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
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