A Magical History Tour
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
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:
(1607): The first permanent English colony in the New World.
(1781): The last battle of the Revolutionary War, where America won
its independence from England.
(1864-65): The final engagement of the Civil War, and the longest siege
of the war.
historic sites in one day. This
would be even better than visiting Tonya Harding's trailer park.
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
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.
Civil War tune, The Battle Cry Of Freedom.
RealPlayer. If problems, see
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.
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!"
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.
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.
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:
. . .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...
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.
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.
left: The Visitor Center at Petersburg National Battlefield near Richmond, Virginia.
center: Here's the 17,000-pound Union seacoast mortar called "The Dictator," the
largest weapon used during the war.
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.
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.
center: The very lively Ranger Joyce describing the debacle at the Battle of the Crater.
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.
Near-Disaster of Jamestown
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.
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!"
John Smith, first governor of the Jamestown colony.
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.
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.
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.
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.
right: Foundations of New Town, which petered out around 1700.
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.
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.
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.
left: This is a cool ship inside the Visitor Center at Yorktown
National Battlefield. It's cool because it's air-conditioned.
center: And here's a cool French mortar. American and French troops cornered
General Cornwallis here on the York peninsula in 1781 and drew the noose ever
right: A French howitzer on the siege lines at Yorktown.
Last, the Atlantic
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.
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
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
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.
center: Going down into one of the sea tunnels, designed of course, to
let ships pass overhead.
right: A Chesapeake Bay sea tunnel. This is the longest
bridge-tunnel complex in the world, and it's definitely worth the $10 toll.
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.
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
right: Trail to a viewing platform where you can see the wild ponies
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.
center: A 3-mile nature loop on Assateague that was interesting but,
with all the cars, reminded me of a
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."
20, 2001 (Pomfret, Connecticut)
16, 2001 (Cumberland, Virginia)
14, 2001 (Roanoke, Virginia)
9, 2001 (Sevierville, Tennessee)
8, 2001 (Fontana Lake, North Carolina)
5, 2001 (Manchester, Tennessee)
30, 2001 (Hohenwald, Tennessee)
29, 2001 (Corinth, Mississippi)
27, 2001 (Natchez, Mississippi)
24, 2001 (Austin, Texas)
20, 2001 (Canyon de Chelly, Arizona)
18, 2001 (Clay Canyon, Utah)
15, 2001 -- Part 2 (Zion Nat'l Park, Utah)
15, 2001 -- Part 1 (Zion Nat'l Park, Utah)
14, 2001 (San Diego, California)
11, 2001 (San Jose, California)
2, 2001 (Bellingham, Washington)
19, 2001 (Hillsboro, Oregon)
30, 2001 (Hillsboro, Oregon)
19, 2001 (Bellingham, Washington)
5, 2001 (Bellingham, Washington)
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Travels (2001-02) >
U.S. Trip >
July 18, 2001