Fredericksburg honors blue and gray, in death and life

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Statue in Fredericksburg National Cemetery depicts Confederate soldier Richard Kirkland, "Angel of Marye's Heights."

FREDERICKSBURG, Va. - After 150 years, the pain of a divided America is no less apparent. To feel it, you need only go to two places, a few blocks apart, in Fredericksburg.

The first is the Confederate Cemetery, a parcel of land that announces itself with a handsome arch. On Memorial Day weekend, for the 145th time, Fredericksburg will mark this resting place of about 3,700 souls, two-thirds of whom remain nameless to the living who visit the place.

At some points in the day, taps will be played, wreaths will be placed, and people will strew flower petals along parts of the cemetery, where each grave will be marked by the Ladies' Memorial Association with a small Confederate flag.

Not far away at a site called Marye's Heights - you could easily walk it from the Confederate burial field - will be another Memorial Day weekend observance, at the Fredericksburg National Cemetery. More than 15,000 Union soldiers are buried there, and more than 12,000 of them remain nameless.

Volunteers will light candles and place them in luminaries at each of the graves, a glowing tribute to a horribly destructive time here, a spot where the Confederacy reigned while the Union attacked in an incessant battle on Dec. 13, 1862. Taps will provide the background here, too, every half hour.

There is a story about human kindness - futile, yes, even pyrrhic - and when I heard it a few weeks ago on a sunny late-winter morning before the summer crowds had arrived to set the historic town buzzing, I felt tears well up.

It goes like this: A 19-year-old Confederate soldier named Richard Kirkland was among the victors in that battle, when the South bombarded the Union troops from behind a stone wall. The next dawn, thousands of Union soldiers lay dead or moaning for relief.

Kirkland got the reluctant approval of his commander to collect and fill canteens. At great risk, he crossed over the wall with the canteens and walked to and fro, giving his enemies whatever comfort he could.

Kirkland's statue stands today at the cemetery, canteen in hand. He is called the Angel of Marye's Heights. The year after his act of mercy, he was killed in battle.

After seeing the two cemeteries and hearing that story, I felt downright schizophrenic - a sense, I guess, that may come to Fredericksburg itself when Memorial Day approaches.

Weren't all these people born of a Revolution that Fredericksburg - the area where George Washington grew up - bolstered by manufacturing its ammunition? And what does it say that Fredericksburg continues to honor them on their own 150-year-old terms?

This is the stuff of discussion for an anniversary this year that, in any case, is not a happy one.

Probably no American city is as infused with history, and a sense that American roots run deep, as Philadelphia. But for a nearby region with its own sense of an American soul, you'll have to look hard to match the Fredericksburg area, close to Manassas. There are the houses where George Washington installed his mother and where his sister lived (Fredericksburg), and the house where Thomas Jefferson installed himself (Monticello, a pleasant ride).

I traveled there not because of American history, but because of my own. My friend Andi Gabler and I had reconnected at an Altoona High School reunion in the Pennsylvania town of our youth, and she told me of the charms of Fredericksburg, where she owns and operates a 120-year-old bed-and-breakfast called Schooler House. She and her husband, a military specialist on his second Afghanistan tour, also live in the home.

So our friend and alum John Fiore, a French teacher who stayed to work in Altoona, popped into Philly, and we drove down to Andi's for a mini-reunion.

The three of us had a great time eating, walking around, and just yakking it up in Fredericksburg - it always helps to be accompanied by a local, especially a longtime friend who runs a sweet place restored and updated to a fare-thee-well with countless antiques, and who serves piping-hot cranberry scones and French toast.

I had no intention of writing about this town along the Rappahannock River. But the minute I saw its charm and began to hear about its history, I pulled out a notepad.

The first thing I noticed was the names of the downtown streets: Prince Edward, Princess Anne, Charles, Caroline, and the like. The town has been around as a settlement since the early 1600s and became official in 1727. As a mark of its fealty to the crown, it was named for the son of King George II - Frederick, the Prince of Wales.

Virtually every downtown street has a person's name because the townsfolk were seriously set on their theme. King George's wife (Caroline Street), his sister (Sophia Street), his daughter (Amelia Street), and the extended family have their roadways.

Fredericksburg, like Philadelphia, is full of 18th- and 19th-century buildings, with the feel of Americana downtown and the look of American suburbs beyond the central area. I got the sense that it remains close-knit, at about 25,000 people - not much different from Altoona.

A good way to begin exploring is on a trolleylike bus operated by Trolley Tours of Fredericksburg and sponsored by a group called the Shops of Old Town. Their support is also the tour's downside; as the vehicle rolls along, the driver points out every one of the sponsoring businesses, making a part of the tour a living commercial.

The upside is the quick hit of history you get from the driver's narration as you pass notable sites, including both cemeteries. Plus stories - the one I especially liked was about the precocious George Washington warning town fathers to take action or New York would overtake their port business.

"Guess they didn't listen to 14-year-old George, did they?" our driver said in a practiced tour-guide tone.

The downtown has any number of restaurants, antiques shops, used-book stores, and public spaces amid historic places such as Mary Washington's house, Rising Sun Tavern, and the Hugh Mercer Apothecary Shop.

One view of history is more modern than the rest - the 1863 Goolrick's Pharmacy, a working drugstore that boasts the nation's longest-running soda fountain, approaching its centennial next year.

You'll also find architectural, Segway, and other tours, even a river cruise.

The National Civil War Life Museum is dedicated to telling the story of the ordinary people who fought on either side and the effects of the war on civilians, free and enslaved.

No single side here. In Fredericksburg, that seems just right.


Fredericksburg: Both Sides Now

Fredericksburg, Va., is about a four-hour drive from Philadelphia, south and mostly on I-95, although alternate routes are available.

Civil War packages. "Civil War 101: Battlefields & Bullets" is a package for two people arranged by the Virginia tourism agency. The three-day, two-night stay at inns with a range of prices includes museum admissions in Fredericksburg and at museums and battlefields nearby. The offer is good through September. (1-877-404-5810, www.fredericksburgvacations.com).

Staying there. I stayed at my friend's B&B, the Schooler House, one of several in the city, with two rooms available. (1303 Caroline St., 540-374-5258). The 1890 Caroline House (528 Caroline St.) has three bedrooms, and its sister property, Richard Johnston Inn (711 Caroline St.) has nine. (Both B&Bs: 540-899-7606.) The Kenmore Inn has nine bedrooms (1200 Princess Anne St., 540-371-7622), and the Inn at the Olde Silk Mill, 30 rooms (1707 Princess Anne St., 540-371-5666). Other hotel options are available. Room rates in the B&Bs generally range from about $100 up to about $225.

Dining there. The town has plenty of dining options - just walk along the streets and check out menus in the windows. I had a veal porterhouse at the buzzing, pleasant Bistro Bethem (309 William St., 540-371-9999; www.bistrobethem.com), which specializes in American cuisine at moderate prices, and a fine selection of plates at the pan-Asian Miso, (1305 Jefferson Davis Highway, 540-371-6999; www.misoasiangrill.com), in a handsome dining room a few minutes' ride from downtown.

Trolley Tours of Fredericksburg offers several tours a day, depending on the season. Tours leave from the Fredericksburg Visitor Center, at Charlotte and Caroline Streets. $17 adults, $8 ages 5-12. (540-898-0737; www.fredericksburgtrolley.com.)

More information. The Frederickburg Visitor Center is at Charlotte and Caroline Streets, 1-800-678-4748 or www.visitfred.com.


Contact staff writer Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727 or hshapiro@phillynews.com.