Pontoon Boats Cross River
Under Fredericksburg ‘Enemy’ Fire

By Julio C. Zangroniz
(February/March 2013 Civil War News)

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FREDERICKSBURG, Va. — It took a lot of planning, many hours of volunteer work and the cooperation of various regulatory agencies, but the Federal Army crossed the Rappahannock River on pontoon boats while under Confederate “fire” during December’s 150th anniversary commemoration of the Battle of Fredericksburg.

How did the idea of building the pontoon boat reproductions used in the “Fire on the Rappahannock” effort come about? According to one of the chief organizers, Pete Berezuk, he brought up the subject with Eric Powell, chairman of the Battle of Fredericksburg Commemoration Committee, during the summer of 2011 and was invited to join the committee.

Work began in earnest in January 2012. The project was approved with financial support from the George Washington Foundation, which operates Historic Kenmore and George Washington’s Ferry Farm. In both 1862 and 2012 Union troops crossed the river from the farm’s ferry crossing. 

Berezuk was offered and accepted command of the Third Battalion for the Federal Brigade participating in the event, with Mark Herzog as the overall Federal Commander. Support of the reenacting community was solicited.

The actual construction program began with a June work weekend which followed a planning meeting the month before and “plenty of behind-the-scenes preparation done in advance,” according to Berezuk, who lives in Fredericksburg.

He estimates that the hardy brigade of aspiring boat-builders put in “just over 1,000 man-hours in construction time” at the Ferry Farm site, in addition to research, coordination and planning. Manpower shortages slowed the work.

Then it was time for a “practical test,” an actual crossing of the river aboard the pontoon boat reproductions. The first boat, named Betty, wasn’t tested until Dec. 1. Mary was tested the day before the Dec. 8 reenactment.

Both pontoons performed well. Small leaks were filled with “additional caulking, putty or sealants as needed.” The day before the event partial loads of soldiers in full equipment were ferried in the boats “to work out the kinks and set our procedures in place for the actual crossings,” Berezuk says.

Each pontoon made four or five trips across the river during testing. Each of the three crews performed two practice trips with troops.

The rehearsals went very well and no unexpected or foreseen problems were encountered. “We had materials, knowledge and plans in place to correct our deficiencies,” Berezuk reports. Thanks to the active support of the volunteers, the pontoon crews were able to perform the tasks flawlessly.

Safety was a paramount concern to everyone. The participants received instructions not to jump out of the boats into the water — for any reason, says Berezuk.

“There is one picture of an individual, floating around the Internet, where he clearly ignored my instructions and jumped into the water. I don’t know the circumstances, but there was absolutely no need to jump in the water,” he says.

“We prepped our landing on the Stafford County bank, so loading could be done easily. We selected our landing sites on the Fredericksburg bank with care, so there would be no need for our participants to jump into or wade through the water.”

In 1862 U.S. troops crossed the river on two pontoon bridges and in boats. Some 2012 troops crossed to Fredericksburg on a “modern” bridge built for the event by the real Army.

It proved to be a few feet short of the bank. The gap had to be filled with hay bales and quite a few of the Federal infantrymen ended up with wet shoes, some sinking as far as their upper thighs.

Without exception, everyone seemed to enjoy the experience and laughing and banter was common, even though the soldiers were, supposedly, under enemy fire.

The pontoon boats hardly took in any water. According to Berezuk, “The design actually becomes more watertight the longer the pontoon is in the water.” As the boats remained in the water, the planks swelled further and the fit tightened, improving their water integrity.

They didn’t take on any water during the crossing operations and “all the participants who crossed in them had dry feet during the rest of the reenactment,” he says.

 The boats met local and state safety standards for unpowered watercraft of that size with life jackets concealed under the gunwales. What Berezuk calls a simple flag system of green and red flags signaled to the event staff and the local safety crew if there were problems. 

He estimates somewhere in the neighborhood of 200 individuals crossed the Rappahannock during seven trips aboard the pontoon boats.

“The first four trips were planned to move the 104 participants who signed up and donated money for the project to portray the 89th New York Infantry, the unit that crossed to clear the Fredericksburg bank on Dec. 11, 1862.” Berezuk portrayed the 89th’s lieutenant colonel.

He says the remaining trips carried members of the 28th Massachusetts who had been posted by the landing, another 75 participants. Twenty engineers handled the boats. The crossings took less than an hour.

The last time a similar effort had been attempted took place in December 2001 using reproduction boats donated after the filming of “Gods and Generals.”

Once the 2012 river crossing was completed, the opposing armies held a rousing, rolling street fight through downtown Fredericksburg before an enthralled crowd of spectators.

Later in the afternoon everyone marched to the area of Marye’s Heights where an impressive living history program took place in front of even larger crowds.

After some quiet time in the days after the battle commemoration, Berezuk was asked how he felt about the “Fire on the Rappahannock” part of it.

He says it would not have happened without the assistance of strong volunteers.

Noting the success of their endeavor, he says, “I know the participants are pleased by the unanimously positive thanks and praise we have received. I have not received a single negative comment.”

Jerry Lynes, deputy chair of the Battle of Fredericksburg Commemoration Committee and a sergeant for the 28th Mass., agrees. “The weekend was a big hit. It exceeded expectations in almost all regards.”

He said the committee was touched by the outpouring of positive response. An estimated 10,000-15,000 people attended, many who went to Fredericksburg specifically to see “a significant bit of American history on the actual ground of that history.”

Lynes says reenactor support was fabulous and he regretted they did not have the space to allow more to participate. Almost 1,500 took part. “We broke a lot of [late applying] hearts as we just didn’t have room. We also were happy to have a significant civilian representation.”

He said feedback from participants has been universally positive. “I have seen a lot of ‘best ever’ comments in the forums, Facebook, etc.”

Lynes credits the successful sesquicentennial weekend to supporting relationships, calling it “an example of the best benefit of reenactor, National Park Service and community cooperation.”

He said, “I don’t know anywhere in the hobby such a great supporting relationship works as well.” In addition, the City of Fredericksburg, Stafford and Spotsylvania counties worked closely with the committee.

See additional photos at www.zphotos.smugmug.com, gallery 12Fredericksburg.