So often, I’m so caught up in “what’s next” that I’m not as good as I should be about appreciating the “right now.” Ironically, the “right now” often ties back to a historical moment in the past, so it’s more apt to be “back then.”
This week marks the 160th anniversary of the battle of Fredericksburg. It’s an especially important battle to me because I first cut my teeth as a public historian working behind the desk at the Fredericksburg Battlefield Visitor Center. I met Kris White there, which has been the most important personal and professional relationship outside my direct family. The first book of the Emerging Civil War Series, Simply Murder—which came out ten years ago this year—told the story of the battle of Fredericksburg. I’m still writing about the battle: in late 20021, the University of Tennessee Press published my book Decisions of Fredericksburg.
That’s a lot of Fredericksburg.
I live in the midst of five major battlefields: Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Mine Run, Wilderness, and Spotsylvania (and I’ll also lay claim to nearby North Anna because I love it so much). There’s always something new to discover. In my writing projects, I tend to cycle through them, which is an especially good way to let me see one of “my” battlefields with fresh eyes. I write about one, move on to another, and eventually make my way back with new questions, often prompted by things I learned from writing about the other battlefields.
It might seem presumptuous to refer to them as “my” battlefields because they, of course, don’t belong to me. They belong to all of us as Americans. But they are also the battlefields I am most connected to. They are the battlefields I spend the most time on and have the most affinity for. They are the ones that mean the most to me and are closest to my heart.
Of the four, the battle of Fredericksburg seemed the one of least interest to me years ago when I first started visiting the park, well before I ever starting working there. But once I did begin volunteering, that lack of connection, in itself, became a strong incentive to learn more about the battle. I knew I needed to find my way into the story so I could then be more effective at bringing that story to life for visitors. If I wasn’t interested in it, how could I help them explore their own interests in it? If I wasn’t curious about it, how could I understand—or help satisfy—their own curiosity?
The more I read, the more interested I became. Frank O’Reilly, who served as a monumentally important mentor to me, wrote what’s become the definitive microtactical study on the battle, The Fredericksburg Campaign: Winter War on the Rappahannock. That became my primer. George Rable’s perfectly complementary book Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg! balanced out my initial studies.
But what really enlivened my investigations was a set of maps created by Frank and produced by Eastern National. The five-map set shows the movement of troops across the battlefield over the course of December 13, 1862. You can study, on a regimental level, who moved where and when. They are fascinating. Frank and his team ultimately created a set of maps for all four battlefields, and I have spent hours and hours and hours and hours studying them. They are my go-to source for microtactical info.
The maps did much to unlock for me the mysteries of the battlefield, but, of course, nothing beats walking the field. That is how I fell in love with Fredericksburg. Consider:
- The crunch of gravel under by cowboy boots as I walk the Sunken Road in the high-heat of summer, with no shade or respite.
- The stone wall, implacable, immovable, uncaring, cold, stolid, solid
- The deceptive tabletop of land that is the Slaughter Pen Farm, where the topography offers so much more than meets the eye.
- The hot hum of steel rails and the smell of oiled timber along the old RF&P railroad.
- The colonial charm of historic Fredericksburg and its wharfside bustle as a transportation hub, and the thousands of people, white and black, free and enslaved, who made it a thriving commercial and social center on the literal edge of the Virginia Wilderness.
- The willful erasure of James Longstreet from the early park’s history by omitting him from signs and markers.
- The snake-trail parallel to Lee Drive, winding through the woods (mostly) to the west of the road.
- The neighborhood that has advanced, like the Union assaults, uphill over 900 yards of once-open ground from the edge of the old town to the foot of Marye’s Heights, subsuming the historical landscape under twentieth-century residential housing.
- The tens of thousands of candle flickers, wrapped neatly in white paper bags and placed in ordered cemetery rows, that urge us to remember the fallen each Memorial Day.
- The street fighting, the river crossings, the monuments and memorials, the hidden history of the civilians downtown, the front line of Emancipation, the Northern Lights, the lopsided loss, the “war so terrible”….
I love this battlefield, and I am thankful to the people who helped me, and have continued to help me, love it day after day after day, even after all these years. It’s important to take a moment, in the midst of my “to-do” list, to remember what this battle and this battlefield have done for me, and what they continue to do. I would not be where I am without them.