One Man’s Opinion

Dick Nicholas

Volume 12, Number 10
October 2004

I was excited a year or two ago to learn that the National Park Service was going to restore the stone wall and Sunken Road in Fredericksburg that was the scene of the bloody Civil War battle of December 13, 1862. Now comes the latest and even better news that the work is in progress and that 400 hundred feet of the wall should be completed this month, and the road itself should be restored by next summer. It’s all a part of the Park Service’s effort to return the landscape below Marye’s Heights to its appearance around the time of the battle. Even when the project is complete, however, the area will not be exactly pristine, because the area north of the road that was open countryside during the Civil War has long since been covered over with residences and other debris of Fredericksburg.

For those of you who have toured the area, you know that only a small portion of the original stone wall just east of Hanover Street survived into the 20th century, and what was the earlier sunken road was paved over years ago. Since the, the road has served as a narrow east-west traffic thoroughfare for its short length from Hanover Street to Lafayette Boulevard and the Fredericksburg Battlefield Visitor Center. With the exception of that short little stretch of wall (less than a hundred feet) that was preserved on the north side of the road near the west end, it was always hard to imagine the scene depicted in the classic photograph taken looking east along the road after the May 1863 Battle of Fredericksburg.

To understand the significance of the stone wall and the Sunken Road, it is necessary to go back to the December 1862 battle. In the aftermath of the first Maryland campaign, George B. McClellan was relieved of command of the massive Union Army of the Potomac, and was succeeded by a reluctant thirty-eight-year-old Ambrose E. Burnside, he of the unmistakable sideburns. By December of that year Burnside had inched his way south, in the direction of Richmond, until he was confronted by Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia along the Rappahannock River at Fredericksburg. After much delay waiting on pontoons, Burnside conceived a plan to launch a two-pronged attack across the river with General William B. Franklin’s Left Grand Division to turn the Confederate right defended by Stonewall Jackson. Once a breakthrough was achieved in that area, the Right Grand Division led by General Edwin V. Sumner was to attack the Confederate left directly west of Fredericksburg.

So much for the poorly defined, inarticulate, and ill-executed grand plan of Burnside. Aside from a momentary breakthrough in mid-morning of the 13th by George Meade’s Division on Prospect Hill, the attack on the Confederate right failed to achieve the anticipated results. Although the original plan called for Sumner to attack only after Franklin had broken Lee’s line on the right, Burnside decided, apparently out of despair and frustration, that he could wait no longer to attack the Confederate left. Around 11 o’clock he ordered the Right Grand Division to “push a column of a division or more along the Plank and Telegraph roads, with a view to seizing the heights in the rear of the town.” From this order came the bloody battle at the base of Marye’s Heights along the Sunken Road and its stone wall.Many books and articles have described the repeated Union assaults that lasted from about mid-day until late afternoon on December 13. The keys to the nearly impregnable Confederate defense line were a sunken road running north-south along the base of Marye’s Heights, and stone retaining walls that flanked the road on its town side and, in places, on the hill side as well. The road was sunken in 1862 due to its heavy use as the main highway to Richmond, and was known as Telegraph Road. What was merely a practical aid to the transportation across the Virginia countryside in that era, quite by accident served General Lee as an ideal military position. During repeated assaults involving 15 Union brigades from six divisions, Southern soldiers in some places jammed six ranks deep along about 600 yards of the road and firing from the protection of the stone wall, inflicted more than 8,000 casualties on the attackers.

Longstreet, who commanded the Confederate defenses in this area, stated that the wall on the north side of the road facing town was “breast-high for a man, and just the height convenient for infantry defense and fire.” Oddly enough, according to Longstreet, the sunken road and stone wall were not thought to be formidable obstacles before the battle. The Confederates assumed that the primary attack in this area would be just to the east against Lee’s Hill in an attempt to flank the strong Marye’s Heights and the Sunken Road position. Perhaps the logic behind the latter assumption was based, at least in part, on the artilleryman E. Porter Alexander’s promise to Longstreet prior to the battle that his guns on Marye’s Heights could dominate the open fields between the Sunken Road and the Town of Fredericksburg and that “a chicken could not live on that field when we open on it.”

The charge of Sumner’s Right Grand Division at Fredericksburg on December 13, 1863, has been compared with that of Longstreet’s assault on Cemetery Ridge at Gettysburg six months later when the roles were reversed. In both cases, infantry attacked uphill across open fields against defenders situated in nearly impregnable positions. The comparison goes even further when the artillery configurations of the two battles are considered. I’m sure that Henry Hunt commanding the Union artillery at Gettysburg must have been as confident as Porter Alexander was on Marye’s Heights prior to that battle.

For James Longstreet, the defensive situation at Fredericksburg fitted his strengths and personality. It was a set-piece battle, he had all the time needed to get his men and guns in place, and he was defending against an incompetent enemy whose only modus operandi was to bludgeon his way straight ahead against impossible odds. No doubt Longstreet’s experience at Fredericksburg was a contributing factor to his reluctance to launch Pickett’s charge on the third day at Gettysburg in a similar, though transposed, situation. There, the Union defenders then fighting from behind a Pennsylvania stone wall were redeemed for the Fredericksburg debacle.

On May 3, 1863, Union General John Sedgwick initiated another attack on Marye’s Heights that became known as the Second Battle of Fredericksburg, but was really a part of a diversionary attack associated with the Chancellorsville campaign. Again, Union infantry columns attacked out of Fredericksburg on Hanover Street and William Street/Plank Road towards Marye’s Heights. This time the much-weakened Confederate defenders, led by Jubal Early, in the Sunken Road and on the neighboring hills were soon overrun.

Our image of the Sunken Road and its bordering stone walls is derived from the classic photograph taken by Brady in the aftermath of the May 3rd battle. The photograph looks east down the road with Marye’s Heights or Willis’ Hill on the right or south, and shows a substantial stone wall about 3–4 feet high on the left or north side of the road. What has always puzzled me, however, is the one to two foot deep ditch running the length of the road and parallel to the wall about three to four feet inward from the wall. The picture also shows numerous dead Confederate soldiers and their guns strewn along the length of the ditch. Was the ditch an integral part of the drainage system for the road, or was it dug at the time of the battle for defensive purposes? And why are all the dead soldiers lying in or adjacent to the ditch rather than closer to the protecting wall?

Geologists and archeologists believe that the original stone for the wall was cut from a long-since vanished quarry behind the nearby National Cemetery. With no local source of stone available, the restorers were forced to turn elsewhere for authentic-looking replacements. Ironically the new stone was trucked in from a quarry in Pennsylvania!