Wednesday, July 29, 2009

2009 CWPT Teacher's Institute: Fredericksburg, VA -Part 2

Saturday's main event was a "field trip" for educators to either the nearby Chancellorsville or Fredericksburg battlefields. I had previously been to both a number of times, but I had never been on a guided tour of Fredericksburg, so for that reason, and because it is one of my all-time favorite towns, I chose it.

We were greeted by our ranger/guide Randy Washburn at the Visitor's Center, where he gave a quick overview of what we would be seeing during the day and what we could expect time-wise. Ranger Washburn is a seasonal employee with the National Park Service, but had previously been a principal for a number of years in the Fredericksburg area.

The Battle of Fredericksburg was fought on December 13, 1862. Another action was fought on much of the same ground during the Chanellorsville Campaign the following May, but we focused on what happened in December of 1862. First, we were taken to the famous stonewall and Sunken Road (wartime picture above-but from 1863) which is just behind the Visitor's Center. Here we learned about the Union assaults against and Confederate defenses of this position. We heard about Thomas R.R. Cobb's mortal wounding and also got to go inside the Innis House, which still contains numerous bullet holes from the battle. On down the Sunken Road we heard the story of Sgt. Richard Kirkland of the 2nd South Carolina, who despite the dangers, after the battle and in the dark, took water out to the Union wounded. For his kindness Kirkland was later called "The Angel of Mayre's Heights." A beautiful monument is there in his honor.

Next we climbed Mayre's Heights and were able to get a better perspective of the field of battle. Up there we learned about how the important high ground helped the Confederate artillery devastate the numerous Union attacks that never got closer than 50 yards to the stonewall and Sunken Road. On Mayre's Heights also is now the Fredericksburg National Cemetery. We were allowed some time to view the cemetery on our own before meeting back up at the Visitor's Center to view the park's 22 minute film on the battle.

Lunch was held across the Rappahanock River at a recreational park. After lunch we went back across the river and toured the downtown Fredericksburg area where much of the street fighting occurred as the Confederates contested the Union river crossing on pontoon bridges on December 12. Our next move was back to the east side of the river where we toured Chatham mansion and its grounds. This lovely house was owned at the time by the Lacy family and served as Union general Sumner's headquarters. It had been visited by President Lincoln the previous spring when Union troops had occupied the area.

The next stop on the tour was to land recently acquired by the CWPT at the Slaughter Pen Farm. This part of the battlefield is south of Fredericksburg and it is where the most successful Federal attacks occurred during the battle. The land has kept much of its historical integrity and when you are out there in the soybean and corn fields, you get a real sense of what terrible fighting must have happened right were you stand. The objective of the Union attacks was to capture the Fredericksburg and Richmond railroad that ran right between the Union lines. A strong Union advance by some of Union general Meade's forces took advantage of a hole in the Confederate lines where a swampy area was left unprotected, and for a brief time broke the Confederate line until reinforcement came and sealed the breach.

Our last stop of the day was to Prospect Hill. This slight rise in ground on the far south end of the battlefield gave Confederate general Stonewall Jackson a fairly good advantage to use his artillery to break the disjointed Union attacks. This area is still in a very good state of preservation and only the rumble of modern trains break the sense of time.

After we returned from the trip we had some time to relax and get cleaned up before that evening's dinner. The speaker for the evening was Mr. Hari Jones from the African American Civil War Museum in Washington D.C. I have been fortunate enough to speak personally with Mr. Jones on a couple of occasions about the African American soldiers' experience and I have always been impressed with this keen knowledge about this topic. The subject of Mr. Jones' talk was the Constitutional nature of the Emancipation Proclamation. He explained that Congress had given President Lincoln the war powers necessary to issue the proclamation by previously passing the Militia and Confiscation Acts in July. These acts allowed for the enlistment of black soldiers and the taking of Confederate property (including slaves) to use to the Union's advantage. Lincoln knew the increased numbers of African American soldiers would be needed to help ultimately defeat the Confederates. And, he pointed out that after issuing the initial Proclamation in September 1862, Lincoln did not have any significant successful military victories until the twin triumphs of Gettysburg and Vicksburg in July 1863.

Saturday's dinner and presentation topped off what was a wonderful day of education and history appreciation. The next post will cover Sunday's sessions.

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