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.

Arlington National Cemetery

This Spring Break, my in-laws flew over from England and rented a house in Vienna, Virginia.  We, therefore, travelled down to spend a few days with them in Northern Virginia.

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As you know, I love to visit cemeteries.  I had not been to Arlington National Cemetery since the summer of 1995 and, as such, my kids had never been.  I, therefore, decided that we should go visit Arlington National Cemetery given its significance.  I drew up a list of 40 graves that I thought we should aim to visit, 20 of which were prioritized, and I plotted them on a map according to the section and grave numbers.  Some of these were family graves but most were the final resting places of people of historic significance.  Despite all of my preparation work, however, my missions were largely not to be accomplished.  Mostly this was simply because of the vast scale of Arlington Cemetery.  It was created on land that had been the estate of Robert E Lee’s wife and covers over 600 acres.  There was simply no way we could ever hope to cover every section of the cemetery.  I, therefore, culled from my list any of the graves that were not plotted in the centre of the map.  The other factor that complicated my search for individual graves was the peculiar numbering system.  Sometimes it was easy to follow because the numbers were in clear consecutive order but, in other sections, the numbering system was erratic with graves in the 4000s being sited adjacent to graves in the 8000s and the 3000s nowhere to be found.  There absolutely has to be some logic to it but the puzzle confounded and defied me.  As such, we did not find a single one of the graves of Mr Pict’s family members, not even the one who is famous enough to have a Wikipedia entry.  Oddly enough, however, we did find the only one of my family members who is interred in the cemetery, Elizabeth Brown Levy, nee Stout.

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Arlington contains only two equestrian memorial statues and we happened to visit both of them.  One of them is for Field Marshall Sir John Dill, who was the first non-American to be buried in the cemetery.  The other is for Philip Kearny, a Major General killed during the Civil War.

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On the subject of the Civil War, of course we had to visit a number of the graves of prominent Civil War Generals because that is where the Venn diagram of my love of cemeteries intersects with Mr Pict’s interest in the Civil War.  These included George Crook, John Gibbon, William Starke Rosencrans.  We had hoped to locate Frederick William Benteen, since we had visited the Little Bighorn last summer, but we were unsuccessful.  My 9 year old, however, did find the grave of Dan Sickles.  He served in the Civil War, was a Member of Congress, and a Diplomat, but what the kids and I know him for is his murder of Philip Barton Key and his successful use of the temporary insanity plea, its first use in American judicial history.  We had visited the grave of his victim in Baltimore in 2017.  We also stopped by the grave of John Lincoln Clem, a drummer boy in the Union Army who holds the record as the youngest noncommissioned army officer in US history.  I asked my kids to imagine what it must have been like to experience war as a 10 year old, though I don’t think it is possible to really grasp it.

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We took the kids to pay their respects at the Tomb of the Unknowns.  We felt it was extremely important that the boys visit that site to appreciate the sacrifice these unidentified people represent, the symbolism, the poignancy, the tragedy of it all.

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We also visited the grave of Thurgood Marshall, Civil Rights lawyer and Supreme Court Justice.  I had hoped to make it to Medgar Evers’ but I was thwarted.  We also saw the grave of John Glenn, Senator and astronaut – the first American to orbit the earth and the oldest person to fly in space.  The connection for the kids was having been to Grand Turk in December since that was where John Glenn arrived back on earth following his orbit in 1962.  As someone who has an interest in pandemics and the history of disease, I was pleased to find the grave of Albert Sabin, the medical pioneer who developed the oral polio vaccine.  We also visited the oldest grave in the cemetery, that of Mary Randolph who died in 1828 and was buried long before Arlington was established as a National Cemetery.

