Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Beyond Frederickburg's Stone Wall: Living on hallowed ground

A rebuilt section of the Stone Wall in Fredericksburg, Va.
        Corner of Mercer and Littlepage: The brick Stratton House has an infamous past. 

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On a chilly Sunday morning in March in Fredericksburg, Va.,  the sun tries in vain to burst through a leaden sky.

On Mercer Street, a flag of shamrocks hangs
 in celebration of of St. Patrick's Day.
The daily rythmn of life has begun in a neighborhood near the infamous Stone Wall and Marye's Heights.

A train whistle toots in the distance. An ambulance siren wails. The low rumble of traffic builds.

A man strains to control an unruly English Springer Spaniel on a short leash while he balances a cup of coffee in his free hand.

A small child's sled rests on a porch. A toppled basketball hoop lies on its side in a driveway, apparently forgotten. A chime rings in the gentle breeze, barely announcing its presence.

From a porch on a house on Littlepage Street, a large orange, white and green national flag of Ireland sways. Two days after St. Patrick's Day, a triangular flag emblazoned with three shamrocks barely flutters at a house nearby on Mercer Street.

In the tiny front yard of another nearby house, the words on a small, multicolored sign in a garden stand out: "Welcome. Life is Simply Amazing."

At the corner of Littlepage and Charlotte streets, the strains of a choir seep through the stained-glass windows from the service at Fairview Baptist Church, where a sign out front proclaims, "The Key to Heaven Was Hung On A Nail." The brick building was erected in 1925, long after the Battle of Fredericksburg rocked this town and the plain in front of Marye's Heights became a killing field.

Days after St. Patrick's Day, the national flag of Ireland sways from a house on Littlepage Street. 
Yards from the war-time Innis House near the Sunken Road, the present meets the past.
"I found the brick house packed with men," a Union officer recalled about the Stratton house.
In 1862, the ground beyond Marye’s Heights and the thick, stone wall bordering the old Telegraph Road was largely open plain. Yards from this sunken road, Martha Stephens, one of the more interesting Civil War-era characters in Fredericksburg, owned the tiny clapboard house where her common-law husband, John Innis, lived. On what is now the corner of Littlepage and Mercer streets, 200 yards or so from Marye's Heights,  a man named Allen Stratton lived in a two-story brick house. Nearby, he had a wheelright shop. A few other residences and buildings dotted this landscape outside the prosperous town on the Rapphannock River.

On Dec. 13, 1862, wave after wave of Union soldiers crossed the open ground from the pillaged town of Fredericksburg to attack a well-protected, well-armed and highly motivated enemy in the Sunken Road and on Marye's Heights. The Yankees didn't stand a chance. Eight thousand casualties resulted. No Union soldier reached the Stone Wall. Among the dead and wounded were soldiers in Thomas Meagher's famed Irish Brigade, which went into battle by raising the old Irish cheer “Faugh-a-Bellagh” (“Clear the Way”).

A sign in a front yard on Mercer Street.
"The smoke lay so thick that we could not see the enemy, and I think they could not see us," a Union officer recalled, "but we were aware of the fact that somebody in our front was doing a great deal of shooting. I found the brick (Stratton) house packed with men; and behind it the dead and the living were as thick as they could be crowded together. The dead were rolled out for shelter, and the dead horses were used for breastworks. The plain thereabouts was dotted with our fallen."

When night fell and the temperature plummeted, it was clear the Confederates had secured a victory.

"... nearly 1,500 dead soldiers lay upon an area of two acres in front of our lines," James R. Hagood of the 1st North Carolina recalled. "Three or four times as many wounded howled in the darkness, a dismal concert for assistance which could not be rendered, or perished in the cold from neglect. The pickets of the enemy's army which were posted that night on the skirts of the town erected breastworks of the dead bodies and thus secured themselves from the bullets of the Confederate Sharpshooters."

"It was a night of dreadful suffering," the Union officer recalled. "Many died of wounds and exposure, and as fast as men died, they stiffened in the wintry air."

A temporary truce was called, and Union soldiers eventually buried their dead on the plain. More than 600 were interred in one trench, 130 in another.  After the war, many of those soldiers were re-buried in a terraced national cemetery on Marye's Heights, the very ground they aimed to conquer years earlier.

Beginning in the 1870s, development picked up on The Bloody Plain, and by the time the Fredericksburg battlefield became a national park in 1927, most of the area east of Marye's Heights was covered with houses. Today, it's a vibrant community, but one with a terrible past. Here are snapshots of life on the killing field:

Josh Cameli is house manager at the Sunken Well Tavern, 175 yards from the Sunken Road. 
Dressed in his Sunday best, 81-year-old Wright Campbell slowly walks to the service at Fairview Baptist Church.  A lifelong Virginia resident, he is keenly aware of  Civil War history in general and the Battle of Fredericksburg in particular. Small talk quickly leads to The Big Question: Is it eerie to live in the epicenter of death in this civil war-torn area?

"What acre does not have blood on it in Virginia?" he says, matter-of-factly. He's right, of course. No state suffered worse than Virginia did during the Civil War. He says residents of this neighborhood don't really think much about its deadly past.  Two women walking to the Baptist church agree. "It's just a nice place to live," says the one whose ex-husband's ancestors fought for the Confederacy.

