Brandywine Battlefield

Living in eastern Pennsylvania as we do, we are never too far from a Revolutionary War site. We are surrounded by the stuff. Despite that, I really don’t know as much as I ought to about the Revolution. It just doesn’t engage me as a subject so I really only retain the scratchiest general knowledge about it. This is not because I am British. Nope. I am totally on the side of the Americans. I am just really not into military history unless it intersects with some other genre of history that I am into. I only know as much as I do about the Civil War because I am married to a big Civil War nerd and learning osmosis happens.

Anyway, one of the local Revolutionary history sites we had not visited in the almost 8 years since moving here was a pretty big one: Brandywine. It was the biggest battle of the War, with the most troops fighting and doing so continuously for 11 hours over 10 square miles. The battlefield is only open seasonally and on particular days so we have just never gotten around to making a plan to visit work. Mr Pict, however, was determined we should finally visit so we got our act together and went.

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We started off at the Visitor Center where some friendly, chatty staff placed the battle within its wider context for us. Mr Pict also got deep into the weeds of a conversation with them about why the site doesn’t have National Park status. The rest of us scuttled off into the adjoining museum. Small as the museum was, the information boards were some of the clearest and most informative I have encountered. I was actually finally able to grasp the chronology of the conflicts that occurred in our region and why the American and British sides manoeuvred that they did. I always love a diorama and they had several. Meanwhile the 12 and 14 year olds entertained themselves in the dress up corner.

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The rest of the trip was a driving tour. We could have hit up a couple of dozen points of interest along the route but nobody was really enthralled at that prospect so we kept to the highlights. We started at the house of Gideon Gilpin, a Quaker farmer. It was the property that Lafayette used as his quarters and where he returned after being shot in the leg during the battle. Incidentally Lafayette turned 20 days before Brandywine which kind of blows my mind. I personally just like old buildings so I enjoyed wandering around and looking at the shapes and the stonework. Near the house is a massive sycamore tree that is over 300 years old which means it was around during the battle. I kind of love that living connection to the past.

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The next stop was the Benjamin Ring house that Washington used as his HQ. The interior was not yet open so we just skirted its exterior. I didn’t find it too interesting to look at. However, we got chatting to a volunteer guide who, while telling us that his hobby is making replicas of historic guns, revealed that he lives in the house that was the site of the last witch trial (more of an interrogation) in Pennsylvania. Obviously I had to steer the conversation in that direction. Much more interesting to me than battles and military leaders.

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We went to find Jefferis Ford, which is the spot where the sneaky British forces managed to cross the river. American troops were defending all of the other fords along the river but, for some reason, neglected to protect Jefferis Ford. Quite the oops. Anyway, we cross the bridge that now spans that area and looked down at the dun brown water and then we went on a trek up hill and down dale trying to find a spot with decent sight lines where I could do a three point turn. So that was annoying.

The final stop was at the Birmingham Quaker Meetinghouse. This was the location of some ferocious fighting and fallen soliders from both sides are buried in a mass grave in the small walled cemetery that abuts the meetinghouse. As much as military history is not my thing, cemeteries very much are. After visiting the walled graveyard, I therefore wandered off into the adjoining larger cemetery. Most of the stones are very small and simple, since Quakers traditionally do not approve of ostentatious memorials. I went in search of the grave of artist NC Wyeth but really stood no chance of locating it since his family’s stone is a simple one set into the ground. Our kids were all out of tolerance for this parent-driven excursion as it was so were not up for entertaining my cemetery wanderings.

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While the cemetery largely comprised standard grave markers, there were some very elaborate memorials. Just outside the gates were monuments to Lafayette and Casimir Pulaski, neither of whom is buried in Pennsylvania let alone that cemetery. Inside the cemetery, however, is a large monument containing a marble statue that really is quite at odds with the rest of the graves. It marks the plots of the family of John Gheen Taylor. Want to know why he got to break the rules? That would be because he was the cemetery president.

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So that was our trip to Brandywine Battlefield. I don’t think I will feel the need to return but, surprisingly, I did actually learn something through my visit. Plus it is always nice to go for a wander somewhere new. Now I am actually keen to visit the Museum of the American Revolution so that I can put together some more of the details of the war. Because goodness knows I am not going to sit down to read a book about it or even watch a documentary. Once I feel ready to return to museums, that one is going to be high on my list.

Antietam

Last weekend was Memorial Weekend here in the United States.  Memorial Day commemorates members of the country’s armed forces who have died in service.  As such, it seemed apt that we spent Memorial Weekend touring Civil War sites.  Our first stop was Antietam, in Sharpsburg, Maryland.

Confederate General Robert E Lee moved his army from Virginia towards the north and into Union territory.  Around the same time, Union General George McClellan moved the Army of the Potomac into Frederick, Maryland.  On 17 September 1862, these two forces collided on the Antietam Creek in what would be the bloodiest single day battle of the Civil War – and indeed the bloodiest day in American military history.  Of the approximately 100,000 soldiers involved in the battle, there were 23,000 casualties.  Ultimately Lee was repulsed back into Virginia and the Union held the area.

