLibrary/Regional/Midwest/CaseStudy_PrairieDunesCountryClub.pdf) It is not surprising to see that Civil War battlefields and preservation sites are valuable also as habitat.

  4. Robert Wetjen says:

    Several years ago I traveled the war country of the Army of Northern Virginia.

    I began at Harper’s Ferry and finished at Appomattox. In between I visited Bull Run, the shield of Robert E Lee ( Fredericksburg through Spotsylvania) and then on to Cold Harbor. It was great, inspiring and truly as described by James Earl Jones – “the bloodiest ground in North America”.

    The high point was my three day stay in Fredericksburg. From there I was able the access and walk the path along the stone fence where the Confederates weeped as they continuously shot at the NY 69th as they continued to move forward. I walked the Furnace Road at Chancellorsville , got lost in the Wilderness as I imagined the screams of burning men. I saw the earthworks of the Bloody Angle at Spotsylvania where the ugly sadness of that obscene war finally overwhelmed me.

    Marye’s Heights will always be special to me. It is the home of Mary Washington College. It is also the place where as a young Quantico Marine I met one of the loveliest of young women I have ever known.

    Hope you are well, Joan Marie.

  5. zabaderber says:

    Considering the dampness of the soil where the prints are I can only assume these were rain deer….

  6. Dale says:

    I was Marye’s Heights a few years back and was awed by what the sight represented. Your story brought a different light and the memory of being there. Thank you.

  7. Glen says:

    Antietam battlefield is the one that seems almost like a wildlife preserve. Animals everywhere! Which adds to its coolness.

  8. Debra Page says:

    Back in September, I was climbing the hill to the top of the National Cemetery semi-regularly to earn points at a Pokemon gym up there. One day, I was blessed to find a hawk perched on one of the upended cannon around the Humphreys Monument and a groundhog wandering among the trees and Union markers (wish I could attach my pictures here). Never saw deer or tracks, but I will definitely be on the lookout. I did see an albino deer at Chancellorsville along RT. 3 a few years back. And it’s always a treat to see the wild turkeys in the open field at Fairview. Thank you so much for sharing

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