"FOUR BATTLES IN ONE PARK" Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania County Battlefields Memorial National Military Park by mtncorg

This Park is home to four separate major battles of the Civil War, all occurring in an area near to Fredericksburg, Virginia. The first two battles - Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville - Dec 1862 and May 1863 - the second two battles - Wilderness and Spotsylvania - in 1864. Tips will be in chronological order, the first two battles being in the 'to do' area and the second two being in the 'off the beaten path' section. Fredericksburg offers the visitor the best resources to use as a base while visiting the battlefields, though there are a few b&b's out in the countryside, too. You could see all four battlefields in one day, but you wouldn't get very much out of that. The actions at Chancellorsville were fairly complicated, as at the Wilderness. Visitor Centers can help you make sense of things at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. For the Overland Campaign battles of 1864, Wilderness and Spotsylvania, there are only shelters with explanatory tablets on hand. But check at the Visitor Centers and at exhibit shelters to see if there are Ranger talks being held on the other battlefields. I found one to be very informative at the Bloody Angle on the Spotsylvania Battlefield. The headquarters for the Park is at Chatham Mansion above the east bank of the Rappahanock across from Fredericksburg.

First Fight - Fredericksburg December 13, 1862

Robert Lee was forced to withdraw his Army of Northern Virginia following his pyrrhic victory over the Federal Army of the Potomac under George McClellan at Antietam, in Maryland on September 17, 1862. US President Abraham Lincoln warned McClellan that if he did not follow Lee with more vigor than he had showed in the previous year of his command that changes would be in the air. After dithering and dallying, McClellan was finally replaced for good by Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside. Burnside is best known for his bushy sideburns, which, is where the term 'sideburn' originated from. He was also known for being a bit too humble, telling one and all the job of commander of the Army of the Potomac was beyond him. Lincoln should have listened closely to him.

Burnside realized that he would have to take the attack to Lee if the people in Washington were to be happy. Both armies were over separated by the Blue Ridge mountains - Lee to the west in the Shenandoah Valley and the Federals on the east side, watching. Showing more spunk than McClellan, Burnside had the army move on a flanking march to the east, aiming to cross the Rappahanock River - a major barrier en route to Richmond - at Fredericksburg. Lee was taken by surprise by the move and the speed with which Burnside carried it out. But then things went to pot for the Federals. To cross the river, pontoon bridges were needed to be set out, but when the Federal army arrived opposite Fredericksburg - no pontoons. They took so long in arriving that by the time they did, Lee's army had taken up a strong position on the opposite bank. Having run out of flexibility, Burnside decided that his army would still cross at Fredericksburg, though not they would be sorely contested. Burnside organized his army into three Grand Divisions and sent the Left Division, under Maj. Gen. William Franklin to attack the Rebel position held by troops under Thomas 'Stonewall' Jackson a few miles south of Fredericksburg. To pin the Confederates in Fredericksburg down while the other attack was going on, he sent the other two Grand Divisions under Maj. Gen. William Sumner and Maj. Gen Joseph Hooker at the Rebel positions of James Longstreet on Marye's Heights. The results - not entirely due to Burnside's actions - was one of the most lopsided Confederate victories of the war. More Union casualties resulted here on this day than did at Antietam - which was the bloodiest day of the war when you consider both Federal and Rebel losses together.

Second Bell - Chancellorsville May 1-3, 1863

Ambrose Burnside lost the support of many of the generals and soldiers after the Fredericksburg. Disquieting rumblings got louder after another march he put his army on in late January 1863 - the Mud March. Burnside hoped to get rid of a slew of Union generals he felt were not supporting him, but Lincoln got rid of him instead. The new commander had been at the top of Burnside's list, Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker. Hooker, a very fascinating figure, seems to have polarized both Civil War participants but also Civil War historians. First off, he set off to use the winter to get his army in better shape - something that had been overlooked under the Burnside regime. He then decided to come up with a different strategy for a Spring campaign. He increased both secrecy and intelligence portions of his army and then launched a wide flanking movement to the west - similar in theory to direction of the Mud March, but much more ambitious. He hoped to keep his largest corps at Fredericksburg to try and pin Lee down while the bulk of his troops were off to the west. At first, all went well. The troops to the west crossed the Rappahanock and Rapidan and were coming in on Lee from his rear. Lee woke up to what was happening, stripped his Fredericksburg front and sent troops to stop Hooker's move in the west. Lee's subordinates served him rather well here at Chancellorsville while Hooker had several who failed him. His first problem was that he had sent his cavalry off on a major raid behind Lee's lines. Those cavalrymen did not manage to account for much and would have better used to scout out what was ahead for Hooker's infantrymen. When Hooker troops ran into Lee's men at Lick Run - a new addition to the Battlefield Park, acquired by the Civil War Preservation Trust, the same group that puts up the innumerable roadside blue-grey informational tablets on different aspects of the War - he halted his forward movement, surrendering the imitative to Lee. Lee sent Jackson around Hooker's right flank in a long ranging move that was covered by both Hooker's lack of cavalry to detect such a move and the dense forest of the Wilderness. Hooker's right flank was covered by Maj. Gen. O.O. Howard's XI Corps but in a haphazard manner that allowed Jackson's attack, when it came, to crush the corps. Hooker now had to organize his troops in a salient around the Chancellorsville Inn to save what he could. Jackson was killed by friendly fire when he was out reconnoitering the Federal position and his command was then given to J.E.B. Stuart, normally Lee's cavalry commander. Stuart continued the attack on the Federal position the next day from Hazel Grove and then Fairview in some of the bitterest fighting of the war. Much of that third day, Hooker was out of action as he suffered a concussion as a result of artillery fire leaving the Union army leaderless. The Federals were still in reasonable shape by the day's end, but Hooker had had enough and ordered a retreat. Sidebar to the action, was Maj. Gen. Sedgwick and his VI Corps attacked the remaining Confederates at Marye's Heights - May 3 - and won the ground that was unobtainable several months earlier. Pushing onward, he tried to meet up with the main part of Hooker's Army, but after being stopped by Lee, who again split up his forces and sent them at Sedgwick at Salem Church. Sedgwick retreated to the north side of the Rappahanock and the bulk of Hooker's army followed soon thereafter. The way was open now in the near future for Lee's second invasion of the North and the Battle of Gettysburg. The armies would be back in this vicinity in late November at the Battle of Mine Run and then more seriously in the following Spring at the Wilderness and Spotsylvania.

