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Historic handshake honors sacrifices TODAY'S EVENTS
Blue-gray handshake marks Fredericksburg battle's 146th anniversary

 Deborah Mooney dressed in period clothing as part of the commemoration of the Battle of Fredericksburg.
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Date published: 12/14/2008

BY EDIE GROSS

During the Battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862, Union soldiers couldn't get close enough to the heavily defended wall along Sunken Road to touch it.

And if they had, it's unlikely they would've reached across the stone structure to embrace Confederates on the other side.

But that's what happened yesterday as re-enactors from the 28th Massachusetts and the 47th Virginia marked the 146th anniversary of the battle with a historic handshake.

Decades after the Civil War ended, elderly Union and Confederate veterans reportedly shook hands across the walls at Gettysburg, and re-enactors there have observed that tradition as well.

But historians say it's the first time the goodwill gesture has occurred at a Fredericksburg-area battlefield.

"Just the simple act of seeing blue and gray shake hands was very moving to me," said National Park Service historian Stacy Humphreys.

The handshake followed a rifle-firing demonstration by members of the 47th Virginia, whose namesake unit actually fought on Prospect Hill during the Battle of Fredericksburg. Yesterday they portrayed Gen. Thomas Cobb's Georgia brigade, which defended the wall during the 1862 battle.

Before Union forces withdrew on Dec. 15, 1862, more than 1,200 federal soldiers had been killed and another 9,600 wounded. On the Confederate side, more than 600 died and another 4,100 were wounded.

Spectators along Sunken Road and Marye's Heights watched yesterday's ceremony, which included a speech by City Councilman Matt Kelly and a short memorial service conducted by the 28th Massachusetts, part of the Irish Brigade.

The crowd applauded the 3 p.m. handshake.

"This was something that would be a way of honoring everybody," 1st Sgt. Rick Miller of the 47th Virginia said of the handshake.

"We won this one," he added, "so it's easy to be magnanimous."

Jerry Blake, an archaeologist from Colonial Beach, came with his wife and son just to see the handshake.

"It was excellent," he said. "I've never seen that before."

His 10-year-old son, Christopher, was impressed by the tales of soldiers on both sides.

"It was a very brave thing they did for their country and their families," he said.

Pvt. Scott Rader of the Army of the Potomac wore his Union blues to the event yesterday but didn't participate in the handshake. The Pennsylvania resident said he declined to participate in one at Gettysburg as well.

"I don't like it. I'm a strong Federal," he said. "I had a Union ancestor wounded at Antietam and I didn't think he would've wanted me to."

First Sgt. Jerry Lynes of the 28th Massachusetts, who helped organize the event, said the units that participated don't harbor any animosity toward each other.

Most of them know each other from previous re-enactments, and their primary focus is educating the public about Civil War history.

"You can't have this battle without both sides," said Lynes, who lives in Fredericksburg. "We wanted to show that we're all Americans."

Edie Gross: 540/374-5428
Email: egross@freelancestar.com


Noon-2 p.m.: Join National Park Service historian and author Frank O'Reilly and Federal re-enactors as they follow the footsteps of the famed Irish Brigade into battle. Meet at Fredericksburg City Dock.

2 p.m. The anniversary program at the Kirkland Memorial on Sunken Road honors the troops of both sides. Historian and blogger Kevin Levin will speak, followed by the presentation of wreaths and the playing of taps.