by Judith Fein
Photos and slideshow by Paul Ross
When I was a kid, studying American history was about as appealing as a trip to the dentist. In school, we had to memorize names and dates and to this day, I still have PTSD (post teacher stress disorder) when I rattle off monikers like Black Jack Pershing, Old Hickory, The Rail Splitter, The Rough Rider and Old Buck.
A few weeks ago, I went on the newly-established Journey Through Hallowed Ground-- that spans Pennsylvania, Virginia and Maryland, and extends roughly from Gettysburg to Monticello--and I learned more in 11 days and 180 miles than I did in all my schooling. Best of all, I have –for the first time in my life--retained what I learned. Ask me a question about Thomas Jefferson. Or James Madison. Or George C. Marshall. Go ahead. Ask me. (Disclosure: This is pretentious, authorial braggadocio.)
Photo Slide Show by Paul Ross
If you had told me that I, a pacifist, would be fascinated at Manassas (in the North, it’s known as Bull Run), where the first major battle of the Civil War took place, I would have keeled over in disbelief. But I was both horrified and fascinated. It was everything that textbook learning wasn’t: alive, vital and real. I learned that it took 6 horses to schlepp one canon onto the battlefield, and that the poor schleppers made inviting targets. Even more inviting were the soldiers themselves, who --in classic Napoleonic fashion-- lined up abreast in successive rows to advance, face-on, into close quarter cannon fire. Apparently, the guns weren’t very accurate, but still—marching towards the unforgiving maws of heavy artillery? There was a whole vocabulary around the weaponry—like “worm” (used for cleaning the bore and packing charges), “going into battery”(placing guns into firing position) and “sponge bucket” (which held water for wetting the sponge-rammer).
The battlefield museum has authentic personal effects from the fray: a canteen, a rosewood fife, a glove for a cannoneer’s left thumb, a Union snare drum, a leather shoe. I was also told that people, unfamiliar with war and not knowing what to expect, came to picnic and watch the Union and Confederate troops fire on each other at Manassas: I suppose that worms, sponge buckets and dead bodies enhance the appetite. Now ask me anything else about the killing fields at Manassas. Go ahead. Try me (second and last attempt at vainglory).
The JTHG highlights the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, nine Presidential homes, national parks, vistas, panoramas and about 10,000 sites, but the Civil War lies at the heart of the Journey, and so do the slaves about whom the war was fought. In the Manassas Museum, the curators have recreated the hypothetical life of “Sarah,” an illiterate woman who did back-breaking work, knew the searing pain and humiliation of chains, and had no leisure time. Her equally mythical white counterpart “Ann” had all the privileges of a free woman: languorous days, books to read, beautiful furniture, a gun to for self-defense.
The most touching thing I learned in Manassas was that 50 years after the Civil War had ended, taking 622,000 lives with it, there was a reunion where more than 1,000 veterans came from the North and South for the purpose of reconciliation. They strode out on the battlefield, took up positions, and marched toward each other; but instead of firing, they clasped each others’ hands in tearful friendship and forgiveness.
In Brentsville, Virginia, I sat on the judge’s bench in an 1822 courthouse, and learned that all the presiding adjudicators were white, male property owners. When the court was in session, slaves, produce and land were sold just outside, where public lashings and executions also took place. Negroes accused of a crime weren’t allowed to testify in the courthouse.
At Montpelier, the plantation home of James Madison, I learned about his brave wife Dolley. While the invading British troops were heading toward the White House, and at great personal peril, she rescued the portrait of George Washington, as well as important papers and silver. Her heroic accomplice in preservation-under-fire was the slave Paul Jennings. The Brits came, ate a meal at the table Dolley had set for her family and toasted the First Lady. Then they burned down the White House.
I stood in the room where James Madison looked out at the great expanses of lush land, read books by the crateload and researched past attempts at self-government. He was the intellectual force who conceived of the Constitution and convinced the Constitutional Convention to form a democratic republic. Freedom for all—except, of course, for slaves
At Montpelier, I found out that Madison was only 5’4” and weighed l00 pounds. He suffered from epilepsy, arthritis and a bilious disease. He was a sickly, shy, modest man who nonetheless was an intellectual genius: he read seven languages, graduated from Princeton in two years, and then stayed on to study Hebrew for another year. During his college years, he became radicalized and was committed to gaining freedom from the British Empire.
Towards the end of President Madison’s life, he had such severe rheumatoid arthritis that he couldn’t cut his own food and was bedridden, sometimes for weeks. But Paul Jennings, his faithful slave, reported that Madison’s mind remained strong. Jennings’ dictated memoirs reveal that one day Madison stopped eating and then his life was snuffed out like a candle, quietly.
At Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s neoclassical architectural masterpiece, I visited Mulberry Row, the locus of slave cabins and prodigious vegetable gardens, saw the high-tech inventions Jefferson adored (he would have been the first to buy an ipod, ipad and HD video camera, I think), and visited Jefferson’s just-opened wine and beer cellars. I found out that it’s true about the Prez’s affair with his slave Sally Hemings, and he definitely fathered one and probably more of her children. He also took Sally and her brother James with him to Paris, educated the latter as a French chef, and promised to free him if he would return to Monticello and pass on his culinary expertise to another slave. Today, on staff at Monticello are brilliant and dedicated curators and scholars. If they had been my teachers when I grew up, I might have been a historian.