Chancellorsville is one of the most interesting battles of the Civil War in terms of movement, counter movement, strategy. I recommend reading Stephen Sears' book 'Chancellorsville' for a better understanding of the events and the Park.

Third Round - the Wilderness May 5-7, 1864

Gettysburg had been fought and lost by Lee the preceding Summer. The Union commander at that battle, Gordon Meade, was still technically in command of the Army of the Potomac, but he was being directly supervised - in an arrangement that never did work very well - by the new supreme Federal commander, U.S. Grant. Grant sent the army over fords that Hooker had used almost one year previously - Germanna and Ely's. This time Lee had spent the winter in the vicinity of Orange Court House, several miles to the west. Lee, observing Grant's move, sent his troops in one two parallel east-west roads - the Orange Turnpike and the Orange Plank Road. Commanding the corps moving in on the Turnpike, Robert Ewell managed to hold off Federal attacks from the Union V Corps. To the south, A.P.Hill was having a much more difficult time, withdrawing in some disorder, until James Longstreet brought a crushing blow to the Federal left in a flank attack resembling what happened at Chancellorsville. Also, like at Chancellorsville, the commander of the flanking Confederate force, Longstreet, in this case, was severely wounded by friendly fire while on reconnaissance. Almost 30000 casualties later - 18400 Federal (two generals) and 11400 Rebel (three generals) - with the battle a tactical draw, Grant ordered another flanking move to the east and south, which took the Armies to the area around Spotsylvania Court House and the final chapter in the War in this area.

Final Round - Spotsylvania May 8-21, 1864

The next big crossroads as you come out of the Wilderness was at Spotsylvania Court House. Grant pushed his troops forward in an attempt to reach there first, but Lee's forces were a bit quicker. Another newer aspect to the War was the idea of entrenching your forces on the scene. Lee's forces went about creating a formidable position and the fight settled into a World War I preview - minus the more deadly firepower of the machine gun - as each side fought the others in trench warfare. The critical part came at the Bloody Angle on May 12-13 when Lee's line was threatened to be split in half. After twenty sustained hours of fighting, the Confederate line held. Four more generals were killed -two on each side with another two Confederate generals captured - and casualties were another 30000 -18000 on the Union side and 12000 on the Rebel side. Tiring of the inconclusive struggle, Grant slipped his army around to the southeast again, continuing his advance on Richmond - next stop on the Overland Campaign would be the North Anna River.

Pros and Cons
  • Pros:Civil war history at your feet; battlefields with dirth of monuments for your imagination
  • Cons:Modern encroachment around and onto the fields in some cases - again, imagination needed ;-]
  • In a nutshell:Over 100000 American Casualties from these Four Battles
  • Intro Updated Apr 7, 2008
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Reviews (31)

Comments (4)

  • glabah's Profile Photo
    Oct 7, 2010 at 1:38 PM

    Lots of activity in this one area, and good descriptions of how to get to them.

  • BruceDunning's Profile Photo
    Dec 22, 2009 at 11:27 AM

    You surely have to be an historian with all this detail and factual data. Civil War is a main interest of mine and have seen some sites, but not enough. Great presentation and comments.

  • Jim_Eliason's Profile Photo
    Oct 2, 2007 at 6:35 AM

    Nice tips, I hav eyet to get to the eastern Civil war battlefields

  • hunterV's Profile Photo
    Nov 13, 2006 at 10:17 PM

    Great memorial place to visit! Thanx for your introduction!

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