The unique promise of Spotsylvania Battlefield

By John Hennessy: We re-post this on the eve of the Spotsylvania 150th. It originally appeared in 2011.

Ours is an imperfect park constructed on some misplaced assumptions, as we clearly indicated in a post a few months back. The four battlefields within the park are too close together to be administered separately, which in turn has limited the amount of land at each that political reality dictates can be preserved. The result is a land base that does not include key battlefield lands–hallowed ground–and a geometry of the park (more than 100 miles of boundary) that lends itself to intrusion from adjacent development.These factors have shaped the management of these landscapes for decades.

The park in 1986, after the 1974 boundary was set. Click to enlarge

But amidst the imperfection, there is a place of unique promise: the Spotsylvania Court House battlefield. It has a few things going for it:

First, its land base tends more toward round than linear, and it’s the only one of the four fields that does. Not only does Spotsylvania include the earthworks that were so much the focus of early park planners, but it also includes most (though not all) of the key areas of combat.  The advantage for visitors: barring some unforeseen disaster, you should always be able to stand at the Bloody Angle, Doles’s Salient, the Harrison House, or Lee’s Last Line and see what you see today, without intrusion.  Roads are distant, and ambient sounds tend more toward birds and crickets than cars and sirens.

Second, the heart of Spotsylvania Court House Battlefield is not pierced by a major road corridor–as Chancellorsville is with Route 3 and Wilderness is by Route 20. Instead, Spotsylvania is the only one of the four fields that has largely a self-contained road system. The pace of the place is, consequently, entirely different from the other three fields. In many ways, Spotsylvania is the only place you can go to get what many would consider to be a classic National Park experience, where the contrast between the park and the surrounding real world is great and compelling, where you can ponder without distraction, learn without confusion.

Finally, while the battle itself is by far our most complex, Spotsylvania includes sites that are innately both relatively simple to understand and compelling–the Bloody Angle and Doles Salient, especially.

The irony of all this is that Spotsylvania is the LEAST visited of our four fields. Back in 1994, when the park did a survey of visitors, we learned that of all the people that started what was then a single, four-battlefield, 16-stop driving tour at Fredericksburg, fewer than 2% made it to the final stop at Spotsylvania (we have, as you likely know, dispensed with the idea that visitors will tour the four fields as a single entity, and have instead created tours for each of the four fields). That’s too bad. Spotsylvania is a compelling place of refuge.  Moreover, the Bloody Angle is, I think, one of the truly powerful historic sites on the continent.

This is not to say it’s perfect.  The NPS owns only about 1,500 acres at Spotsylvania–about half of the acreage at Monocacy, a third of that at Wilson’s Creek. A good deal of important land lies outside the park boundary, including the battleground east of Heth’s Salient (perhaps the most significant hallowed ground outside the park boundary), all of the lands associated with the May 14 action at Myers’ Hill, the entire Po River Battlefield of May 10, 1864 (though CVBT owns some land there), and the literal miles of land related to the extension of the trenches south to the Po River May 14-20. Some of these lands will likely not be preserved.

The battle at Laurel Hill, May 8, 1864

As at Chancellorsville and the Wilderness, the major inherent problem at Spotsylvania relates to a public highway–the Brock Road (Route 613). It’s busy, tough to cross…and so it is a formidable barrier to getting visitors onto the Laurel Hill section of the battlefield–other than the Bloody Angle, the key site on the field. But, we have some plans to address this, and we’ll share those here when we can.

Despite these imperfections, it’s very likely that in 20 years Spotsylvania Court House Battlefield will be the park’s great gem (if it is not already).  It is without question one of the few places in the park where you can be reasonably assured that what you see, hear, and experience today will be much the same as it will be in 50 years. If you haven’t paid attention to it, you absolutely should–as we will be doing in this space over the coming months.


6 thoughts on “The unique promise of Spotsylvania Battlefield

  1. Spotsylvania Battlefield is indeed the “crown jewel” as you have often said, and when one considers the entire two week engagement that consumed the Courthouse area, and the extensive surficial evidence that remains, it is a very real shame that it does not get the visitation it deserves. There is also the continuing loss of related lands, south of Route 208 (some of which had been a portion of the F&SNMP before an ill conceived land swap) and more recently the absolute tragic loss of vitally significant land directly north of the Spotsy unit’s border.

    With Chancellorsville there has always been the “pull” of Stonewall Jackson and his mortal wounding. It has also been the easiest in past decades to connect to with its linear link to Fredericksburg along Route 3. And of course, when considering Fredericksburg, it has clearly enjoyed being the “city” and the means of a well rounded visitor experience: museums, shopping, dining, and overnight accommodations, all along the major highways.

    Currently, although hampered by a very depressed economy, there is a glimmer of promise that it is hoped will draw increased visitors. Should it get off the ground and inspire tourism oriented businesses, the “Courthouse Village” project of the W. J. Vakos Company has the potential. The future will tell, but much will also depend on a long shot hope that the Spotsylvania County Offices of Tourism and Economic Development will actually make a concerted effort to foster these things and engender good stewardship toward their piece of the action.

    Another, very present and active effort to further propel the visitor experience at Spotsy, has been the inspiration of local proprietors Dan and Debbie Spear and their “Inn at Stevenson Ridge”, The Spear’s absolute love and devotion to the historical context of the region shines out with everything they do and offer. Situated on land adjacent to the park, it features an incredible section of earthworks built by the Federal 9th Corps during the opening days of the campaign. Here is a welcome venue for Sesquicentennial events. There is no better place, nor time, over the next four years, to bring the Spotsylvania Battlefield into the spotlight it most assuredly deserves.

  2. Mr. Hennessy — I couldn’t have put it better myself. This is why Sposylvania is my favorite battlefield to visit. Its a special place, where one can still imagine the horrors of that long, bloody, exhausting, rain-sodden campaign.


  3. Great Post John. Yes Spotsy battlefield in particular is why I love living in the area. I sometimes go there to ‘get away’ and it truly is like stepping back in time. We all have an obligation to protect this gem and its great to see the NPS value it as much as we do. Thanks.

  4. Are there any detailed illustrations of exactly how the Muleshoe log/earthworks were constucted,anywhere on the net or in a book ???

  5. I’ve been to the Fredericksburg area several times over the years and I absolutely love Spotsylvania. The seclusion is wonderful, I
    absolutely love how quite is when you’re walking the battlefield. For some reason my Mother always felt “creeped out” there, we’ve been to many of the battlefields over the years and this is the only one where she ever had the creepy vibe.

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