Civil War News For People With An Active Interest in the Civil War Today

Sunken Road Closes To Cars, Set For Interpretation
By Deborah Fitts
September 2004

FREDERICKSBURG, Va. - The Sunken Road, one of the most infamous of all landmarks of the Civil War, was scheduled at presstime to close permanently to modern-day traffic at 9 a.m. Aug. 16.

"It was never not open to traffic," said historian John Hennessy of Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park. "For decades it's been the hope of the park to close the road and interpret it as a resource of the park and not a city street."

On Dec. 13, 1862, the nondescript road below Marye's Heights, bordered by a stone wall, was the focal point of the Confederate position at the northern end of the battlefield. It would forever after that day be associated with a Union disaster.

"It gave [Confederate Gen. Robert E.] Lee a circumstance that he never enjoyed on another battlefield," Hennessy said, "with the infantry on the road and the artillery on the heights above, shooting over them." The Federals tried 18 times to reach the road across open ground. "They lost about 7,000 men in a very small area in front of the Sunken Road."

The Aug. 16 closure was just a first step in a $700,000 rehabilitation focusing on the 1,850-foot road. The project will include removing the existing asphalt and installing a new surface that will resemble the dirt road of the war era.

The park will also rebuild two missing sections of the stone wall, which lined the east side of the road during the battle. A total of 450 feet of wall was removed over the years when as many as half a dozen homes were built along the road, Hennessy said. The homes were later razed. (While there is photographic and archaeological evidence of a wall on the west side of the road, it was removed prior to the war, according to Hennessy.)

Additional plans call for new, "formalized" paths through the Sunken Road area, replacing the informal paths that visitors use now. There will be "a whole new set of wayside exhibits." Utility lines along the road will be buried.

"This is probably the most dramatic reclamation of a Civil War site in the last 50 years," Hennessy said. "It will evoke a different period, which it doesn't do today. Once this project is done, it'll be worth coming to see."

The paths and burying the overhead lines should be completed "within a month," Hennessy said. The pavement change will come next spring.

Although the park has owned the road, the city had the right to use it. A city bypass built several years ago reduced the need for the Sunken Road, however, and the 1998 closure of nearby Montfort Academy reduced demand even further. "Some days there are fewer than 100 cars," Hennessy said.

The road work is part of a $2 million rehabilitation project at the park that is being funded by Park Service construction monies. Also slated for repair is the brick wall around the national cemetery, at $350,000, and a series of other improvements around the park such as access paths and a new film on the civilian experience at Fredericksburg.

"The Sunken Road is known across the world," said Hennessy. He called the site "the defining physical feature" among the park's four battlefields.

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