Virginia Battlefields

Mr Pict and I seem to have a bit of a tit-for-tat or quid pro quo thing going on when it comes to touring historic places: I get to visit a cemetery and he gets to tour a Civil War battlefield.  Having dragged everyone around Arlington National Cemetery the previous day – and two of the kids really were dragging their feet around there – the following day was dedicated to sites of Civil War battles.  While my blog post about the Cemetery was very probably too detailed, I will tell you in advance that my post about the battlefields is likely to be a bit threadbare and impressionistic because it really is not my area of expertise.

We started out our day at Fredericksburg, which I believe featured in a few cycles of warfare.  We watched an informative video presentation in the National Park office but apparently it all went in one ear and out the other because this is what I think I know about the action there*: by the Autumn of 1862, Lincoln needed a Union victory in order to bolster support for his administration so the pressure was on for Burnside and Hooker to take Richmond; the plan involved Burnside relocating his troops across the Rappahannock River at Fredericksburg; various bits of the plan went pear-shaped and the result was a Confederate victory.  In addition to the video, the building housed a small but effective museum.  I thought it was well-balanced in terms of its focus on the two sides of the conflict and in terms of its narrating of the experiences of combatants and the civilians.  I especially liked a wall of framed portraits on hinges that revealed information about the individuals portrayed when opened.  My youngest son, meanwhile, enjoyed the challenge of building a pontoon bridge.

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What the boys really enjoyed, however, was discovering a lizard inside a wee cranny and my youngest found an injured moth which he decided to adopt for the duration of our walk around the site.  He named the moth Stick and chose a suitable tree away from the car park to relocate it to.

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The area of battlefield preserved by the National Park Service is focused on a bloody scuffle called the Battle of Marye’s Heights.  This is an elevated area, a stone wall, and a sunken road.  I have the impression that every Civil War battle either involves a sunken road, a peach orchard, or a wheat field.  There were houses in this area so the civilian population had been forced to flee and leave their property to get hammered by weaponry.  While all that remains of most buildings is an outline of where they once stood, one building remained intact and in situ.  Peeking through the windows, we could see the pock-marks of bullets all over one wood panelled wall.

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The park area contained a statue to a young soldier named Richard Rowland Kirkland.  He was a Confederate sergeant positioned at the stone wall.  He grew perturbed by the groans and anguish of the suffering Union soldiers and his compassion moved him to minister to the wounded.  There was not a ceasefire while he did so so he was very much risking his own life and limb to bring water to these injured men who were his enemy.  Poor Richard was to be killed at Chickamauga at age 20.  His is a touching story and one that is probably embellished but I prefer to remember the humanity people can be capable of when immersed in the history of hatred, division and bloodshed.

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After a picnic lunch, we stopped off at Chancellorsville.  The visitor centre included a very good museum full of artefacts and information boards, lots packed into a small space.  For various reasons, I didn’t spend much time consuming the material but I did spend quite a bit of time in one room.  The centerpiece was a display case containing Confederate and Union uniforms and equipment but what really caught my attention was the surrounding walls.  They were covered in the names and, in some cases, photographic portraits of those who were killed in the battle – which, if memory serves, was the bloodiest except for Antietam.  Seeing all of those names was really quite arresting.  For my brain, numbers are a bit too abstract but to see those numbers as a visual was really evocative.  I was also struck by the mingling of names from both sides of the conflict. As someone with only a passing interest in the subject, I too often think of the Civil War in terms of the conflicting ideologies, the attitudes and decisions of the leadership of both sides, the dichotomy of “goodies and baddies”.  However, as soon as I am forced to remember the experiences of individuals, what I reflect on is that Confederate mothers keened and mourned for their sons as much as Union mothers did.

I had thought that Chancellorsville referred to a town of some description but learned at the visitor centre that it in fact refers to just a single dwelling house.  At the time of the battle, it was occupied by a woman surnamed Chancellor and her daughters.  They found themselves under siege in a burning house during the battle before being rescued and relocated out of harm’s way.  Again, we watched the video which was very informative and once again I almost instantly forgot much of the detail.  What I remember from the reenactment was a sense of complete chaos and scenes of fire raging through the woodland.  It was also the battle that inspired the novel ‘The Red Badge of Courage’.  It was also at Chancellorsville that Stonewall Jackson was shot by friendly fire, which led to the amputation of his left arm, and ultimately to his death from pneumonia a week later.