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For most of our time in the Cemetery – with the noted exception of the Tomb of the Unknowns – we barely encountered other people.  Such a massive space can, of course, absorb masses of people.  The area that was most crowded, much more so even than the Tomb of the Unknowns, was the grave of President John F Kennedy.  It was packed with people and I had the distinct impression that many people clamber off of tour buses just to come see this grave site and then they return to their buses and move on.  Kennedy, however, is not the only President buried in Arlington: the last grave we searched for was that of President William Howard Taft.  Somewhat surprisingly, his memorial obelisk was more challenging to locate than one would imagine.  I persevered, however, because I have decided that one of my side travel missions will be to see the presidential graves.  The kids, however, were beyond flagging by this stage (my father-in-laws fitbit informed us we had walked 11,000 steps) so they were doner-than-done with our explorations of Arlington National Cemetery and ready to go back to the rental house to soak in the hot tub and not remotely receptive to the notion of visiting a whole load more presidential graves.

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Road Trip 2018 #18 – Skyline Drive

My in-laws used to live in the suburbs of Washington DC and Mr Pict and I would fly out to visit them there and use their home as a base for exploration.  Now, of course, I live in the suburbs of Philadelphia, also on the mid-Atlantic coast.  It is, therefore, actually a bit ridiculous that I have never visited Shenandoah National Park.  I really don’t know why we have never gotten around to it.  Always something else to see that was placed as a higher priority I suppose.  Navigating our route home through Virginia on the very last day of our road trip, I spotted an opportunity: I could at least do the Skyline Drive element of Shenandoah since it took us in the right direction.  I discussed my plan in quiet code with Mr Pict as I knew I would be met with resistance from the kids.  He agreed and we took the twisting turn to start ascending the mountains.

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The kids were on to us immediately and were not best pleased.  This was the fifteenth day of our road trip and they just wanted to get home.  I could understand their motivation but, at the same time, I wanted to cram one more experience into our trip.  One of the things I love about America’s National Park system is that its parks result from someone just deciding that something is beautiful or unique or historic or any combination of the three and that it should consequently be preserved and protected.  In this case, said person was President Hoover who decided that a road should be built so that more people could access and appreciate the views of the Blue Ridge Mountains.  The views were indeed breathtaking.  The boys, however, were not appreciating them.  They were just doner than done with tourism and were 200% over road tripping.  Other than when we stopped at a ranger station, the older two even refused to get out of the car on any of the stops.  To be fair, the little grouches were also complaining about how twisty turny the road was and how queasy it was making them feel.  I too was feeling nauseous.  And the going was very slow.  I admitted defeat.  We exited the park at Swift Run Gap, rejoined major roads, and focused on getting home.

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This post then concludes all of my blogging about our 2018 road trip.  Ten new states visited in just two weeks bringing me to a total of 40 US states visited.  That was an awful lot of driving (4550 miles!) and I think we probably – definitely – pushed ourselves to the limits of our tolerance for driving trips.  I don’t think I would undertake a trip involving such massive distances across just two weeks again – especially not with kids in tow.  It was too exhausting and the ratio of fun per miles was inadequate on this particular trip.  That is not to say that it was not worth it.  I would just learn from it and not push ourselves quite so far next time.  It was worth it because I loved seeing how different the landscapes of the Plains states were compared to those I had already visited.  Visiting a whole new region of the country underscored just how vast and diverse America is.  The focus of our road trip had been reaching the Dakotas – everything else just slotting into place as the route there and back – and the Dakotas did not disappoint.  In particular, I could probably have happily spent two weeks just travelling around South Dakota and exploring.  I was glad we spent more time there than anywhere else.  The trade off for that, of course, was that we barely touched the surface of some states.  I will need to go back and explore those properly at some stage.  But maybe not for a while.  I feel like I need a relaxing vacation now in order to recover from my vacation.

Virginia Air and Space Center

On our final day in Virginia, we decided to go to the Air and Space Center.  We were staying not too far from Langley so it seemed appropriate that we should go and see one of the things the area was famous for.  As a family, we have visited many types of science museums and many types of transportation museums.  Some of these have been fantastic and some very much less so.  This one proved to fall into the latter category.  It was a waste of money and time.

