As most of you know I live in Fredericksburg Virginia, Southern Spotsylvania County to be exact, which is commonly referred to as “The Crossroads of the Civil War." Despite all of the issues that we have experienced in recent years due to urban sprawl, it is still a beautiful area that is saturated in Civil War history.
Do you like battlefields? We have four of the BIG ones. What about museums, cemeteries, or plantations? We have a bunch of those too. Are you familiar with Massaponax Church, or the Stonewall Jackson Shrine? I get to pass both everyday on my way to work. And do you like Civil War trails, or roadside markers? We have more of those than STOP signs.
With all of these wonderful and historical places surrounding us, it is very easy to forget the awful hardships and carnage that took place here. I myself have only recently begun to look at my home with a different perspective and I think that it has forced me to appreciate the area even more. You see, when you come here to Central Virginia and tour the hallowed grounds, everything is perfect. The grass is neatly trimmed and the markers are polished. The freshly painted cannons are all lined up neatly and the landmark buildings are restored to their original splendor. Depending on the time of year, there can be rows and rows of flags or luminaries in the cemeteries and you can often find living historians or re-enactor’s walking about.
On a clear day in the winter, you can stand at the top of Maryes Heights at the Fredericksburg Battlefield and see for miles and miles. In the fall, the brightly colored trees that line the walking trails at both Chancellorsville and the Wilderness are breathtaking. Springtime is amazing at Spotsylvania’s field as the flowers begin to bloom across the landscape and don’t forget about Old Town, which remains spotless all through the year. It is a very romantic place to visit to say the least. As a resident, it is like living in a postcard, and I feel very fortunate to be able to raise my family here.
That said, this peaceful and serene “buff’s paradise” makes it far too easy to forget that at the time of the war, specifically as the events that have made this town memorable in the first place transpired, the fields, roads, and downtown areas were absolutely devastated. In fact, it was probably not at all a nice place to be. It must have been both terrifying and nauseating as the horrible sounds and stench of battle permeated the air. Not at all like it is today.
This epiphany came to me not here, but on a recent trip to Manassas. As I stood on Henry House Hill, looking out over the green pastures, I suddenly looked down at my feet and realized that there was a good chance that I was standing in the “shadow” of death. I had a similar feeling the year before, when I had the entire field at Gettysburg (Pickett’s Charge) to myself. Is it even possible to take a step on that field without tramping on the exact spot where someone fell?
Looking around, I found myself reflecting on the piles of rotting men and horses and imagining the millions of flies that must have littered the air. I tried to picture the nightmarish scenes that were witnessed by the townsfolk following the battle. It was a feeling of both awe and eeriness that I experienced and it stuck with me long after I returned to Virginia. Many of you already know this, but it hit me like a brick as I had (apparently) been caught up in the glory of it all.
In other words, touring our battlefields (or ANY battlefield for that matter) means walking among the dead and I now have to consciously remind myself that the beauty that surrounds me is a façade and that the men that fought and died here baptized the soil in their blood. I also try to remember that the local population experienced horrors that I cannot even begin to imagine and that BOTH of these groups’ sufferings must NEVER be forgotten. These are the parts of Civil War memory that must not be taken for granted.
So the next time that you find yourself touring one of these picturesque places, try to remember that although our National Battlefields are BEAUTIFUL, the war that took place on them was UGLY.