Fredericksburg: Not Just the Sunken Road

Bruce Venter

To paraphrase a famous depiction used to describe Major General Winfield Scott Hancock, I would have to say that our Fredericksburg tour leader, Frank O’Reilly was simply “superb.” I knew there was more to the battle of Fredericksburg than just the maniacal assaults at the Sunken Road. But Frank’s incredible expertise brought many other aspects of this campaign to a new, higher level of comprehension for me and our tour participants. Frank’s understanding of the campaign’s political, logistical, cartographic, and command and control problems made this tour unforgettable. He also included a good dose of personal valor stories, descriptions of the idiosyncratic personalities of various leaders on both sides and leadership questions for us to consider on different parts of the field. As Tom Lannon from Phoenix, Arizona put it, “From my point of view as a tour attendee three days with Frank O’Reilly on the Fredericksburg battlefield was a real treat. The guy has an amazing amount of knowledge about the history there and did an outstanding job of conveying what happened and why. I could not have asked for more. And all the things you did to make it comfortable with the accommodations, the lunches, snacks and transportation were just first rate. Thanks for everything and I am sure I will see you on another tour in the future.”

We started the tour on Day One with a look at Skinner’s Neck where the battle of Fredericksburg could have occurred, save for some unpredictable circumstances. This is a location that tour participants rarely get to see when coming to the Fredericksburg battlefield. We also saw the Grace Church, a structure still in private hands, which served as a headquarters and meeting place for several Confederate generals, including Lee and Jackson. Then it was on to Chatham plantation where the Union high command surveyed the battle lines. It was here that Frank explored the logistical problems of the pontoon train which was an integral part of General Burnside’s strategic plan defeat General Lee’s army. After lunch we walked the street fighting scenes on the north side of Fredericksburg, ending the day below the town at the site where the “Gallant Pelham” created havoc with one gun, delaying the Federal attack on the Southern right flank.

Day Two started in the Slaughter Pen where we spent three hours walking the fields where Gibbon and Meade made their bloody attacks. The 200 acres saved by the Civil War Trust are truly a magnificent gem in the crown of preservation. Frank’s grateful enthusiasm for the CWT’s efforts was clearly evident to all participants. Hopefully, more of the southern end of the battlefield will be preserved by another large land purchase that is currently under negotiation. From the Slaughter Pen Farm we drove to the other side of the line at Prospect Hill where Jackson’s Confederates repulsed the Union onslaughts. We ended the day by walking the approach and attack of the Irish Brigade and Humphrey’s Division on the Sunken Road. I personally got a better understanding of A. A. Humphrey’s personality and leadership quirks.

Our Third Day was dedicated to Burnside’s Mud March and actions following the Fredericksburg campaign. Frank took us to “Profanity Gulch,” a site he had never taken a tour group before due to its difficult location. Other sites covered were Banks Ford, Berea Church, Hartwood Church and Kelly’s Ford. Lunch was at Pelham’s Pub in the Inn at Kelly’s Ford which provided Civil War ambiance and good food for all. Stagecoach Charter Lines again provided excellent transportation for us over the three days of touring. Suffice it to say, our evaluations were off the charts for this exceptional tour. I’m hopeful that Frank O’Reilly will be doing another tour for America’s History next year. If  he does, don’t miss it!

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