Vacation this year took us to Fredericksburg, Virginia, to see a ridge known as Marye’s Heights. It was there, on December, 13, 1862, that a Union brigade of II Corps attacked the Confederate left, two thousand entrenched Rebels positioned behind a four-foot high stone wall bordering a narrow lane. Enhanced here and there by field fortifications, the wall was a perfect defense. Originally known as Telegraph Road, the lane was forever-thereafter called the Sunken Road.
To reach the Confederates, Union troops had to cross a millrace 500 yards from the Rebel line, and then travel those 500 yards across an open field rising toward the ridge. The first assault suffered 25 percent casualties; a second brigade sent in support experienced 50 percent, as did a third. Not one Union soldier came nearer than forty yards from the wall. The losses grew as the day went on.
Confederates fired by volley and their massed artillery had an uninterrupted field of fire over the entire ground. Union survivors hugged the dirt, soon joined by survivors of follow-on charges. Over the course of several hours, seven Union divisions fed seventeen brigades, more or less one at time, against the stone wall. This amounts to fourteen separate charges, each repulsed with what is called “heavy losses.” The living clutched the ground, immobilized by Confederate fire, while the wounded and dying could do little but cry.
At the end of the day before the Sunken Road, between 6,000 and 8,000 Union soldiers were wounded or killed. In the entire December 11-13 Battle of Fredericksburg, the Union lost 12,653 casualties. Out of those, most of the 1,284 killed and the 9,600 wounded fell at the Sunken Road attacking a fortified enemy. Confederate losses at the Sunken Road were 300 dead, 595 for the whole battle.
Civil War generals usually learned little from their mistakes, and they learned even less from the mistakes of their opposites. The Union commander, Ambrose Burnside, wanted to renew an attack against Marye’s Heights the next day, and to lead it himself.
His subordinates either talked him out of it or explained why they were inclined to refuse his orders. He instead asked the Confederate general, Robert E. Lee, for a truce to collect the wounded and dead.
Lee spent men in the same reckless way. After witnessing firsthand the futility of successive Union charges against Marey’s Heights, he still sent over 12,000 men against Cemetery Ridge in Gettysburg. They, too, crossed open fields exposed to artillery and rifle volley. Union troops taunted them in their retreat, yelling “Fredericksburg, Fredericksburg, Fredericksburg.”
Fredericksburg is the only battlefield I have ever toured. I do not think I want to see another one. The Sunken Road takes hardly an hour to walk, beginning to end and return. Some of the original wall yet stands; the major part of it has been rebuilt. Still, one can almost see it, all those men, thousands arrayed before the wall, desperate and bloody, bodies jammed senseless into a tiny killing field. It was astonishing to me, reflecting on the massive loss of life, the maiming, and the sorrow.
I do not know what to say at a scene like this, even one so removed from the day it happened, all those 153 years ago. There are no words. Even the soldiers’ descriptions of the battle are clichéd: “butchery,” “slaughter,” “massacre.” Some things are senseless even as they advance whatever good was ultimately produced.
There is a short science fiction story―the title escapes me―where time-traveling tourists hop back to watch catastrophes as they occur. They come from a jaded future seeking excitement, perhaps finding purpose in the past they did not find in their present. They were tourists, there for the show as each victim is swept away under their detached eyes, snapping a few selfies as the comet collides, as the pyroclastic surge overwhelms the village, as the killer pulls the trigger. That approximates my feeling at the Sunken Road. What would I say to the ghosts? How does one take it all in?
A few days afterward we slipped down to Charleston, South Carolina, this time touring in front of Mother Immanuel A.M.E. Church: flowers, make-shift memorials, photographs of the nine victims. Those who had stopped there before us had inscribed their names on the fire hydrant, a board wall, even on the small trees along the street. There was little, very little chatter, a subdued reverence. A man walked up the sidewalk with a saxophone, stopped, and played Amazing Grace with such hurt that one ached hearing it.
A black man and I exchanged glances, and then we struck up a conversation. He and his wife were from Los Angeles, heading eventually for Savannah, Georgia. Mother Immanuel lured them to a detour. I asked him my question: “How does anybody take all this in?”
“You don’t,” he said. “You weep, and hope something good grows from where the tears fall.”
Russell E. Saltzman, is book review editor at Aleteia. His latest book is Speaking of the Dead. He can be reached at email@example.com, and his previous First Things contributions can be found here.