Return to story
The county's part in the American Crisis deserves to be preserved
AS AN OLD SAGE once said, it's never too late to do the right thing. Stafford County's plan to work with the National Park Service to catalog its Civil War sites is a commendable--if tardy--undertaking. Witness: the recent accidental destruction of what some believe was a redoubt by the developer of Poplar Hills.
No major Civil War battles raged in Stafford, thus the fast-growing county has not been the object of the kind of preservationist attention that has fallen beneficially on Spotsylvania County, with its high-profile battlefields. But for those who treasure history, Stafford's is rich.
After the Battle of Fredericksburg, Gen. Burnside's Union troops retreated over the Rappahannock and dug in for the winter in Stafford. Over 120,000 federal troops--more men than today's bulging population--camped there, many in small log huts. At the time, the county was home to only around 5,000 people, and 1,000 men were away serving in the Confederate Army. The remaining residents suffered terrible deprivation as Union troops stripped local farms of livestock, produce, and wood. The Yankees looted and tore down abandoned farmhouses and churches and even pulled up fence posts for firewood. The occupiers cut so many trees that, by some estimates, only about 20 that predate the Civil War remain. With the land laid bare, topsoil washed away, and farms in ruins, Stafford remained impoverished until the 1950s.
Of course, the Union troops didn't have it easy, either, as they licked their wounds and fought off the cold. As local historian D.P. Newton of the White Oak Museum says, "The suffering and dying don't stop on the battlefield." For every man killed in combat, two died from disease and other causes. After the Civil War, around 3,000 bodies were removed from Stafford and reburied in the Fredericksburg National Cemetery. Countless others may remain.
Seven redoubts like the one that may have been destroyed survive in Stafford, says Mr. Newton. Of the roughly 630 regimental camps, half are gone, while half are in farmland and potentially savable. The pilings of Burnside's wharf below Aquia Landing may still be seen, and cannon pits along the Rappahannock and gun emplacements near New Hope Church are in evidence.
All these remnants of the past can be cataloged and many saved, but this will take the concerted efforts of developers, landowners, historians, and Civil War buffs. Mr. Newton generously reminds us that "it was the Union army's suffering and blood that kept this country together." Honoring that sacrifice by identifying and preserving Stafford's hallowed ground is a moral obligation.Postscript
One can hardly think of a more appropriate place to preserve a Civil War site than a school. Three acres of an eight-acre Union campsite at a new middle school being built in Stafford at the corner of Deacon and Brooke roads are wisely being left untouched so that students can experience history firsthand through archaeological digs.
What a great idea. Kids will be able to plunge right into the past, and one suspects that after discovering real bullets and uniform buttons in their own back yard they will never again yawn when history class rolls around. Congratulations, Stafford schools, on your creative thinking.