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

1 comment:

Alexis K Lerro said...

Dear Steven,
Abraham Lincoln is turning 200 in February, and we want you to celebrate his bicentennial with us!
We’ve read your site Civil War Battles and Battlefields and think you’d be interested in hearing about our project because your site is a Civil War history blog.
My name is Alexis Lerro and I work for a company called Lime Projects based out of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. For the last month or so, we have been helping the Rosenbach Museum & Library get ready to launch an exciting new project called “21st-Century Abe” to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Abe Lincoln’s birth.
21st-Century Abe grew out of an awareness that there is an intense interest in Lincoln among the great number of web-savvy folks who spend much of their days surfing the net, as the abundance of Lincoln-themed YouTube videos and MySpace pages will attest, but that he is almost exclusively represented and discussed in a mythical and clichéd way. The goal of 21st-Century Abe is to engage this audience in exploring a nuanced and complex view of Lincoln and to create a community of dialogue (both textual and artistic) around contemporary issues that grow out an understanding of Lincoln’s historical materials. The organizing themes of the project include Lincoln’s views on race, his patterns of thought and rhetoric, and his role as a celebrity, both in his own day and ours.
In addition to the blog the Rosenbach has started, there will be a full website launch on February 12th, Lincoln’s 200th birthday, and exciting contributions from scholar and author Douglas Wilson, co-director of the Lincoln Studies Center and respected Lincoln academic; visual artist Maira Kalman, author and illustrator of numerous children’s books and illustrator of the illustrated version of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style; composer and rock musician Bryce Dessner, (member of the band The National); and multi-media artists Archive (Anne Walsh and Chris Kubick) as they reflect on Lincoln documents and provide their own creative interpretations.
But we’re not stopping there! Your responses—in words, songs, videos, photos, drawings, web links, whatever — define 21st-Century Abe. With the full site launch, we invite you to contribute your own Abe finds and interpretations and maybe even win one of our Abe contests.
After researching many blogs on the subjects of history, civil war reenactment, art, politics and education, we are excited to share 21st-Century Abe at the Rosenbach with your website, Civil War Battles and Battlefields.
The 21st-Century Abe blog is located at the following URL:
Plus there are great supplementary Abe media sites like:

Let us know what you think about it! If you like it, pass it along and tell a friend, or even post about it on your blog.
Thanks for your time—we hope to hear from you on our blog and website, and if you’re in the Philly area, we hope to see you at the Rosenbach’s festivities!
Alexis Lerro
Production Manager and Research Coordinator
Lime Projects