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The battlefield becomes a park

ëBehind the Linesí

Don PfanzA weekly series, ëBehind the Lines.î An anecdotal narrative tells the in-depth story of the 1862 Battle of Fredericksburgóthe action, the major players, the behind-the-scenes intrigue and the effect on the town. Writing the series is Donald C. Pfanz, staff historian at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. A native of Gettysburg, Pa., Pfanz graduated from the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg in 1980, then joined the National Park Service. He served at Petersburg National Battlefield and Fort Sumter National Monument before joining the Park Service here. He has written two books: ëAbraham Lincoln at City Pointí and ëRichard S. Ewell: A Soldier's Life.í

See previous stories.

Part 37, the final installment, of a series on the
1862 Battle of Fredericksburg

BY THE TIME the Civil War ended in 1865, Fredericksburg was in ruins. The once-elegant town had been shattered by artillery fire, pillaged by enemy soldiers, and turned into one vast hospital. Its citizens had fled; its economy was in tatters. But Fredericksburg rebounded. After the war approximately 4,000 of the city's 5,000 inhabitants returned. In time, they restored their shell-torn houses, reopened their factories and shops and rebuilt their lives.

In 1866, construction began on a national cemetery located at Marye's Heights outside of town. Over a period of three years, civilian contractors hired by the U.S. government combed the lots, fields and forests around Fredericksburg, hunting for Union graves. The bodies, when found, were brought to the cemetery by wagon and buried. The bodies of Southern soldiers were taken to Confederate cemeteries located either in Fredericksburg or at Spotsylvania Court House. Over time, granite headstones replaced wooden markers over the graves, and monuments were added. Northern and Southern cemeteries alike began to take on a permanent look.

Rancor engendered by the war steadily subsided, and by 1890 Union and Confederate veterans were working together to preserve the battlefields where they had once fought. Sites of Northern victories received top priority. Antietam, Chickamauga and Chattanooga, Shiloh, Gettysburg and Vicksburg battlefields became national military parks in the 1890s. The Fredericksburg-area battlefields, being mostly Confederate victories, received less attention.

Even so, there were those who were determined to see the land preserved. In 1891, a group of veterans formed a corporation for the purpose of creating a national military park at Fredericksburg. The group got off to a fast start, purchasing 747 acres at Spotsylvania Court House battlefield and 845 acres at Chancellorsville. Unfortunately, it was unable to pay its bills, and the land reverted to private ownership in 1895.

Hopes for a national military park at Fredericksburg lived on, however. In 1898, at the prompting of the Fredericksburg City Council, the Virginia Assembly passed legislation creating the Fredericksburg National Park Commission and appointed prominent veterans such as Joshua Chamberlain, Dan Sickles and James Longstreet to serve on its executive committee. The commission's goal was "to mark and preserve the battlefields" around Fredericksburg and to erect "memorial stones, tablets or monuments" as needed. It had the authority to purchase up to 7,125 acres of land, which could later be transferred to the U.S. government to create a national military park.

Two years later, in May 1900, the Society of the Army of the Potomac, the largest Union veterans group in the country, held its annual reunion at Fredericksburg. It was the first time the society had held a meeting in the South, and it attracted national attention. President William McKinley, himself an old soldier, attended the meeting, as did the governor of Virginia and numerous generals. Judge John T. Goolrick welcomed the group on behalf of the city. Addressing the crowd of former officers and dignitaries, the former Confederate private quipped that he was the most distinguished man present at the gathering, being one of the few enlisted men there.

Before leaving Fredericksburg, members of the society sent a resolution to the U.S. Congress supporting the creation of a national park at Fredericksburg. The Speaker of the House opposed the measure, however, and blocked its passage. Despite the best efforts of the Fredericksburg National Park Commission and its allies, the bill never reached the House floor.

For 20 years the idea of a national military park at Fredericksburg languished. It revived in 1921 when Gen. Smedley Butler brought 4,200 Marines from Quantico to Wilderness battlefield for four days of military exercises. The Marines sketched the outline of a battleship in the valley bordering Wilderness Run (near the present-day intersection of State Routes 3 and 20) and for four days defended the ship against mock attacks. The exercise, which was attended by President Warren G. Harding and Marine Commandant Maj. Gen. John A. Lejeune, attracted national attention and provided new impetus for creating a national military park at Fredericksburg.

That dream finally became a reality in 1927, when Congress passed a bill establishing Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania County Battlefields Memorial National Military Park. The new park encompassed four major Civil War battlefields--Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Wilderness, and Spotsylvania Court House--on which 100,000 soldiers had been killed or wounded. President Calvin Coolidge formally dedicated the park in 1928 at a ceremony held at the Fredericksburg Country Club, south of town. Gov. Harry Byrd and Sen. Claude A. Swanson attended the ceremony.

Development of the park proceeded quickly. Park commissioners purchased more than 2,100 acres of ground and in 1931 opened Lee Drive, the park's first tour road. Then the Depression hit. Work ground to a halt as funding for the park dried up. But the Depression turned out to be a blessing in disguise. In 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt transferred Fredericksburg National Military Park from the War Department to the National Park Service and infused money into the park through various New Deal programs. Progress in developing the park jumped forward.

Members of the Civilian Conservation Corps constructed roads, built culverts and cleared trees from trenches; the Public Works Administration constructed a visitors center at the corner of Lafayette Boulevard and Sunken Road; Emergency Conservation Work guides manned contact stations and squired visitors around the park. As a result of these projects, Fredericksburg battlefield began taking on the look of a modern national park.

Land acquisitions since that time have helped fill out the park boundaries. In 1975 philanthropist John Lee Pratt donated his 18th-century home, Chatham, to the park, and in 1997 the National Park Service, with financial assistance from the Civil War Preservation Trust and the Central Virginia Battlefields Trust, purchased a key portion of Marye's Heights adjacent to Fredericksburg National Cemetery.

The National Park Service is currently working to acquire lots along Willis Street in an effort to restore a small portion of the plain leading to Marye's Heights--hallowed ground on which more than 1,000 Union soldiers lost their lives. Thanks to the efforts of the Fredericksburg City Council, several hundred yards of the historic Sunken Road--the site of two major battles--will be closed to traffic and restored to its historic appearance.

Other exciting projects are in the works: new films for the visitors center, new outdoor exhibits along the Sunken Road and Marye's Heights, a new audio walking tour. In conjunction with the city of Fredericksburg and partners like the CVBT, the National Park Service is also working to interpret Civil War sites outside the park boundary. Sign clusters at City Dock, the School Board building, Maury School and the Fredericksburg Visitor Center attest to the success of these partnerships.

Today, at approximately 8,000 acres, Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park is the largest military reservation in the world. Nearly 2 million people come to Fredericksburg each year to visit Marye's Heights, walk the Sunken Road and learn about the tragic events that took place here. They come to reflect and to remember. That is what the veterans who fought to establish the park more than a century ago intended. They would be pleased to know it had finally come to pass.

DONALD C. PFANZ is staff historian with Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. He is author of "Abraham Lincoln at City Point" and "Richard S. Ewell: A Soldier's Life."