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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.