At the Oatlands House and Gardens, I got an unusual view of the Civil War through the eyes of plantation owner Elizabeth Carter. She wrote, enthusiastically, “Ben came home at night wounded in the little finger. Wonderful escape-- Terrible battle near Leesburg—great victory for us tho’ our loss is great.” Ben, a Confederate soldier, was her son. Visitors flock to the magnificent English country gardens at Oatlands, but what struck me most was Elizabeth’s writing, the collapse of her fortune after the war, and the desperate letters her daughter Kate wrote to Phoebe Hearst (the mother of William Randolph Hearst). The Carters were selling off their possessions to Phoebe and others so they could maintain their luxurious lifestyle, pride and dignity.
Remember learning something about the post-WWII Marshall plan? It was another factoid I memorized the night before a test. But at Dodona, George C. Marshall’s former home in Leesburg, I discovered how visionary and pragmatic the owner of the house was. Marshall was convinced, after the devastation of the war, that something systemic needed to be done to restore the financial institutions in Europe. He insisted that countries, which had been recent and bitter enemies, work jointly to come up with a plan for receiving and productively utilizing $13 billion in American aid. Besides the creation of the European Union, it was probably history’s most significant vision for the unification of Europe, and it brought the countries hope and greatly increased prosperity. The house also has a painting by Madame Chiang Kai Shek and a guest room where she stayed when visiting. I was told that Marshall didn’t think highly of Madame’s husband, but he thought even less of Mao.
Still with me? Then let’s move on to Maryland. For starters --the beautifully quaint town of Frederick has fifty blocks of historic houses: Federal-style buildings from the early l800’s; Italianate-style homes from the l850’s; Shab Row houses for free blacks and slaves; the home of John Hanson—who was the first President of the United States before the Constitution. Yes, before Washington (remember that for trivia contests).
In the Frederick cemetery, I visited the tomb of Francis Scott Key, the author, lawyer and poet who found himself in the wrong place at the right time. He was held captive on a British ship and thus had a front-row seat while the British forces bombed Fort McHenry in the war of 1812. After the smoke cleared the next morning and he saw Old Glory waving, he was inspired to write the Star Spangled Banner. On Frederick’s Market Street, I learned that locals had to wait twelve hours to cross the road when the whole Union army marched through it en route to Gettysburg. At the marvelous National Museum of Civil War Medicine--with its dramatic, life-size tableaux-- I found out that after anesthesia was administered for surgery, ether was poured onto soldiers’ genitals to wake them up. And that 35,000 soldiers died from diarrhea. I learned that more than 400 women fooled the Army doctors’ hasty, superficial physical exams, and successfully passed themselves off as men. And the appropriately-named General Hooker brought prostitutes to his troops, who spent less than five per cent of their time on the battlefield and the rest, clean-shaven and bored, in camps.
Okay, those are lurid details, but how about the fact that field hospitals, evacuation of the wounded and field dressing stations were all initially practiced and refined during the Civil War? That women were allowed to be nurses for the first time? That until the Civil War, surgeons weren’t specialized? That modern medicine, as we know it today, results from the War Between the States?
I am throwing down the gauntlet. If you learned more in school about American history than I did in my 11 days on the Journey Through Hallowed Ground, then I’ll go into battery with only a worm and sponge bucket.
IF YOU GO:
Wining and Dining on the JTHG:
In Gordonsville, Virginia, make a reservation at Pomme (115 South Main Street / Gordonsville, VA 22942/
(540) 832-0130), a fine dining French restaurant that draws patrons from Richmond, Washington, D.C. and even New York.
In Middleburg, Virginia, which is home to the horse and hound set, stay at a charming B+B called the Middleburg Country Inn (www.middleburgcountryinn.com) and walk over to the Red Fox Inn (built in 1728, it’s the longest-running inn in America) for dinner. George Washington, Jeb Stuart and Jackie O purportedly stayed at the Red Fox..although not at the same time.
In Frederick, Maryland, do not miss the chance to have lunch or dinner at the award-winning Volt (www.voltrestaurant.com). With advance notice, you can score a seat in the restaurant, but the 8-place chef’s table is already booked through next May. By the way, you may have seen owner/chef Brian Voltagio on Bravo’s “Top Chef.” He came in second…to his own brother.
I was surprised and delighted by the sophisticated boutique wines I sampled along the Journey. The most historic winery—The Jefferson Vineyards-- is about a mile from Monticello; it’s the original site where Jefferson tried his hand at being a vintner.
Also highly recommended is the award-winning winery called Sunset Hills in Loudon County, about 35 miles from Middleburg (www.sunsethillsvineyard.com). Tastings are in an 1870 barn that was restored by Amish craftsmen.
Judith Fein is an award-winning travel journalist whose articles have appeared in more than 90 publications. She co-founded and is editor of http://www.YourLifeisaTrip.com. Her book about transformative experiences with other cultures, LIFE IS A TRIP, will be out in August 2010. Her website is: http://www.GlobalAdventure.us