Growing up, our home library was packed with books on the Civil War, including my favorite, “The American Heritage Guide to the Civil War”, with its detailed drawings of each battle in the War Between the States that included thousands of tiny men in blue and gray.
I was mystified and fascinated by the horrific Battle of Fredericksburg where Union Gen. Ambrose Burnside sent wave after wave of soldiers — including the pride the Army of the Potomac, the Irish Brigade — up the steep slope of Marye’s Heights against Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia barricaded behind a solid brick wall.
It was a massacre and historians still debate why Burnside did it. The story has always haunted me. When I began writing a series of novels about the Irish in America during the Civil War, Fredericksburg had to be the climax of one of the books.
But when we finally visited Fredericksburg’s ghost-ridden battleground and cemeteries, we also discovered a vibrant, enchanting town on the beautiful Rappahannock River.
Because of its location between Richmond and Washington D.C., Fredericksburg was of strategic importance during the Civil War. The town, of course, has encroached on the battlefield since 1862, but the National Park Service does a masterful job of vividly depicting and explaining the carnage.
Starting from the visitor’s center, set next to the infamous Sunken Road, near the crest of Marye’s Heights, we followed our wonderfully informative guide on an hour-long tour of the best surviving section of Lee’s defenses. Standing by the remnant of the stone wall, next to the lone surviving house on the grounds, and looking down the steep and deadly hill towards town, the pages of those maps in the “American Heritage” book came vividly to life. It’s a somber sight and our tour group became hushed as we envisioned row after row of young boys, most of whom spoke only Gaelic, running towards certain death.
There is a strangely peaceful, if spectral, air about the scene as if — as the Bible says — the very stones cry out and the ghosts of that lost generation still clustered around us. Even the traffic noise seemed muted and distant.
The thousands of final casualties are buried in massive, starkly beautiful cemeteries that ring the site, endless rows of white tombstones, virtually all with the same dates — December 11-13, 1862. The Fredericksburg National Cemetery alone is the final home to 15,000 mostly unknown Union soldiers.
Fredericksburg itself is a divided town. The west side is split by Interstate 95 and dominated by strip malls, big box retailers and chain restaurants and hotels. The east side (by the river) is nearly untouched, with architecture dating back to the Colonial era. The two are separated by the handsome campus of University of Mary Washington.
Old town Fredericksburg has several fine options for accommodations and we chose the historic Richard Johnston Inn & 1890 Caroline House on 711 Caroline Street, just a block off the Rappahannock and in the town’s busiest commercial district.
Our fellow guests in the Richard Johnston Inn, some of whom had already spent several days exploring the area, lavished praise of the town — and its restaurants. For lunch, we chose the Sunken Well Tavern, right off the battlefield, a charming old pub with genuinely outstanding food, including perhaps the best corned beef on rye sandwich ever.
Thus fortified, we resumed our tour. Even in midweek, the closely packed shops and restaurants lining historic Caroline Street thronged with both tourists and locals. The quality and variety of the shopping is truly impressive, including multiple, colorful antique shops, many with museum-quality items for sale. There’s a tempting music store (Picker’s Supply), bookstores (Riverby Books and Jabberwocky Children’s Books & Toys) and the wonderfully eclectic Latitudes Fair Trade Store, all within a block or so on Caroline. We tarried too long in FAVOR, a “chocolate boutique,” and came away some of their decadent, handmade creations.
The influence of the doomed Irish Brigade, even 160 years later, is everywhere, too. In addition to the colorful Irish Shop and the genealogy-oriented Irish Eyes, J. Brian’s Tap Room — with its enormous array of tap beer — is modeled after an Irish pub. The nearby Colonial Tavern was the “home” of the Brigade during the Battle of Fredericksburg and authentic Irish cuisine dominates the menu. It boasts one of the town’s most active music scenes, including weekly Celtic music nights, and an attractive — and lively — outdoor patio.
