Thursday, December 13, 2012

Notes on a Visit to the Fredericksburg Battlefield

[Note: Last March I took a road trip down to visit the proprietess of the WCFC and her hubby in North Carolina.  On the way there and back I decided to make pit stops at Civil War battlefield sites, and I meant to write my reflections down in these pages.  I never got around to it, though, mostly because my thoughts about the experience were too thick to untangle.  I realized that this week is the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Fredericksburg, whose site I visited on my way back to New Jersey.  Seeing an article about the event in the Times' "Disunion" blog has motivated me to finally write about it.]

Over the last year or so I have revisited the Civil War with a vengeance.  It was an obsession of mine from about the age of eleven to the age of fifteen, when the Ken Burns series hit the airwaves.  I carefully taped it onto VHS at slow speed, and watched it over and over again.  By that time I had been able to visit the Bull Run and Gettysburg battlefields on a family road trip to Washington DC, which took on the air of a religious pilgrimage for me.  While in junior high I read Bruce Catton's classic three volume series on the Army of the Potomac, probably the most dense work of non-fiction I ever read at that point.

For some reason, I'm not sure why, I dropped my interest in the topic.  Nowadays my rekindled obsession with the Civil War tends towards the political and social side of the conflict, rather than Pickett's Charge or the skirmish on Little Round Top.  That said, I still get goosebumps when I visit the battlefields, which can have an otherwordly effect on me when the mood is right.  A couple of years ago I went to Chickamauga and stood at Horseshoe Ridge, where a determined line of Union troops under General Thomas -the "Rock of Chickamauga"- held fast against a Confederate onslaught.  Standing at that spot, where so many had died so brutally, I swear I could feel the presence of ghosts.  The air seemed to hang there, pregnant with memory and death.

That feeling could not prepare me for what I experienced at Fredericksburg.  I had a bit of dread going to that battlefield, largely because it was the Civil War battle that saddened me the most as a youth.  Appropriately fought in December's cold, the colossally incompetent Ambrose Burnside sent waves of attacks against entrenched positions on the heights above the town.  Union men were cut down mercilessly, many of them forced to spend the night of the battle hidden behind parapets of corpses, hoping to live to see the sun.

I visited on a crisp, overcast March afternoon, one of those early spring days when the winter chill still lurks in the breeze.  I was immediately struck by the fact that the town of Fredericksburg now stretched right up to the base of the heights, meaning that many people today live on the site of a mass slaughter.  Being there brought home to me, more than any other historical site I've visited, the reality of history.  The hill held by the Confederates, Marye's Heights, was tall, steep, and contained a ready trench in the form of a sunken road.  I'd always imagined the road to be sunk only so low that the Confederates had to lie down in it to cover themselves.  I discovered the road to be so deep that the men firing could stand up, with only their heads exposed.  Sending troops to charge that position was beyond futile, I could clearly see now that it was murder.

And that's when the reality of the accounts I'd read in the history books hit me, and I broke down and cried.  The thought of so many young lives being ended out of pure administrative stupidity was unbearable to me.  After getting myself together I trekked up Marye's Heights, on top of which sits a military cemetery, with its rows of uniform markers laid out like so many troops in formation.  The soldiers thus rested for eternity in the place they had expended their lives trying to reach.  In a strange way, this thought reassured me, even if I knew the whole battle was a useless waste of human life.

I ambled my way down the hill, jumped in my car, and drove through one of those identical, endless suburban commercial strips before merging onto the interstate, amazed that amidst this deadening debris of modern American life stood a monument to senseless death and destruction.

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