Ruminations at the crossing of the canal ditch

From John Hennessy:

I wrote this for the 150th Anniversary observance back in December, as part of the procession that moved from the river through town to the Sunken Road. The procession stopped near the site of the canal ditch–where Hanover Street crossed it–and Frank O’Reilly delivered these words to about 1,500 people. Today the canal ditch runs under Kenmore Avenue. Thousands pass the spot every day, unmindful of what happened here. That’s okay, but it’s well once in a while to stop and remember this powerful story of fear and courage intermingled (as they invariably are).

As Union soldiers descended into this valley and prepared to cross a mill race that ran just off to your left, they encountered dreadful sounds and sights—the full cacophony of battle, a panorama of suffering, the “Valley of Death.”

 Once here, there was no time for reflection.  Men and their commanders could only act. 

Fredericksburg panorama cropped on Canal ditch crossingHere they struggled with the great dilemma that confronts every soldier—the competing forces of fear and duty. Narratives of the Civil War—be they modern studies or eyewitness accounts—invariably discuss courage at length and fear very little. Not at Fredericksburg. 

Fear was omnipresent among Union soldiers on this field, and they freely admitted it. 

 As one man from Connecticut plainly put it, “We thought every moment would be our last and I am willing to say for one that I was pretty badly scared.”

Canal ditch smaller fileAnother soldier remembered that one of his comrades “seemed in terrible mental agony, groaning and taking on.  Perhaps I felt as badly as he but I kept it to myself.  I felt that the hand of man or any earthly power was unable to save me, and I appealed to my Heavenly Father to save me, if it were His will.”

For most, a sense of duty and commitment helped overcome the paralyzing fear. 

A rookie soldier from Pennsylvnania remembered:

“One may ask how such dangers can be faced.  The answer is, there are many things more to be feared than death.  Cowardice and failure of duty with me were some of them.  I said to myself, ‘This is duty.  I’ll trust in God and do it.  If I fall, I cannot die better.” 

Courage is an inverse measure of fear.  Courage is the will to overawe fear.  The depth of fear at Fredericksburg demanded an unprecedented measure of courage to overcome. 

Courage among soldiers is not limitless.  Draw upon that reservoir again and again, and evermore deeply, and it will empty, and the soldier may cease to function.  So intense, so frightening, so courageous were the efforts of soldiers on this battlefield, that it left many with reservoirs empty. 

Here, in this deadly valley, Union soldiers crossed a threshold to a place unlike most of them had experienced before.  The threshold was literal: the canal ditch. Of course the Confederate army, with days to prepare, knew this place well. They had torn up the bridge where Hanover crossed the ditch, leaving only the stringers. Far worse than that, Confederate artillery had time to measure the range to the this crossing precisely. As regiment after regiment crowded down George Street onto Hanover, Confederate artillery opened fire.

The Irish Brigade especially suffered here. 

Beyond was a landscape whose horror would lodge in the American consciousness.  Five hundred yards of open field, broken only the remnant fences of the town’s fairgrounds and a single house, owned by wheelwright Allen Stratton.  This would be the defining landscape of Fredericksburg. 

A Union brigade commander—a rank of men not usually prone to declamations of fear—wrote of that place, “I never realized before what war was. I never before felt so horrible since I was born.”

But he and thousands of others went. And we will follow their footsteps anew, all the way to a place none of them reached, the Sunken Road.

Frank’s reading of this (in part) was included as the conclusion of a short video done about that day, which you can find at the bottom of this post by Brooks Simpson.

For additional posts about the canal ditch and Bloody Plain, click here  and here.

The canal ditch crossing today:

canal ditch crossing today


3 thoughts on “Ruminations at the crossing of the canal ditch

  1. Hi,
    I have a letter written by a soldier in the 140th New York Infantry while he was in the town of Fredericksburg, on December 13, 1862. I believ you’d find it fairly interesting for use in your blog and in the archives there in the museum. Who do I contact to send a copy to?

  2. I have often seen mention of the canal but only recently – say in the last two years – has its significance become clear to me. Its exact location remains muddled in my head, but the canal now strikes me as one of the most important features of the battlefield. Thank you for highlighting this!

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