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The museum had some interesting exhibits, such as the Apollo 12 command module, but the whole place just fell flat.  It was all very tired and uninspired and very overpriced.  It was probably cutting edge a couple of decades ago but it just wasn’t up to scratch for 2018.  Too many of the interactive areas were not working at all and those that were had problems with appropriate pitching.  What I mean by that is that the interactive aspect of the exhibit was appropriate for engaging a child but the content was far too esoteric and dry to capture or hold their interest. The worst offender was a room dedicated to a fictional Mars mission.  The graphics were dull and the voice acting was horribly flat.  The room was also hot, stuffy, and claustrophobic.  I stopped listening or looking after a couple of minutes because I thought I was at risk of passing out.

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My older kids really did not enjoy the experience with the exception of an excellent Imax movie about hurricanes.  My youngest son enjoyed dressing up in a space suit and playing in the children’s play area but otherwise he did not engage much either.  It was interesting that this was ostensibly a museum with much greater focus on young visitors yet it failed to engage them whereas the Air Mobility Command Museum in Delaware was less child-oriented but really held their interest.

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Ultimately, the highlight of the day turned out to be a delicious lunch around the corner and a small store across the street from the Air and Space Center.  The shop sold British food so the boys were in their element with tingling tastebuds and nostalgia. Most of the items were too expensive for us but we allowed the boys to pick a small treat each.  They had a hard time choosing but had fun making their selection.

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Chrysler Museum of Art

My in-laws had taken the Pictlings to visit the Chrysler Museum of Art while Mr Pict and I were still at home in Pennsylvania.  They, therefore, elected to stay at the vacation house and play on the beach while my husband and I went into Norfolk to visit the Museum.  The basis of the museum is the collection of Walter Chrysler, son of the car manufacturer, which he donated in the 1970s.  It’s an amazing and impressive collection housed in a wonderful space.  What is even more incredible is the fact that admission is free.  It was the absolute highlight of my Spring Break trip to Virginia.

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We started out in the glass galleries.  I am a massive fan of art glass.  I wish I could collect glass but I have kids and cats in addition to limited disposable income so I just have to admire and covet glass.  The collection was beautifully arranged with clear and informative labels.  Mr Pict liked the ancient glass, especially the Roman pieces.  One of these ancient pieces was signed by the maker, Ennion, in Greek.  I thought that was pretty remarkable, to actually be able to know the name of the glassmaker across all those centuries.  I also enjoyed seeing a harmonium with its glasses ready to make music, and a sugar bowl containing coins within bubbles of blown glass, glass pens, and a mustard dish in the form of a bull’s head.  My favourite area in the glass collection was dedicated to the Art Nouveau movement and contained a trove of wonderful pieces.  There were glowing stained glass windows, lustrous vases, intricately designed table lamps, and glass sculptures by the likes of Lalique.  I also loved the 20th Century and contemporary glass area.  There was a window designed by Frank Lloyd Wright for the Darwin D Martin house, a cabinet of glass curiosities by Steffen Dam that mimicked natural forms, a little glass house, and a wonderfully shimmering circle that really drew my eye no matter where I was in the room.

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After visiting the glass collection, it was time to go and see a demonstration of glass blowing.  We headed across the street to the studio space and took some seats in the front row.  We got to see one of the in-house glass artisans working with an intern under the instruction of the artist Stephen Paul Day.  The process was very complicated and was fascinating to watch.  It involved glass blowing, inserting ceramic sculptures into the glass, building up layers of glass gradually, attaching glass sculptures together, and a whole lot of other stuff besides.  It was a great demonstration since we got to see a number of skills and techniques and the woman who was narrating was very knowledgeable and engaging.  I certainly learned a great deal.

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We returned to the Museum to see some of the non-glass exhibits.  We were too short on time to visit every gallery so we elected to focus on the Impressionists and American Impressionists.  Each room was beautifully curated with every piece given room to breathe and be appreciated in isolation while also communicating with other exhibits in the room.  I was generally very taken with the Chrysler Museum, would have loved to have spent more time there, and would definitely return if I was in the area again.

