On the last weekend of July we managed a trip down to Fredericksburg to visit the Civil War Preservation Trust’s (CWPT) Slaughter Pen Farm. For those not familiar with Fredericksburg, this section of the field was, as historian Frank O’Reilly is quick to point out, the critical sector of the battlefield on December 13, 1862. While the fighting in front of Marye’s Heights has received the lion’s share of attention from historians, and veterans, the fighting that took place a few miles to the south was the only place the Federals had the opportunity to defeat the Confederates. The narrative of events on the southern end of the battlefield had everything one desires in a good Civil War story line – personalities, critical errors, heroism, gallant charges, artillery duels…. all but a cavalry charge!
Sadly, the ground on the south end of the battlefield where this action took place was only partially preserved within the National Battlefield Park. Much of the Confederate line, from Telegraph Hill to Prospect Hill, was preserved within the park. Lee Drive loosely matches the old Military Road on which much of Jackson’s line stood. However the ground where the Federal left formed, massed, advanced, and fought was not included in the park. While one could stand where General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson stood and contemplate the field, one could only visit the Federal side with permission from private property owners.
Perhaps the reasoning, as with other sites in the I-95 corridor in Virginia, that there was little chance the farmland would be transformed. But over time, the area was transformed as housing subdivisions and commercial zones extended out from Fredericksburg. In particular a small industrial site built first by Westinghouse in 1970, then later purchased by General Motors, stood where General George G. Meade’s division advanced in their assault on Prospect Hill. (And that plant may close sometime in the near future.)
However, in 2005 when a tract of farmland adjacent to the GM plant was zone commercial and placed on the market, CWPT stepped up. According to a marker on site, the price tag was $12 million. With participation from other key allies, the Trust secured 208 acres of ground in 2006. This effort stands as one of the most prominent preservation victories in the last five years. As a result of the Trust’s efforts, our donations, and the support of many other organizations, now a visitor can take in the Federal side of the action. And earlier this year the Trust added a set of markers to aid visitors.
The site is off US 17 (Tidewater Trail) south of Fredericksburg. At present, the signage states one should contact the Trust (800-298-7878) before touring the field.
While there are several overview interpretive markers near the farm house, the “trailhead” itself is on the west side. The first two stops highlight the advance of Meade’s Division. While as mentioned above, the actual ground over which Meade’s men advance is largely developed, the markers pointed out a “Virginia ditch fence” of the type that impeded the advance.
And as seen in the photo, the corn was getting along. While this hindered some of the orientation, it did serve to block off view of the nearby airport and much of the highway traffic. Still I plan to revisit the site some time in the winter, if for nothing else to get a better feel for the ground and season in which the battle was fought.
Near where the trail makes an turn to the northwest, the third marker explains the impact of Confederate artillery on the advancing troops. From that point, I found a good view to the southwest a to view Meade’s sector.
The buildings in the far distance are roughly where Meade’s Division passed. The camera is about where Gibbon’s Division moved up to support. Just looking at the gap here, one gets an impression for the limited support Meade’s assault received.
The trail then turns back southwest, and markers trace the advance of Gibbon’s Division. The trail turns to parallel the railroad (wartime Richmond, Fredericksburg, and Potomac).
The National Park Service ground borders the railroad on the other side. Directly opposite this portion of the Slaughter Pen is the Bernard’s Cabins site (accessed via a trail off Lee Drive). Here Gibbon’s men battled with Confederates of Scales’, Lane’s, and Thomas’ Brigades.
Pulling from my files, here is a view of the railroad looking from Bernard’s Cabins.
One of the last markers along the trail relates accounts of the Medal of Honor awardees from the fighting at the Slaughter Pen. Five were awarded for actions in just this small section of the battlefield.
I’ve collected the markers under a Slaughter Pen Farm marker set (map) from HMDB. But for “clean” views of the markers, the Trust has a virtual tour on their site. This new collection also appears on the Fredericksburg battlefield by markers page.
Overall I found the Slaughter Pen Farm trail easy to navigate, with no challenging terrain. The site is not developed to the extent that other sites are. The entrance road is still unpaved, with parking areas around the post-war farm house. The walking paths are primarily old farm lanes. And I think this is a good thing, as opposed to asphalted roads and walking paths. One might say the 20th century buildings can be removed, but I found them as nice reference points. But several of the old farm lanes, including the entrance road, are traces of wartime lanes. The markers say the trail is 1 3/4 mile long, and that visitors should plan for 90 minutes. I walked the trail with my “staff” in just over an hour.
To close, I say the Slaughter Pen Farm is an excellent addition to any visit to Fredericksburg. And a stop any student of the battle is advised to make. And beyond the Civil War, the farm is an example of a preservation victory. In light of the events occurring on the other end of Spotsylvania County, perhaps one can seek comfort here in what has been saved outside Fredericksburg.