Hiking Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania

Midway between Washington and Richmond, this town on the Rappahannock River was fought over and around repeatedly. There are four different battlefields and related historic sites at the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania County Battlefields Memorial National Military Park — all within a radius of just 17 miles.

For two days in December 1862, Union troops under Gen. Ambrose Burnside — whose facial hair became known as sideburns — launched a two-pronged attack across the river in a futile attempt to dislodge Confederate forces dug in on high ground.

The community has sprawled over the old battlefield since then, but some chunks of contested real estate in and around the town have been preserved.

From the Fredericksburg Battlefield Visitor Center, you can walk along the sunken road where Confederate soldiers crouched behind a stone wall for cover while mowing down their Union attackers. On Marye's Heights behind the road, you can see how rebel cannon placed there could bombard what was then a wide-open field below.

The hike finishes at the National Cemetery, a sobering reminder of the brutality of the war. Authorized by Congress in 1865, it is the final resting place for 15,000 Union soldiers killed there and in other fights in the vicinity.

About 10 miles to the west is the Chancellorsville Battlefield, where Lee won his greatest victory in the spring of 1863 — and where he lost his most valued subordinate, Stonewall Jackson, who was wounded by his own soldiers and died a week later of pneumonia.

There's a short looping hike from the visitor center to the spot where Jackson was wounded. Two other trails lead from the parking lot to some earthworks — shallow depressions in the ground, mostly, dug in haste by soldiers to give themselves some cover from enemy fire. One goes a half-mile and the other 31/2 miles through woods that once blanketed the area — now mostly cut down to make way for houses and highways.

About six miles farther west is the Wilderness Battlefield, where in early May 1864 Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant launched a nearly year-long push toward Richmond that ultimately ended the war. A hellish two-day battle took place here in woods so dense soldiers had a hard time telling who was who.

Four different hikes are mapped out through the park, which make a nice complement to the looping driving tour needed to see all the points of interest. The last hike in the series winds through trees to a monument to Vermont soldiers killed in the battle. Signs along the way explain the desperate struggle that took place in the brush, but one recounts the battle's lasting toll. It tells how the widow of a Union soldier killed there was forced to sell their home to support her family, as she got a pension of just $350 a year.

The Union army was bloodied at the Wilderness, but Grant, unlike his predecessors, chose to press on toward Richmond rather than withdraw and regroup. Lee raced to cut him off, and the two armies clashed again on May 8, 1864, about eight miles to the southeast at Spotsylvania Courthouse — the fourth battlefield in the Fredericksburg area and the site of a 22-hour melee that came to be called "Bloody Angle."

The park service has mapped out a seven-mile walking trail covering most of the Spotsylvania battleground. It begins and ends at the exhibit center, where you can view a large battle painting and read about the clash. There's also a shorter 11/2 -mile Laurel Hill loop focused on the scene of the initial fighting, plus a short 30-minute walk from the battlefield parking area to the Bloody Angle.

Getting there: Fredericksburg Battlefield Visitor Center, 1013 Lafayette Boulevard, Fredericksburg, Va.

Hiking time: Allow a full day (On a driving tour, you can see all four sites in about a half-day.)

Admission: Park entrance is free. There is a $2 fee ($1 for seniors) for a 22-minute introductory movie at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. Children under age 10 are free.

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