From Eric Mink:
The following is based upon material that I stumbled upon while researching the 1921 United States Marine Corps maneuvers on the Wilderness Battlefield. In my discussions of this event with colleagues and local historians, I was surprised that no one had heard of this event. A very obscure and unknown bit of Fredericksburg military history is worthy of a post.
“Marines Take Fredericksburg” is how The Richmond-Times Dispatch of June 4, 1918 described the descent of nearly 1,000 United States Marines upon the small town of Fredericksburg, Va. For two days, men of the 10th Marine Regiment of Field Artillery camped at the fairgrounds and on June 5 staged an elaborate sham battle that raged from the riverfront, through the streets of Fredericksurg and all the way to crest of Marye’s Heights. It was an extremely unusual event and spectacle that impressed and fascinated the residents of the city, but has since passed from local memory.
On June 3, 1918, the 10th Marine Regiment, led by Lieutenant Colonel Charles S. “Jumbo” Hill, left its home at the Marine Corps Barracks at
Quantico, Va. The barracks had opened the previous year with the expansion and rapid mobilization that followed the United States entry into World War I. Many Marines on their way to France passed through Quantico. The 10th Marine Regiment hoped for deployment to Europe and stepped up its preparedness, and the trip to Fredericksburg was undoubtedly part of its increased activity and training.
The Free Lance described the column that left Quantico as consisting of “800 men, 42 officers, 18 trucks, 10 rolling kitchens, 2 ambulances, and 16 horses.” Missing from this list were the large guns, the artillery that the men also brought with them. The first day consisted of a twenty-mile march, bringing the column to Garrisonville, where it camped for the night. The following day the Marines made for Fredericksburg, stopping for their noon meal on the farm of Judge Richard H.L. Chichester, near Falmouth. The column entered Fredericksburg with the men crossing the river by the Falmouth Bridge, while the vehicles crossed on the Free Bridge (today Chatham Bridge). Tents were erected at the fairgrounds, and after the men consumed their supper they were given their liberty. Many visited the city before returning to camp by 10 p.m.
The plan for June 5 called for a sham battle to be fought amongst the
Marines. At 9:45 a.m., the regiment marched into town. Lieutenant Colonel Richard S. Hooker took two-thirds of the command across the river and up onto Stafford Heights. Captain Samuel P. Budd established the smaller contingent in the town. Budd’s Marines erected a barricade of boards, timbers and other material at the end of Free Bridge. Outposts were placed in town, while the bulk of Budd’s force took up a position on Marye’s Heights. According to The Washington Post:
“Camouflaged gun emplacements of the type used in France were constructed on Stafford Heights behind a series of ridges. Civil War maps were used. Two rounds for each gun were allowed for the registration process, and then the battle was ‘on,’ each gun taking up the fire independently on a pre-arranged schedule.” – The Washington Post, June 6, 1918
With bayonets fixed, Hooker’s Marines rushed down to the Free Bridge, tore through the barricade and forced their way across the river. They
scattered Budd’s outposts in town, chasing them up Amelia, Commerce (today William), George and Hanover Streets. The local paper noted that while some residents ventured out on the street to watch the excitement, “many did not tarry long, for the sight of the business-like Springfields belching smoke and flame, to say nothing of the gleaming bayonets, was calculated to make one feel safe in the house.” The officers, on horseback, urged the men forward, or backward, as the clash spilled out into the fields west of town. Wire fences that enclosed the fields and backyards provided a similar obstacle to the barbed wire entanglements used in France. In the long grass of the meadows between Hanover and Commerce (William) Streets, the khaki of the Marines’ uniforms offered excellent camouflage, while the old railroad embankment afforded the attackers excellent cover from which to fire on their retreating opponents. Captain Budd’s defenders withdrew to their positions atop Marye’s Heights, extending from Brompton to the campus of the State Normal and Industrial School for Women (today the University of Mary Washington). The sham battle lasted a little over an hour, and once it concluded the Marines marched back to the fair grounds for their noon meal.
The local newspaper crowed about the excitement and spectacle the battle created with onlookers coming into town from the surrounding counties to watch. The local Civil War veterans, the paper felt, were the most entranced by the show:
“There were no spectators more interested than the veterans of ’61-’65, who looked on in silent amazement at the great changes that have taken place in methods of warfare since the days when they defended the city.” – The Free Lance, June 6, 1918
The sham battle, the paper thought, provided some sense of what American soldiers in France must have been experiencing.
“The fighting was so real that any spectator could have easily imagined himself at Chantilly [Cantigny], ‘over there,’ when that city was stormed and captured last month by the brave Sammies from America.” – The Free Lance, June 6, 1918
The afternoon activities involved a parade through town. Residents closed their stores, decorated their homes with flags and bunting and lined the streets to watch and cheer the procession. “The city took on a holiday appearance,” the local paper reported. In the evening, the town provided refreshments and entertainment for the enlisted men, while the officers enjoyed a reception at the Princess Anne Hotel. A dance concluded the day’s activities. The following morning, June 6, the Marines commenced their march back to Quantico.
The purpose of the 1918 “battle” of Fredericksburg was a training exercise for the 10th Marine Regiment. It remains unknown why and how Fredericksburg was chosen for the maneuvers. The 10th Marine Regiment hoped to get into the war, but those orders never arrived. Ironically, on June 6, 1918, the day the regiment departed from Fredericksburg, its brothers in the 5th and 6th Marine Regiments, nearly 4,000 miles away in France, plunged into the wheat fields bordering Belleau Wood. German machine guns took a heavy toll, delivering more casualties to the Marine Corps in that single day than it had suffered up to that point in its entire history.
One of the Marines fighting in Belleau Wood was 20-year old Private Douglas Hamilton Knox, Jr. of Fredericksburg. Knox fell wounded there and on June 14 he arrived, unconscious, at the American Red Cross Hospital No. 1 in Paris. The following day, young Knox succumbed to his wounds, becoming the first Fredericksburg resident to die on one of the war’s battlefields. Knox would not be the last, as the names of seventeen Fredericksburg residents appear on the city’s World War I Roll of Honor.
Despite The Free Lance’s assertion that “The day was one long to be remembered by the people here, truly a red-letter day in the history of Fredericksburg,” the sham battle quickly faded into obscurity, overshadowed by the actual fighting in France. Three years later, the Marines returned to stage maneuvers on the Wilderness Battlefield, but that’s a post for another time.
Much thanks to the Central Rappahannock Heritage Center for the use of their photos.
Eric J. Mink