We started our tour at the Visitor’s Center where we chanced upon a small reenactment group marching and firing guns.  The Visitor Center itself offered a useful synopsis of the battle as there was a short movie to watch and some exhibits.  I found both to be particularly handy since – as I have explained before – I am not all that keen on military history.  The documentary fixed the broad stroke events of the day in my head while the exhibits in the small museum helped me engage with the subject through seeing things like medical field kits, uniforms, and drums.  What I learned (or relearned since Mr Pict has told me this several times) is that Antietam was a pivotal battle in the Civil War and not just because of the Union victory.  It was also significant because it led to Lincoln issuing the Emancipation Proclamation and prevented Britain and France from getting involved in the conflict.

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Mr Pict decided to lead us around the site according to the chronology of the battle.  We, therefore, started at what was once woods and cornfields.  I look at the landscape of a battlefield and really cannot engage with it.  It’s just landscape to me.  I need features and clear narratives.  I need the human side of things rather than tactics.  I, therefore, left Mr Pict and the kids to wander around the fields while I headed into the Dunker Church.  The Church, belonging to a pacifist German sect, had been on site for just ten years before it became a focal point of the bloody battle.  Being inside I was reminded of what I had read of the townspeople.  They hid in basements and caves during the battle and emerged to find their properties destroyed (one deliberately) and scenes of horrific slaughter.  While there was not a civilian casualty in the battle, the soldiers malingered in town long enough to spread disease to the civilian population.  Always finding the social history angle on the military history.

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Our next stop was the dramatically named “Bloody Lane”.  This was a sunken road that cut through the farmland.  The Confederates were using the built up land around the road as a parapet and were able to fire down upon the Union soldiers who were moving across the farmland and were funneled into the narrow sunken road.  The result was absolute carnage as illustrated by the photographs of Alexander Gardner.  Knowing those photographs as I do, I found it quite haunting to be walking along Bloody Lane.  I could actually visualise the horror of the scene.  We emerged from the sunken road at an observation tower.  As much as I appreciate a good view, I took one look at the narrow and open iron staircase inside and decided against ascending.  Instead, I waved from the bottom at my husband and children at the top.

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I would have loved to have moved on to the National Cemetery because I love cemeteries.  However, it started to rain hard.  We were wearing our raincoats so were largely protected from the rain but the grass was slippy under foot and it was muggy and sticky which feels gross when wearing waterproof layers.  And everyone was protesting about visiting a cemetery so there was that too.  We, therefore, hoofed it back to the car and drove to the next destination and battle point: the lower bridge, also known as Burnside Bridge.  Once there, 50% of our troops refused to trek down to the bridge so Mr Pict, the 10 year old and I plodded on with our reduced numbers.  On the day of the battle, the bridge was being held by Confederate troops (from Georgia if I am remembering the video accurately) who were able to pick off the approaching Union soldiers with ease from their position on the bluff overlooking the bridge and the road approaching it.  After being in the sunken road, it would appear that the theme of the day had been carnage in narrow spaces.

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The highlight of my 10 year old’s trip to Antietam was “befriending” a millipede.  At least, unlike his brothers, he actually saw all three key sites.  I have decided that one day they will look back and appreciate that their father and I dragged them on all of these trips to historic places.

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Road Trip #17 – Cass Railroad & Droop Mountain

On the twelfth day of our road trip, we found ourselves winding up the sides of the Appalachians, flitting between sparsely populated, rural West Virginia and pockets of charming little hamlets in Virginia.  I was very taken with the beautiful wild flowers edging the roads.  Even on the busier roads, the verges were like colourful meadows.

It was just as well it was all so pretty because we spent entirely too long on these winding roads having gotten lost and taken a wrong turn that required us to double back and take an alternative, even more zig-zagging route to our destination.  Two of our children suffer from car sickness so we had to pull the car over a couple of times.  At the end of the day, our youngest was fist pumping in celebration of having beaten his previous record and filled a dozen bags with vomit. Through it all I tried to focus on the  pretty wildflowers.

We also had a couple of wildlife encounters.  The less exciting one was that we found a turtle moseying across the road at an alarmingly slow pace.  Knowing it was likely to get pancaked, we halted the car so I could get out and move the turtle.  As I reached down to scoop it up, however, it decided that was the time to get a wriggle on and it darted from my grasp but in the opposite direction to where it had been headed.  What then followed was a minute or so of me scurrying around after a turtle that was doing the equivalent of handbrake turns and looking like some sort of hybrid of Dr Doolittle and the Keystone Cops.  Far more excitingly, however, WE SAW A BEAR.  We were reaching the crest of a particular steep stretch of road and I was just looking up from the latest bag of puke I had tied up when I saw the dark shape clambering the grass verge to our left.  I yelled, “Bear!” so suddenly and loudly that Mr Pict automatically breaked (which was OK as we were the only car on the road).  And there was indeed a baby black bear scrambling up the slope towards the treeline. By the time I got my phone out of my pocket, the bear was gone and my photo opportunity was missed.  We waited for a good few minutes in the hope that it might reappear or even that its mother or siblings might appear but nothing more stirred and we finally had to move on.  We were, however, all terribly excited to have seen a wild bear.

