I moved from Western New York to Virginia in 1962. Being interested in U.S. military history, it was fortunate that I settled in the Fredericksburg area, which was home to four major battlefields from the Civil War, 100 years earlier.
I met my future wife, Janet, there and was pleased to learn that her great-grandfather, John Pendleton Beaver, was a soldier in that war, fighting for the Confederacy. We would often go out to the area of the Fredericksburg battlefield where the Confederate forces had their right flank at Prospect Hill. It was a peaceful site, allowing for meditating on what had occurred a century ago.
The family didn’t seem to know much about their ancestor’s military experience, although my father-in-law said that when he was a boy, he would put his hand in the hole in his grandfather’s leg.
One time, before one of our many trips to Gettysburg, we were told that Beaver was in the 4th Virginia Cavalry, and we were able to find that unit’s marker at the battlefield. We also visited Culp’s Hill, and my wife was very moved when she read how the troops from both sides had used the spring there to fill their canteens before the horrific battle the next day.
Some years after my wife died, I decided to find out as much as I could about her great-grandfather. I soon learned that he was not a cavalryman, but had enlisted in the infantry in April 1861, at the age of 18 from his farm in Luray, Va. He became a member of the 33rd Virginia infantry regiment, 1st Virginia Brigade, which became known as the famous Stonewall Brigade, during the battle of First Manassas. He then fought in every major battle until he was wounded at Culp’s Hill during the battle of Gettysburg.
I also learned that he had been at Fredericksburg, positioned at Prospect Hill, at exactly the same spot where Janet and I had spent many hours. I’ve always regretted that my wife never knew that she had been so close to the actual sites where Beaver had fought.
Recently, four of my grandsons went on an eight-day camping trip with their church group to four states to explore and learn about the major Civil War battles there. They camped out adjacent to the battlefields of Manassas/Bull Run, Sharpsburg/Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville and Gettysburg. At each site, their guide told them about the battle and about the lives of the boys and men who fought there.
My grandsons’ last days on the trip were spent at Gettysburg, where they joined with tens of thousands of people observing the 150th anniversary of the battle. Their group was allowed to participate in a re-enactment of Pickett’s charge. Because the weather was as hot and humid as it had been in July 1863, they could experience some of the same conditions as the soldiers; however, without the cannons and musket fire.
I was proud that I was able to show my grandsons exactly where and when their great-great-great-granddaddy fought, and explain to them that he believed he was doing so in defense of his native state, Virginia. I am pleased that my grandsons were able to learn about the Civil War, our nation’s greatest conflict, and one that brought about the end of slavery.
I am also pleased to learn that many more people have been visiting the sites of these battlefields. It keeps alive the memories and sacrifices of so many American boys, such as John Beaver.