On Friday, I visited Fredericksburg again. I’ve been to the city many times since starting my work at Stratford Hall. Before going to the national battlefield, I first stopped at the White Oak Museum in Falmouth, a few minutes from downtown Fredericksburg.
White Oak Museum
Outside the museum is a recreation of a Civil War encampment. When I was there, the owner of the museum (which is in private hands) told me that despite the fact a Confederate flag was flying that day, the spot is used by Living Historians representing both the northern and southern side. I had never seen such an encampment before, and it seemed convincing. The accommodations for soldiers were spartan to be sure: a small hut with a fireplace and a floor covered with straw was where they laid their heads every night.
The site has other Civil War connections, too. The museum is along the road that carried John Wilkes Booth’s body in April 1865 after Federal troops killed him. Booth died in Caroline County, not far from where present day routes 301 and 17 meet.
Inside the museum I saw the largest collection of Civil War artifacts I have ever seen, including piles of bullets, a target riddled with holes, cooking utensils, surgical instruments, Confederate money, shells, clothing–just about anything you would see in a Civil War camp. The museum also had a cannon, which the owner, D. P. Newton, built himself.
After stopping at the White Oak Museum, I visited Marye’s Heights, the most famous section of the Fredericksburg battlefield. As always, visiting the battlefield gives one a much better sense of topography than by simply reading about it would. Walking up the steps of Marye’s Heights to get to the soldier cemetery is daunting, even under good conditions.
Here, Robert E. Lee commanded one of the strongest positions he ever held during the Civil War. The battle of Fredericksburg was one of Lee’s greatest victories. Even so, he lost more than 5,000 men, including the popular Thomas R. R. Cobb. Even a chest-height stone wall could not keep all Confederates safe.
Most Union soldiers never made it close to the wall. They were shot by the thousands by Confederate infantry and the artillery placed above them. The slaughter on Lee’s right, at what I have called the “other” battle of Fredericksburg, was not so one-sided. But on his left, where I was on Friday, his soldiers made the Federal approach a killing field.
The famous, or infamous, stone wall is not the original one. It was rebuilt in the mid 20th century. The battlefield, however, contains landmarks from the war. The Innis House, for example, was lived in until the 1970s. It was eventually sold to the National Park Service, after which the house’s facade was restored. But it bears bullet holes from the battle.
Just before lunch, I traveled to the Fredericksburg city cemetery, not far from the national battlefield. At the cemetery, five Rebel generals are buried. But, it was one general in particular that interested me. I tracked down someone who I have been thinking about a lot lately: Daniel Ruggles. He was a brigadier general in the Confederate army.
Ruggles was a West Pointer and Mexican War veteran. He was also a Yankee (and Massachusetts Yankee at that). He was born in Barre, the same town that I grew up in. My elementary school was named after him. It was not until I moved to Virginia again that I found out Ruggles was buried in Fredericksburg. Now, as I live 45 minutes from Ruggles’s resting place, I decided to visit a man who died so far from where he grew up.
My most recent visit to Fredericksburg was a professional and personal journey. Ruggles was an exception to the north-south divide. Only a handful of Massachusetters served as generals in the Confederate army. I’m pretty sure no other high ranking generals of the Civil War were born in my hometown.
History is strange. And sometimes it may seem very far away from you. But it is close if you just look hard enough to find it.