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That evening we decided to do something together as a gang of eight.  We decided to go to the Commodore Theatre in Portsmouth, a restored Art Deco cinema.  The cinema itself was impressive with its 41 foot screen and incredible sound system.  The sound in particular was very immersive.  We were also seated in armchairs which made it very comfy and the whole place was so massive that we had ample space around us.  What made this cinema trip a new experience for we Picts, however, was that it was a dinner cinema.  We have some in our home area but have never been so this was a first time for us.  We could, therefore, order food and drinks which were delivered to our tables and then we could munch our way through the movie.  I did not actually eat as I was too full from lunch but the others did.  The food was standard junk food – pizza, nachos, chicken strips – but the kids all enjoyed the novelty of eating dinner in the cinema.  The movie we saw – Ready Player One – was pretty mediocre but was made more enjoyable and entertaining by the context.

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Civil War Virginia

Our children had gone to Virginia to spend Spring break with their grandparents, who had flown over from England. On the Tuesday, Mr Pict and I were able to travel south to join them.  As regular readers of this blog will know, my husband is a Civil War nerd.  He was, therefore, relishing the prospect of spending some time mooching around Civil War sites in Virginia, though he agreed to restrict himself to the Peninsula Campaign of 1862 for this trip.  On our journey south, needing a comfort break, he selected the National Park visitor centre at the Tredegar Iron Works.  While I availed myself of the restroom, Mr Pict undertook a warp speed visit of the visitor centre and determined that we should return some time with the kids.  It was largely determined that Richmond should serve as the capital of the Confederacy because of these iron works so it is a significant site.  I did like that the visitor centre was housed within such a historic building.

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The next morning, with the four boys and my in-laws in tow, Mr Pict took us on a tour of Civil War sites.  We started at Yorktown.  Yorktown is more strongly associated with the War of Independence and so it proved to be at the National Park.  The focus was very much on Revolutionary history with just a slight nod to its place in the Civil War.  At the risk of muddying the waters of the boys’ learning for the day, we subjected them to the film about the history of Yorktown.  I write “subjected” because it had not been updated since probably the 1980s and the quality of performances and production values were pretty tragic.  I am not sure, therefore, that the boys engaged much with the film but hopefully some learning stuck and they at least took away from it that it was the place where Cornwallis surrendered.  They did, however, enjoy the various canons outside the visitor centre.  There was to be a lot of clambering on canons that day.

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Our next stop was the Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond.  As regular readers will know, I absolutely love cemeteries.  While I personally enjoy just wandering around and appreciating the memorial architecture and funerary sculpture, it is always useful to have some famous burials to search out and provide focus to the wanderings.  Turning a cemetery visit into a “treasure hunt” also helps engage the kids.  The reason for our visit was because the cemetery, while a public cemetery rather than a military one, is chock full of confederate graves.  It, therefore, formed part of Mr Pict’s Civil War tour.  We started with a massive granite pyramid erected to commemorate the confederate dead.  It was in an area where the confederate dead of Gettysburg had been interred following their recovery from the Pennsylvania battlefield.  Can you imagine the grim task of locating all of the remains on the battlefield and preparing them for transportation to Virginia?  Nearby was the grave of George Pickett, he of Pickett’s Charge.  We also saw the grave of JEB Stuart.

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I have no political, ideological difficulty with the commemoration of the confederate dead within the context of a cemetery.  The confines of a cemetery’s walls makes it about the living processing the grief of lost loved ones.  I can think that these are people who chose to fight on the wrong side of history, who were fighting to uphold an appallingly horrific system, who may even, particularly in the case of the military leaders, have been loathome, morally bankrupt individuals.  But I can square that against them being someone’s father, someone’s son, someone’s brother, and therefore deserving of being buried with dignity and not left on a battlefield to moulder.  What I have real difficulty with is when commemoration moves into the realm of celebration.  That is why I support the removal of confederate statues from public spaces.  Again, while tricky in the context of a cemetery, there was definitely something that troubled me about the grave of Jefferson Davis.  The fact that some workers were placing new cobbles around Davis’ statue, in order to make the whole area look polished and smart, seemed to me to underscore the fact that this was a site that was being venerated.  Then there were all the flags.  Those flags always make me feel uncomfortable.  This was not simply a place where family members could come and pay their respects to a departed love one, gather their thoughts about their experience of loss; this was a space that was bigger than that and was imbued with more political meaning than that.  It was weird.  Just weird.

