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July 18, 2001  (Denton, Maryland)   < Previous News  |  Next News >

 

 

Virginia:  A Magical History Tour

After visiting Monticello, I camped that evening at Bear Creek State Park, west of Richmond.  As I studied my AAA maps and CampBook the next morning, I realized that I was now entering one of the "black holes" of American campgrounds.  For some reason, there are virtually no public campgrounds in southeastern Virginia, despite the fact that with all of the historical sites here, it's one of the most heavily visited areas on the east coast.  I decided, therefore, that I'd have to drive all the way to Virginia's "eastern shore" that day, on the other side of Chesapeake Bay.  I'd never been to the Virginia's eastern shore before, which was a good reason for going over there, and according to my AAA map of Virginia, there were a couple State Parks over there that looked promising.

 

I'm an avid history buff, as you may know if you've been following my website, and from a historical perspective, the two states I enjoy visiting the most are Virginia and Massachusetts.  That's especially true since I live in the historically-challenged state of Oregon.  Sure, we have some Lewis & Clark sites and the Oregon Trail, but that's about it.  To be honest, not a whole lot has happened in Oregon and there aren't a lot of famous Oregonians except maybe that club-wielding figure-skater, Tonya Harding, who unfortunately is a native of Portland.

In stark contrast, on this particular day in Virginia I planned to visit three of America's most important historic sites... and from three different centuries.  These included:

  • Jamestown (1607):  The first permanent English colony in the New World.

  • Yorktown (1781):  The last battle of the Revolutionary War, where America won its independence from England.

  • Petersburg (1864-65):  The final engagement of the Civil War, and the longest siege of the war.

Three historic sites in one day.  This would be even better than visiting Tonya Harding's trailer park.

 

The Siege of Petersburg

I packed up my truck that morning, then left the state park and headed east towards Richmond.  Around 10 a.m., I pulled into the mostly-empty parking lot of Petersburg National Battlefield.  It was pretty hot and humid, but the Visitor Center was nicely air-conditioned, so I lingered there a while then walked around the grounds and drove along the park's tour road, stopping at most of the sites along the way.

 

Here's the Civil War tune, The Battle Cry Of Freedom.

Requires a RealPlayerIf problems, see Help.

 

Petersburg isn't as famous as some other Civil War battlefields, like Gettysburg, Antietam, or Shiloh, but it's an interesting place, nonetheless.  In the spring of 1864, after three bloody years of Civil War, General Grant's Union Army pushed Robert E. Lee and the weary Confederate troops southward towards the Confederate capital of Richmond in a series of relentless battles. 

 

Mimicking what would later become known as the "Energizer Bunny," the Union Army took a beating but kept on pushing, much to the relief of President Lincoln, who had suffered through the pusillanimous and incompetent efforts of a long string of previous Union Army commanders, including generals McClellan, Burnside, Pope, and Hooker.  When one of Lincoln's advisors suggested demoting the hard-drinking, cigar-chomping Grant, Lincoln retorted, "I can't get rid of Grant. He fights!"

 

Grant suffered a major setback in June, 1864, however, at Cold Harbor, north of Richmond, when his troops repeatedly attacked well-entrenched Confederate forces but were thrown back with 12,000 Union troops killed.  Years later, Grant would admit that, "My greatest regret was issuing that last charge at Cold Harbor."   These days, Americans get upset when a few dozen American troops get killed in action, so it's pretty hard to imagine how people would react today if 12,000 soldiers died in a single battle.  That number is nearly incomprehensible even to this history buff. 

 

 

After the debacle at Cold Harbor, though, the steadfast Grant continued pushing south.  Abandoning his plan for a frontal assault on Richmond, Grant stopped outside the key Confederate city of Petersburg, where three Confederate railroad lines merged and supplied Richmond to the north.  Grant's troops began digging in here and the Confederates did likewise. 

