Memorial Day Speech – May 25, 2015

Transcript of the speech given by Steven Johnson, husband of the Ladies Memorial Association secretary, Virginia Johnson.

Why Fredericksburg? We here are, as we were then, midway between the Union and Confederate capitals. On the Eastern chessboard, we occupy the critical center squares. Either an invader comes through here, or he must go around us, either to the east or the west.

Was the battle of Fredericksburg inevitable? Was this the best way for the Union to come, and the logical place to oppose them? I would argue that it was not inevitable in one sense. There were at least four other ways to approach Richmond, and some of them were just as feasible, if not better.

But a battle at Fredericksburg was inevitable in another sense, the longer the war went on. And that is because during the first three years of struggle over eastern Virginia, the Union tried every one of the other possible approaches. When they failed, it was Fredericksburg or nothing.

Let’s look at the spaces on our chessboard. Unlike a game board, the terrain of Virginia is different in different places. East of us, there are wide rivers, which are serious barriers to the movement of armies. West of us is the Wilderness, which is just as difficult to march through. And further west, on the edge of the board, is the Shenandoah Valley, which is relatively easy going but points in the wrong direction to threaten Richmond.

First, the Union Army tried to come straight down toward Richmond from Centreville. In the First Battle of Manassas, they were repulsed. There was considerable fear that the Southern army might seize Washington City, as it was usually called, and end the war at a stroke. So the Union, like a panicked chess player after losing a piece, spent the rest of 1861 fortifying its capital.

Early in 1862, they tried a different approach, from far to the west of the line between Washington and Richmond. They proposed to advance down the Shenandoah Valley.

To paraphrase Kissinger, the Valley is a dagger pointed at the beating heart of Bristol, Tennessee. Parallel mountain ranges frame some of the richest farmland in the South. There are gaps through which an army can emerge, but between the gaps, that army is safe from being taken in the flank.

The Union assembled 50,000 troops from the western states, and put them under the command of John C. Fremont, a failed Republican political candidate, whose support might be useful to the Lincoln administration.

They were opposed by Stonewall Jackson, possibly the greatest general the American continent has ever produced, and 17,000 men, many of whom were natives of the Valley and fighting for their homes.

Further details are unnecessary, and might be considered gloating.

So just a few.

Jackson’s army faced two Union forces, each bigger than itself. But these forces were divided at the bottom, that is, the northern end, of the Valley. Jackson attacked the right-hand army, dealt it a stinging blow, then backed off and crossed to the other side, where he attacked the other Union army. When the Union pursued, he marched his men faster and got around behind them. And when they didn’t pursue, he stung one army, then when they fell back, moved into the gap they’d left and fell on the other one’s flank.

Eventually Fremont and his fellow generals gave up, and settled for containing Jackson from breaking out of the Valley. Its northern end leads into Maryland and Pennsylvania, and from there, could allow the Confederates to get around behind Washington City. Fifty thousand Union soldiers stood in Jackson’s way, and every single one of them was unavailable for the battles to come. The Navy calls this a force-in-being: their existence requires the enemy to waste his strength defending everything. Jackson cost the Union more men on the battlefield just by existing than he was able to do by attacking.

And he was able to slip most of his men out to help back East, without Fremont finding out. Because the Eastern half of the board was now coming into play.

Fredericksburg is here for a reason: we are on the Fall Line. This is as far up the Rappahannock as boats could go; the falls of the Rappahannock are right by River Road. They are a barrier, not an insurmountable one, but an inconvenient one, to navigation. And as rivers are vastly more economical than roads for moving goods, it made sense to put a settlement as far up the river as geology permitted.

That means downriver, toward the East, the river gets wider. Some places are fordable; most are not. A river crossing to the East is a major undertaking, requiring lots of engineers, lots of work, lots of specialized tools, and above all, lots of time.

As you go further east, the rivers get wider and the land gets wetter. Hard to cross on land, but increasingly easier to manage by sea. The Union had the U.S. Navy; the South was starting a navy from scratch. With command of the sea, the Union had the option to hook around far to the east, sail up the rivers, and land troops along the coast. Richmond, like Fredericksburg, is on the Fall Line. The James River is navigable all the way to the heart of Richmond.

So while the Valley Campaign was sputtering out in Western Virginia, General McClellan was invading Eastern Virginia by sea. He loaded the Army of the Potomac on boats and transferred them to Fort Monroe, down in the Virginia Beach area. Then he advanced up the peninsula formed by the York and James Rivers. For the Navy, these wide, slow rivers were highways, but for the Army, they were walls. And the Confederates dug trenches and defenses from one wall to the other, slowing McClellan down for three months.

