Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania County Battlefields Memorial National Military Park Fredericksburg, Va. Visited: October 5, 2005 NPS Site Visited: 251 of 353 NPS Website; Local Website
WHAT IS IT? Perhaps the bloodiest locale on the North American continent. The four Civil War battles commemorated by the Park took over 100,000 casualties including the War’s most famous soldier, Stonewall Jackson.
The battles memorialized are the December 1862 Battle of Fredericksburg, the April-May 1863 Battle of Chancellorsville (which includes Second Fredericksburg and Salem Church), the May 5-6 1864 Battle of the Wilderness and the May 8-21 1864 Battle of Spotsylvania.
BEAUTY (6/10) The rural wooded Virginia countryside and former farmlands that makes up much of Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park (F&S NMP) feels isolated, untouched and haunted. The Battlefields must look like they did just before the fighting began, from the charming old downtown of Fredericksburg, with its church spires and quaint brick buildings to the impenetrable forest of The Wilderness to the rolling fields nearby Spotsylvania Court House. The horrors of the fighting are tangible and one’s imagination easily sparked because the theaters of battle seem to be unchanged.
HISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE (9/10) Fredericksburg, Virginia’s unfortunate geography placed it half way between Washington, D.C., the Union capital, and Richmond, Va., the head of the Confederacy. The area witnessed three major Union attacks between 1862 and 1864. Historians note none of these battles as “the War’s turning point” or “its most important fight”.
Individually, the battles claim no superlatives. But collectively the region feels bathed in near continuous bloodshed. Union slaughters abound. At First Fredericksburg, Union battalions charged uphill, losing nearly all of their men.
At Spotsylvania, Grant led his men through the dense fog and pouring rain and into the Bloody Angle. Thousands died during the unbearable 20-hour fight. During The Wilderness battle, horrific close-range fighting raged in dense forest underbrush and thick confines. Indiscriminate rifle fire felled trees alongside the many blue and gray soldiers.
Most of the War’s luminaries fought here. Lee and Grant first met at The Wilderness. Walt Whitman and Clara Barton nursed Union troops across the Rappahannock at the Chatham Mansion. Stonewall Jackson died here, a victim of friendly fire during the Battle of Chancellorsville.
CROWDS (6/10) The further you get from Fredericksburg, the less people you will see, both tourists and residents. The downtown streets of Fredericksburg meet at odd angles and invariably run the one-way that you do not want to go. I-95 is a bear of a drive regardless of time. Virginia Route 3, a/k/a Plank Road, travels from Exit 130 west towards the Chancellorsville and Wilderness battlefields. The Road is a crowded commercial stretch from the Interstate until the Battlefields.
EASE OF USE/ACCESS (4/5) F&S NMP is a sprawling mess of a park. The Site has seven major disconnected sections that represent three distinct military campaigns and at least six separate battles. Luckily, all the sites are within a 15-mile radius of Fredericksburg, Va. and easily accessed from Interstate 95 via exits 118, 126 and 130.
Plan your visit. Stop first at the Fredericksburg Battlefield VC (east from Exit 130) if only to get a Park map. The tortuous and lengthy auto tour travels in chronological order. Just remember that the four-mile ride from the Battle of Chancellorsville to the Wilderness Battlefield represents a full year, different Union Generals and an entirely different context: Chancellorsville was pre-Gettysburg, Wilderness and Spotsylvania post.
CONCESSIONS/BOOKSTORE (5/5) The Park’s voluminous bookstore actually is its own building, located next door to the Fredericksburg Battlefield VC. The store lists its top 10 bestsellers for those who like to give in to peer pressure.
COSTS (2/5) Park entry is free. Both the Fredericksburg Battlefield VC and the Chancellorsville Battlefield VC charge $2 per person to watch their respective introductory films.
RANGER/GUIDE TO TOURIST RATIO (2/5) We did not have the best luck with Rangers at the Park’s VC’s but did at the Site’s adjunct locations, the Stonewall Jackson Shrine and Chatham.
TOURS/CLASSES (5/10) An F&S NMP visit can be very confusing. You need to be able to separate the battles in your head, attach them to their proper historical setting and swiftly change that perspective once you move to the next battle location. Space and finances dictate that your initial foray into the non-Fredericksburg battles is at the Chancellorsville Battlefield VC. A separate VC for the May 1864 battles would be nice and proper and would alleviate the bewilderment.
We refused to pay for the introductory films on principle and wished we would have skipped both VC’s 40+ year-old museums, long on dioramas and short on historical analysis. In fact, the two VC’s were the only bad part of our visit.
Be sure to pick up as many of the Park’s walking tour pamphlets as you can carry. We have eight (and there might be more). Too much happened at F&S NMP to be covered adequately in the standard Park brochure. Use the pamphlets while you take walking trails around the Park’s sprawling environs. We enjoyed the free Ranger-led guided tours of Chatham (the Lacy House) and the Stonewall Jackson shrine and used this time to gain answers to the questions that the VC Museums evoked but could not answer.
FUN (6/10) We had a fun and educational, if not solemn, time at F&S NMP. At The Wilderness Battlefield, we hiked through the still-dense forest while a morning mist enveloped our horizons. It felt as if we were walking with ghosts. The horrors of the battle flashed into our psyches, the trees still wailed and even the birds were silent.
As we walked around the Bloody Angle section of the Spotsylvania Battlefield, portions of the sky turned an ominous dark blue. Wind whistled through the now-peaceful tall grass field. The hike ends with the slight uphill incline where the Union troops clawed their way over their fallen comrades and towards the Rebel trenches. Our walk was as powerful and emotional as any trail we have taken on American soil.
Once we left Spotsylvania, we followed the route of Stonewall Jackson’s ambulance to the house where he died. We felt an urgency in our car even though we were traveling on a twisting rural two-lane road nearly devoid of traffic. A light rain began as we approached the two-story white building. Once inside we discussed Stonewall with a scholarly Ranger for over one-hour, learning more than we dared imagine about the legendary General.
WOULD WE RECOMMEND? (8/10) A trip to F&S NMP is an intensive Civil War learning experience and an essential visit for anyone with an interest in American History. On Michael’s previous two trips to Fredericksburg, he had only visited the downtown Fredericksburg portions of the Park (Marye’s Hill, the National Cemetery and the VC). Big mistake. Not only is First Fredericksburg the least interesting battle of the four, but the best educational opportunities are found elsewhere.
It takes at least one full day to experience F&S NMP. Two days are recommended. Take the auto tour, hike the battlegrounds, read the exhibits and augment your learning with a Civil War book (like the Battle Cry of Freedom) or an auto tour CD. Visit the Stonewall Jackson shrine and Chatham, two highlights of our visit, and talk to the Rangers posted there. They know what they are talking about.
USA-C2C.com is an independent website, not affiliated in any way with the National Park Service, the National Parks Foundation or any of their partners.