I confess I’ve been a little slow to start writing this update on where we’ve been in the last month and a half, as I suspect most people aren’t as fascinated by what happened a couple hundred years ago as I am. Even more, it’s been such an experience to tramp around on some American battlefields recently, and learn what we can in these places. But how do you share what you felt and learned in a meaningful way? We’ve all seen the Ken Burns series; we all know of the stupidity of generals, the senseless slaughter. All I can tell you is that it’s been very moving, and it’s made many years of reading history come to life a bit more. And it hasn’t been all war all the time—we’ve enjoyed a long, beautiful fall, zigging and zagging through Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia.
October 1 – 7: Philadelphia and Valley Forge, Pennsylvania
If you know me at all, you know I’m a bit geeky about US history. So I couldn’t wait to spend time in Philadelphia. My only previous visit here pre-dated my historical interest so I saw it with fresh eyes this time. We hit all the landmarks: Independence Hall, Carpenters’ Hall, the Second Bank of the US building with its wonderful revolutionary hero portrait gallery (which I talked about here); wandered the neighborhoods and enjoyed the historic architecture. We passed on the line to see the Liberty Bell—you can see it through the museum’s windows anyway. I think the best surprise for me was visiting Library Hall and the Philosophical Society’s collection, with artifacts like Meriwether Lewis’s expedition notebook, and a scribbled note from Jefferson to Franklin asking him to review the draft of the Declaration of Independence in June, 1776. And hey, when you’re sick of walking you can still go drink beer in the old City Tavern.
One notable more recent addition in Philadelphia is the Barnes Foundation, that legendary collection of Alfred Barnes who made a pile of money, put together one of the world’s best collections of impressionist, post-impressionist, and early modern paintings, plus African sculpture, metalwork, and other stuff. Then he stashed it in his mansion in a semi-remote part of Pennsylvania. His will said it couldn’t be moved, but after a long legal fight it was brought to a beautiful new building in Philly to make it accessible, and put it on a better financial footing. Anyway, if you love the art it’s not to be missed.
One thing we’ve learned is that cycling the battlefields is really the best way to experience them. You can just see so much more than walking, and you’re closer to the terrain than driving. We spent a day ranging all around the Valley Forge National Historic Park, though it was hard to relate to the biting winter of 1777-78 on the luscious fall day we were there.
Another nice little find was the Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site, right in the park where we stayed near Valley Forge. From 1771-1883 it was a self-contained iron plantation that extracted the ore and produced iron products—part of the early American industrial landscape. There’s a working water wheel around the back side of the main building complex, still operating the bellows that sent air into the blast furnace. Oh, and the rain cleared up for us and we had sunshine for the Paoli Blues Festival, just outside of Philadelphia!
October 8 – 17: The Civil War in Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia and Virginia
The thing about Gettysburg is that it’s so iconic, so representative of the Civil War in people’s minds that when you get there, it can feel anticlimactic. It’s just mile after mile of fields liberally dotted with markers and monuments of all sizes. Every corps, division, brigade and regiment, every infantry, cavalry, and artillery, every general, major general, lieutenant general and brigadier general seems to have something made of granite listing their contributions to the battle. It quickly feels static and dry.
But when you ramble the rolling fields you begin to get a feel for the terrain and scale of the fighting, and if you’re lucky enough to walk them at going on dusk with the very passionate ranger Troy Harmon, you start to imagine you can hear their echoes. And it can be very visceral and moving.
Antietam may be the Civil War battle I’ve read about the most; being there gave me goosebumps. Fought in 1862 near Sharpsburg, Maryland, it was the first major battle on Union soil—Lee’s first attempt to take the war into the north—and the bloodiest day in US history, with casualties of about 23,000. One thing that amazed me was how visitors catch the mood of the place. You don’t hear people chattering and laughing—it’s somber and reflective.
Harpers Ferry in West Virginia was also the scene of a Civil War engagement, but most people know it for John Brown’s failed 1859 attempt to raid the armory there and start a slave insurrection. As you know, he was caught and hanged, but historians agree that he ultimately achieved his goal of helping end slavery, by escalating tensions that, a year later, led to secession and the Civil War. Now the whole town is wonderfully well preserved as the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, the trains still chugging out of a hole in the mountain, across the Potomac and down through the town.
Working our way southward, we spent time in an area of intense fighting as the war’s tides moved south, then north, then south again. The Battle of Fredericksburg in 1862 was the epitome of stupid generals who couldn’t figure out that the old Napoleonic line of battle tactics were obsolete in the face of 19th century technology. God, what a waste.
Nearby, the Battles of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania Court House were fought in 1864—the first battles where Lee finally met a Union general who was his equal in U.S. Grant. Here Grant began his war of attrition that eventually dragged the war to a close.
