Sunday, November 28, 2010
The ghosts of Fredericksburg
I had heard it was picturesque but by the time we had waited in long lines of traffic on the I-95, to descend on a road flanked by crumbling strip malls, much of our wunderlust had faced away.
Still we made for the historic old town and parked near the bridge over the Rappahannock River. I had expected a mellow span with wide pavements for visits but instead there was just a small, dirty sidewalk that denoted a functional, industrial structure looking over a muddy ravine of skeletal trees.
The bridge faced the hollow backs of buildings, slightly neglected and off-the-beaten track. Instead we hurried with a cold wind on our backs to the main shopping streets, festooned with Christmas lights.
Fredericksburg reminds me off many small towns in England. It has a bustling town center that is a destination in itself. In contrast many American downtowns are shuttered up and empty at evenings and during the weekend, the domain of trash blown by the wind and the occasional down-and-out.
Frederickburg has a downtown bars and stores and cafes. There are cutesy and over expensive carriage and trolley bus rides. Still behind the facade there seemed to be something sadder lurking in Fredericksburg. Many of the shop keepers frowned and looked at me as if I was wearing a T-shirt with the words "Registered sex offender" on it when I walked into their cramped premises pushing a stroller.
The visitor center was a place of glossy brochures and severe old women with glassy stares. Had the recession or the cold wind stripped Frederickburg of its Virginian civility?
Or do the ghosts still walk in a town that was steeped in blood just over 150 years ago?
Just before dawn on Dec. 11, 1862 the same empty mud-bound Rappahannock River that I gazed down on was alive with men who were building six pontoon bridges for the giant Union army. The army succesfully crossed the river and the first urban combat of the Civil War began. More than 5,000 shells slammed into Frederickburg, the precursor to an era when artillery and bombs would increasingly come to be used against civilians.
If there was euphoria on behalf of the Federate army, it was short lived. During the long day of Dec. 13 114,000 men in Maj. Gen Ambrose Burnside's Unionist army were employed in action, many of them against almost impregnable Confederate positions on high land to the south of the town. With little apparent plan their commanders sent them slowly uphill into the mouths of the guns.
Thousands were slaughtered in one of the most one sided battles of the Civil War. When hostilities died down and the stars decorated the frosted skies, the cold night of Dec. 13 was filled with the screams of the wounded and dying on the blood soaked flanks of Marye's Heights. Richard Rowland Kirkland, a Confederate army sergeant, gathered canteens and in broad daylight, without the benefit of a cease fire or a flag of truce, provided water to numerous Union wounded lying on the field of battle.
The story of kindness amid so much brutality earned Kirkland the name "the angel of Marye's Heights" and a statue in his honor.
The Union army suffered 12,653 casualties while the Confederate army lost 5,377.
Notwithstanding the scowls of a few store assistants it seems Frederickburg has become a much friendlier place in the space of 152 years.