A Surreal Morning in Fredericksburg

IMG_9404One of the bloodiest slaughters in the Civil War occurred on the gentle slope of a hillside peach orchard in Fredericksburg, Virginia.  I knew that my great-great-grandfather, George Kriebel, died at Fredericksburg, but did not know any details.  I now know where and how he likely died.

We left Huntington Island State Park in late March with the goal of arriving in Maine on April 1 to start house hunting.  The weather was a challenge.  Below-freezing temperatures and snow hounded us all the way north.  IMG_9430We were in the vanguard of snowbirds heading north and most campgrounds were still closed.  But we found an open KOA in Fredericksburg and could not resist the opportunity to stay an extra day to visit the battlefield.

Zoe, being an Alaskan girl, was thrilled with the cold weather and celebrated her 11th birthday with a new ball.  IMG_9402There is something about the ball-within-a-ball that is all-kinds-of-awesome for Zoe.  She turned into a puppy again, especially because she got to enjoy it (off leash) at a nearly empty campground.  She was able to accompany us to the battlefield, too, so we all set off on an ugly, gray morning, with spitting rain.

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The Battlefield Restaurant

The Fredericksburg area has long been industrialized and developed and it takes some work to envision what it looked like in the 1860s.  IMG_9427The battlefield park feels like a sliver of green carved out of an unattractive, sprawl of old houses and decaying businesses.  I stupidly messed up the directions and we drove the length of the park before we found the visitors’ center.

A young man greeted us at the front desk of the visitors’ center, handing us the standard informational brochures.  His eyes lit up and he grinned when I asked if I could find out any details of George Kriebel’s fate–he said that he LOVED doing such research, it was the best part of the job.  He sent us down to watch a movie on the battle while he consulted their records.

We learned that George Kriebel was part of the bloody suicidal assault on Marye’s Heights–in which wave after wave of Union forces were ordered forward across an open field with no cover or protection to almost certain death.

This (now reconstructed) stone wall provided nice cover for the Confederate army to shoot down on the Union troops below.

This (now reconstructed) stone wall (also called the sunken road) provided cover for the Confederate army to shoot down on the Union troops below.

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A view of the stone wall from lower on the hillside

They were decimated by bullets and artillery mowing them down from the hillside above.  This grotesque squandering of lives resulting from the muddled mismanagement of the “Butcher of Fredericksburg,” General Ambrose Burnside–a man of flamboyant, bushy whiskers (sideburns were named for him) and the first president of the National Rifle Association.

Artillery posts higher above the sunken road, higher on the hill.

Artillery posts above the sunken road, higher on the hill.

Our young man researcher was joined by an older woman staff member–also greatly interested in helping us–who pulled out the battleground maps to show us exactly where Kriebel’s unit was in the battle.

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George Kriebel’s unit would have been to the left of the Stratton house in this picture.

We followed her directions to the Stratton house and then to the area where George Kriebel likely died.

Photo of the Stratton house after the battle

Photo of the Stratton house after the war.

This exhibit in the visitors' center tried to depict the scant cover--a wooden fence and a house--available to the Union troops at Marye's

This exhibit in the visitors’ center tried to depict the scant cover–a wooden fence and a house–available to the Union troops trying to assault Marye’s heights.

The Stratton house now.

The Stratton house today.

It is full of oldish square houses, a working class neighborhood now.  It was a peach orchard then.  A bizarre wartime grave for a man whose grandson and great grandson would be fruit growers.  I hope he died fast and didn’t lie there, suffering, in a mass of bloody, groaning bodies.

This neighborhood now covers the area in which George Kriebel likely died.

This neighborhood now covers the area in which George Kriebel and thousands of other Union soldiers died.

Oddly enough, this was the street next to the Stratton house.

Oddly enough, this was the street next to the Stratton house.

Who knows where he was eventually buried.  He was not one of those identified for burial in the battlefield cemetery.

Fredericksburg cemetery--it holds a small portion of those who died there

Fredericksburg cemetery–with the graves of identified dead

He was thirty-eight years old and left his wife and four children.  Emma, his youngest, and my great-grandmother, was only seven when he died.

It was a sobering morning.  It’s hard to really imagine the massive death visited on what was a small, lovely town and local farm fields and woods.  I came away with the core thought that war sucks.IMG_941520150326_113926

26 thoughts on “A Surreal Morning in Fredericksburg

  1. Fascinating. We visited Manassas a few years back and it was a sobering experience that you could feel deep in your soul. In about a week and a half, we will be visiting the WWII American Cemetery in Luxembourg to visit my uncle’s grave, and I’m expecting a similar experience.

    • One of the unsettling things about visiting this battlefield was how ordinary it appears now. Life goes on over and around it with little evidence (except for the cemetery) of the horrific suffering and death that took place there. I will be interested to hear about your experience at the Luxembourg graves.

