I left Richmond with mom and Shari on Wednesday and headed to Fredericksburg, VA. This was the first stop in our epic “Civil War Tour of 2014. I mapped out a four day excursion that would allow us to stop and fill our National Parks Passports full of stamps. Geeky thing for a bunch of old ladies to do, but we had fun nevertheless. We’ve enjoyed collecting these stamps over the past couple of years, and while it may be geeky, it has helped guide our plans. We always can find someplace new to explore.
One thing that we have observed, however, is that National Parks might just be notorious for being far removed from anything even resembling high quality and decent dining.
Fredericksburg, VA (December 11-13, 1862) was the first stop. We probably only saw a fifth of this NP as we skimmed through the Battlefield site by walking down the Sunken Road, and stopping at the Innis House, which still stands 150 years later. The NPS has done an amazing job of maintaining the integrity of the structure. Standing there and imagining a barrage of bullets piercing the walls of your home during the bloody battle.
From Fredericksburg Battlefield we headed to Chatham which is a grand mansion that sits on the river overlooking the town of Fredericksburg. It is the classic southern plantation house and has the classic Civil War history behind it. The owners fled the house and it was used by the Union Army as a headquarters and as a hospital. Clara Barton ministered to the wounded here, but we discovered later that Clara got around and was at many of these battles. The beautiful grounds and home were a switch from the battlefields usually seen in the park system. Imagining the lives of the people who lived and were enslaved on these homes is kind of mind-boggling and humbling. http://www.nps.gov/frsp/chatham.htm
We stayed with Andrew and Ann in Alexandria before they joined us and moved on to Gettysburg the next day.
Gettysburg was a wonder to us all. I had no idea that the park was as huge as it was and no idea that it would be as wonderful to visit as it was. We only stayed there for a day, but could have easily done two. We began the morning with a visit to Dwight Eisenhower’s home which is virtually within the battlefield boundaries. This was his “get away from it all farm” and was used when visiting dignitaries arrived to meet with the President. We rushed through this stop too, and probably didn’t see everything there. (We know for our next visit!)
At Gettysburg we did the museum and the cyclorama, which was something that none of us had ever heard of. In a giant round room we were surrounded by a 42 foot tall picture. There is an audio story explaining the battle that you see around you. The picture blends into a realistic looking diorama that runs across the floor away from the wall. I assumed this massive display was created digitally, never imagining that it was, in fact, an oil painting! It was common practice during the 19th century to create these paintings and display them all around. Patrons paid to view the massive painting and to learn something about an important event. The artist thoroughly researched the scene and is full of accurate details. This alone was worth the price of admission in my opinion. It was spectacular!
I won’t even attempt here to convey the scope of Gettysburg and the stories that we uncovered. We simply didn’t spend enough time there to get the full scope and are planning to go back.
From here we journeyed to West Virginia. Stayed with cousin Barb in Martinsburg and prepared for Day 2 of our Civil War Adventure. Next stop was Harper’s Ferry. This beautiful little mountain town is located at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers. George Washington chose the spot to build the nation’s second armory. The town’s main duty was to build weaponry and arm the new nation against its enemies. This simple fact is the very reason that abolitionist John Brown chose the town in 1859 for the site of the infamous insurrection that led his his capture and execution. The history here is rich with Civil War, industrialization, and Civil Rights events. A good bit of this precious place belongs to the NPS and is available to the public to tour.
Normally, we are the kind of park visitors who like to take the map and do it ourselves. However, when we landed at Antietam the next day right before the only tour of the day left, we decided to take it. Breaking with our tradition was a good thing here when we hooked up with the world’s greatest Park Ranger Keith B. Snyder.
This guy was every bored history student’s dream. We followed him through Antietam Battlefield for over two hours soaking up his dramatic narration of the events of September 17, 1862 that led to the bloodiest one day (12 hour) battle. Over 23,000 soldiers were killed, wounded or missing. This record still holds today. In my mind I always think of “casualty” as someone killed in battle. However the word actually means “a member of the armed forces lost to service through death, wounds, sickness, capture, or because his or her whereabouts or condition cannot be determined.” We talked about what that implies in 1862. If a soldier was “missing,” did he merely walk away from the face of the horror in front of him? Or was he in the way of one of the thousands of 12 pound cannon shots and vaporized? You really have to pause in these places and know that they ARE hallowed grounds, because beneath your feet in these fields are the remains of soldiers who died fighting for what they believed in.
Our last day on the road. Next stop, University of Maryland in College Park for NEH Banner Moments.