Report From the Field: Fredericksburg and Harpers Ferry

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.

Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth

“Levin’s study is the first of its kind to blueprint and then debunk the mythology of enslaved African Americans who allegedly served voluntarily in behalf of the Confederacy.”–Journal of Southern History

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6 comments… add one
  • John Betts Mar 26, 2015 @ 3:47

    Oh wow, I missed that you were coming to my neighborhood! I’m nearby in Stafford. There certainly is a lot to see here and do for fun. If the Civil War and slavery are what y’all are focused on (not surprising of course) try some of these locations:

    There is a slavery block at the corner of Williams and Charles Streets that’s a bit chilling to see. Although I should mention that some question its authenticity. Real artifact or not it does give a sense of “realness” to a horrible part of our history.

  • fundrums Mar 25, 2015 @ 10:04

    I am extremely impressed with your students interpretations Kevin. As a Fredericksburg resident and private tour guide I am always amazed at the effect this town and its rich history has on visitors. Glad to see that all sides were represented and that you took the time to present the citizen’s perspectives too. We tend to get too hung up on the armies and we forget the carnage they left behind.

  • Bruce Vail Mar 24, 2015 @ 15:04

    Tell the kids that there are wonderful opportunities for canoeing and white-water rafting around Harpers Ferry. It may encourage them to come back.

    I’ve done some canoeing in the area, and two trips down Antietam Creek were especially memorable. With some knowledge of the history, floating under Burnsides Bridge is an eerie and unforgettable experience.

  • Peter Winfrey Mar 24, 2015 @ 12:46

    Looks like you’re making them into Civil War Buffs. 🙂

  • Rick Mar 24, 2015 @ 5:42

    Kevin that’s fantastic! The teaching ranks need more people like yourself. Battlefields are the best classrooms. Not to mention the closest we’ll get to time machines.

  • Rob Baker Mar 24, 2015 @ 5:17

    Awesome stuff. I hope the rest of the trip goes swimmingly.

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