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Hollywood is also the final resting place of two American Presidents.  They are buried within the same attractive circle in an area of the cemetery that is elevated and provides a striking view over the river.  James Monroe, fifth President, had a very unusual tomb, an elaborate and fancy cast iron structure, reminiscent of a gothic church, surrounding his granite coffin.  I read that it was known as the “birdcage” which is entirely apt.  Just a hop, skip, and a jump from Monroe’s grave was the monument to John Tyler, tenth President.  Tyler famously became President when William Henry Harrison died just one month into his presidency.  He also has two grandsons still living.  Imagine having a grandfather who was born in 1790?  His grave was marked by an obelisk with a bust built into its front facade.

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After Hollywood Cemetery, Mr Pict took us to visit battlefield after battlefield.  The first was Gaines Mill and it was only slightly more interesting than the sites that followed because of the presence of a house.  Mr Pict and his father were very interested in a creek that ran through some woods that flanked the fields and went off for a wander there but to my mind the site was pretty featureless except for that house.  I read that the house was home to an elderly widow whose slaves carried her out of the house on the day of the battle.  She was never able to return home because the house was all but destroyed during the conflict.  I think the next stop was named Glendale Crossroad or Frayer’s Farm but I didn’t even bother to get out of the car for that stop and cannot remember what my husband told me about it.  As far as I was concerned, it was literally a crossroad and there was nothing to see.  The last stop was at a spot named Malvern Mill.  Mr Pict was very keen on this spot and explained why but I did not absorb the information.  To me, these were literally just fields filled with scrub or the stubble of old crops.  The only thing that indicated it was a place of historic significance was the presence of canons lining the field.  The boys enjoyed clambering on the canon and seeing a whole car lot filled with fire trucks as firefighters were running a controlled fire nearby.

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I would like to claim that I learned something new or interesting about the Civil War that day but honestly I did not.  I am none the wiser about the Peninsula Campaign than I was before because I just could not absorb the information my husband was sharing with us.  My brain just is not that keen on military history, what can I say.  Still, the cemetery was attractive and Mr Pict was very happy so it was a day well spent.

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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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Spring Break Day 8 – Gettysburg

We packed up the holiday house in a jiffy in order to head off as early as possible and squeeze another fun day out of our holiday.  My in-laws had arranged to have lunch with friends in Aberdeen so we Picts went on an adventure to Gettysburg.  This was entirely apt because it was last year’s 150th anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg that ultimately led to our relocation from Scotland to America.  Mr Pict is a total Civil War geek and had this idea two summers ago that we could vacation in the US so that he could be at Gettysburg on the 150th anniversary of the battle.  We were just mulling that over when, two weeks later, he casually mentioned late at night that instead of just going on holiday there maybe we could investigate moving to America.  So that was how the seed was sewn: the history of a bloody battle.

My husband decided to take us on tour of the highlights.  He had come by himself before we arrived in the US so that he could indulge in several hours of touring around the vast site using a phone app as his guide.  The only time I have been before was in 1995 and it is very different now with an impressive visitors’ centre and locations much more clearly demarcated.  We went to the visitors’ centre first to use the conveniences after our journey from Virginia.  Mr Pict bought pretzels as K rations for the kids and the boys also bought some things in the shop: the 8 year old bought a cuddly Lincoln and the 7 year old bought a poster showing Union Generals on one side and Confederate Generals on the other.  We also grabbed a photo opportunity with a bronze statue of Lincoln before heading back to the car to start the tour of Mr Pict’s highlights.

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First stop was the Longstreet Observation Tower.  This involved ascending seven flights of metal stairs.  I suffer from vertigo but I also have a recurring nightmare about a child falling – usually one of my own – and I always wake up at the point of impact.  My other recurring dream – which I have had since I was 4 – is about a T Rex stalking me.  That dinosaur turns up in all sorts of dreams.  He was once scary but now he is just a pest.  Anyway, as my boys charged up the pretty open staircase, my anxiety levels spiked.  I felt quite wobbly.  It was all probably just about maybe worth it, however, as the Tower afforded us a good view over the terrain which helped what Mr Pict was saying about tactics and strategy make sense.  We could see and appreciate the significance of Little Round Top in that geographical context.  And in the other direction we could see Eisenhower’s farm which was a little history bonus.