But the ghosts of the Irish Brigade can be felt on any of the cross streets on Caroline. Hanover, Charlotte and George streets all veer steeply up from the riverfront towards the battlefield, a stark reminder of those terrible days.
Perhaps because of that spiritual dissonance, Fredericksburg also has its share of colorful businesses dedicated to exploring “alternative” viewpoints, including The Dragon’s Den & Treasures, Hexes & Healing: The Witchy Store and the town psychic, with her table and crystal ball ready to tell your fortune, on the sidewalk across from our Inn.
We also peeked inside several first-rate art galleries. The town has a vigorous arts scene with Brush Strokes Gallery, Art First Gallery, Darbytown Art Studio, Meyer Fine Art Gallery and 810 Weekend Gallery all sponsoring shows, studio tours and talks, along with the lively Fredericksburg Center for the Creative Arts, which housed a handsome “Seen: African American Artists in Fredericksburg” exhibit. Even our lunch spot, the Sunken Well Tavern, was lined with whimsical, attractive art for sale.
The Civil War isn’t the only game in town. The Washington Heritage Museums, also on Caroline Street, feature the Mary Washington (George’s mother) House, the Hugh Mercer Apothecary Shop, the Rising Sun Tavern and the Mary Washington Monument.
At one point, we saw folks on the horse drawn Olde Towne Carriages tours — period carriages with guides and the host of the popular Ghost Tours of Fredericksburg.
For supper that evening, we weighed multiple highly recommended options, including the Colonial Tavern, the Port Oysteria & Brewery, the Cork & Table, Capital Ale House, Rebellion Bourbon Bar & Kitchen (which boasted more than 200 bourbons and whiskeys), TAPA RIO and the flower-draped Alpine Chef in the massive train station, before finally deciding on Brock’s Riverside Grill on the Rappahannock River.
But first we walked along the two lovely parks that stretched virtually the entire length of the riverfront, studded with historic buildings and sites, creative children’s playgrounds, lush landscaping and a host of different bird species. Once again, the town’s tragic past unexpectedly intruded as we chanced upon another small historic marker honoring the Irish Brigade.
Despite its generic warehouse-looking exterior, Brock’s is a jewel — a beautiful fine dining restaurant with an entire glass wall facing the Rappahannock. The service was stellar, the modern American cuisine stunning (perhaps the world’s great harvest vegetable pot pie, in my humble opinion), the drink menu expansive — but oh! those views as dusk descended. To our right was the old railroad bridge and we watched as the Amtrak and Virginia Railway Express trains brought hundreds of commuters home from D.C. — which went a long way towards explaining why this relatively small town had such a long list of first-class restaurants, shops and galleries!
The next morning, buoyed by a Southern-styled breakfast at our Inn, we made one last stop — beautiful, historic Chatham Manor and its immaculate gardens across the Rappahannock on bluffs overlooking the city. It’s here that the Union army camped before its bloody river crossing into Fredericksburg. But the view from the carefully restored historic home on this bright, clear morning gave us pause. Just beyond the bustling downtown, Marye’s Heights loomed ominously … a sight that must have chilled the souls of the men of the Army of the Potomac.
You’d need a couple of days to see and do everything in Fredericksburg. We never made it to the campus of the University of Mary Washington, which itself has a host of historic sites, including markers to civil rights hero Dr. James Farmer, a statue to Mary Washington, the James Monroe Museum and Memorial Library and the Brompton Oak, the lone remaining “witness tree” from the battle.
In addition to the restaurants mentioned earlier, the famed “Top Chef” Joy Crump’s Foode + Mercantile (with the neighboring 6 Bears & A Goat Brewing Company) is nationally recognized — and, not surprisingly, requires reservations a couple of days in advance. We’ll know next time.
Fredericksburg is also the largest city within a few miles of some of the other most legendarily bloody battlefields in American history — the Wilderness, Chancellorsville and Spotsylvania Court House.
The “ghosts” of Fredericksburg are clearly deserving of yet another visit.