June 2014


Mount Vernon

Mount Vernon

Wednesday (6/11/14), we planned to see the homes of two icons in American History: George Washington’s Mount Vernon and Robert E. Lee’s Arlington. While mom and I had been, Jen had not, so we were excited to see what had changed.

Back lawn of Mount Vernon

Back lawn of Mount Vernon

We started at Mount Vernon. This vast expanse of land is not only beautiful, but offers so many experiences for the visitor. One new tour Jen and I were especially excited about was the National Treasure tour ($5.00+ admission). Those familiar with the Second National Treasure (Book of Secrets) will recognize Mount Vernon as the spot where Benjamin Gates kidnaps the president. Parts of the movie were actually filmed on location at Mount Vernon, or recreated after parts of it, so we were excited to see specifically the “tunnels” under the building. Since our tour was at 11:30, we jumped in line to tour the house and surrounding buildings. Visitors are not allowed to photograph inside the building, but it was still an awesome experience. It was especially interesting to see the bed in which George Washington died and learn that Martha never slept in their bedroom after that, but made herself a room on the third floor. Unfortunately, there’s no photography inside.

"Tunnel" exit

“Tunnel” exit

After touring the house and gardens, we met our group for the National Treasure Tour. This tour, nicknamed by our tour guide the “Hollywood and History” tour, truly lived up to its name. We started the tour on the back lawn which was the location of the party in the movie. Our guide shared how careful the crew had to be to protect the location: They wrapped the pillars with Styrofoam before hanging light wires, kept a row of firetrucks on hand for the pyrotechnic sign, and generally protected the area. The incredible part for me was the second area of the tour. After leaving the lawn, we got special access to the cellar area under Mount Vernon. I love being able to see things that are not readily accessible to the general public. This area served as a model for the movie, though no actual filming took place here–it’s too steep, too narrow, and too fragile. But, as we walked along the corridor, I noticed a stone designed like the secret door in the movie. Our guide shared that this was a replica of the original cornerstone, the original having been removed and placed in the museum at Mount Vernon.
View of Mount Vernon from the Beach

View of Mount Vernon from the Beach

One interesting fact was that the initials on the stone are L.W. after George Washington’s half brother Lawrence Washington, who was the first to live in Mt. Vernon and who named it after his commander, Admiral Vernon, in the War of Jenkins’ Ear. One fun fact we learned is that in the version of the film shown on the big screen, the initials on the stone had been changed to G.W., to make it connected to George Washington for the viewers. Those who own the DVD edition will notice that they have been changed back to the original L.W. This is because the Mount Vernon Ladies Association were upset that they had changed it for the film and demanded it be historically accurate–apparently, they have a lot of pull. And rightly so. This group was started by the women that saved Mount Vernon from oblivion. Louisa Bird Cunningham was travelling down the Potomac River and noticed the disrepair of Mount Vernon. Realizing if something wasn’t done, and soon, this great building would be lost to the ages, she wrote a letter to her daughter who challenged the women of the South, then the nation to save this estate.
Coastline where the fishing scene was filmed

Coastline where the fishing scene was filmed

They raised $200,000 to buy the property, and the rest is history, albeit one of a great deal of blood, sweat, and tears. No wonder they want to make sure it is represented accurately!

After the tunnels–sorry, no pictures could be taken there either–we headed down to the beach. This was an incredibly steep climb with a lot of stairs, but well worth it. In the movie, this is the spot of the fishing scene–how Benjamin Gates gets into the party (He definitely would have had a haul to make it up that cliff!) The beach was beautiful, and afforded a great view of Mount Vernon from the vantage point that most visitors would have first seen it. The beach was the last stop on our National Treasure tour.

The Washingtons' graves

The Washingtons’ graves

On the way back up, we decided to stop at the tomb of the Washingtons. The design and dimensions for this gravesite were described in George Washington’s will. He was initially buried in the old tomb, but it was in such disrepair that Washington wanted a new tomb constructed and the remains of the family moved into it. The new tomb wasn’t completed until 32 years after his death (1831), while the sarcophagi weren’t completed until 1837. Most prominent are the graves of George and Martha, with the rest of the family in the vault behind them. It’s an impressive site.

Martha Reading

Martha Reading

We arrived in time to visit with Mrs. Washington. This is always a favorite for us. We first saw this actress in Colonial Williamsburg where she also played Mrs. Washington. She has, in fact, been Mrs. Washington for over twenty years. She’s such a joy to spend time with because she simply embodies Mrs. Washington the way only someone with twenty years of research can do. She posed for portraits, read to the children, and recounted stories of herself and the general. If you get a chance, go see her–it’s well worth it.

