Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Off the Beaten Path at Fredericksburg: The Bernard's Cabins Trail

From Bernard's Cabins

A small sign along the Fredericksburg tour road marks the trail to Bernard’s Cabins. The cabins no longer exist, but I will hike any reasonable distance to see an artillery position. I’ve been fascinated by Civil War artillery since I was old enough to climb on cannons (not an endorsement, mind you). My wife can identify a Napoleon, and sometimes a Parrot Rifle. The sun was out and the temperature had reached the mid-40’s, so I set out through the woods in hopes that the gun position had not been lost to development or tree growth.

I emerged from the woods in a large clearing extending to the Richmond, Fredericksburg, and Potomac Railroad embankment and the open ground of the Slaughter Pen Farm to the east. The ground rises from the edge of the woods, forming a knoll several hundred yards from the railroad embankment. Here, Captain Greenlea Davidson directed the fire of three batteries. Bernard’s Cabins, which the gunners tore down to clear their field of fire, had been home to slaves working one of the larger plantations in the area.

Davidson’s gunners endured a fierce bombardment by Federal artillery under the command of Charles Wainwright followed by infantry assaults directed by Meade and Gibbon that. To make matters worse, one of Davidson’s batteries was supplied with defective ammunition and had to be withdrawn.

The rebel cannon were supported by troops of A.P. Hill’s division deployed to their right front along the railroad and in trenches to their rear. Meade and Gibbon exploited a gap in Hill’s lines and nearly carried his lines. James Lane’s brigade was driven back from the railroad embankment in disorder and Gibbon’s Federal troops surged into the woods beyond, threatening to turn Davidson’s gunners out of their position.

Several batteries under Latimer deployed on Davidson’s left, and a timely counterattack by Edward Thomas’s Georgia brigade. Under pressure from Thomas’s men and scathing volleys of canister from Davidson’s gunners, Gibbon’s assault lost momentum. Without support, Gibbon reluctantly withdrew his troops and Thomas, along with rallied elements of Lane’s command, reestablished the Confederate line along the railroad embankment.

The batteries under Davidson’s command maintained their position throughout the battle.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Fredericksburg Part 1: The Sunken Road

When I last visited many years ago, the Sunken Road section below Marye’s Heights seemed like a tiny island awash in a sea of development. To some degree, it still is, but crisp days in January are ideal for visits to places where solitude and reflection must reconstruct the scene.

A walking tour affords an indelible impression of the strength of Lee’s lines. A gentle, almost imperceptible slope extends perhaps fifty yards from the Sunken Road. Here the vista ends, lost to modern development forever. But it is enough. The wall itself rises perhaps four feet from the road surface, but Lee’s men had ample time to improve their position into a formidable entrenchment.

A short walk from the Visitors Center, the Innis house still stands just a few feet from the stone wall. A bullet scarred interior wall bears silent witness to the ferocity of the combat here. A scant forty yards beyond, the Federal assaults ground to a bloody halt in the midst of the storm of fire pouring from the Sunken Road. But they did not contend against infantry alone.

Immediately behind the Sunken Road, Maryes Heights rises abruptly to an elevation of forty feet or more. From its crest, visitors can still see the spires of the two largest churches in the town of Fredericksburg. During the battle, the guns of the Washington Artillery lined the heights here. Seldom has artillery commanded a more spectacular field of fire.

Once they emerged from the town of Fredericksburg, the hapless Federal soldiers faced an advance across two thousand yards of open ground under the muzzles of the guns of the Washington Artillery at every turn. That any of them advanced within even within one hundred yards of the stone wall is a supreme tribute to their courage under fire.

The National Cemetery at Fredericksburg occupies the southern shoulder of Maryes Heights, a fitting tribute to the men who gave their lives in what must have seemed to them a pointless struggle against insurmountable odds. It is hard to excuse Burnside for his inflexible and unimaginative frontal attacks. But Abraham Lincoln gave meaning to every battlefield sacrifice with his short and eloquent address on the establishment of the National Cemetery at Gettysburg less than one year later.

One final note on my tour of the Sunken Road. The most prominent monument on the battlefield at Fredericksburg commemorates the heroism of Sergeant Richard Kirkland of the 2nd South Carolina Regiment. Kirkland, at the risk of his own life, left the safety of the rebel lines in the sunken road to comfort the federal wounded lying only yards in front of his position. In an arena of death where man’s inhumanity was so prominently displayed, Sergeant Kirkland’s actions remind us that even in the midst of bitter conflict, the “better angels of our nature” also reign.

Next Up: Fredericksburg Part 2: Franklin’s Assault

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Fredericksburg - A Study in Contrasts

From Fredericksburg

Happy New Year to all! I started off the year with a visit to Fredericksburg. Posts on the battlefield tour are forthcoming. I have not visited this site for many years, and time has brought changes both exciting and sobering.

Once I finished the main battlefield tour, I set out for the Pelham Marker. Along the way, I passed the Slaughter Pen Farm, recently saved from development by the Civil War Preservation Trust. Surrounded by industrial and commercial properties, this tract alone affords an unobstructed view of the terrain Meade’s troops advanced across in the most successful attack of the day on Lee’s lines. The purchase of this farm is one of the great victories for battlefield preservation in recent years.

And yet just a few hundred yards away the Pelham Marker stands at a busy crossroads, hemmed in by a CVS on one corner, and the Pelham’s Corner Rite-Aid and gas station on another. Here, Pelham advanced well in front of Lee’s lines and directed the fire of two guns against the flank of Franklin’s assault. Pelham drew the fire of several Federal batteries and delayed the Union assault for over 30 minutes. With one gun out of action, he shifted position repeatedly and kept firing with his remaining Napoleon, ignoring calls to return to his lines and retiring only when his ammunition was nearly exhausted. Lee witnessed this brave and reckless display and commented “It is glorious to see such courage in one so young.”

To be fair, the developers reserved a small plot for the original stone marker and two interpretive signs donated by a corporate sponsor. But any impression of Pelham’s vantage point or the field of fire of his intrepid gunners exists now only in the mind’s eye. And so Fredericksburg offers a study in contrasts. Many areas of the battlefield lie almost untouched by development, while others have been lost forever. With this in mind, I thought it fitting to open the year with a few thoughts on the importance of preservation. Please support the efforts of the Civil War Preservation Trust and your local preservation groups this year.