Virginia Battlefields

Mr Pict and I seem to have a bit of a tit-for-tat or quid pro quo thing going on when it comes to touring historic places: I get to visit a cemetery and he gets to tour a Civil War battlefield.  Having dragged everyone around Arlington National Cemetery the previous day – and two of the kids really were dragging their feet around there – the following day was dedicated to sites of Civil War battles.  While my blog post about the Cemetery was very probably too detailed, I will tell you in advance that my post about the battlefields is likely to be a bit threadbare and impressionistic because it really is not my area of expertise.

We started out our day at Fredericksburg, which I believe featured in a few cycles of warfare.  We watched an informative video presentation in the National Park office but apparently it all went in one ear and out the other because this is what I think I know about the action there*: by the Autumn of 1862, Lincoln needed a Union victory in order to bolster support for his administration so the pressure was on for Burnside and Hooker to take Richmond; the plan involved Burnside relocating his troops across the Rappahannock River at Fredericksburg; various bits of the plan went pear-shaped and the result was a Confederate victory.  In addition to the video, the building housed a small but effective museum.  I thought it was well-balanced in terms of its focus on the two sides of the conflict and in terms of its narrating of the experiences of combatants and the civilians.  I especially liked a wall of framed portraits on hinges that revealed information about the individuals portrayed when opened.  My youngest son, meanwhile, enjoyed the challenge of building a pontoon bridge.

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What the boys really enjoyed, however, was discovering a lizard inside a wee cranny and my youngest found an injured moth which he decided to adopt for the duration of our walk around the site.  He named the moth Stick and chose a suitable tree away from the car park to relocate it to.

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The area of battlefield preserved by the National Park Service is focused on a bloody scuffle called the Battle of Marye’s Heights.  This is an elevated area, a stone wall, and a sunken road.  I have the impression that every Civil War battle either involves a sunken road, a peach orchard, or a wheat field.  There were houses in this area so the civilian population had been forced to flee and leave their property to get hammered by weaponry.  While all that remains of most buildings is an outline of where they once stood, one building remained intact and in situ.  Peeking through the windows, we could see the pock-marks of bullets all over one wood panelled wall.

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The park area contained a statue to a young soldier named Richard Rowland Kirkland.  He was a Confederate sergeant positioned at the stone wall.  He grew perturbed by the groans and anguish of the suffering Union soldiers and his compassion moved him to minister to the wounded.  There was not a ceasefire while he did so so he was very much risking his own life and limb to bring water to these injured men who were his enemy.  Poor Richard was to be killed at Chickamauga at age 20.  His is a touching story and one that is probably embellished but I prefer to remember the humanity people can be capable of when immersed in the history of hatred, division and bloodshed.

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After a picnic lunch, we stopped off at Chancellorsville.  The visitor centre included a very good museum full of artefacts and information boards, lots packed into a small space.  For various reasons, I didn’t spend much time consuming the material but I did spend quite a bit of time in one room.  The centerpiece was a display case containing Confederate and Union uniforms and equipment but what really caught my attention was the surrounding walls.  They were covered in the names and, in some cases, photographic portraits of those who were killed in the battle – which, if memory serves, was the bloodiest except for Antietam.  Seeing all of those names was really quite arresting.  For my brain, numbers are a bit too abstract but to see those numbers as a visual was really evocative.  I was also struck by the mingling of names from both sides of the conflict. As someone with only a passing interest in the subject, I too often think of the Civil War in terms of the conflicting ideologies, the attitudes and decisions of the leadership of both sides, the dichotomy of “goodies and baddies”.  However, as soon as I am forced to remember the experiences of individuals, what I reflect on is that Confederate mothers keened and mourned for their sons as much as Union mothers did.

I had thought that Chancellorsville referred to a town of some description but learned at the visitor centre that it in fact refers to just a single dwelling house.  At the time of the battle, it was occupied by a woman surnamed Chancellor and her daughters.  They found themselves under siege in a burning house during the battle before being rescued and relocated out of harm’s way.  Again, we watched the video which was very informative and once again I almost instantly forgot much of the detail.  What I remember from the reenactment was a sense of complete chaos and scenes of fire raging through the woodland.  It was also the battle that inspired the novel ‘The Red Badge of Courage’.  It was also at Chancellorsville that Stonewall Jackson was shot by friendly fire, which led to the amputation of his left arm, and ultimately to his death from pneumonia a week later.

