Virginia and the Ghosts of History

“We talked the matter over and could have settled the war in thirty minutes had it been left to us.” So said a Confederate soldier referring to a meeting he had with a Union soldier between the lines. But it wasn’t left to them and consequently 620,000 American soldiers from both sides – more than American military fatalities in World War 2 and Vietnam combined – lost their lives in America’s bloodiest conflict.

trees in the fall, Ft. Belvoir, Virginia
Fall colors, Ft. Belvoir, Virginia

The sights and sounds of America’s Civil War were vividly etched into our imagination as we scoured the region between and around Richmond, Virginia and Washington D.C. More than a decade ago we visited friends and relatives who were residing in the area. It was late fall and the marvelously colorful leaves still left on the trees brought warmth to our souls amidst the crisp and cold Virginia air.

This particular area in Virginia is the site of numerous Civil War battlefields. Leo has a particular interest in history and when visiting Emilyn, a friend who lived near Richmond at the time, we found out that her husband Scott has a similar interest. They offered to take us around some of the old Civil War battlefields closest to their place.

Civil War gun at a redoubt in Fort Steadman, Petersburg National Battlefield Park
A Napoleon 12-pounder field gun at a redoubt in Ft. Stedman, Petersburg National Battlefield Park – site of a failed Confederate attack on March, 1865.

Petersburg National Battlefield Park

Petersburg, an important rail center 20 miles south of Richmond, was the site of a 10-month siege that ended with the capture of the capital of the Confederacy. The fighting in the area degenerated into a long and bloody stalemate nearly approaching the horrors of trench warfare during World War 1 as Union forces tried to force their way through the Confederate fortifications protecting the city.

A Civil War-era field gun at Petersburg National Battlefield Park
A Civil War-era field gun bears mute testimony to the bloody stalemate that was Petersburg.

Probably the most famous event during the siege was the Battle of the Crater, dramatized in the movie “Cold Mountain.” Prior to the battle, Pennsylvanian troops of the Union IX Corps who had been miners before the war dug a tunnel towards and under the Confederate defensive works and loaded it with four tons of explosives. The huge explosion that followed killed almost 300 Confederate troops and blew a 30-feet deep crater. However, the follow-up attack was badly mismanaged. Confederate infantry rushing into the gap to check the Union advance mowed down the Federal troops who were trapped inside the crater.

the now partially filled Crater in Petersburg
Fenced-in area of the now partially filled Crater in Petersburg; in the center background behind the trees is a memorial to Confederate Brig. Gen. William Mahone, whose troops were rushed to the Crater to stop the Union attack

The now partially filled Crater and even a part of the tunnel are still there, a silent testimony to a war between brothers. But what was once an area pockmarked by trenches and shell craters is now a peaceful and charming place with occasional reminders of the bloodletting here almost 150 years ago. The rusty guns, old wooden fortifications and other implements of war made sure no one would forget. A visitor center provided information on the battle through exhibits of weapons and other artifacts, photographs, graphics and videos.

trees and rolling terrain at Petersburg National Battlefield Park
Beauty amidst the carnage: a growth of trees over ground previously scarred by trenches and shell craters

Richmond National Battlefield Park and Tredegar Iron Works

a view of old buildings at the Tredegar Iron Works with modern buildings in the background, Richmond, Virginia
The Tredegar Iron Works at Richmond

Richmond was the capital of the Confederacy during the Civil War. Located near the heart of the city, the Tredegar Iron Works was used to supply the Confederacy with artillery and ammunition and continued to manufacture weapons during the two World Wars.

American Civil War Center sign at Tredegar Ironworks, Richmond

One of Tredegar’s original buildings was converted into the visitor center for the Richmond National Battlefield Park. It contains a self-guided museum and several exhibits of weapons used during the Civil War. The battlefield park itself is quite extensive, consisting of 13 separate sites including the locations for several Civil War battles. It was almost dark when we finished our tour at Tredegar and, unfortunately, did not get to visit these sites.

Mount Vernon: Washington's mansion
The Washington mansion at Mount Vernon Estate

Mount Vernon

a closer look at Mount Vernon
The first American president, George Washington lived here: Mount Vernon, Virginia.

Located further north and just 16 miles south of Washington D.C. is Mount Vernon, the home of George and Martha Washington. We got to visit this place during the time when we stayed at Tiyo Rene’s and Tiya Tess’ (Nina’s uncle and aunt) home in Ft. Belvoir, Virginia. Besides the Washington mansion, there are more than a dozen original structures in the 500-acre estate including Washington’s tomb, and nearly 50 acres of his extensive plantation.

a wagon at the 50-acre plantation at Mount Vernon
Part of the 50-acre plantation at Mount Vernon

The mansion offers a glimpse into Washington’s family life and into 18th century America. Included are restored period furniture on display inside the mansion’s 14 rooms. There is also a blacksmith shop, a demonstration farm with a reconstructed slave cabin and a treading barn. Outside, the estate provides an excellent view of the Potomac River. Strolling around the back of the mansion, we got to view this historic river as it snakes around a bend on its way towards the nation’s capital. Washington must have spent a good deal of time strolling around the Potomac’s banks in periods of quiet reflection.

the Potomac River viewed from the grounds of Washington’s mansion, Mt. Vernon, Virginia
Washington’s mansion is situated overlooking the Potomac River.

Our trip across historic Virginia evoked memories of two important events in the history of America that would have far-reaching effects on the history of the nation. The guns of the American Revolution and the Civil War are silent now but their memory and that of the sacrifices of the men and women involved are preserved for posterity in these historical sites.

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