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On the subject of Stonewall Jackson, he was the subject of our next quest.  As a fan of “Roadside America”, oddities, and the more obscure tourist attractions, this was the aspect of our day of battlefield touring that most interested me.  A short car journey deposited us at the end of the driveway that led to Ellwood Manor, a house dating from the late 18th Century that was requisitioned as a field hospital during the Civil War.  We were not there, however, to visit a historic building.  Nope.  Instead, we strolled right past the house and down a pretty little path that led to the family cemetery.  Buried in that cemetery was the subject of our quest: Stonewall Jackson’s left arm.  Jackson’s chaplain was the brother of the occupant of Ellwood Manor and, therefore, chose that spot as the final resting place of the General’s amputated limb.  It even has its own headstone, which is more than can be said of any of the entire people buried there.  We found ourselves at the grave of the majority of Stonewall Jackson in the summer of 2016 so it feels like some sort of achievement to have now visited his arm too.  I love all that peculiar and macabre stuff.

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We concluded our battlefield tour with what, to my untrained eye, was just a field.  Mr Pict tried to explain its significance to me – something about the site of Jackson’s final flank attack – but by that point anything he was saying about military strategy and battle action just sounded like the brassy “wah wah” sounds the teachers make in ‘Peanuts’.  I guess some things my brain just was not designed to absorb.  Mr Pict was happy, however, and that was the important thing.

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Then it was back to home base for a barbecue and s’mores for the boys, which is what they had been promised/bribed with, so they ended the day on a happy note too.

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*Feel absolutely free to correct me in the comments.

Road Trip #18 – Stonewall Jackson and Robert E Lee

It was “Unlucky 13” for the thirteenth day of our road trip.  All the plans we had for the day were dispensed with and we scrambled to make new plans for two reasons: the avoidance of any more car sickness and the weather.

We had planned to drive the Skyline Drive through the Shenandoah Valley.  However, all of the winding roads of the previous day had used up all the children’s reserves for tolerance for anything other than straight roads.  I had driven the Skyline Drive back in 1995 so I accepted that I was not getting to do it this time.  Our first replacement event plan was to drive to Foamhenge.  This is a replica of Stonehenge built out of foam.  Since we visited the actual Stonehenge with the kids last summer, we thought it would be funny to visit Foamhenge.  However, when we arrived at the spot there were no foam stones to be seen.  It transpired that, in anticipation of Natural Bridge being bestowed with National Park status, they had evicted hokey Foamhenge from the site and it had yet to find a new home.  Frustratingly, this had all happened in the last couple of months – after I had done all my research and planning for the trip.  This time doing my homework so far in advance had not paid off.

After that annoying waste of time, Mr Pict proposed a plan: we should visit the graves of Stonewall Jackson and Robert E Lee in Lexington, Virginia.  That way he got his Civil War fix, I got my cemetery fix, and – as it transpired – the kids got an opportunity to moan and rebel.

It all started well.  We found the Stonewall Jackson Memorial Cemetery with ease and it was impossible to miss Jackson’s grave as it dominated the cemetery.  Despite him being a Confederate, Stonewall Jackson is our 9 year old’s favourite Civil War general.  I think this has rather more to do with his horse Little Sorrel than anything else.  Indeed, we almost went to visit the stuffed corpse of Little Sorrel but ran out of time.  Famously, Stonewall Jackson died as the result of “friendly fire” during the battle of Chancellorsville (and we plan to visit the grave of his amputated arm there some time) and his last words were the beautifully poetic, “Let us cross over the river and rest under the shade of the trees”.  This was quite fitting since Jackson was notorious for sleeping during battles.  Jackson objected to fighting on Sundays but ironically ended up fighting more often on Sundays than any other day of the week.  Another interesting story about Jackson – probably exaggerated over the years – was that he ate lemons before battles.  As we approached the grave, we could see that people had deposited lemons around its base.

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The cemetery itself was rather pleasant, quiet, calm and green and set on a lovely street.  We had a bit of a wander and looked at several other graves, including many other Confederate graves, some of notable military men and others of ordinary soldiers.  These included two brothers killed in their teens.  We may not agree with their politics or the side they chose to fight on but the graves of so many young men were still evocative and poignant.

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A very short drive later brought us to Washington and Lee University.  This was a beautiful spot and I could imagine that the students there find it a very pleasant place to study.  We were there for the Lee Chapel which houses the remains of Robert E Lee and his family members.  The Chapel was built under the auspices of Lee when he was President of the University following the Civil War.

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The building itself was rather pleasant with a red brick exterior and a fresh white interior with a large organ.  Where one would normally find a pulpit was a stone effigy of Lee, lying on his back in his uniform as if sleeping through a battle.  This is not his tomb, however.  To see that we had to descend into the crypt where Lee and his family members are interred.