But eventually McClellan was within striking distance of Richmond. With Joseph Johnston wounded, Robert E. Lee took over the Army of Northern Virginia. Although outnumbered, Lee attacked weak spots in McClellan’s line, and after several desperate battles McClellan retreated down the river again. Once again, it wasn’t the terrain which defeated the Union, but the Southern generals who defended it.

Lee couldn’t drive McClellan out of Virginia by attacking. It was just as easy for McClellan to defend eastern Virginia as it had been for Johnston to hold back McClellan in the spring. So Lee sent Jackson to invade the North. McClellan pulled his forces out of his position in the east and headed back up to Washington by sea. Lee beat him there, invaded Maryland, and threatened to come down on Washington from the north, just as six months before, Richmond had been threatened from the south.

But even geniuses can be unlucky, and the invasion of Maryland ended with the battle of Antietam. A new Union commander, Burnside, pursued Lee back down to Fredericksburg. The central approach had failed in 1861, but this time Burnside was determined to make it work, mostly by doing the same thing on a bigger scale.

We all know the story of the battle of Fredericksburg. Burnside did indeed cross the river, but he couldn’t take Marye’s Heights. General Hooker took over the Union army, which Lee pushed back at the battle of Chancellorsville, although it cost him Jackson.

Lee pushed into the North again, invading Pennsylvania in the campaign which climaxed at the Battle of Gettysburg. The Union pursued him into Virginia again, and then stood there, unsure of what to do. Straight down the middle had failed, twice. Around the west to the Valley had failed. Around the East by sea had failed. What else was left?

General Grant inherited the Union Army in late 1863. He has been described as a bulldog of a strategist, and there’s some truth to that. But even Grant didn’t think another assault through Fredericksburg was going to work. He wanted to take the center of the chessboard without attacking the center of the chessboard. So he tried the only sector of the map that hadn’t been tried yet: the ground west of Fredericksburg, but east of the Valley.

West of the city, the rivers aren’t as serious an obstacle. But the terrain isn’t best suited to the movement of troops, and that’s putting it mildly. Because when the ironworks at Germanna really got going, they needed to burn a great amount of wood. They cut down the old-growth forest, and not just a few trees at a time, either. When you cut every tree in a forest, you don’t get big trees growing back up in their places. You get low, brushy, fast-growing shrubs and bushes, acres and acres of them. You get the Wilderness.

Now, the Wilderness may be filled with nature’s barbed wire, but it isn’t filled up solidly. There are pathways through the brush. A man walking through the Wilderness has to detour and backtrack a bit, but he can usually get where he’s going.

An army trying to stay in line abreast cannot. Inevitably it breaks up into small groups zigzagging around the worst of the brush and struggling through the rest. Even today, in an age of universal radio communications, it is a struggle to keep track of where everybody is in broken terrain. When the enemy shows up, it is difficult to concentrate force on him. It is much more common for one small group to find the enemy and engage him. Then ten or twenty minutes later, another small group arrives on the scene. If the enemy has kept his forces even somewhat together, these little groups are defeated one by one, all day long if need be.

Grant tried to push 100,000 men through the Wilderness and get behind Fredericksburg instead of assaulting it directly. Lee detected his movements and attacked; he also took up positions on the Plank Road and waited for scattered Union troops to come into view, at which point they were attacked. Grant outnumbered Lee about two to one. He lost about twice as many men as Lee did, but Grant knew he could replace his losses, while Lee could not.

Thus, after the battle of the Wilderness, Lee made a stand at Spotsylvania Court House. Once again the Union lost more than the Confederates, but the Union could afford those losses. The South had beaten two invasions, east and west, by standing on the defensive until the Union forces came close, then suddenly attacking part of the Union army before the other parts could

After that, there was no room for strategy. It was just a question of numbers. Lee made Grant pay for every mile he took, but eventually Grant still had soldiers left, and Lee was all out of miles.

Jackson and Lee were masters of the game of war. We all know Lee’s famous quote about becoming too fond of war, for it is the most free and creative game we know. But it is not really a game at all, as this place we commemorate today bears witness.

Most of the men who fought the Civil War didn’t really understand what they were getting into. They were excited by a recruiting poster, or they wanted to impress a girl, or they thought it would be fun. But they didn’t know.

They were brave for facing the unknown. But the ones who had seen the elephant, who had fought in Mexico or on the frontier, knew what they were facing. They were doubly brave for walking back into Hell a second time.

War is a terrible thing, but it is not the most terrible of things. We who remain in war’s shadow can only admire our elders – our betters – who faced the fire when their time came. And we can only hope, and resolve, to be as worthy as they were, if war should come again.