It doesn’t get much better that spending five days with thirteen enthusiastic students at some of our most important Civil War battlefields. After flying into Washington, D.C. on Sunday we hit the ground running by heading directly to Fredericksburg, Virginia. Our tour began at Chatham, where we discussed the history of the town of Fredericksburg and the difficult choices that its residents were forced to make during the 1860 election and secession winter. This was also an ideal location at which to situate the 20th Massachusetts Infantry as the battle commenced on December 11.
Once across the river we parked along Sophia Street, where we discussed the street fighting that the 20th Mass. experienced as well as its participation in the looting of the town. After a quick lunch we headed up to Marye’s Heights to discuss the December 13 battle and the role of the 20th Mass. as it moved to engage North Carolinians along the Stone Wall.
Today we spent the morning at Lee’s Hill to talk about battlefield preservation followed by a brief stop along the Confederate right at Prospect Hill. By early afternoon we were in Harpers Ferry, where I was able to use Brown’s Raid to give our battlefield visits some context by reminding the group of the centrality of slavery and the specific events leading to the 1860 election and secession.
Tonight I asked the group to do a little reflection about what they’ve experienced thus far.
One student took an interest in the Kirkland Monument on the Fredericksburg battlefield, which we discussed with some depth.
It is not our duty to romanticize the war, even for the sake of working together as a country for the future. It is tempting to forget how terrible the war and our past mistakes in general are. This statue came to represent something larger to me then how we remember a specific battle, or even war, as a country. It serves as a reminder that history is dangerous, and the way we choose to remember it is critical to our collective integrity.
On the street fighting in Fredericksburg:
I thought it was extremely interesting how we were walking and at the same time hearing the stories of the Union army advancing and retreating in the streets of Fredericksburg… Starting from crossing the river, to going down all the streets with Confederates shooting at all angles I think after seeing all of the sights, that it is important to preserve it all. It is physical evidence that this bloody war between the North and South, all brothers, happened.
and another on the street fighting and eating pizza:
Even sitting in the pizza place, I was thinking about what happened on the streets outside 150 years ago, and the strategy behind battles as well as their impact.
One student reflected on the personal pasts of high-ranking officers:
Additionally, I would really like to learn more about the backgrounds of the high-ranking commanding officers. Learning more about their past/personal history I believe can give us a better understanding of who they were and even why they did what they did.
Reflection on what has made the most impression thus far:
Literally everything that I’ve seen and heard over the past two days has piqued my curiosity so that I simply can’t imagine ever satisfying it: The intense commitment & loyalty of the Confederate troops, despair, the sheer hopelessness of their situation. The God-like status that Lee had been elevated to, perhaps from a lack of leadership from Davis. The shift of what the war was about (at least officially , for Lincoln and the Union). The increasingly relevant and necessary lessons of the war and how they can impact my understanding of the world today. All of these topics and much more have been unlocked for me during these past days and will interest me throughout my entire life.
And we still have Antietam and Gettysburg ahead of us.