Can’t See the Battlefield for the Trees: Lost Viewshed from Lee’s Command Post

From Mink:

Lee’s Hill is Stop #3 on the Fredericksburg Battlefield self-guided driving tour. Historically, it was known as Telegraph Hill for the Telegraph Road (present-day Lafayette Boulevard and Business US Route 1) ran across its crest. The hill derives its current name from the fact that Confederate General Robert E. Lee established his command post here during the December 1862 Battle of Fredericksburg. Its eastern slope was cleared of trees, although covered with brush. At 243 feet above sea level, Lee’s Hill provided a commanding view the Rappahannock River plain from beyond Marye’s Heights to Hamilton’s Crossing. From here, Lee watched the Battle of Fredericksburg unfold below him.

Sketch made by Frank Vizetelly, artist for the Illustrated London News. The sketch is looking from Lee's Hill towards Marye's Heights. Note the unobstructed view.


From his command post atop the hill, Lee made one of his most famous and oft-quoted observations of the war, as he watched the doomed Union assaults recoil against his defenses – “It is well that war is so terrible, or we would grow too fond of it.”

During the May 1863 Second Battle of Fredericksburg, a depleted Confederate force yielded Lee’s Hill to attacking Union troops who fought and scrambled their way to the crest. A sketch made by a Union soldier in that attack clearly shows an eastern slope devoid of trees.

Sketch made by Albert A. Carter of the 4th Vermont Infantry. The scene depicted is the successful Union attack against Lee's Hill on May 3, 1863.

The War Department acquired the eastern slope of Lee’s Hill in the late 1920s and transferred it, along with other holdings in the park, to the National Park Service (NPS) in 1933. Lee Drive, the Fredericksburg Battlefield tour road was completed in 1931. It’s entrance off Lafayette Boulevard sits along the northern slope of Lee’s Hill, while the road itself snakes around the eastern base. Oddly, for thirty years the NPS did not provide access to the crest of Lee’s Hill. The earthworks and gun emplacements around which General Lee directed the December battle were not reached by vehicle or trail.

In the late 1950s, the park embarked on the development of a Master Plan, which would help upgrade facilities.  Lee’s Hill was considered as the possible location for a new visitor center, but before the plan went final that concept was removed. The justification, from the 1959 museum prospectus reads:

“The crest of Lee’s Hill, half-mile southward [from the visitor center], would have been an ideal choice, from the interpretive angle. From this hilltop, all area occupied by the Federals and most of the Confederate line may be viewed. This splendid location cannot be utilized because park land at this point is too limited for construction and operation of a full-time visitor center. This being the case, an exhibit shelter, with foot trail leading up from the Lee Hill parking area, is to be constructed.” – “Museum Prospectus for Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, Virginia” (1959), copy in FRSP files.

The NPS completed construction of the Lee’s Hill Exhibit Shelter in 1962. Along with the structure were the parking area at the base of the hill, a trail leading to the shelter and exhibit panels, and a concrete viewing platform. Perhaps the most important work to take place on Lee’s Hill was the restoration of the commanding view. Hundreds, if not thousands, of trees were removed from the eastern and southern slopes of the hill.

Looking from Lee's Hill towards Marye's Heights and the Fredericksburg National Cemetery. Photo dated February 1963.

The clearing not only restored the panoramic view of the Rappahannock River plain, but it also opened Lee’s Hill to adjacent visual intrusions. At the base of Lee’s Hill, east of Lee Drive, is located the Battlefield Industrial Park. Outside of park boundaries, this complex of industrial buildings spreads south from Hazel Run, the Virginia Central Railroad and Lafayette Boulevard. The industrial park had only a few businesses operating within it when the cutting on Lee’s Hill was completed.

The following three photos are comparison views between what the view was from Lee’s Hill in 1963 and what it is like in 2011.

Looking east from Lee's Hill.

Looking northeast from Lee's Hill.

Looking southeast from Lee's Hill.

Over the past fifty years, industrial development has spread east as well as south. The commanding view that attracted Lee and his Confederates to Telegraph Hill became affected by the modern structures below. The NPS prescribed a treatment for the landscape that involved allowing the woods to return to the eastern and southern slopes of Lee’s Hill. This screens the hill from adjacent modern development. A narrow viewshed corridor is maintained in the direction of Marye’s Heights and the Fredericksburg National Cemetery.

This approach is not unusual for historic sites that are located within urban areas. The wall of trees and vegetation do help insulate the visitor and the site from outside visual and audible intrusions. The downside is that quite often, as is the case at Lee’s Hill, the vegetation is not historically accurate and subsequently may deny the visitor the full appreciation for a site’s significance.

Many battlefield parks are currently involved in scene restoration projects, where field and woodlot patterns are being returned to their wartime boundaries. Some parks have opted to cut down vegetative screens, thus opening park visitors to the visual and audible intrusion of intense adjacent development. If the park were to try and re-establish the Lee’s Hill viewshed by clearing its eastern and southern slopes, would the reopening of the commanding view offset the likely effect of the visual exposure to the industrial park?

Eric J. Mink


One thought on “Can’t See the Battlefield for the Trees: Lost Viewshed from Lee’s Command Post

  1. Eric, I think you have posed the perfect catch-22 question. I have had the pleasure of trekking up the hill twice and I will do it again this summer. Both times, my fellow travelers had to use a little imagination on Lee’s “commanding view.” Luckily, we can still see a portion of the town that acts as a guide. So although we did not get to see Lee’s view as it was in 1862, I think we were able to imagine what it was like.

    As for cutting down the trees, my initial reaction is “Yes, please!” The threat of a view of the industrial park does not bother me. Give me the terrain as it was! By comparison, I doubt the view from Marye’s Heights would be improved by the appearance of trees to cover the neighborhood.

    With that said, I think there is something to be said for the journey up the hill, which the trees currently shroud. When I took my dad and brother there, I told them, “This is going to be the toughest walk we do, but it is worth it.” Eager to get the same view as Lee, they started up the hill with me, but more than half-way up, the Virginia summer wore on them. When we finally got up there, they caught their breath and enjoyed the limited view. They also took time to read all the markers and enjoy the cannon and trenches. Getting up there made them appreciate what they found. Had the trees not been there, I fear they may have opted out of journeying up there at all. From the bottom of the big hill, the spoils may not appear worth the effort. Just a thought.

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