Fredericksburg, Virginia, lies just 50 miles south of Washington, D.C., halfway between the capital and Richmond.
It’s a small town which has retained many of its 18th and 19th century buildings. A visit to Fredericksburg’s historic district is a step into the country’s Civil War – and pre War – past, and a delightful way to spend a day.
Fredericksburg was established in 1728 although it had been settled by Native Americans as early as 1200 B.C. The town was named for Frederick, Prince of Wales, the eldest son of George 11. Streets were named for members of the royal family.
The city was an important port on the Rappahannock River; it was an official receiving and inspection station for tobacco. By 1828, a steamboat line made regular trips up the river to the Fredericksburg wharf, providing convenient transportation for goods and passengers.
George Washington grew up at Ferry Farm, across the river from Fredericksburg. Thomas Jefferson wrote the Statute of Religious Freedom in Fredericksburg. James Monroe lived in Fredericksburg for several years.
The best place to start a visit to the city is at Chatham Manor on a bluff on the east side of the river. Built in 1768 by William Fitzhugh, a friend of George Washington, today it serves as the headquarters of the National Park Service and a museum. The grounds offer a splendid view of Fredericksburg below on the west side. In December of 1862, the Manor became a hospital for the war’s wounded. Clara Barton was a nurse at Chatham, as was poet Walt Whitman.
The city was the locale of two major Civil War battles,the first in December 1862 and the second in May of 1863. It was known as
the “city of hospitals.” The railroad and its port made Fredericksburg an important target and it was bombarded, occupied and looted. Its large public buildings, churches and some shops were used as hospitals. The wounded were given initial care in the city and then evacuated to hospitals in Alexandria or Washington. The largest hospital was in the Episcopal Church, which still has the original pews and several colorful Tiffany stained glass windows.
A trolley bus takes visitors through the downtown area with a guide who explains the town’s history and points out the Civil War sites en route. The route covers not only the battlegrounds, the Confederate Cemetery and Martha Washington’s home for the last two decades of her life, but many of the beautiful 19th century riverfront houses.
On a corner in the middle of the downtown area, replete with period houses, lies the Hugh Mercer Apothecary Shop. Dressed in period costume, Dr. Mercer’s nurse introduces a visitor to the concoctions, surgical tools and live leeches used in the 18th and 19th centuries.
A more modern version of Hugh Mercer is the Lady Burg Apothecary Shop, where Crystal Wellman concocts custom made beauty products with herbs and infused oils, but without the use of leeches.
Fredericksburg offers some good dining options. Foode serves first rate American cuisine, such as excellent grilled scallops, delectable fried chicken and delicious pimiento cheese toast. The restaurant also serves several types of Virginia hard cider.
Outside the town on the east side of the Rappahannock in Falmouth, Amy’s Cafe is a cheerful, informal restaurant in one of the original old buildings. It’s a good place for lunch at the river’s edge.