 

For the next ten months, Grant continued to entrench around Petersburg knowing that the smaller Confederate army would eventually be stretched too thin to withstand an attack.  For the troops on both sides, the siege meant an endless supply of mud, cannon fire, and whizzing bullets, and during the 10-month siege, over 16,000 men died here.  On April 2, 1865, the beleaguered Lee abandoned his fortifications and fled west towards Appomattox where he surrendered to Grant one week later, thus ending the Civil War.

 

A Letter from the Petersburg Trenches:

 

June 23, 1864

 

Dear Mother,
. . .We remained on the skirmish line all the next day in the broiling sun without anything to shelter us from the sun, in little pits about the size of a common grave, though not half so well furnished.  There we lay, and every time a man show his head, 'zip' would come a minnie [a bullet]. The bullets would just skin the top of the pit that I occupied, warning me to keep close to my mother earth...

I'd been to the Petersburg Battlefield once before.  That visit, about 15 years earlier, was all too brief so this time I spent about three hours walking around the battlefield. 

 

One of the highlights was seeing a replica of "The Dictator," a massive 17,000-pound Union mortar that once heaved 225-pound balls into the Confederate lines (and you thought that barking dog next door was a noisy pain in the butt).  It was fired only 218 times during the 10-month siege, though, so its effect on the Confederate troops was mostly psychological (but then, so is the neighbor's barking dog).

 

The other highlight was a 45-minute tour led by the very animated Ranger Joyce, in which she described the Battle of the Crater.  To break the siege at Petersburg, Union troops dug a 400-foot long tunnel under the Confederate lines and packed it with gunpowder.  When the charge blew, it created a huge crater which Union troops rushed into.  They faltered, though, due to poor planning and leadership -- generally the Union story of the entire war -- and they were pushed back by the Confederates.  In only a few hours, about 4,000 Union soldiers were slaughtered in the crater.  Great idea, poor execution.

 

The Siege of Petersburg was partly a testament to the change in tactics required by rapidly-improving weapons, and the battlefield offered a glimpse into the trench-warfare strategy that would become prevalent 50 years later during World War I in Europe.  The siege was also a testament to the unyielding fortitude exhibited by soldiers on both sides of the line. 

 

       

Above left:  The Visitor Center at Petersburg National Battlefield near Richmond, Virginia.

Above center:  Here's the 17,000-pound Union seacoast mortar called "The Dictator," the largest weapon used during the war.  

Above right:  Replica of The Dictator in the same location.  It heaved 225-pound balls 2.5 miles into Petersburg during the siege but didn't do very much damage.

 

       

Above left:  This is the entrance to the tunnel, built by the Union forces at the beginning of the siege.  It extended under the Confederate lines and was packed with explosives, then detonated.

Above center:  The very lively Ranger Joyce describing the debacle at the Battle of the Crater.

Above right:  A view of the Crater today.  Robert E. Lee abandoned Petersburg in the spring of 1865 after 10 months of trench warfare and surrendered at Appomattox a week later, thus ending the Civil War.

 

The Near-Disaster of Jamestown

After leaving the battlefield at 2 p.m., I got some gas in Petersburg and headed east.  The battlefield was interesting, but Petersburg itself is a pretty seedy town and I was glad to leave.  I still had two more National Parks to visit that afternoon before crossing over the Chesapeake Bay, so I had to hustle.  Fortunately, though, Jamestown and Yorktown are pretty close together since they're both on the York Peninsula.  Imagine the peninsula being your index finger, with Jamestown being on one side of your knuckle and Yorktown being on the other side, with Colonial Williamsburg sitting in the middle.  Jamestown (1607) and Yorktown (1781) represent the beginning and end of colonialism in America, and they're joined by a beautiful 23-mile long parkway maintained by the National Park Service.

 

About an hour after leaving Petersburg, I pulled into Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in the New World.  By the early 1600s, the Spanish were well-ensconced in Central and South America and were moving north from Florida, while the French had been paddling around Canada for a while, so the English figured that they better get going.  A group of eager English colonists sailed to the New World in 1606 hoping to find either gold or the spices of China, a country which they figured was nearby, and landed on the south edge of the York Peninsula.  They'd seen lots of Indians around, so they couldn't figure out why this particular site was vacant.  "Hey guys, what a great place to settle, huh?  No Indians!"