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After our meandering route, being waylaid by the pukers, and the stop for bear spotting and turtle rescuing, it was late morning by the time we arrived at Cass where we planned on taking the scenic railroad.  Our intention had been to take a railroad trip from Cass up to the summit of Bald Knob, a local mountain, but we had missed that train by a couple of hours.  In fact, we were lucky to be able to take any train whatsoever as the last train of the day was due to depart just 15 minutes after we arrived.  The tickets turned out to be pricier than we had expected but we felt we could not very well have gone through all of that palaver just to turn around and go all the way back again.  It transpired the Bald Knob excursion would have taken us 4 hours so it was possibly lucky we did not end up doing that.  The tickets we bought were for a 2 hour trip to Whittaker Station, a recreated logging camp, and back.

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We had no sooner boarded the open sided railcars – converted log cars – and sat ourselves on the benches than we were off on our trip.  Cass was founded in the very early 1900s as a company town serving a lumber operation so the first site that pulled into view was the ruins of the large sawmill.  We were informed that at one time this was the largest double-banded sawmill in the world.  It was so rusty and derelict that I would have loved to have gotten out and explored it but we chuffed on.  We then passed the sheds where we could see two of the Shay engines owned by the railroad.  I know almost absolutely zilch about railway history but we were given the distinct impression that these were a big deal.

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We were being pulled and pushed by Shay engine number 4 and there was one chap shovelling a ton of coal just to get us up and down Black Allegheny Mountain.  I write that the engine was both pulling and pushing us because the standard gauge had two switchbacks to allow for the gradient of the hill.  Therefore, sometimes the engine was behind the railcars and other times it was in front of them.  The gradient was 5% until the second switchback when it became 9%.

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The train emerged from the trees into a clearing which was the site of a recreated logging camp.  The clearing had once been the camp for the immigrant workers who constructed the railway line but it was now being used to demonstrate what a typical logging camp of the 1940s would have looked like – logging having ceased there in 1960.   According to my phone, the elevation at the Whittaker Station was 3280 and at Cass was 2470 so that was the measure of the journey we had made.

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We wandered around and had a look into the wooden shanties.  Some of these were set up as work huts, where the saws were sharpened for instance, and others were set up to show the accommodation the loggers would have stayed in.  There was also a dining car where the workers would have been fed by the camp cook.  There were then several pieces of large mechanical equipment I admit I did not fully understand but which were clearly used for moving massive logs around.  Apparently one of these – a Lidgerwood Tower Skidder – is one of only two left in the whole world.  I know as little about industrial history as I do railroad history so I entirely failed to absorb the information I was reading.

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After some refreshments, we boarded the railcars again and headed back down the mountain.  The boys played on some of the old locomotives and cabooses set up near the Cass station but soon we had to make tracks.

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Back down the mountains we drove with more groaning from nauseous children and more barf bags being filled and no more exciting wildlife to distract and excite us.  We passed the birthplace of the author Pearl Buck. Not even I could muster enthusiasm for that.  We felt like we were on a road to nowhere.  We were all getting fractious, parents included.

And then we were saved by the Civil War.

Although my husband is a Civil War nerd, he had not actually planned this little detour.  It was just serendipity.  We needed some fresh air and to stretch our legs and he got to visit another Civil War battle site.  Win-win.  The Battle of Droop Mountain occurred in November 1863 when Confederate forces attempted to stop Union troops passing through the area to meet up with other troops and destroy Confederate railway lines.  After a brief but bloody fight, the Union forces won the day and consequently pretty much took West Virginia since the Confederates collapsed and gave up.

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Something like 400 men died at Droop Mountain.  Apparently the unknown Confederate dead were removed to a cemetery in Lewisburg.  Some must have remained, however, as there was a small moss covered plot at the edge of the woods containing worn headstones.  There was something very poignant about it, about how remote it was, how untended, the way it was being consumed by nature.

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As dusk began to settle, my feral kids wandered around the site, spotted deer lurking in the dark shadows of the woods, and we climbed up a modern watch tower to get a good view of the surrounding landscape.  The place had meaning for Mr Pict and he was soon deciphering the view in relation to what had happened in 1863 but to the rest of us it was just a welcome break from the car and some respite from the winding roads.

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Our room for the night was a ramshackle motel in Harrisonburg, Virginia.  It was a spacious room and we all had adequate sleeping space but the place was beat up and had definitely seen better days.  The kids moaned about the parsimonious internet but I was more concerned about the fact the air conditioning was preset and could not be adjusted.  Worse still was the fact that the orange blinking light on the phone would not switch off no matter what we did so I felt like I was napping on a helipad all night.  Not good.  It was a cruddy end to a day that had ultimately been a bit of a bust.  The railroad trip was pleasant enough but we had wasted the better part of a day on it so it did not, for us anyway, represent the best utilisation of our time.  We just had to keep reminding ourselves that had we not taken the road to Cass – indeed had we not taken the wrong road to Cass – then we never would have seen the bear.  Bears win.