An ideal spot for a history vacation, Fredericksburg, VA, sits on the falls of the Rappahannock River. For Virginia Native Americans, the falls were a favorite fishing and hunting grounds. To early settlers, the fall line was the colony’s first frontier. And for generations to follow, the river brought both prosperity and conflict.
Historic Fredericksburg thrived early as an inland frontier port, where river traffic and tobacco trade grew along with the town’s importance. Close to George Washington’s boyhood home and a safe distance from the Colonial government in Williamsburg, Fredericksburg contributed heavily to the American cause during the Revolutionary War. Munitions were manufactured here, five generals left their families here to fight and Fredericksburg fortunes were devoted to the cause. In 1777, Thomas Jefferson and others met here to draft the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, laying groundwork for key aspects of the U.S. Bill of Rights. Many buildings of the era still line the streets of Fredericksburg.
After the war, the city enjoyed a period of prosperity as grand mansions mingled with tidy frame houses and a bustling business district by the river. A few generations later, its location put peaceful Fredericksburg again at the heart of the action, bringing danger and disaster – and made it a vital stop for Civil War history tours.
Located halfway between the two Civil War capitals, Washington, D.C., and Richmond, VA, Fredericksburg was battered bloody for three years. The city was crippled by a Federal offensive in December 1862. Confederate troops defending the heights above the city were able to hold off repeated Union attacks mounted from the shell-pocked remains of the business district. The armies were back in the spring of 1863. This time, most of the fighting raged outside the city at the country crossroads of Chancellorsville. Again, in 1864, the blue and the gray clashed nearby. Ulysses S. Grant had begun the last major campaign in the East in the tangled Wilderness. Ignoring massive losses, he soon had punched through to Spotsylvania. In each campaign, both armies left many dead and wounded behind.
Today’s Fredericksburg has preserved its memories well. Its large downtown historic district is dotted with Colonial structures and reminders of those who lived and worked here. Its Civil War past is inescapable. A major National Park interprets the battles, and the city still shows its glories and its scars.