Here we remember….the Sunken Road, the stone wall, and the men who defended it. Before you is the only surviving section of the original stone wall that bordered the Sunken Road.
No physical feature on any battlefield of the war had a greater impact on the magnitude of victory than this one. While more than 1,000 Southern men fell killed or wounded in this road (let’s not forget that that number by itself is horrific and unimaginable), more than seven times that many Union soldiers fell in the uncluttered fields in front of the stone wall.
For thousands of young men from Georgia and the Carolinas, this wall was salvation. For some, like Richard Kirkland, the wall offered only temporary reprieve—he would die at Chickamauga in September 1863. But for hundreds, perhaps thousands of others, this wall helped ensure a journey home at war’s end, rather than an unmarked or forgotten grave far from family and community.
Fredericksburg was a battle of panoramas—broad, sweeping vistas that, in the moment, stirred the spirits of any Confederate watching it.
“How beautifully they came on!” remembered one Confederate. “Their bright bayonets glistening in the sunlight made the line look like a huge serpent of blue and steel.”
But those panoramas quickly narrowed to the faces of men struggling for life.
This wall gave the Confederates an advantage that translated into death and suffering for their enemies in front. A Georgian remembered:
“We waited until they got within about 200 yards of us & rose to our feet & poured volley after volley into their ranks which told a most deadening effect. They soon began to waver & at last broke from the rear, but the shouts of our brave soldiers had scarcely died away when we saw coming another column more powerful and seemingly more determined than the first (if possible) …..I have been in many engagements before but I never saw in my life such a slaughter.” [William Montgomery, Phillips Legion of Georgia]
One man from North Carolina remembered, “Our shoulders were kicked blue from the muskets and were sore for many days.”
For one class of soldier, this wall offered little protection. Officers needed to be seen.
Of the 22 brigade and regimental officers who commanded in the Sunken Road, sixteen—including three generals—were killed or wounded in or near the Sunken Road. Seventy-three percent.
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No battle, no place of the Civil War more vividly demonstrates the connection between Southern soldiers and one of their most commonly expressed motivations for serving: the defense of home and family. The soldiers who fought at Fredericksburg witnessed in an unprecedented way the growing impact of this war on white civilians, on this community.
Wrote one soldier, Virginia is truly unfortunate in being the theater upon which this monster war is enacted….My heart has been made to bleed freely when called to witness the sufferings of the weak and helpless inhabitants of this unfortunate country.
Others expressed their anger—attributing the plight of civilians not to war generally, but to the hated Yankees. Perhaps Fredericksburg’s most important immediate impact on the war was the injection of vitriol and bitterness—a growing desperation on the part of Southerners not to submit.
Learning of the plight of Fredericksburg’s civilians, a woman from Fluvanna county urged her husband in the army to kill the South’s enemies:
Shoot them, dear husband, every chance you get…. Would that I may be allowed to take up arms, I would fight them, until I died.
Union soldiers had their own reasons for bitterness, as they offered their lives to quell a rebellion that many saw as rooted in an inhuman and unpatriotic calculation.
On both sides, the bitterness would take decades to fade.