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The Civil War Battlefields

Fredericksburg has never forgotten its Civil War victories and defeats in the battles of Fredericksburg and at Chancellorsville, The Wilderness, and Spotsylvania Courthouse, 12 to 15 miles west of the city. The battles were part of three Union attempts to advance from Washington, D.C., to Richmond between December 1862 and May 1864. Only the last one succeeded. Today, the sites are beautifully preserved in the National Park Service's Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park, which also includes the Stonewall Jackson Shrine, where the great Confederate general died after being mistakenly shot by his own men.

Although park headquarters are at Chatham, start at the Fredericksburg Battlefield Visitor Center, 1013 Lafayette Blvd. (U.S. 1 Business), at Sunken Road (tel. 540/373-6122), where you can get detailed tour brochures and watch a 22-minute video (shown on the hour and half-hour) to get you oriented. The bookstore across the parking lot rents and sells the audio-tour tapes or CDs that are essential to get the most out of your visit. Be sure to pick up the park service's main brochure, which has a detailed map, and pamphlets for each of the sites. If you want more detailed information, the bookstore is packed with Civil War literature.

Admission to the battlefields is free. The Fredericksburg visitor center is open daily from 9am to 5pm with extended hours in summer and on spring and fall weekends. The actual battlefields are open daily from sunrise to sunset. You can drive through the battlefields but the visitor centers are closed New Year's Day and Christmas.

There's also a visitor center at Chancellorsville. The Wilderness and Spotsylvania Courthouse battlefields have shelters with exhibits explaining what happened. Park rangers give guided tours of each battlefield daily during summer and on spring and autumn weekends. Call the visitor centers for the schedule.

For advance information, contact the Superintendent, Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park, 120 Chatham Lane, Fredericksburg, VA 22405 (tel. 540/371-0802; www.nps.gov/frsp).

A Battle Plan for Seeing the Battlefields

Although you can drive around the battlefields in less than a day, you'll need 2 days to take the full 75-mile audio-guided auto tours of the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania battlefields. Allow a minimum of 30 minutes at each of the two visitor centers and 3 hours for each of the four battlefield audio tours, plus driving times in between.

I strongly recommend the audio tour CDs available at the Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville visitor centers (there's a different recording for each battle; $4.95 to rent or $12.95 to purchase each CD). Renting a portable player along with them will allow you to get out of your car and still hear the informative commentary.

Although you can start at the Chancellorsville Visitor Center, I prefer to tour the battlefields in the order in which the conflicts occurred: Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, The Wilderness, and Spotsylvania Courthouse. Spend the first day at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, and the second at The Wilderness and Spotsylvania Courthouse, where the battles happened within days of each other. The Stonewall Jackson Shrine at Guinea Station is 18 miles southeast of Spotsylvania Courthouse; go there last.

Battle of Fredericksburg

The Battle of Fredericksburg took place from December 11 to December 13, 1862, when the Union army under Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside crossed the river into Fredericksburg via pontoon bridges. Burnside made a huge mistake when he sent the body of his 100,000 men uphill against Lee's 75,000 troops, most of them dug in behind a stone wall along Sunken Road at the base of Marye's Heights. The ground below the heights became a bloody killing field as Lee's cannon, firing from the hill, mowed down the Yankees.

Sunken Road -- restored to look as it did in 1862 -- starts at the visitor center at the base of Marye's Heights. You can examine the road and follow the gently sloping pathway up the 40-foot-high heights for the fine view that sends chills down my spine as I think of the lives lost on the fields below. Park rangers lead 35-minute guided tours of the road several times daily during the summer and on spring and fall weekends. The park also has summertime children's programs here.

Battle of Chancellorsville

President Lincoln fired Burnside after the Marye's Heights massacre. Under Gen. Joseph Hooker, Burnside's replacement, the Union forces crossed the river north of Fredericksburg in late April 1863 and advanced to Chancellorsville, a crossroads 10 miles west of Fredericksburg on the Orange Turnpike (now Va. 3). In a surprise attack, Stonewall Jackson flanked Hooker's line on May 2 and won a spectacular victory. Jackson was inadvertently shot by his own men that same night. He was taken 5 miles west to Ellwood Farm, where his left arm was amputated and buried in the family cemetery. He was later moved to a farm near Guinea Station, where he died. By then, Lee had driven the Union army back across the Rappahannock.

Stop at the Chancellorsville Visitor Center (tel. 540/786-2880), 12 miles west of Fredericksburg on Va. 3, to see another audiovisual orientation and related exhibits. Once again, auto-tour tapes and CDs are available at the bookstore. The center is open daily from 9am to 5pm, with extended hours in summer and on spring and autumn weekends. Be sure to get a pass here to see the gravestone over Jackson's arm at Ellwood Farm.

Battle of The Wilderness

A year later, under the direction of the aggressive Ulysses S. Grant, Union forces once again crossed the Rappahannock and advanced south to Wilderness Tavern, 5 miles west of Chancellorsville near what is now the junction of Va. 3 and Va. 20. Lee advanced to stop him, thus setting up the first battle between these two great generals. On May 5 and 6, 1864, the armies fought in the tangled thickets of The Wilderness. The battle was a stalemate, but instead of retreating as his predecessors had, Grant backed off and went around Lee toward his ultimate target, Richmond, via the shortest road south (now Va. 208).

The battle raged around Ellwood Farm, which during the Battle of Chancellorsville had served as the Confederate hospital where Stonewall Jackson's arm was amputated and buried. You can see his arm's gravestone at Ellwood Farm, which is open Saturday and Sunday during summer. At other times you must get an Ellwood pass at the Chancellorsville Visitor Center.

Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse

Lee quickly regrouped and tried to stop Grant 2 days later at Spotsylvania Courthouse, about 18 miles southeast of The Wilderness. Taking advantage of thick fog and wet Confederate gunpowder, Union troops breached the Southerners' line. When Lee's reinforcements arrived, the sides spent 20 hours in the war's most intense hand-to-hand combat at a site known as Bloody Angle. During the fighting, Lee built new fortifications to the rear, which he successfully defended. Instead of pushing the fight to the finish, however, Grant again backed off, flanked his entire army around Lee's, and resumed his unrelenting march toward Richmond. It was the end of major fighting in the Fredericksburg area, as the war moved south to its ultimate conclusion 11 months later at Appomattox.

There's an exhibit shelter on Grant Drive, where park rangers lead walking tours daily during summer, weekends in spring and fall. Call the Fredericksburg or Chancellorsville visitor centers for details.

Stonewall Jackson Shrine

Now part of the park, the Stonewall Jackson Shrine (tel. 804/633-6076) is in the wood-frame plantation office where the general spent the last 6 days of his life after being shot and mortally wounded by his own men at Chancellorsville. Jackson's doctors hoped that he would recover sufficiently to board a train at nearby Guinea Station for the ride to Richmond, but it was not to be. Jackson's body was taken to Lexington, where he was buried with full honors. The office is the only structure remaining at the plantation and appears as it did when Jackson died. About half of its contents are original, including his deathbed.

The shrine is open 9am to 5pm daily from Memorial Day to Labor Day, Saturday to Monday the rest of the year. It's at the junction of C.R. 606 and C.R. 607, about 27 miles southeast of Chancellorsville, 18 miles southeast of Spotsylvania Courthouse. From I-95, take Exit 118 at Thornburg and follow the signs east on C.R. 606.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.