Abraham Lincoln was in the Sunken Road. I know it sounds like a bad plotline from the Twilight Zone, but it’s true.
Every once in a while you see something new in a picture even though you’ve looked at a hundred times before. The same is true with research. We have long known a good deal about Abraham Lincoln’s visit to Fredericksburg on May 23, 1862, during McDowell’s peaceful occupation of the town. After taking a boat to Aquia Landing, Lincoln took the trains to Potomac Creek Bridge, famously opted to walk across that seemingly flimsy structure (much to Secretary Stanton’s fright), and then on to Chatham. After reviewing some of the troops on the Stafford side, Lincoln crossed the Rappahannock on the canal boat bridge at the town docks and eventually proceeded to the Farmer’s Bank building on Princess Anne Street, where he met for a time with General Marsena Patrick, then governing the still-relatively placid population of Fredericksburg.
But recently reading through my notes and Ed Raus’s excellent Banners South, the history of the 23d New York Infantry (which includes by far the best published account of the Union occupation of Fredericksburg in the spring and summer of 1862), it became obvious that most references to Lincoln’s visit make mention of a detour Lincoln took beyond downtown Fredericksburg. General Marsena Patrick recorded in his diary that he “took [the President] through town to my camp.” The local Unionist newspaper, the Christian Banner, likewise noted that after visiting General Patrick in his quarters at the Farmer’s Bank building, Lincoln “moved off, as we were informed, to visit some camp of soldiers out of the town.” Fred Burrritt of the 23d New York, whose camp was atop Marye’s Heights on the site of what is today the National Cemetery (as carefully calculated by Ed Raus), recorded in a letter home that Lincoln visited the camps west of town. And J. Harrison Mills of the 21st New York, whose camp was on the heights between the Orange Plank Road (William Street) and Hanover Street, also wrote briefly of a presidential visit on May 23, as did a member of the 35th New York, nearby.
Given all that, it’s surprising the President’s visit to the troops on the Fredericksburg side of the river received such scant notice. One reason, certainly, is that his trip to Fredericksburg was quickly overshadowed by dramatic events in the Shenandoah Valley, as that very day Jackson was dispensing with Banks at Front Royal. But another reason the President’s journey received such scant attention from the troops is perhaps explained by Patrick. He said the President saw men “under arms only at the Guard,” but that other soldiers lounging in the camps turned out to have a look. In other words, Lincoln passed by, but there was no ceremony, no review.
It all seems a small matter, except for one curious thing: all this means that Abraham Lincoln very likely passed along Marye’s Heights or down the Sunken Road in May of 1862, six months before Union soldiers would attempt to claim the same ground in his name at the Battle of Fredericksburg.
While we admittedly know little of his travels beyond town on May 23, 1862, we know enough to deduce most of a likely route. The Christian Banner recorded the chronology of the visit. “President Lincoln and Hon. Edwin M. Stanton, Secretary of War, visited Fredericksburg on last Friday, the 23d instant (May). They rode in a carriage drawn by four fine iron-gray horses. They crossed the Rappahannock River on the canal-boat bridge, and passed up Princess Anne Street to the Farmer’s Bank, the head-quarters of General Patrick, where the carriage stopped about five minutes, and then moved off, as we were informed, to visit some camp of soldiers out of the town. A large escort accompanied the distinguished visitors. There were no demonstrations of joy, however, from any of the citizens.”
General Patrick’s rendition of the visit differs in one respect: he indicates that Lincoln visited the camps west of town before the two met in the bank building on Princess Anne Street. Given that Patrick was with the President and presumably wrote in his diary the same day, his account would seem the most credible. Accepting that and the several references to Lincoln’s appearance in or near Union camps, a likely route emerges.
To reach the camps, Lincoln likely passed over much the same ground that thousands of Union troops would traverse on December 13, 1862–out George Street to Hanover, across the canal ditch, and up Hanover past the Fairgrounds to Marye’s Heights or the Sunken Road. We know he at least passed the 23d New York’s camp on a section of Marye’s Heights known today as Willis Hill. Whether Lincoln physically entered the 23d’s camp is not known–and thus we cannot certainly put him atop the Heights there. But, we do know that he visited the camp of the 21st New York, just a few hundred yards to the north. To get there, he either passed along the top of the heights or along the Sunken Road. Given that Lincoln was in a carriage pulled by four horses, the Sunken Road seems the likelier route, thought the view from the top of the heights was far more impressive than those visible from the Sunken Road. Either way, he had to have been in the midst of what a few months later would become the strongest position Lee’s army ever held.
Lincoln also visited the camp of the 35th New York. Exactly where that camp was is not certain. We know from a contemporary letter that it was on high ground a “ten-minute walk from downtown.” That would suggest someplace on Marye’s Heights. We cannot say whether he visited the camp of the 2d New York Cavalry in what Union soldiers had christened as “Hazel Dell”–today the site of the Blue-Gray Parkway as it passes behind Marye’s Heights.
Regardless of the specific route, Lincoln’s presence on the soon-to-be battlefield six months before the battle is an intriguing little nugget. When in December 1862, Lincoln learned of the disastrous Union attacks against Marye’s Heights, did he remember having been over the ground? Did he recall the vast plain below the heights, the burned-our fairgrounds, the anomalous stone wall along the Sunken Road, the home–Brompton–of the region’s delegate to the 1861 secession convention, John Marye? Was he better able to comprehend the Union disaster, which inspired him to lament, “If there is a place worse than hell, I am in it”?
So far as we know, Lincoln visited only a handful of battlefields during the war: Antietam, Gettysburg, and Petersburg. Add Fredericksburg to the list, with the significant caveat that it is the only one he visited before it became a battlefield.