No known photographs show the Sunken Road prior to the Second Battle of Fredericksburg, during the Chancellorsville Campaign. This view is said to have been taken just 20 minutes after Union soldiers carried the position on May 3, 1863.
Guides and interpreters regularly quip that every Civil War battlefield has a stone wall, a sunken road, and also a railroad grade, slaughter pen, peach orchard and other apparently common features. There is at least limited truth to these quips and at Fredericksburg it works rather well.
But why have Fredericksburg's Sunken Road and Stone Wall emerged among the Civil War's most iconic places? Why of the many stone walls and sunken roads on Civil War battlefields, is Fredericksburg's so well known? The main reasons are the existence of a compelling story, concrete visual aids and the endurance of battlefield features.
How many other battlefield positions were attacked numerous times in bloody repulse and then carried months later with relative ease and then photographed just minutes later and then permanently preserved with at least some of the original features intact? None. At least in this respect, Fredericksburg is unique. This is a good thing.
This 1866 photo shows an area several hundred yards to the north of the Visitor Center and includes the Innis house in the center distance. This section of the Stone Wall remains in an excellent state of preservation.
Library of Congress
From 1862 to today soldiers and civilians alike have strived to make sense of what happened on a few bloody days and this is best done at places that endure, where a visceral and physical connection can be made with something in the past. At Fredericksburg, visitors can walk the Sunken Road, look at photos from long ago, read soldier accounts, touch the Stone Wall, see bullet holes in houses, and see the final resting places of many who gave their lives there. It doesn't really matter whether some of the houses are gone, whether parts of the stone wall are completely rebuilt, whether parts of Fredericksburg are not as well preserved as others. In the end, people establish connections to places where they learn, see, and begin to understand. This is why the Sunken Road endures. Stories matter.
Photographs matter. Places matter.
LEFT: Numerous photographers recorded views of the Stone Wall and Innis house in the decades after the war. Here, telephone poles and a sidewalk have only partly disturbed the historic landscape.
RIGHT: In the 1930s, the National Park Service reconstructed the Stone Wall and rehabilitated the Sunken Road when it built its current visitor center. In 2004, the Sunken Road was finally closed to traffic and looks more like 1863 than it has in almost 150 years.
Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park