It’s about 8 miles from Brock Road to Marye’s Heights. Today, Route 208 runs the distance, eventually turning into Lafayette Blvd at Four Mile Fork in Fredericksburg. In 1864, the road was not paved and simply called Fredericksburg Road which became Telegraph Road much closer to town. Why’s this matter? Well, it’s a route that the Union Army of the Potomac used for supplies and medical evacuations during the two week long Battle of Spotsylvania Court House.
I think about it often when I’m driving that route from battlefield to battlefield for work. The distance that ambulances had to cover to take wounded soldiers from the field hospitals at the front to the supposedly more established hospitals along Marye’s Heights or about a mile further in the town of Fredericksburg itself. It’s not a flat road either. There are a couple of creeks that I zoom across.
In this last week, I’ve been thinking a lot about a woman who volunteered as a nurse in Fredericksburg during the opening weeks of the Overland Campaign. Arabella Barlow. She was the wife of General Francis C. Barlow, who commanded the First Division of the II Corps in the spring of 1864. Up to that point in the war, she had already saved her husband’s life twice and worked as a volunteer nurse with the U.S. Sanitary Commission on the Peninsula, during the Antietam Campaign, and the Gettysburg Campaign. The doctors and nurses she worked with would later remember her with great fondness and praise her competency, positivity, and determination.
At Belle Plain, at Fredericksburg, and at White House, she was to be found as ever actively working for the sick and wounded. A friend and fellow-laborer describes her work as peculiar, and fitting admirably into the more exclusive hospital work of the majority of the women who had devoted themselves to the care of the soldiers. Her great activity and inexhaustible energy showed themselves in a sort of roving work, in seizing upon and gathering up such things as her quick eye saw were needed. “We called her ‘the Raider,’” says this friend, who was also a warm admirer. “At Fredericksburg she had in some way gained possession of a wretched-looking pony, and a small cart or farmer’s wagon, with which she was continually on the move, driving about town or country in search of such provisions or other articles as were needed for the sick and wounded. The surgeon in charge had on one occasion assigned her the task of preparing a building, which had been taken for a hospital, for a large number of wounded who were expected almost immediately. I went with my daughter to the building. It was empty, containing not the slightest furniture or preparation for the sufferers, save a large number of bed-sacks, without straw or other material to fill them. “On requisition a quantity of straw was obtained, but not nearly enough for the expected need, and we were standing in a kind of mute despair, considering if it were indeed possible to secure any comfort for the poor fellows expected, when Mrs. Barlow came in. “I’ll find some more straw,’ was her cheerful reply, and in another moment she was urging her tired beast toward another part of the town where she remembered having seen a bale of the desired article earlier in the day. Half an hour afterward the straw had been confiscated, loaded upon the little wagon by willing hands, and brought to the hospital.Woman’s Work in the Civil War, A Record of Heroism, Patriotism and Patience – Linus Pierpont Brockett, Mary C. Vaughan, 1867.
There’s another side to her story and her time at Fredericksburg in May 1864, though. For several weeks, she was less than 10 miles from her husband, but they did not see each other. Each had duties and responsibilities. On May 18, 1864, near the end of the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House General Barlow wrote to his mother:
Arabella is at Frederickburg 10 miles off but I have not + cannot see her. All is hurry + confusion….“Fear Was Not In Him”: The Civil War Letters of Major General Francis C. Barlow, edited by Christian G. Samito. May 18, 1864 Letter on page 197.
As I’m writing this, I’m alone in a darkening room. I wonder if Arabella felt alone and discouraged. I wonder how she found the strength to keep going in the dark days in Fredericksburg and overwhelming numbers of casualties arrived from the Wilderness and Spotsylvania battlefields. I think about how close she was to her general, and yet how far. Just the distance of that Fredericksburg Road, or was it more? Duty separated them. His war creating the casualties she treated. Both of them soldiering on alone in their different roles of fighting or healing.
Maybe I’m not quite finding the right words tonight, but I keep thinking about the distances between families or friends, thanks to the pandemic. I keep thinking about how weary I feel of fighting mental battles over the memory of history and trying to figure out how or when to add a response. And I keep thinking about Arabella Barlow and the seemingly unending Fredericksburg Road that kept bringing new pain to her hospital doorsteps every hour.
The Fredericksburg Road in 1864 was pain, misery, and—for the Barlows—a form of separation. Just eight miles, though—now paved over and bustling with much more cheerful traffic. I keep thinking that 160 years from now someone will be driving over the hidden lingering traces of this time. Will they have any idea of the sadness and the hope I feel? Will they see just a piece of something or will they think about what the “eight miles” that remains really represents?