One can only speculate why Union artifacts were found in a distinctly Southern city. Could Union soldiers have been seeking refuge from Rebel snipers hidden in the ruined buildings outside? Were they, in fact, among the Yankee soldiers who pillaged Fredericksburg even after the Southerners had mowed them down rank by rank as they came charging at them? Either way, archaeologists unearthed thousands of items which had been dropped, discarded or forgotten in the basement of that long-ago vanished house.
A huge array of items were found – bullets that had been unloaded from muskets; two brass letters “C”, possibly from Union hats; two number “2” insignia, likely indicating the soldier’s regiment; knapsack hooks; the remains of ration tins; and the list goes on. Some of the other items left behind – glass ink wells, a comb, a watch chain – suggest the Yankee soldiers may have stayed in this basement for more than just a few hours. One of the oddest finds was a pile of bullets found in the corner of the basement that appeared to have been loaded in muskets but had been removed without being fired.
The Battle of Fredericksburg was one of the Union’s most disastrous defeats.The Union army fought over, then occupied, Fredericksburg for several days during the battle. The Yankee soldiers either camped out or took refuge in the Confederate houses there before they were expelled by the Rebels or simply moved out.
A Northern army of about 120,000 men, under the command of General Ambrose E. Burnside, planned to cross the Rappahannock River to attack the 78,000 Confederate soldiers commanded by General Robert E. Lee. Burnside and his troops crossed the Rappahannock on pontoon bridges and seized Fredericksburg. He then launched a series of futile attacks on Rebel soldiers dug in behind a stone wall.
Approximately 12, 600 of Burnside’s men were reported killed, wounded or missing after the battle. Lee’s army lost less than half that number. It was after this battle that Lee is reported to have said, “It is well that war is so terrible. We should grow too fond of it.”
One of the seldom-discussed aspects of this battle is the house-to-house fighting – the first to take place on the American continent – and the pillaging of the town by the Yankees. This battle set the stage for how armies would conduct themselves from then on, according to historian Francis Augustin O’Reilly.
For the Confederates, this battle instilled a sense of bitterness that had not existed previously during the war. The images of civilians under duress; civilians as refugees; civilians’ homes being bombarded; and soldiers entering and looting homes were forever branded into their minds.
The artifacts from this Fredericksburg basement were so well preserved because the house burned down shortly after the war. The basement was later encased by the concrete slab of a more modern building. This kept 20th century trash from mingling with the artifacts, making this a distinctly rare find.
How fitting it seems for this find to occur the same year as the critically acclaimed movie Lincoln and 150 years after the actual Battle of Fredericksburg.