Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania Courthouse National Military Park

A cannon on Lee Drive

Just last week I made my way into northern Virginia to visit the sites of some of the most intense fighting in the American Civil War.  Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park holds the remnants of four major battlefields: Fredericksburg (the Union’s delayed and ill-advised attempt to deliver a decisive blow to the Confederacy), Chancellorsville (a surprise flank attack by the Confederacy), the Wilderness and Spotsylavania Courthouse (both battles in Ulysses S. Grant’s deadly Overland Campaign).  The area is smack dab in the middle of Washington D.C. and Richmond (the seats of power for the Union and the Confederacy), which explains why so many battles took place in such a small area.

I started my day here just as the sun rose and decided to do a hiking tour of the Fredericksburg battlefield.  Large portions of the battlefield are contained on Lee Drive (named for the Confederacy’s revered general), a beautiful road that feels out of place with the more industrial elements around the city.  On one portion of the road I caught a woodland trail that took me about three miles to the end of the road.  The views were nothing special and it rained the day before so a lot of the trail was muddy.  So on the way back to my car I decided to just walk on Lee Drive, which offers many stops to learn about the history that took place there.  The park has a visitor center a couple of miles away from Lee Drive, but the exhibits there are rather disappointing and fail to shed enough light on some of the more unique and interesting facts about the battle (such as the Irish Brigade’s heroic but failed attempts to break the Confederate lines or the Aurora Borealis showing up out of nowhere in the sky in the aftermath of the battle).  

Lee Drive

From Fredericksburg, I went to the Chancellorsville Battlefield.  There’s another visitor center here and numerous hiking trails but I was worried about running out of time for the rest of the day’s events so I just did the battlefield’s auto tour.  I did do a small walk at the first site commemorating the site where Confederate General Thomas Jackson sustained injuries that eventually led to his death.  In fact a lot of this battlefield feels like a memorial for Jackson (which yes most of the battles that this park covers were Confederate victories but the lionization of much of the Confederate leaders that this park and a lot of historical analysis delivers does get a bit ridiculous).  

A memorial for Thomas Jackson

Next up was The Wilderness, where I did the auto tour again.  Most of the auto tours at this park were nothing special, but that’s mostly because the park doesn’t have as many first hand artifacts as most other parks that I’ve been to.  Personally, seeing these artifacts helps me ground myself in whatever shows up on the auto tour.  That being said it was interesting to see the battlefields get more rural as I went away from the Fredericksburg battlefield.  The Wilderness certainly lives up to its name.

A view from one of the stops at the Wilderness Battlefield

The best of the four battlefields is by far Spotsylvania Courthouse, which is located in the middle of nowhere but is easily the most gorgeous and historically fascinating of the bunch.  Spotsylvania is where the Confederacy starts to use trench warfare as a tactic (more than half a century before World War I), and you can still see a lot of the remnants of these trenches a century and a half later.  There was also a surprising amount of wildlife out and about for a cold winter day as I saw a few deer, frogs and many different types of birds.  I decided to cap of the day with a four mile hike through the battlefield that hit most of the main points of interest, and it’s this battlefield that does the best job of laying at why each army chose to defend and attack and where.

A cannon overlooking the battlefield at Spotsylvania

Ultimately, this park provides ample opportunities to hike and explore in the footsteps of some of the most important moments in American history.  That being said the Lost Cause narrative of the Civil War seeps a little too much through in this park.  Lee and Jackson get so much of the attention at all of these stops while Grant is forced to step aside to the background (a visitor center for The Wilderness and/or Spotsylvania Courthouse is sorely missed).  If you can get passed that, you will have a lot of fun here.

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