by DAN SCHLOSSBERG
Annapolis, Santa Fe, and St. Augustine might dispute the notion, but Fredericksburg has a legitimate claim to be called America’s oldest city. After Captain John Smith landed at nearby Jamestown in 1607, English settlers founded the town (in 1728) and produced offspring instrumental in the formation of the United States.
One of them, George Washington, allegedly chopped down that fabled cherry tree in Fredericksburg and threw a silver dollar across the Rappahannock – a river whose Indian name implies that Native Americans lived there long before the idea of independence put a twinkle in Washington’s eye. Ferry Farm, near the river, was the boyhood home of the future first president, who later purchased a house for his mother Mary that still stands. Also surviving into the 21st century are the tombstone of John Paul Jones’ brother and the “Monroe Doctrine” desk, tucked into a local museum dedicated to James Monroe, a Fredericksburg resident before moving north to Washington as the fifth president.
Monroe didn’t have far to go: Fredericksburg is exactly half-way (54 miles each way) between the nation’s capital and the former Confederate capital of Richmond. As a result, Union and rebel troops converged on the town four times – with thousands of casualties. Several structures, including a white church, contain lodged Civil War cannonballs that are plainly visible.
The best way to peruse the historical district of 40 square blocks is a 90-minute trolley tour that departs from the Fredericksburg Visitor Center. It passes the homes of Washington’s mother and sister, the colonial-era Rising Sun Tavern where costumed wenches cavort, and the Hugh Mercer Apothecary, where leeches played a prominent part in colonial medical practices.
For safer and more familiar medical needs, Goolrick’s Pharmacy sits right in the middle of the Caroline Street historic district. A combination lunch counter and drug store, Goolrick’s started as a pharmacy in 1869, launched its lunch counter service in 1912, and won such a reputation for its milkshakes that many presidents have tried them. Like other downtown shops, it sells Civil War antiques and memorabilia.
Among the 100 boutiques, galleries, and shops is something called the Civil War Store – right across the road the hilly cemetery that marks the Battle of Fredericksburg site. Some three-dozen markers and monuments dot the well-sculpted hills, anchored by the Sunken Road, a fortification that helped the outnumbered Confederates give Fredericksburg native Robert E. Lee his most one-sided victory.
The first of four fights within a 17-mile radius, the Battle of Fredericksburg took place from Dec. 11-15, 1862. It was followed by Chancellorsville (April 27-May 6, 1863), where Lee prevailed but lost his best underling when Gen. Stonewall Jackson was shot by his own troops; Wilderness (May 5-6, 1864), where Ulysses S. Grant faced Lee for the first time and fought him to a stalemate; and Spotsylvania Court House (May 8-21, 1864), a two-week encounter that gave the region the nickname “Crossroads of the Civil War.”
With an estimated 100,000 men lost in those battles, the area could be called the Graveyard of the Civil War. There are fields of tombstones, most of them unmarked because remains could not be identified. Close hand-to-hand combat and endless artillery barrages cost the Union more than 60,000 soldiers and the Confederacy about 40,000.
With so many cemeteries, cannons, and battlefield sites, a sojourn to Chatham seems almost surreal. Perched on a 1,228-acre site anchored by a 1771 mansion, Chatham sits on a bluff overlooking the town and river. Visitors have included George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Clara Barton, Walt Whitman, Northern generals, and Union troops who used it as a headquarters before it became a much-needed hospital.
And there are other calming places in this cauldron of calamity:
- · A 40-foot granite marker that looks like a miniature Washington Monument is actually a memorial for Mary Washington, mother of the father of our country. It was dedicated by President Grover Cleveland in 1894.
- · Not far away is a stone marker bearing a bronze plaque that salutes religious equality, one of the four freedoms espoused by Thomas Jefferson.
- · Mary Washington’s will, as well as a bell cast by Paul Revere’s foundry, are hallmarks of a Gothic Revival courthouse that dates from 1851.
- · The Fredericksburg Area Museum and Cultural Center has extensive information and artifacts about the one-time port.
- · The Civil War Life Museum has exhibits that include original equipment and the White Oak Civil War Museum offers artifacts collected from local encampments.
- · PNC Bank, housed in the federal-style Farmers Bank Building, contains such bank artifacts as a scale for weighing gold dust.
- · Gari Melcher, an impressionist artist with an international reputation, built a home and studio at Belmont, also overlooking the Rappahannock that attracts visitors to the historic town of Falmouth. He and his wife Corrine purchased the property in 1916.
- · Amy’s Café, a stone’s throw from the Melcher spread, has a modern menu but an ancient history since it’s housed in a historic tavern with 18th century roots. For a better view of the nearby river, patrons can eat outside (and hope that no smokers in the tobacco-friendly state are nearby).
- · Riverside Dinner Theater features productions so professional that Sally Struthers (Gloria on All in the Family) has been in two of its shows, most recently The Full Monty.
The Crossroads of the Civil War
Historical sights and sounds abound in this timeless city seeped in American antiquity
- Getting around is easy. There’s plenty of parking in the historic district, with availability on the street and in garages, plus a local shuttle called “The Fred.” Amtrak trains stop within walking distance of the Fredericksburg Visitors Center, while a cheaper (and slower) alternative route to Washington is the Virginia Railway Express, which runs three trains in each direction during weekday commuting times. When the cherry blossoms (and the tourists) are out in D.C., the train is the best vehicle to be in.
Virginia has more wiggle room for drivers, who will relish the one-word slogan of Fredericksburg Tourism: TIMELESS. Historic markers line every highway from U.S. 1, also known as Jefferson Davis Highway, to U.S. 17, a slow but scenic route that meanders from Fredericksburg to Yorktown and Colonial Williamsburg.
Although the local population is about 20,000, Fredericksburg seems to have just as many places to eat, shop, or stay. All the big chains are there – close enough to the historic district to be convenient, but far enough away not to be a nuisance. Downtown has 40 chef-owned restaurants, including one that caters to vegans and vegetarians, and a good selection of historic homes that have evolved into bed-and-breakfast inns. For families who need space, quiet, and proximity to face food, a Homewood Suites is adjacent to the enormous Wegman’s market in Central Park (neither a parking garage nor a place with a zoo shadowed by giant skyscrapers).
Fredericksburg has a benign climate where temperatures can top 80 degrees anytime between April Fool’s Day and Halloween (don’t be surprised to see kids in George Washington masks – they are routinely given to visiting media members). For further information, call 800-678-4748 or visit and www.virginiacivilwar.org.
Former AP newsman Dan Schlossberg of Fair Lawn is travel editor of New Jersey Lifestyle and Sirius XM Radio’s Maggie Linton Show and host of Travel Itch Radio, heard Thursdays at 8