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The crypt level also housed a small museum.  The museum had recreated the study of Robert E Lee exactly as it looked on the day of his death in 1870.  In another, larger room there was one of those rotating planetarium thingummys and beneath it was a plaque indicating the spot where Lee’s remains had originally been buried.  All around this central feature were items that had belonged to Lee, from weapons to embroidered slippers to a watch “chain” made out of hair from Traveller’s mane.  The basement museum was the precise point at which the boys bottomed out of tolerance.  As so often happens when in a place that requires a degree of stillness and a solemn demeanour, they all kicked off, one by one, toppling like dominoes.  We, therefore, did not manage to view all the artifacts as we had to hurry them out into the open air again.

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At the exact spot where we exited, however, we stopped to pay our respects to Traveller, Lee’s beloved horse.  Our 9 year old is obsessed with horses and for him the Civil War is as much about Old Bob, Little Sorrel, Cincinnati and Traveller as it is about Lincoln, Jackson, Grant and Lee.  Traveller had died the year after Lee, at the age of 14, having contracted tetanus from standing on a nail.  Poor Traveller’s body was not well treated.  At first he was buried in a ravine but then he was dug back up and his skeleton underwent a preservation process that apparently was not very effective.  His skeleton went on display but was vandalised by students writing or carving their names into his bones for good luck in their exams.  It was not until the 1970s that his poor old bones were placed in their current position.

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It was obvious that part of the the kids’ grumpy attitudes were caused by them being “hangry” so we stopped off for a good, filling lunch.  The plan was to proceed from Lexington to Harpers Ferry.  Mr Pict and I are always finding ways to sneakily educate our kids and get them to philosophise and interrogate facts by stealth.  The kids had noted that it seemed a little peculiar that two Confederate leaders were so revered given that they had been not just on the losing side of the War but arguably on the wrong side of history morally and ethically.  We tried to explain that, yes, peculiar though it was, history is not always so black and white and people are far more complex than being “goodies” and “baddies”.  For instance, the Lee Chapel museum was clearly presenting an argument that Lee’s pragmatism in fighting for the Confederacy plus his good deeds after the War mitigated against his commanding the Confederate Army.  We, therefore, wanted to extend this learning to thinking about the Union side and their supporters so were keen to teach them all about John Brown and his raid at Harpers Ferry so they could contemplate the moral complexity from the other side of the War.  It was not meant to be, however, as the rain was absolutely lashing down as we set off on the next leg of our day’s activities.  We could barely see out of the windscreen in order to take in the view and, in fact, having to drive slowly for the conditions meant that we arrived at Harpers Ferry just as the National Park was closing.  Despite being Scottish and familiar with rain soaked summers, the kids point blank refused to get out of the car and do some walking in the rain.  Harpers Ferry was abandoned.

Mr Pict, however, did manage to find another Civil War site to visit.  He (suspiciously) always seems to have a Civil War plan up his sleeve.  Not too far away was Cedar Creek Battlefield.  This is a spot – and another National Park – set in the area around the Belle Grove Plantation and the site of a battle in 1864.  It was the culmination of several battles and, when the Union under Sheridan managed to repel the Confederates under Early, it effectively ended the Confederacy’s attempts to take the North and secured Washington DC against attack.  As thoroughly interesting as all of that was to Mr Pict, I could see nothing of interest in the site.  As he was busily reading me information from his phone’s Civil War app, all I could see was rain pelting against the windscreen.  We were also about to experience our own rebellion from the kids sitting behind us in the car so it was a case of quickly dashing out to grab Mr Pict his “I was here” Civil War site photograph and then back into the car and off again.

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After a brief nostalgic tour of two of Mr Pict’s childhood homes, in Chevy Chase, we arrived at our Washington DC hotel in early evening.  It was in the North East area of the city, an area that we used to avoid visiting as much as possible.  We could see that the area was slowly gentrifying but the hotel was right on the border of nice and, shall we say, not so nice.  The hotel itself was very swish and we found ourselves thinking that even a year from now, when the area has completed its renovation, we probably would not be able to afford to stay there.  For now, however, it was a bargain for a Washington DC hotel room.  The boys loved that our room had one whole wall that was just a window overlooking the city, including a view of the Capitol’s white dome.  Looking downwards, we could also see people swimming in the hotel a dozen floors pool below.  That was where the younger Picts headed, the rain having finally stopped.  It was a restful and relaxing end to what had been another frustrating day of wasted time and thwarted opportunities.  After two bum days on the trot, we needed to get our acts together for Washington DC so we could end our road trip with a bang rather than a damp fizzle.

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