As you can imagine, by this time we were having trouble keeping one battle straight from another. But lest you think it was nothing but battlefields, we did enjoy other local highlights along the way too! Including riding a beautiful stretch of the C&O (Chesapeake & Ohio) Canal Towpath trail that follows the route of the Potomac River for 184 miles between Georgetown in DC and Cumberland, Maryland.
October 18 – 26: Washington DC and the neighborhood
Every time I come to DC I’m amazed by how much more sprawl there is around the District; in the last decade especially, the result of mind-blowing spending on the homeland security bureaucracy. I read in the Washington Post that in this area, dozens of new building complexes for intelligence work have been built since September 2001: about 17 million square feet of space. (In fact, if you haven’t read that paper’s piece on Top Secret America, it’s a fascinating, frightening read.)
But, get past the sprawl into the heart of DC and you can spend a few chilly, clear days wandering around the Mall and the Smithsonian museums. This time we visited the Holocaust Museum for the first time—there are no words for it, you just have to go there. But I will say that I love that the organization’s role goes far beyond just preservation and education; it also plays an activist role in combating anti-Semitism and genocide around the world. And I never tire of the National Archives—on this visit, we got to be about ten inches from the Magna Carta!
Trying to explore every national park that falls in our path, we hiked around a bit in Great Falls National Park, just Northeast of DC. We also loved cycling the Baltimore-Annapolis trail, and getting a taste of the fine old brick town of Annapolis, with the oldest statehouse still in legislative use in the US. Did you know it was the nation’s capital, for less than a year until August 1784?
October 27 – 31: Shenandoah, Monticello and Appomattox, Virginia
If you go to Shenandoah National Park, I highly recommend going in October. There are spectacular clear days, the sun illuminating golden foliage and pale blue haze across undulating miles of Blue Ridge mountains and valleys. And being here—the Civil War still being top of mind—makes you realize just how amazing it was that Stonewall Jackson’s “foot cavalry” circled around and through these mountains to screen their movements in order to creep up on Union armies. Just another bit of trivia that I thought about as I saw the place for the first time.
Monticello is smaller than it looks in the photos. And, sadly, it’s not run by the National Park Service, so it’s expensive and very regimented. But how can you not stop there when you’re driving right by it? It actually was worth it to visit the home of the brilliant thinker and renaissance man. Jefferson’s public persona, his place in history, has been put on a pedestal. But seeing his inventions, his architecture, and the recreation of his beloved hilltop home life, you can imagine him and his time a little more clearly.
We felt a Civil War tour would not be complete without a stop in Appomattox, where Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant, though Lee said he’d rather die a thousand deaths. It was another fine job telling the essential story of the place by the park service, and another fine fall day for us to appreciate it. The very best part was hearing a reading of the series of letters that went back and forth between these two dogged, exhausted generals in the two days leading to the surrender.
November 1 – 8: Williamsburg, Jamestown and Yorktown, Virginia
Circling back around to the southern Virginia coast, we spent a few days digging even further back in time, to the landing of the first Jamestown settlers on the James River and the growth of the colony. Yes, it was in the year 1607 that 104 men and boys landed on this mosquito-infested swamp and decided it would be the best place to stop. Now there’s a recreated James Fort and a wonderful Archaearium. I had to guess what that was too; it’s an archaeology museum, telling the story of who the settlers were; a little gruesome but the more fascinating for it.
If I’ll remember anything about this place, it’s the three things the excellent ranger Jerome Bridges kept hammering on: it was the first permanent settlement in the Americas; it’s where the seeds of representative government were first sown on this side of the water; and it’s where the first “20 and odd” black people were brought into North America. And no, Pocahontas didn’t marry John Smith.
In 1705 they relocated the colonial capital inland to Williamsburg.The attraction there now, Colonial Williamsburg, just makes you want to go hide from the tourists, but if you skip the pricey admission to go into the buildings, and just wander the streets on the early or late side, you can appreciate the fine job they’ve done restoring a lot of historic structures and recreating a pristine version of the past.
One river over (and almost a century later), Yorktown is right up there with Lexington-Concord and Valley Forge for me—I always wanted to walk in these historic places. This is where the French convinced George Washington to forget the Brits holed up in New York, and to race down to circle the redcoats sitting in Yorktown, waiting to be relieved. Which he did brilliantly, effectively ending the Revolutionary War.
Heading on south we’re going to be in the Carolinas, so maybe I’ll close this war-soaked mid-Atlantic chapter now. I’m sure that won’t be the end of battlefields for us but we’ll take a break and head out to North Carolina’s Outer Banks from here. It will continue to be cooler and wetter, but they say average highs are in the mid-60’s down there so it sounds bearable!
- Barnes Foundation: http://www.parkwaymuseumsdistrictphiladelphia.org/Museums-More/Members/31/memberid–98/
- Cezanne’s “The Card Players,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Card_Players
- All other photos © 2014 Sue Cummings and Bruce Howard. All rights reserved.