Fredericksburg And The Wilderness

The route from Washington to Richmond skirts the Potomac for a long distance south of Alexandria, winding among hills and forests, crossing various broad creeks and bayous, among them the Occoquan, the outlet of Bull Run, and then diverges towards the Rappahannock. This is more historic ground, for the terrible battle of Fredericksburg was fought here in December, 1862, and the battle of Chancellorsville, to the westward, in May, 1863, where Stone-wall Jackson lost his life. The ” Wilderness ” is to the southward of the Rappahannock, occupying about two hundred square miles, a plateau sloping to cultivated lowlands on every side. The original forests were long ago cut off, and a dense growth of scrub timber and brambles covered nearly the whole surface, with an occasional patch of woodland or a clearing. After the battle of Antietam the anxiety for another forward movement to Richmond led the Ad-ministration to remove McClellan, and then General Burnside took command. His troops crossed the Rappahannock in December to attack General Lees Confederate position on the Heights of Marye, where they were strongly entrenched ; but the attack failed, the shattered army after great carnage withdrawing to the north bank of the river, and it lay there for months in winter quarters. Burnside was superseded by General Hooker, and in May, 1863, the Northern army again crossed the ‘Rappahannock at several fords above Fredericksburg and started for Richmond. Lee quickly marched westward from Fredericksburg, and Lee and Hooker faced each other at Chancellorsville. Then came another of Stonewall Jackson’s brilliant flank movements. Chancellorsville is on the eastern border of the Wilderness, and Jackson, making a long detour to the south and west through that desolate region, got around and behind Hooker’s right flank, surprised him, and sent General Howard’s entire corps in panic down upon the rest of the Union forces, making the greatest surprise of the war. During that same night Jackson, after his victory, was accidentally shot by his own men, a blow from which the Confederacy never recovered. Twelve miles south of Fredericksburg, at Guinney Station, is the little house where Jackson died. He and his aides, after reconnoitering, had returned with-in the Confederate lines, and the pickets, mistaking them for the enemy, fired into the party. Several of his escort were killed and Jackson was shot in three places, an arm being shattered. Being put upon a litter one of the bearers stumbled, and Jack-son was additionally injured by being thrown to the ground. The arm was amputated, but afterwards pneumonia set in, which, was the immediate cause of his death. He lingered a week, dying May 10th, in his fortieth year, his last words, dreamily spoken, being : ” Let us cross over the river and rest under the shade of the trees.” It is said this loss of his ablest lieutenant had such an effect upon Lee that he afterwards aged rapidly, and his hair quickly whitened. The spot where Jackson was shot is alongside the Orange Plank Road, and is marked by a granite monument. Jackson is buried at Lexington, Virginia, where he had previously been a professor in the Military Academy. Hooker withdrew across the Rappahannock, Lee started northward, Hooker was succeeded by Meade, and the battle of Gettysburg was fought at the beginning of July.

Then came another movement towards Richmond, late in the year 1863. Meade marched down to the Wilderness in November, had heavy skirmishing and fought the battle of Mine Run on its western, border, and then went back and into winter quarters. General Grant came from the West, took command, and early in May, 1864, started on his great march to Richmond through the Wilderness, with Lee constantly fighting on his right flank and front. There followed during that month a series of sanguinary battles, in this inhospitable region, in which the losses of the two armies exceeded sixty thousand men. While moving southward, Grant faced and fought generally westward. It took him ten days to progress a dozen miles, and he could only move during the lulls in the fighting, the advance being usually made by changing one corps after another from the right to the left by marching in the rear of the main body, thus gradually prolonging the left wing south-ward through the forbidding country. Lee pressed forward into the vacated space, fortifying and fighting, his object being to force Grant eastward and away from Richmond, which was towards the south. “More desperate fighting has not been witnessed upon this Continent,” said Grant of this struggle in the Wilderness ; and later he wrote to Washington the famous declaration of his intention “to fight it out on this line if it takes all summer.” The whole of this desolate region south and west of Fredericks-burg and down to Spottsylvania is filled with the re-mains of the fortifications constructed in these memorable battles. Grant said that ” In every change of position or halt for the night, whether confronting the enemy or not, the moment arms were stacked the men entrenched themselves,” adding, “It was wonderful how quickly they could construct defenses of considerable strength.” Thus the way was worked, by shovel and shell and musket and axe, through the Wilderness. There is a plan afoot for acquiring these battlefields and the connecting roads, so as to preserve this historic ground as a public reservation.

The railway route to Richmond goes through the Wilderness, thinly peopled, sparsely cultivated, and exhibiting a few negro settlements, where they sun themselves alongside their cabins and watch the trains go by. There is an occasional horse or cow, but almost the only animals visible are the nimble-footed and hungry-looking ” razor-backed” hogs that range the scrub timber in search of a precarious living. Once in awhile is seen an old homestead that has survived the ruin of the war, but the few buildings are generally most primitive, the favorite style being a small wooden cabin set alongside a huge brick chimney. It is said the chimney is first built, and if the draught is all right they then build the little cabin over against it and move in the family. The agriculture does not appear much better until Richmond is approached, where the surface of the country improves. At Hanover Court House are more signs of battlefields, for here McClellan had his early conflicts in besieging Richmond in 1862, while Grant came down from the Wilderness and had the battles of the North Anna near the end of May, 1864, and of Cold Harbor in June, after which he moved his army to the south side of James River. Ashland, sixteen miles north of Richmond, is in an attractive region, and is a favorite place of suburban residence.

This was the birthplace of Henry Clay, in 1777, and is the seat of Randolph Macon College.