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We then drove over Big Round Top to get to Little Round Top.  We saw monuments to the Maine, New York and Pennsylvania regiments.  The boys loved clambering over the boulders between bouts of actually listening to their Dad explaining how the battle unfolded.  I meanwhile pottered around taking photos (of course!) of such things as the statue of Gouverneur K Warren, who had prompted the defence of Little Round Top, overlooking the landscape and reading poignant stories on the interpretive boards.  It was not actually very difficult to imagine the terrible noise and bloody carnage of the battle.

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Mr Pict and three of the boys then walked from Little Round Top, descending through the scrub, to meet the 8 year old and me (who brought the car around) at Devil’s Den, doing a reverse of confederate troop movements.  The boys thoroughly enjoyed playing on the large rocks and among the crevices at Devil’s Den.

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There are monuments galore all over the place at Gettysburg – well over a thousand of them.  Some are plain with a focus just on the words but others are more elaborate and some are quite intriguing.  Scattered across site as they are, they also serve to emphasise the scale of the battlefield and the huge number of casualties, the largest of any Civil War battle.  I must explore them more some time when we return and I also want to go to the Cemetery as it was at its dedication that Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address which I think is the most perfect speech ever written.

Spring Break Day 7 – Manassas

After brunch at the Silver Diner, Mr Pict and I, along with my Father-In-Law, took our two youngest sons to the battlefield at Manassas.  Amazingly the kids managed to sit through the 45 minute introductory film which told the story of the two battles that took place at Manassas.  The stylistics were very much borrowed from Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary and the production values were certainly better than the film we watched at the Shiloh battlefield in 2002.  Mr Pict was absorbed in all the military history elements, watching the tactics unfold on screen, whereas my only way of engaging in the Civil War is through the social history or the human elements so for me the key parts of the story were the poignant death of Judith Henry and the African-American driver of the gloriously named Fannie Ricketts being taken as contraband and probably sold into slavery.

We walked the battlefield according to the tour along the sites of the first battle of Manassas.  It took us past the building rebuilt on the site of the Henry House and the grave of Judith Henry.  The family of the elderly Mrs Henry had tried to remove her to a safer position during the battle but she ordered them to return her to her home.  Caught in the crossfire, a shell crashed into the house and mortally injured the 85 year old woman. 

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There were cannon scattered across the field to mark the positions of artillery during the battle.  We saw the foundations of the Robinson house which had somehow managed to survive both battles unscathed. Manassas was where Stonewall Jackson earned that sobriquet.  The nickname was coined by Barnard Bee whose place of death is marked by a commemorative stone on the battlefield.  Adjacent to it is a modern statue of Stonewall Jackson on horseback.  The statue is comical in its absurdity as it is of a muscular horse and a disconcertingly curvaceous Jackson who is sitting astride the body-building beast in what my 7 year old astutely described as a “Superman pose”.  He is now obsessed with Stonewall Jackson.

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 Mr Pict enjoyed being a Civil War nerd in the shop with all the old male docents who are Civil War buffs.  We bought a National Parks passport for the kids to get stamped as we travel around the US and received the first two stamps at the main visitor centre.  We knew we could not pick up the stamp at the Stone House as it is only open at weekends but we then trekked to Brawner’s Farm to get another stamp only to find it too was closed.  Despite their tender ages, our two small Picts really got absorbed in the Civil War while wandering around the battlefield.  My husband may have found his acolyte in our 7 year old who has decided he is Daddy’s “Battlefield Buddy”.

