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Stone's throw to history
Stone craftsmen re-create section of Civil War-era wall along Sunken Road

 Dry stone construction is done without mortar, much like the original wall built in the 1830s on Sunken Road.
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Date published: 9/23/2004


Masons rebuild Civil War wall along Sunken Road

No one knows why the sturdy stone wall along Sunken Road was built sometime in the 1830s or the reason that most of it disappeared by 1900.

But Neil Rippingale, a master stone mason who learned the trade in his native Scotland, knows how it was built--by hand, with simple tools and no mortar.

Rippingale heads up a crew of six men who are rebuilding the wall that played a deadly role nearly 142 years ago during the Battle of Fredericksburg. It's part of a National Park Service project to return the landscape below Marye's Heights to its appearance around the time of the Civil War battle.

Rippingale talked about his labor of love while taking a breather last week.

"We've got four weeks to finish about 400 feet," he said as crew member Richard Tinsley chipped away at a large cap stone with a heavy hammer. Rippingale is training program manager for Dry Stone Conservancy in Lexington, Ky., which specializes in restoring stone structures and training craftsmen from around the country on projects such as this one.

The crew finished 100 feet of wall the first week, and expects to average about 20 feet a day.

Four feet high and tapered for strength, Rippingale's wall started after 1,000 tons of sandstone blocks were trucked in from a quarry in Pennsylvania. It takes about 2¼ tons for each 3 feet of wall.

The original stone was cut from a quarry behind the National Cemetery.

"This is a blocky, chunky kind of stone with a rugged appearance. It's very authentic to what was here originally," Rippingale said.

What was here on Dec. 13, 1862, was a formidable obstacle for Union troops who fought through the edge of the city along a gently sloping, open plain ending at Sunken Road. Confederate artillery firing from above on Marye's Heights, and riflemen four deep behind the wall, killed or wounded 12,000 men in blue.

Age-old techniques

First, archaeologists examined the path of the original wall, which was laid with no foundation. Then historians used wartime photographs and soldiers' accounts for more clues about the dimensions and construction.

Whoever built the original wall simply shaped and stacked the stones.

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