After visiting with Mrs. Washington, we went on the slave tour. This tour is free with admission, though you do need to register, and it also was an incredible tour. It seems difficult to picture our founding father as a slave owner, but he was indeed. There were a few very interesting things we learned, however. First, our guide shared with us Washington’s standards for his overseers. His instructions were, “Conduct yourself with integrity, sobriety, industry, and zeal.” Interesting. He also established a system for review that allowed slaves a recourse if they felt they were not being treated correctly. Despite that, most of his slaves worked from “Can see to Can’t see,” extremely long hours in summertime!

Slave quarters

Slave quarters

Another interesting fact was that good treatment did not necessarily ensure a slave would be content. Our guide recounted the story of Washington’s slave Hercules. He was definitely a favored slave–had a velvet coat and a gold tipped cane, and even travelled with the family to Philadelphia. Yet, at the first chance he got, he ran away. I wonder what happened to him. George Washington’s attitude towards slavery also seems to have changed. He and Martha both grew up with slaves; in fact, George was a slave owner at the age of eleven when his father died. It was all he had ever known, so the idea that it was wrong was a foreign concept to him.
Arch under which Robert and Mary Lee got married

Arch under which Robert and Mary Lee got married

Yet, his ideas changed from believing it was wrong to tear families apart to believing it was wrong to sell slaves. He did not tackle the issue of slavery in the white house because of how tenuous the relationship between the states already was, and how firmly the southern states had fought against abolishment in the Continental Congress meetings. He did not want to risk tearing out new country apart. However, in his will, he freed his slaves, which was no small task at the time. His wife, however, did not free hers. Part of that was that her slaves were part of the estate, and freeing them would be the equivalent of giving away the family silver in economic terms of the time. Definitely an interesting tour.

Next, we headed to Arlington. Since Arlington has been under construction the last few times I have visited, I was thrilled to see it up and running–and that they allow you to photograph inside! Here, we heard the beautiful love story of Robert E. Lee and Mary Custis Lee. Robert and Mary had been childhood play mates and teenage friends. He eventually came courting, and apparently asked her to marry him when she reached in the cookie jar for a cookie, and he reached in and took her hand. Her father was initially against their marriage, but with his wife and his daughter in favor of it, he gave in. Robert and Mary were married under the middle arch. He was at West Point at the time, so the couple took up residence there.

Kennedy Memorial and View of Arlington

Kennedy Memorial and View of Arlington

She hated it, and when they returned to Arlington for leave, when his leave was up, he went back, and she stayed. When several weeks past and she still hadn’t returned, a concerned Lee wrote her mother a letter stating, “I seem to have misplaced my wife…” He soon got the news of the reason she had stayed: she was pregnant. While he was away, she also got violently ill and came very close to dying. This close shave made Lee decide Arlington would be their permanent home so she could be cared for while he was away. Mary Lee is an exceptional woman in her own right. A firm proponent of gradual emancipation, Mary taught all of her slave women to read, write, and sew so they would be prepared to support themselves when slavery ended. But, forced to leave Arlington when the war broke out so that she would not worry her husband, she only returned to Arlington once after the war. The Union army had intentionally buried the dead in her rose garden, which boasted eleven varieties of roses. Lee himself would never return.

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

Having completed our time at the house, we headed down to the Kennedy Memorial (The eternal flame) and the tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Watching the guard there is a solemn moment indeed. Everything he does is in counts of 21. Twenty-one steps down, turn, wait 21 seconds, twenty-one steps back, repeat. The number twenty-one was chosen for it’s representation of the twenty-one gun salute–the highest miliary honors given a soldier. For me, it is another reminder of the countless stories we have yet to learn and may never know.

Confederate Memorial

Confederate Memorial

We finished off our trip with a trip to the Confederate Memorial and then a visit to my father’s grave. I am blessed beyond measure by his military service and the fact that he is buried at Arlington, a place I so dearly love. Spending the day with such great men who had such real struggles was a vivid reminder of all we have overcome and a call to continue to fight against the evils around us.

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Confederate Battery 5

Confederate Battery 5

Today (6/10/14) finds myself, my mom, and Jen, a fellow blogger friend back in Virginia for a much needed vacation. Jen and I left the day after graduation to join mom back in my favorite Williamsburg. Since mom and I come often, we wanted to visit some sites that Jen hadn’t seen. Our first stop today was Petersburg.

