It’s been a while since I’ve done a city or town day trip travelogue. On a beautiful Saturday in late January, C. and I took the hour-plus drive south/southwest from Arlington to the small city of Fredericksburg, Virginia, one of the state’s oldest towns, turned exurban enclave.
Taking Interstate 95 from the immediate Washington, DC area further into Virginia, one both literally and figuratively drives into the South—with all its fascinating contradictions. Much of 95 is lined with either modern suburban communities or military facilities, two symbols of the “New South,” but a truly massive Confederate battle flag flies high near Exit 133 for Falmouth and Fredericksburg. Exiting the freeway just past the flag, a busy road runs through run-down trailer parks and abandoned gas stations. Many signs proclaim President Trump’s promise to make America “great” again.
Crossing the Rappahannock River into the City of Fredericksburg, the Trump signs disappear but there’s a massive, well-groomed Confederate cemetery near the middle of town. One of the area’s many Civil War battle sites is adjacent to a nearby neighborhood, and revisionist Civil War trinket shops market gifts based on an alternative history in which Dixie stands proudly victorious.
But Fredericksburg and its nearby counties, Stafford and Spotsylvania, are no stand-ins for the sets of Dukes of Hazzard or Deliverance. Throughout much of the area, educational attainment stands far above the figure for the United States, and most measures of racial and ethnic diversity compare favorably as well. Household incomes and home values are high, and poverty generally low. Fredericksburg itself is fairly politically liberal and more southern Spotsylvania is similarly conservative, while Stafford (with DC suburbs in its north) is a Republican-leaning but more closely matched county.
Fredericksburg’s downtown manages to simultaneously cater to the city’s historic blue-collar millworker population, the Mary Washington University community, wealthy conservative suburbanites, and the city’s own growing professional community. It’s a mixed bag of businesses, and the condition of buildings reflects that diversity in much the same way. About all that most have in common is their advanced age (and those that weren’t old tended to be unsightly or nondescript office buildings).
We started our day with brunch at a spot that wouldn’t be out of place in Washington’s most hipsterfied neighborhoods. The farm-to-table sausage gravy and brisket burgers were fantastic, as was the coffee and the organic fresh-squeezed juice. After departing with overly full stomachs, we wandered the downtown streets and strolled along the tidal Rappahannock River just below the fall line. Years ago, the city’s economy was powered, in part, by the mills that straddled the river where it exited the Piedmont and tumbled over low rapids.
Near downtown, Washington Street showcases the city’s high-end historic housing stock. The street is named for Mary (George’s mom) Washington who, shortly before her death, resided adjacent to the Kenmore Plantation owned by her daughter (George’s sister) and son-in-law. Today, the wide boulevard is lined with stately houses; an extensive and beautifully maintained recreational park and the Mary Washington memorial complex sit nearby. (Mary posthumously claimed naming rights for the city’s university, part of Virginia’s public higher education system and, historically, the women’s campus of the University of Virginia.)
To their credit, many area residents—black and white, white- and blue-collar, fat and slim—don’t seem fully content to live a couch potato lifestyle. There are miles of roadside bike trails and a great multi-use path that runs through much of the city along a historic canal. During our visit, the Mary Washington park complex was packed, dozens of residents sat quietly or conversed while their furry friends romped in a dog park, and a diverse group of anglers cast their bait into a small lake (as part of Virginia’s Urban Fisheries program).
In and around Fredericksburg, though, the Civil War hangs almost over everything. We stopped at the Fredericksburg Battlefield Visitor Center of the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park and strolled along the Sunken Road, a historic pathway that doubled as a military trench for the Confederate defenders of Marye’s Heights. Wave after wave of Union soldiers were mowed down by rifles and artillery fire, many of their bodies just decaying into the ground where working class housing and university apartments now stand.
Open hostilities in America’s great conflict ended more than 150 years ago, but recent history has only reinforced that it’s far from truly resolved. The battle flag flying high above the freeway—and advertising Fredericksburg in a way that many area residents seem far from okay with—shows the power of proxy battles over what it means to be American. Meanwhile, much of Fredericksburg seems to be content with just living life in the 21st century.