 

 

Above:  John Smith, first governor of the Jamestown colony.

 

Of course, the reason there weren't any Indians there was because it was a swamp with lots of malaria, which soon decimated the small colony.  Then the crops failed, settlers starved to death, and there was lots of fighting -- kind of like the TV show, "Survivor."  Seriously, it was a real horror story despite the efforts of their hard-nosed and under-appreciated leader, John Smith, who was about the only competent person in the group.  After several more years of starvation, Indian uprisings, disease, and other calamities -- not to mention an affair with Pocahontas -- the colonists found salvation in a newly-discovered plant called "tobacco."  

 

As they discovered, this crop flourished here.  Soon, the colony was sending boatloads of it back to England... although each colonist first had to swear before a Congressional panel that, to the best of his knowledge, smoking tobacco did not cause cancer nor was it addictive.

 

In 1699, the capital of the Virginia Colony was moved from swampy Jamestown to the more healthful environs of colonial Williamsburg, located about 10 miles inland (and already sporting a $28 admission fee, plus tax).  Jamestown faded from view and today the area is managed by the National Park Service, which has a wonderful Visitor Center filled with historic artifacts excavated from the site.  Jamestown is usually pretty crowded because of its proximity to the Disneyland-ish "Colonial Williamsburg" with its 4,000,000 annual visitors (and its mega-buck admission price), but it's definitely worth a stop... especially since the Visitor Center is air-conditioned.

 

       

Above left:  Jamestown, settled in 1607, was the site of the first English settlement in the New World.  From left to right, here's a Park Ranger, Pocahontas, and a bald head.

Above center:  A painting of Jamestown as it looked during its heyday in the late 1600s, before the Virginia capital was moved to nearby Williamsburg.  That's the walled "Old Town" on the left and "New Town" on the right.  Jamestown was in a pretty poor location, very swampy with lots of malaria, so it never prospered.

Above right:  Foundations of New Town, which petered out around 1700.

 

The World Turned Upside Down

I spent a couple hours at Jamestown, then hit the Colonial Parkway bound for Yorktown, nervously glancing at my watch the whole way.  I left Jamestown at 5:25 p.m. and the Yorktown Visitor Center closed at 6:00 p.m., so I had to hustle.  I zipped past the turnoff to Williamsburg without a regret and made it to Yorktown five minutes before it closed, just enough time to stamp my National Park passport book and run through the life-size, 18th century warship there.

 

Yorktown, of course, was the site of the last battle in the American Revolutionary war.  By 1781, the Redcoat army had been battling Washington's Continental Army for six years, first in the north and then the south, but without much success.  In the fall of 1781, the pompous English commander, Lord Cornwallis, was being chased across Virginia by the pesky French and American army and moved his Redcoats down the York Peninsula, expecting to get rescued by the British fleet.  The fleet, though, was having its own problems and was turned back by the French off Cape Henry.  

 

After a brief siege in the village of Yorktown, Cornwallis surrendered to General Washington and during the surrender ceremony, his band play the song "The World Turned Upside Down."  Everyone, including King George, realized that the war was over, although the official treaty between England and the newly-formed United States wasn't signed for another two years.

 

Even though I got kicked out of the Yorktown Visitor Center (much as the British had gotten kicked out of Yorktown two centuries earlier), I had a good time there and spent about an hour walking around the entrenchments.  At 7 p.m., though, it was time once again to hit the road.  

 

       

Above left:  This is a cool ship inside the Visitor Center at Yorktown National Battlefield.  It's cool because it's air-conditioned.

Above center:  And here's a cool French mortar.  American and French troops cornered the British General Cornwallis here on the York peninsula in 1781 and drew the noose ever tighter.  