I had first been introduced to Petersburg by Larry Potts, a fellow Civil War buff. Petersburg isn’t traditionally covered in most classes except by virtue of being a 9 1/2 month siege, so I didn’t know a whole lot about it until he showed me around. It has since become one of my favorite battlefields.

Tall Grasses represent Union Troops

Tall Grasses represent Union Troops

For those of you who also don’t know much about Petersburg, it was indeed a siege, but there’s so much more to it than that. It’s not a siege the way we tend to imagine them: an army surrounds a city and starves them out. The lines of troops around Petersburg would stretch over thirty miles long, and the armies would engage in trench warfare, conduct raids, and go on supply runs. Grant wanted Petersburg because it was the supply source of Richmond, but he had expected it to be a quick defeat, not an almost ten month siege. Obviously, there’s a ton to see in this area!

"The Dictator"

“The Dictator”

We began our tour at the Visitor Center. After a brief film on the battle and browsing around the museum and gift shop (and refraining from hitting a teenager who was talking about how he thought Sherman was “cool” because he tore everything up), we headed out to Confederate Battery 5. During the Siege, this was one of the strongest Confederate defenses, and visitors can see cannons and earthworks here. While the trail with steps from the upper earthworks sends visitors to see “the Dictator,” a mortar (Like a huge cannon) used to shell Confederate batteries, visitors who want a shorter walk should take the trail to the right before going up to the earthworks. This way, you can see ‘The Dictator,” while avoiding the steps and a bulk of the walking.

Siege Works

Siege Works

From there, we headed past stop 2 on the trail, which seemed not to have as much to offer, and pulled off at Confederate Battery 9. It has amazing examples of siege works, as well as examples of the winter quarters of the troops. The program describes the path like this: “A trail leads to a wayside on Meade Station, in important supply and hospital depot on the U.S. Military Railroad built during the siege. It is a 10-minute walk.” This is a bold faced lie. Every time I have gone on this trail, we end up walking on trails hither and yon for about an hour trying to find our way out of the forbidden forest. Apparently, there is something cool to see and some strategic way to do it, but I’ve never figured it out. A full hour later, we finally emerged back at the siege works, hot, sweaty, and exhausted. I don’t even recall seeing a railroad, but Jen assures me I did. I think I could see it just as well from the crater.

Ruins of the Taylor House

Ruins of the Taylor House

Though weary, we meandered around a few smaller areas before arriving at stop 7, Fort Morton. Here, a brief journey takes the visitor out to the ruins of the Taylor house. It’s an incredible place to walk around, and especially interesting to look down at the crater and realize how far troops stretched in this action.

The crater, however, remains my favorite place on this tour. Jen had introduced me to the Civil War Traveler podcast tours, which we had stumbled upon at Gettysburg. If you’re ever visiting a Civil War Battlefield, I’d highly recommend you utilize this website: http://www.civilwartraveler.com/audio/podcasts.html# We’ve usually just taken a smart phone and walked around with it, but this time, Jen brought her tablet so we could all listen. The major things I appreciate the most about these podcasts are that they always feature historians and battle guides who offer reliable information about the actual battles, but also share vignettes, point out key locations and troop positions, and always give insider information. They truly make the battles come to life. The Crater tour is no exception.

Opening to the mine shaft dug to blast "The Crater"

Opening to the mine shaft dug to blast “The Crater”

The Crater is truly the “must see” of Petersburg. The story of the crater is an incredible one. Grant was trying to figure out an easy way to take Petersburg without a lengthy siege. Lt. Col Henry Pleasants, one of Burnside’s men, offered the perfect solution. Pleasants led the 48th Pennsylvania Infantry. A number of his men had been coal miners back in Pennsylvania. Now, they had the opportunity to put their pre-war experience to wartime use. These men built a 500 yard shaft underneath the Confederate Fort. The Confederates figured they were mining, and even sent out some of their own miners to try to discover the location, but unfortunately, they didn’t dig deeply enough.
Monument to Colored Troops

Monument to Colored Troops

So, on the morning of July 30, 8,000 pounds of gunpowder, buried under the confederate earthworks, was detonated. Originally, the spliced fuse sputtered out (Grant proposed making the assault anyway), but it was re-lit, and at 4:44 AM it exploded, spraying a huge pile of earth, cannons, men, and debris, and creating a crater 170 feet long, 60-80 feet wide, and 30 feet deep. Burnside had trained his untested-by-battle colored troops to lead the assault, but Grant changed this order last minute, siding with Meade and trying to avoid the criticism of being a butcher for sending black troops to their deaths. The top generals drew straws, and Ledlie drew the short straw. His white troops, who essentially led themselves since Ledlie was off drinking, were not trained how to maneuver the crater as the black troops had been.
The Crater