In the Sunken Well Tavern at the corner of Littlepage and Hanover streets, 45-year-old manager Josh Cameli bounds from table to table. Business is brisk for breakfast.  "Fly" by Sugar Ray plays on the music system. Modern art hangs on the walls. A stuffed lynx and a fox stare at each other on a window shelf.

Well aware of the town's bloody history, Cameli lives in an apartment in a 19th-century building in Fredericksburg. It used to be a carriage house, he says, perhaps making it unlikely anything significant happened there.

"Every year when reenactors come through here," he says, nodding toward the Sunken Road only 200 yards away, "I tell them there is trouble up ahead." Occasionally, a descendant of a soldier who fought in Fredericksburg stops by for a meal and conversation.

"An older gentlemen came in here one time and told me when he comes here, he walks on the bones of his ancestor," says Cameli, who has an appreciation for the town's history but doesn't dwell on the fact he works on a killing field.

Jacqueline Damm, shown near the Richard Kirkland monument near the Sunken Road,  
had a ghostly encounter while she lived on Williams Street in Fredericksburg.
The view up Mercer Street. The Sunken Road is in the far distance. No Union soldier reached
the Stone Wall during the Battle of Fredericksburg on Dec. 13, 1862.
Crossing the street near the Stratton house, where the bodies were piled high 154 years earlier, a 60-year-old man makes his way home during a morning stroll.

"I used to go up to the national cemetery on Marye's Heights when I was a kid and watch the sun rise," says the lifelong Fredericksburg resident. "Nobody bothered you but the ghosts." The notion of the neighborhood as a killing ground, he says, seems odd now. To him, it's just home.

A young woman walking her dog nearby concurs. She has lived in the neighborhood four years, just blocks from the Stone Wall. Although she found a Civil War-era bottle and a Union button while digging in her back yard, the former journalist rarely thinks about the neighborhood's deadly past.

Thirty-year-old Jacqueline Damm, who has lived near the Stone Wall for several years, appreciates the town's history, especially during walks with her dog and frequent runs through the neighborhood. But she did have a disturbing encounter while she lived in a building on William Street in Fredericksburg. Several times, she insists, an apparition of a woman appeared. "The air felt different," she says, "it felt electric."

Sixty-seven-year-old James Freeman, a longtime neighborhood resident, knows the feeling. While emptying his truck in the driveway of the Stratton House, he recounts stories from his childhood. When he was 5, he swears he saw under his bed the ghost of  Richard Kirkland, the South Carolina soldier who famously aided wounded Yankees near the Stone Wall. The look in his eyes suggests he wasn't kidding.

      Google Earth view of  neighborhood east of  Marye's Heights and the Sunken Road.

Several houses down Mercer Street from the Stratton House, 45-year-old James Tompkins sits on his small front porch, taking a drag on a cigarette.  He's peppered with questions about the city's war-time past.

 "That's about as far as they got," Tompkins speculates about the Union soldiers, pointing to the house next door. His small house is within sight of the Stone Wall, about 150 yards away.

Tompkins has a close association with the Civil War: An ancestor served in the Richmond Light Infantry Blues while another may have been the only commissioned female officer in the Confederate army, he says. "Captain" Sally Louisa Tompkins, promoted by Jefferson Davis for her service as a nurse, was a wealthy philanthropist who lived in Richmond.

A longtime relic hunter, Tompkins has even hunted in his "postage-stamp-sized" back yard, but has never found anything besides bits of glass. "I'd love to look under this foundation" for Civil War relics, he says of the post-war house he has lived in for four years. "Bet there is something there."

Over on the western side of Marye's Heights, Tompkins says he found 10- and 20-pound Parrott shells "just hanging in the roots of trees," possibly overshots from Union artillery on the other side of the Rapphannock River.

"Years ago, old-timers would find relics by just eyeballing them in the woods," he says. "But those guys wouldn't look for relics on the battlefields. That was hallowed ground. People kind of lost their sense of history now."

Not one to believe in ghosts, Tompkins has lived in the area his entire life. He appreciates the neighborhood and its history -- and thinks many of his neighbors do, too.

"It's real quiet here," he says. "There not a lot of drunk college kids around. It's a good place to live.

"And it sure is more quiet than it was in December 1862."

 Have something to add (or correct) in this post? E-mail me here.


-- The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine, Vol. 32, Page 635, 1886.
-- Hagood, James R., Memoirs of the First South Carolina Regiment of Volunteer Infantry in the Confederate War for Independence from April 12, 1861 to April 10, 1865, manuscript, University of South Carolina Libraries Digital Collection.
-- Hat Tip: Mysteries and Conundrums: Exploring the Civil War-era landscape in the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania region.
-- Hat Tip: Clint Schemmer, Fredericksburg Free-Lance Star.


  1. My daughter and I visited the battlefield a year before the 150th anniversary. My great grandfather and his younger brother were in the last charge to get closest to the wall in the 134th PA Infantry regiment. We tried to find where they were deployed and were moved by the fear they must have felt. When I got home I grabbed a pen and paper and a long poem began pouring out into words of my thoughts and emotions.

  2. Great story as usual, John. --