Above right:  A French howitzer on the siege lines at Yorktown.  

 

At Last, the Atlantic

I left Yorktown in the early evening and continued heading east.  Near Newport News, and after driving for over a month, I finally saw the Atlantic Ocean.  Heck, I figured I'd see it sooner or later if I just kept driving east.  

 

I was planning to cross the Chesapeake Bay Bridge -- the longest bridge-tunnel complex in the world -- but as I approached the bridge, I couldn't figure out why there wasn't much traffic on it.  As I reached the toll booth, though, I learned why: namely, a $10 toll.  Jeez, I just wanted to drive on the bridge, not buy it!  Anyway, it was a nice loooong drive across the bridge, and I found a pleasant campsite that night at Kiptopeke State Park along the eastern shore of Chesapeake Bay.  Yep, all in all, traveling through three centuries of American history made for a pretty busy day.

 

I had a nice drive the next day, too, as I headed up the "Eastern Shore" of Virginia and Maryland.  Don't worry, though -- for that day, instead of writing more stories here I'll just post photos.

 

       

Above left:  That evening, I drove into Norfolk, Virginia for my first view of the Atlantic Ocean.  I decided to take the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, but my jaw dropped when the toll-collector said it cost 10 bucks.  Here's a shot of the bridge with a sea tunnel in the distance... and I won't even charge you a toll.

Above center:  Going down into one of the sea tunnels, designed of course, to let ships pass overhead.

Above right:  A Chesapeake Bay sea tunnel.  This is the longest bridge-tunnel complex in the world, and it's definitely worth the $10 toll.

 

       

Above left:  I camped that night here on the eastern shore of Virginia, the so-called "Delmarva Peninsula," where Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia come together.  The Eastern Shore has lots of beaches and, for some reason, lots of roadside stands that sell both fireworks and Virginia hams.

Above center:  This is Assateague Island on the Virginia coast which, for hundreds of years, has been inhabited by wild ponies.  Each summer, some of the ponies are herded up and they swim to nearby Chincoteague Island, where they're sold at auction.  There were dozens of families visiting here at Assateague, each with a little girl clutching a pony doll. 

Above right:  Trail to a viewing platform where you can see the wild ponies of Assateague.

 

       

Above left:  I saw about a dozen ponies on Assateague Island.  These are wild animals and they'll bite if you get too close, so keep your distance.

Above center:  A 3-mile nature loop on Assateague that was interesting but, with all the cars, reminded me of a Disneyland ride.

Above right:  Have brats will travel:  loading up with groceries (and more bratwurst) in Salisbury, Maryland.  I also got some "scrapple" here, a traditional Amish dish which is like uncooked Spam, but I never got the chance to fry it up.  Maybe that's, as Martha Stewart might say, "a good thing."

 

 

Next News

July 20, 2001  (Pomfret, Connecticut)

 

Previous News

July 16, 2001  (Cumberland, Virginia)

July 14, 2001  (Roanoke, Virginia)

July 9, 2001  (Sevierville, Tennessee)

July 8, 2001  (Fontana Lake, North Carolina)

July 5, 2001  (Manchester, Tennessee)

June 30, 2001  (Hohenwald, Tennessee)

June 29, 2001  (Corinth, Mississippi)

June 27, 2001  (Natchez, Mississippi)

June 24, 2001  (Austin, Texas)

June 20, 2001  (Canyon de Chelly, Arizona)

June 18, 2001  (Clay Canyon, Utah)

June 15, 2001 -- Part 2  (Zion Nat'l Park, Utah)

June 15, 2001 -- Part 1  (Zion Nat'l Park, Utah)

June 14, 2001  (San Diego, California)

June 11, 2001  (San Jose, California)

June 2, 2001  (Bellingham, Washington)

May 19, 2001  (Hillsboro, Oregon)

April 30, 2001  (Hillsboro, Oregon)

April 19, 2001  (Bellingham, Washington)

April 5, 2001  (Bellingham, Washington)

 

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