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A Magical History Tour Through Virginia

I camped that evening at Bear Creek State Park, west of Richmond.  As I was studying my AAA maps and CampBook the next morning at my campsite, as I do every morning, I realized that I was 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, to drive all the way to Virginia's eastern shore that day, on the other side of Chesapeake Bay, because according to my AAA map of Virginia there were a couple of State Parks over there that looked promising.  I'd never been to the Virginia's eastern shore, but I figured that was a good reason to go over there.

 

Above:  A sign near Richmond, Virginia that has absolutely nothing to do with history.  But it is funny (at least, I think so).

I'm an avid history buff, as you probably know if you've been following my website.  And from a historical perspective, the two states that I enjoy visiting the most are Virginia and Massachusetts.  That's especially true because 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 ever happened in Oregon and there aren't a lot of famous Oregonians, except maybe that club-wielding figure-skater, Tonya Harding, who I'm ashamed to admit hails from Portland.

 

In stark contrast, on this 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 major 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

 

This is the Civil War tune, The Battle Cry Of Freedom.

   

I packed up my things that morning at Bear Creek State Park, then I got in my truck 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 I walked around the grounds and drove along the park's tour road, stopping at most of the sites along the way.

 

Petersburg isn't as famous as some other Civil War battlefields, like Gettysburg, Antietam, or Shiloh, but I was fascinated with it because it was so unique.  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 a long string of incompetent and half-hearted 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!"

 

General 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 hard to imagine how people would react today if 12,000 soldiers died in a single battle.  That kind of carnage is nearly incomprehensible. 

 

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

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 of the key city of Petersburg, where three Confederate railroad lines merged and supplied Richmond to the north.  Grant's troops began digging in on the outskirts of Petersburg, hoping to push the rebels out of town, and the Confederate army, defending Petersburg, did likewise. 

 

For the next ten months, Grant continued entrenching 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 General Lee abandoned his fortifications at Petersburg 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 showed 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 ago, was much too brief, so this time I spent about three hours walking around the battlefield. 

 

One of the highlights of the park is a life-size replica of "The Dictator," a massive 17,000-pound Union mortar that once heaved 225-pound balls into the Confederate lines.  Jeez, you thought that barking dog next door was a noisy pain in the butt!  The mortar 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.

 

Another 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 but poor leadership.

 

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

Above right:  A 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 it was 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 downtown 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. 

 

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

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.

 

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 northward from Florida, while the French had been paddling around Canada for a while.  The English, therefore, figured they had better start settling the New World, too. 

 

A group of eager English colonists sailed to North America in 1606 hoping to find either gold or the spices of China, a country which they figured was nearby, and they landed on the south edge of the York Peninsula in present-day Virginia.  They had seen lots of Indians around, so they couldn't figure out why this particular site, which they named after England's new King James, was vacant.  "Hey guys, what a great place to settle, huh?  No Indians!"

 

Well, the reason there weren't any Indians at the Jamestown site was because it was a swamp with lots of malaria, which soon decimated the small colony.  Then the crops failed and settlers started starving to death and, consequently, there was lots of fighting -- kind of like the TV show, "Survivor."  But 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 New World plant called "tobacco."  

 

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

As they discovered, tobacco grew so well here that the colony was soon sending boatloads of it back to England.  However, each colonist first had to swear before a Congressional panel that, to the best of his or her 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:  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 poor location, though, very swampy with lots of malaria, so it never prospered.

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

The World Turned Upside Down

Above:  A French mortar.  In 1781, American and French troops cornered the British General Cornwallis here on the York peninsula and began drawing a noose around the British army.

I spent a couple hours at Jamestown, then I hit the Colonial Parkway bound for Yorktown, nervously glancing at my watch the whole way.  I left Jamestown at 5:25 p.m. and I knew 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 English Redcoat army had been battling George Washington's Continental Army for six years, first in the northern colonies and then in the south, but without much success.  In the fall of 1781, the arrogant English commander, Lord Cornwallis, was being chased across Virginia by the pesky American and French armies.  He decided to move his Redcoats down the York Peninsula, where he was expecting to be rescued by the British fleet.  The British fleet, though, was having its own problems and was turned back by the French fleet off of Cape Henry, 40 miles away.

 

The tune The World Turned Upside Down was played by the British army during General Cornwallis' surrender to the American forces in 1781.

 
   

After a brief siege in the village of Yorktown, Cornwallis surrendered to General Washington.  The British army had been humiliated by what they considered to be a vastly-inferior foe, so during the surrender ceremony, Cornwallis ordered his band to play the song "The World Turned Upside Down," an English ballad that described scenes of chaos and confusion.  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 greatly enjoyed it, then I spent an hour outside walking around the entrenchments.  At 7 p.m., it was time to get back in the truck and, once again, 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 right:  A French howitzer on the siege lines at Yorktown.  

At Long Last, the Atlantic

Above:  My first view of the Atlantic Ocean on this trip.  This is crossing over the Chesapeake Bridge.

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.  I figured I'd see it sooner or later if I just kept driving east.

 

I was planning to cross the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, which is 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, I learned why:  namely, the $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 on the other side, at Kiptopeke State Park along the eastern shore of Chesapeake Bay.  I was pretty tired, but then traveling through three centuries of American history makes for a busy day.

 

I had a nice drive the next day, too, as I headed up the so-called Eastern Shore of Virginia and Maryland, including a stop to see the famous ponies of Assateague and Chincoteague Islands.  But for that day, instead of posting more stories here, I'll just show you some photos.

 

       

Above left:  In the late afternoon, I drove into Norfolk, Virginia for my first view of the Atlantic Ocean.  I decided to take the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and Tunnel, but my jaw dropped when the toll-collector said it cost 10 bucks.  Here's a picture of the tunnel entrance.  Is this picture worth $10?  You be the judge.

Above center:  Inside one of the Chesapeake Bay sea tunnels.  This is the longest bridge-tunnel complex in the world and, yeah, it was worth the toll.

Above right:  I camped that night 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 lots of roadside stands that, strangely, sell both fireworks and Virginia hams.  People here apparently like to blow up things, then eat pork.

 

   

Above left:  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 together and swim to nearby Chincoteague Island, where they're sold at auction.  There were dozens of families visiting here at Assateague hoping to see the horses, each with a little girl clutching a pony doll. 

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

Above center:  A three-mile "nature loop" on Assateague that was interesting.  But with all the cars, it 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.  I never got the chance to fry it up and eat it, but maybe that was a good thing.

 


 

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