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Spring Break Day 6 – Museum of American History

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We took the metro into Washington DC having decided that the National Museum of American History would be a good choice of place to visit since the kids had done a Natural History Museum when we were in New York and because we are trying to provide them with an overview of US history and top up their general knowledge of American History.  Disappointingly, however, it transpired when we picked up the map that half of the museum was closed.  Literally half of each floor was unavailable.  Perhaps we should have done our homework rather than relied on our own knowledge to select the venue for the day but still it was incredibly frustrating.  I had last been there in 1995 but had remembered it as being really interesting and full of diverting exhibits and the kids were looking forward to it so we decided to plough on with the plan.  The Museum has, as one might expect, had a major facelift since I last visited but sadly – like many literal facelifts – this one was not beneficial.  It was a case of the Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

The Good section was that focusing on the Star Spangled Banner.  When I had last visited, I had entered the main entrance and been greeted by the original Star Spangled Banner.  It was an impressive site and an awesome welcome but from a conservation point of view it was clearly catastrophic.  Therefore, in the intervening decades, it has been moved into an atmosphere and light controlled room and is displayed behind a vast glass panel.  The corridor around the flag has been cleverly thought out in terms of the exhibits as it is themed on the national anthem, using Francis Scott Key’s poem “Defence of Fort McHenry” to tell the contextual story of the flag’s creation and significance.  So there was a rocket – as in “rocket’s red glare” – and a bomb – as in “bursting in air” – showcased along with some other military items.  There was also a display case of sewing items as might have been used to create the flag and biographical information about Mary Pickersgill who sewed the flag along with her daughter, two nieces and two African-American women.

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The Bad was the Presidents’ section.  The kids were really looking forward to it since they have become pretty obsessed with learning facts about various Presidents as my 7 year old did a school project about George Washington for President’s Day and my 8 year old had to do a research paper on a President of his choice.  Since he loves to be obscure, he chose James Abram Garfield who actually turned out to be more interesting than you might imagine for a president who only lasted 200 days, most of those days being spent on his deathbed – yet not completely interesting either.  The 8 year old is also a massive Lincoln fan and the 7 year old’s favourite is Teddy Roosevelt because he protected wildlife in the US while going around shooting it and also hunting animals in other people’s countries.  My husband and sons are also related to two Presidents – John Adams and John Quincy Adams – so that was another route to engagement in the whole history of the Presidency.  The Presidents’ section should have been fascinating since it was filled with such wonderful items to showcase.  However, it had been organised in such a way as to be a complete muddle.  One might think it would be organised in terms of chronology, from Washington to Obama, or maybe even in terms of the President’s role if the curators were wanting to do something more avant garde.  However, they had opted to organise it in such a way that it was just a hodge podge with no clear thread pulling visitors through the exhibits.  It was like a pot luck supper as we wandered from one area to the next.  We moved from a side section dedicated to Presidents who had been assassinated or died in office into a section about weddings at the White House, surely a strange and awkward juxtaposition by anyone’s standards.  There was just no logic to it at all, as if the people curating it had a junkyard mentality.

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The Ugly was the American Stories section.  My understanding was that the items displayed had been chosen through ‘crowdsourcing’, by “the people” deciding by some unclear mechanism which exhibits best represented America.  As much as inclusivity and democracy are wonderful ideals to aspire to, the whole section was evidence of the fact that not all curators are created equally as it ended up just a random “jumble sale” of bits and bobs with nothing properly telling any kind of story about America because there was simply no context, no structure and no apparent point.  I was very excited to see Miss Piggy, Benjamin Franklin’s walking stick, FDR’s microphone from his Fireside Chats and a life mask of Lincoln but I think anyone would be hard pressed to see a connection between any of them beyond their icon status, though that was a theme not supported by the inclusion of dozens of other items.  Furthermore, none of the labelling supported the claim to be telling us stories about America or the American experience.  I subsequently looked at the Museum’s website and read that the exhibits fell into five clusters representing eras in American history but that was not supported by either the layout or the labelling. The whole thing made by brain feel fidgety and, since the kids were becoming increasingly literally fidgety, we decided to depart from the museum.

We walked to Union Station past the sculpture garden of the National Art Gallery.  I think the kids would have liked to have spent more time there but we were on our way to meet up with a friend at Union Station.  That just added to the sense that we had wasted time in the Museum of American History.  We dined at Thunder Grill.  The food was delicious.  I had a catfish sandwich with smoked tomato aoli and salsa which was succulent, full of strong but well-balanced flavours and very satisfying.

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