    • Yes, Derrick, exactly–it was very much like WWI (except without the tanks and other new weaponry that upped the slaughter). Fredericksburg is where General Lee is supposed to have said something along the lines of, “It is well that war is so terrible, lest we grow too fond of it.” He may not have said it all, but we do, as humans, seem to be much too fond of war.

  2. Very fascinating experience. Thank you for sharing it with us. The picture with Zoe and the ball is my favorite though. She’s just adorable! ❤ Have a lovely day!

  3. Thank you for taking me along on your personal journey to learn about your great-great grandfather. Visiting a battlefield is always moving but I’ve never experienced one with a personal link.

    • This is the first time I’ve had a personal link and it definitely changed the experience. And, of course, if George Kriebel hadn’t died at Fredericksburg, Emma’s life would have been entirely different and I wouldn’t even be here.

  4. What a horrific and horrible thing war is and I followed your words and pictures with sadness in my heart to think of all those brave men sacrificed in an impossible situation. They never stood a chance. On a happier note, happy birthday to lovely Zoe she does not look 11 in the photo as she plays and rolls her eyes with her new toy.

    • I would love to be able to get into the brains of Burnside and others who screwed up on a massive scale militarily–with the resulting loss of thousands of lives–to see how they can live with that. Because it is heartbreaking to think of all those lives squandered.
      On a Zoe note, she is looking and acting older, but still has puppy moments–this ball brought out her wild side.

      • Looking back on history it is terrible to see how these monsters keep rising to the top and how they are able to create so much devastation around the world. If only there was some way of controlling them.

    • Thanks. Maybe if every school kid was assigned their own George Kriebel to follow into battle, it would help to personalize war. We are usually so far removed from it.

  5. Brenda, this post is so sad…did you feel it in your bones when you witnessed where your ancestor died? When I visited Berks County and the mill, I cried and made sure I left some of my DNA there. By now you are most likely saying…”ah, my Northern California hippie cousin”! 😎

    • It was sad–and maddening to learn that George Kriebel was one of those whose lives were so thoughtlessly thrown away. It did make a difference to have some personal connection, just because it was easier to distill the numbers lost into one individual and to imagine what he must have suffered. I think of you as my fellow Alaskan cousin! I hope you will come visit us in Maine.

      • Bill and I were just speaking about warfare during and after the Revolution and some of the stupid decisions made. For instance, if there had been scouts there at Fredericksburg (maybe there were?)they might have seen the Confederates behind the wall.

        On another note, I have not been able to corroborate this, but oral history passed down is that one of our Reitenhauers connected directly to our Bobbs, fought in the Battle of Trenton (Washington’s Crossing) with Washington. I thought he might have been an officer, but he is not listed as such.

        We would love to visit you sometime. I have major hurdles to deal with before that though: kitties here and lots of gardens which need tending. But you are certainly welcome here also. I have to visit my family in both Memphis and Philadelphia too.

  6. This is cool. I am researching my dad’s side of the family and have found some confederate soldiers. I love this kind of personal history.

    On a side note, I sure do miss you here!

    • To me, researching genealogy is interesting for just that–personalizing history. I come from a bunch of Yankees, so maybe our ancestors were fighting each other. No matter. Are you researching your mom’s side too?

      I don’t miss working a single bit, but I do miss you and some other folks there. It’s a bit weird to just up and leave and not see anyone again. But, it sounds like I left at a good time … We are buying a house in Maine and I know you need to get an East Coast trip under your belt, so consider a visit. Our door is always open to you and your family (including your pup).

      • My mom’s side has been well researched (Mormon family) but my Dad’s side has been a mystery. It has been fun. They are all southerners – I got all the way to the early 1700s before I found an ancestor who didn’t live in the deep South.

        You did get out at the right time…It’s pretty dismal here. I have never been to Maine, so I will definitely consider it. Until then, keep the blog going. 🙂

  7. I am a great-grandchild of Horace Kriebel, who was a grandchild of the George Kriebel who died at Fredericksburg. I just learned of George Kriebel the other day and was so interested to find your post! Good job on the research. I’ll share it with family.

    • Wow. I’m so happy that you found the post. I guess we are very distant cousins!

      After visiting Fredericksburg, I discovered the “Civil War Journal of Colonel William J. Bolton” (available on Amazon), who was in the 51st Pennsylvania infantry with George Kriebel. Bolton’s account of the battle is short, vivid, and heartbreaking. He wrote, in part: “Our course of march was very much impeded by a number of high board fences and of course could not advance by a regimental front, but they very soon put themselves on the other side of the fences in a very short time. But the men of the 51st P.V. were falling at every step and men were laying weltering in their gore all around, some killed outright, some with legs and arms torn off, and many with headless bodies. The sight was terrible in the extreme.” It really was surreal to be at Fredericksburg, trying to envision the ordinary working-class neighborhood as the scene of such horrendous slaughter.

      Was Horace Kriebel Enos Kriebel’s son? Have you been to the Schwenkfelder library and museum in Pennsburg? I really enjoyed it (there’s a post on the blog about it, too). If you have any interesting family history to share, I’d love to hear it. Nice to meet you.

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