The Crater

Instead of marching parallel to the crater (Burnside’s plan for the colored regiments), they marched directly into the newly blown crater, creating a “fish in the barrel” scenario for the Confederates, and ruining Grant’s hopes for capturing the city. When Mahone’s men came to support the South, Burnside sent another division in, who would also go in the crater, seeing it as a better alternative to the flanking fire they were receiving. Finally, the colored troops saw their first action, and headed into the crater as well, only to be shot, sometimes by members of their own side who did not want to surrender together, and sometimes by the enemy who granted little quarter. This was the first time many Southerners would fight against colored troops. Grant had had the perfect opportunity, deftly executed, only to be botched in the aftermath. He would call it, “The saddest affair of the war.”

Eppe's Home at Appomattox Plantation

Eppe’s Home at Appomattox Plantation

From the crater, we headed to Appomattox Plantation–Grant’s headquarters for most of the siege. Jen had found this in another favorite companion for walking around battlefields: Jeff Shaara’s Civil War Battlefields. None of us had ever been there before, and it sounded neat. It is definitely a Civil War jewel! It isn’t well advertised, and the directions are difficult to follow, but we managed to find it between a combination of signs and map skills. This was Grant’s headquarters during the siege. You may have seen it in the classic photos of Grant in front of what looks like a striped background. You can see a recreation of the cabin on site–made with 5% original material, due to the fact that previous showings of the original led to its demise.

Grant's Headquarters

Grant’s Headquarters

Our curator Emanuel Dabney has been working at Appomattox plantation for 13 years. In addition to sharing stories about Dr. Eppes and family, he also shared about the lives of the slaves there. Two in particular were the slaves Madison and Harriet. Through his stories of this couple, he was able to give an incredible picture of the lives of slaves at this time. Madison was described as the “gardener, etc,” implying that he didn’t just handle the landscaping, but a great deal of other things around the house. His wife Harriet was the household manager. There were a number of interesting things Emanuel shared with us. First, he explained that Dr. Eppes did a number of things to try to keep order with his slaves. He tried threatening them, he whipped a lot (though Madison and Harriet were exempt, but their children weren’t), he shortened food rations, denied travelling papers to visit family on other plantation–basically, he tried to rule through an iron hand, even describing times he had whipped a slave until he (Eppes) was worn out. Interestingly enough, slaves had their own ways of getting even. They would sabotage equipment, lose or break tools, steal boats to go visit their family members, despite having no papers, take food rations even when they were denied–essentially, they would do what they wanted. One of the things that was the most interesting to me is that when the family deserted the plantation, they didn’t take Madison and Harriet with them to Petersburg in 1862, though they took several other slaves with them. When the Union troops came through, Madison and Harriet were the first to abandon the estate. They were, however, also the first to return after the war, though now as paid employees.

"Madison's" Grave

“Madison’s” Grave

Because Emanuel had worked at Appomattox Plantation for so long (which he lovingly calls “My park”) and had been to so many Civil War events, I asked him what his favorite story was of the place. He shared the fact that Madison was actually buried in St. John’s Episcopal church down the road (Hopewell). Not only is it unique for a slave to be buried in a traditional (white) graveyard, but he also was buried (intentionally by his own desires) near his former master. But, that’s not all. On his grave, his name is listed as James Madison Ruffin. It’s the only place his whole name is listed–and his whole name is the same as the man who wrote the majority of the Constitution–the same document that gave this James Madison Ruffin his freedom. (We went to see the church cemetery after we left.)

Lovely Landscaping

Lovely Landscaping

On our way out, we met Sandy who had come to lock up, but graciously allowed us a “behind the scenes” look at Grant’s Cabin. Unlike the general public, we were able to go inside. She shared about the park’s recent break-in, and explained the reason the cabin is only 5% original. Additionally, the police drove over the remains of the chimney on the original building while they were coming to investigate the break-in. Sandy, who has done the landscape at Appomattox Plantation for 26 years and is the only full time employee, shared how much she loves the peacefulness of the grounds. For her, it is truly a labor of love, demonstrated by her willingness to stay with us and show us around long after the park closed.