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On the subject of Stonewall Jackson, he was the subject of our next quest.  As a fan of “Roadside America”, oddities, and the more obscure tourist attractions, this was the aspect of our day of battlefield touring that most interested me.  A short car journey deposited us at the end of the driveway that led to Ellwood Manor, a house dating from the late 18th Century that was requisitioned as a field hospital during the Civil War.  We were not there, however, to visit a historic building.  Nope.  Instead, we strolled right past the house and down a pretty little path that led to the family cemetery.  Buried in that cemetery was the subject of our quest: Stonewall Jackson’s left arm.  Jackson’s chaplain was the brother of the occupant of Ellwood Manor and, therefore, chose that spot as the final resting place of the General’s amputated limb.  It even has its own headstone, which is more than can be said of any of the entire people buried there.  We found ourselves at the grave of the majority of Stonewall Jackson in the summer of 2016 so it feels like some sort of achievement to have now visited his arm too.  I love all that peculiar and macabre stuff.

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We concluded our battlefield tour with what, to my untrained eye, was just a field.  Mr Pict tried to explain its significance to me – something about the site of Jackson’s final flank attack – but by that point anything he was saying about military strategy and battle action just sounded like the brassy “wah wah” sounds the teachers make in ‘Peanuts’.  I guess some things my brain just was not designed to absorb.  Mr Pict was happy, however, and that was the important thing.

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Then it was back to home base for a barbecue and s’mores for the boys, which is what they had been promised/bribed with, so they ended the day on a happy note too.

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*Feel absolutely free to correct me in the comments.

29 thoughts on “Virginia Battlefields

  1. I’m not good at picking out family resemblance either and I would have never thought to bury an arm and then put up a headstone. Laura,….you really do well giving us all the details of your trips. I enjoy them because the probibilty of going myself are not.

  2. Are you coming any more further south? I’m in Richmond, VA which is battlefield material all around.

    I just checked your previous trips in my area and turns out you must have come by my house at one point: I’m really close to Gaines Mill Battlefield and Cold Harbor. 🙂 Next time feel free to come in for coffee!

    • We are actually back home now – I don’t get time to blog when I am away – but, as you have discovered, we visited the Richmond area last year. How funny that I must have passed close by your house! I definitely want to return to that area as I don’t feel I really got to explore Richmond, just the environs, and I am a big Poe fan so I need to visit the museum there.

  3. I clearly remember the sunken road at Fredericksburg but I don’t think i’ve been to any of the others you mention. I do like find Civil War sites interesting, but the military strategy goes right over my head too. It’s the human aspect that gets to me, like you when you saw all the names.

    • Mr Pict has worked out he can hook me into Civil War trips based on quirky factoids, the stories of individuals, or a bit of social history. I drag myself in when it comes to family history. But, yes, the military history definitely goes right over my head. I have zero interest and, therefore, don’t retain the information – as you can tell from my blogging.

  4. He looks very happy with the smores. Coincidentally, I am partaking of a smores beer for the first time, so this post is apt. All this Civil War stuff would be Peanuts wonkiness to me as well. Mr. Pict is very lucky indeed to get his passions indulged! He is very well-traveled now. I wonder how the boys will look back on these travels in 20 years.

    • Smores beer sounds amazing! Mr Pict is indeed very well travelled. He has been to 48 states and far more countries than I have visited. As for the kids, I hope we are encouraging an enthusiasm for exploring new places and having new experiences that – even if they don’t feel that enjoyment all the time right now – will stand them in good stead in the future.

  5. I felt the same way about battleground places; my eyes glaze over. What I was struck by in your post was how neatly your interests (cemeteries) and Mr. Pict’s correlate; war often causes death… and sometimes someone’s death starts a war. Anyway, I’m betting your kids will have some very good memories!

    • Yes indeed. It’s like the cyclical structure of ‘Where Have All The Flowers Gone?’.

      As to the kids, I hope they appreciate all the experiences they are having and things they are being exposed to – even if it takes them reaching a more mature age and stage to really see the value in it.

  6. I like how you managed to sneak an extra graveyard visit into Mr Pict’s Civil War Day… Nicely done! How fascinating that they thought to give an amputated arm a decent burial. Clearly I have a macabre streak too!

    • Yes, it’s a usual Venn diagram overlap of our interests. The arm grave is truly bizarre to me. I mean, the reverence for confederate generals is quite bonkers to me anyway but creating a marked grace for an arm is especially so.

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