Frank O’Reilly offered these thoughts at yesterday’s observance of the 148th Anniversary of the Battle of Fredericksburg:

The Innis House, along the Sunken Road

This is a particular exciting time of year. A time for sentimentality; a time for family gatherings, good cheer, and fellowship, pageants and parades—when everyone is just a little more conscientious and a little bit nicer to their fellow man. It’s a magical time I look forward to each year with great anticipation.

Perhaps that is why the awful tragedy of civil war seems particularly poignant to us here at Fredericksburg because it comes in December 1862 in a season traditionally set aside for good will and peace.

Our beautiful city was devastated by war in another holiday season, when a time of hope and joy was marred by death and destruction. Fredericksburg would feel the terrible hard hand of war—but communities all across the continent would also share in its awful ramifications.

Fredericksburg is unique in that it gained notoriety not only as a battle—but also as a battlefield. These are not necessarily the same thing. A battlefield is a community overwhelmed by a national tragedy, whereas a battle is a national event that consumes a localized story and makes it part of something much larger and relevant.

A battlefield is about insiders looking out at the world descending upon them; and a battle is about outsiders looking in, willing to sacrifice everything and anything –including this city—in the name of their cause. Fredericksburg experienced war from both dynamics. Fredericksburg was no different than a myriad of other communities all across America until armies, North and South, descended upon it in the winter of 1862.

The burned-out ruins of the Bank of Virginia, corner of Caroline and William.

The horrific conflict that ensued devastated Fredericksburg on December 11, December 12, and December 13; and left an indelible scar—long and hard to heal. Seventy-two hours of combat left several lifetimes’ of blighted memories and nightmares that literally passed from generation to generation until the pain slowly dulled with inexorable time. The battlefield of Fredericksburg was a torn landscape and violated cityscape more fit for the pages of Dante than anything else. The citizens of Fredericksburg saw their homes and their lives changed forever, despoiled, devastated, destroyed—their backyards converted into battlefields; their gardens transformed into graveyards. Fredericksburg’s only sin was that it stood on the frontier of two warring factions driven by ideals. The holiday season of 1862 would see very little cheer here.

The battle of Fredericksburg was even bigger than the battlefield of Fredericksburg. It saw people from every walk of life, who perhaps never even heard or imagined a Fredericksburg, but were willing to enlist in 1861 or 1862 to fight for a cause. Their causes brought men from Maine and Mississippi, from Connecticut to the Carolinas, to this one white-heat moment and this one white-heat point in December 1862. Men traveled thousands of miles, endured unspeakable hardships, and sacrificed everything—including their lives if need be—to stand in the fields of Fredericksburg to fulfill their duty to a cause greater than any single aspect of their lives or livelihoods “One may ask how such dangers can be faced,” reflected a survivor of the Fredericksburg battle. “The answer is, there are many things more to be feared than death.” This soldier, Frederick Hitchcock of Pennsylvania, dreaded cowardice and failure to fulfill his duty more than he feared bullets and cannonballs. “This is duty,” he wrote, “I’ll trust in God and do it. If I fall, I cannot die better.” These citizen-soldiers surrendered their hopes, their dreams, their freedom and their families to go off to war.

The Sunken Road. Photo by Michael Arndt.

These were volunteer armies that stabbed, shot, slashed, and maimed each other in the fields, hills, and streets around Fredericksburg.
In many cases, their lifeless bodies and unmarked graves were their only rewards for service to their country. Men gave up their lives in a life and death struggle to take and defend what once had been a complete stranger’s backyard.

Ironically, many of them never left this stranger’s place; and instead, they have become a part of this place. Their final resting places, their homes, are here amongst us still—in the national cemetery or the Confederate cemeteries, or still tucked away hidden in the remote corners of the battlefields. Everything Fredericksburg natives touched, they made special; everything the soldiers touched, they made hallowed. What happened here resonated across the continent. A newspaper observed that there would be a sad Christmas by many a hearthstone this Yuletide. In Fredericksburg that was certainly true because most of the residents no longer had hearthstones. Around the country, it was also true. Others still had their family fireplace, but it was now surrounded by newly-made widows and orphans. Every hearth—from Fredericksburg to Philadelphia; from Lexington, Virginia to Lexington, Massachusetts—would endure the heartache of personal loss in this particularly trying season of peace and family.

But out of ruin comes redemption. Out of sorrow comes hope. It would take years for Fredericksburg to rebuild—better, stronger, and with a survivor’s certainty that it could endure and overcome any disaster. Fredericksburg transcends its tragic past by keeping its history like a badge of honor and a source of pride rather than sorrow.

Preserving its battlefields and historic sites is such a vital link for the past to communicate its values to the present and to the future. We all have an obligation to protect that message and to pass it on. A wise sage once noted society “will not be judged so much by what it builds, but rather by what it does not destroy.” It takes every generation to save its past; and only one to lose it. War tore this city apart only to see it stitched back together again as much tighter-knit community than before. Once again, Fredericksburg is a vibrant, prospering showplace in Virginia; a haven that lures people like me here—because I love and cherish this community and beam with pride to be a part of it. This city is also an allegory for the entire nation—both in what it had lost in December 1862 and what it has gained in reinventing and rebuilding itself from the ashes of that horror. That resiliency is an inspiration to the nation. Rebirth and reaffirmation are also features of this holiday season of hope and redemption, giving and forgiving, caring and love.

Thank you for taking a moment from your busy hectic lives and demanding schedules to remember those who served 148 years ago, and please take a moment to remember those who are serving today. Remembering the past makes sure no soldier ever died in vain; remembering the present makes sure no soldier ever serves in vain. Thank you and peace be with all of you.