Years of Anguish

Frank O'Reilly's The Fredericksburg Campaign

To tell the full story of the battle of Fredericksburg would require two long volumes which no publisher today would be willing to commit to publishing. However, what no publisher would risk, serendipity has provided. George Rable’s 670 page Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg! was published by University of North Carolina Press in 2002 and Frank O’Reilly’s 650 page The Fredericksburg Campaign: Winter War on the Rappahannock was published next year by Louisiana State University Press in 2003. The books complement each other nicely and make a nice set. They can be read back to back as there is surprisingly little repetition. Each historian has concentrated on what he loves and knows best. Rable, an academic historian, covers in detail the social, economic and political aspects and O’Reilly a park service and military historian concentrates on the strategic, operational and tactical aspects of the battle.

Both historians were on hand yesterday at the Fredericksburg Baptist Church for the fourth installment of Fredericksburg’s Years of Anguish program. The Fredericksburg audience knows it’s history and there was no need to the general outline of events from December 1862. George Rable talked about how the influence of Fredericksburg went far beyond the soldiers and civilians in the area. Fredericksburg was the connecting thread that tied together not only Lincoln, Davis, Lee, Jackson and Burnside but also William Gladstone, Napoleon II, Clara Barton, Louisa May Alcott, Walt Whitman and Karl Marx. He looked at medicine and the wounded, the political motivations and ramifications, and the economic consequences of the battle. O’Reilly compared the competing political and military goals that led Lincoln and Davis to want to fight at Fredericksburg, and Lee, Jackson and Burnside’s desire to fight elsewhere. He showed how William Barksdale, George Meade, Jubal Early, Edward Porter Alexander and T. R. R. Cobb provided examples of innovation and leadership, making the best of a difficult situation and creating opportunity and new approaches that changed the way the war would be fought going forward. Fredericksburg provided one of the clearest demonstrations of the need and value of earthworks and fortified positions.

Also on the program was Susan Ural who has written about the Irish Brigade that played such an important part in the battle of Fredericksburg. She talked about what inspired Irish Catholics to fight in the war. There is a belief that the new Irish immigrants fought to demonstrate their patriotism and to gain acceptance in their new country. She said that this came much later, after the war, when they were the victims of racism and intolerance in the 1870’s. While there are always a variety of motives, the majority of Irish Catholics were fighting for the money–it was a good wage for poor and unskilled laborers, and to gain military experience fighting for republican government so that they could go back to Ireland, overthrow the British and set up their own Irish republic. This actually made better sense for the Irish fighting for the confederacy, who were fighting to create a breakaway republic, just as they hoped to do in Ireland, and resented those Irish who fought on the other side. Many of the Irish became disenchanted when the war aims expanded to include emancipation. The Irish, like many other soldiers from the North, were fighting for union and the preservation of the democratic republic and not for the abolition of slavery.

Overall an excellent program and a perfect way to kick off the sesquicentennial of the battle which begins in earnest in a couple of weeks.

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~ by severalfourmany on November 18, 2012.

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