Monday, January 30, 2017

Historic Jamestowne

On the checklist during our coastal-Virginia trip: visit Jamestown, the capitol of the Virginia colony which was established in 1607. Sounds simple, but not only is Jamestown also spelled Jamestowne (complicating searches), but it is actually a part of the Colonial National Historical Park (along with Yorktown and the Colonial Parkway) and is located within spitting distance of several other ‘historical parks.' We first pulled into ‘Jamestown’ only to discover it wasn’t the actual location of the former Jamestowne settlement, but a separate park administered by the Commonwealth of Virginia. Although it features a museum, full-size replicas of the three ships that brought the settlers, a reconstructed fort and Powhatan village (and charges an additional fee), the ‘real’ Jamestown is another mile down the road – follow the Park Service signs!

The Tercentenary Monument commemorates Jamestowne's 300th anniversary

Once we determined that we had arrived at the correct destination, we started our explorations at the Visitor Center. After paying the admission fee (which also covers the National Park Service-managed Yorktown) and picking up Junior Ranger booklets, we headed across the footbridge to join a tour. Jamestown is split into two distinct sections: Old Towne and New Towne. While New Towne is managed by the National Park Service and features replicas of the excavations of several residences, warehouses and workshops, Old Towne is under the purview of Preservation Virginia and contains the site of the 1607 James Fort, the remains of the 1600s Church Tower and the 1907 Memorial Church.

Visible: 1600s church tower with 1907 church behind it

The site was selected with defense in mind, the location on the James River separated from the mainland by large expanses of swamp. The colonists assumed they would have to defend their settlement against the Spaniards who would be coming across the water. In fact, the swamp was easily traversed by the Natives, and the exposed position meant it was harder to secure drinking water and grow crops. Only 60 of the 300 colonists survived the “starving time” (the winter of 1609-1610), but as ships continued arriving over the next ten years (supplementing the population), and the Powhatan tribe lent their assistance, the colony was preserved – despite disease, malnutrition, poor leadership, the unhealthy environment and the worst drought in 800 years.

Inside the 1907 church

Our tour led us from the Tercentenary Monument to the Pocahontas Statue, the Memorial Church (with the Historic Tower) and finally to the John Smith Statue and the excavations of the 1607 James Fort. Our tour guide was absolutely unbeatable, with an encyclopedia of knowledge on every applicable subject. We learned about the modern-day excavations and all that's been learned from the findings, peppered with interesting anecdotes and legends about those early days of the settlement. Jamestowne came to life under our guide's vivid descriptions, and I’m extremely grateful for all that we learned during our tour – despite the frigid weather!

Standing in the exact spot where Pocahontas and John Rolfe were married in 1614

Afterwards we headed to the Voorhees Archaearium Archaeology Museum to warm up and view the artifacts that tell the story of the James Fort. It’s absolutely amazing what has been learned from the bones, weapons, bricks and detritus of the lives of these early settlers! Roberts could have stayed in the Museum for hours…

Reconstruction of foundations of Fort's church, Smith statue in background overlooking James River

The Island Drive departs from the Visitor Center, a three or five mile loop that takes visitors on a drive through the natural environment that the settlers would have encountered. At the far end of the 5-mile loop is a short walking trail to Black Point with views out to the east. Meanwhile just inside the Park entrance is the Glasshouse, where artisans demonstrate glassblowing techniques of the early 1600s. Glassblowing was one of Virginia’s first industries, although easily surpassed by tobacco – the product that would underpin the colony’s economic future.


It was tobacco that determined the growth of Jamestown from precarious outpost to colonial port and administrative center, tens of millions of people arriving on these shores in the next 300 years to start their lives anew. Figures from our history books - Pocahontas, John Smith, John Rolfe – these people traversed the same land that we were so casually visiting. Although we have seen much older historical sites during our time in France, the 400 year-old Jamestown is one that has directly impacted our lives. Had it not been for these initial European settlers on the shores of the James River, it is very unlikely that my grandparents would have arrived on American soil – 300 years later. Funny enough, the thoughts that were in my head as we pulled back onto the Colonial Parkway en route to Yorktown were not so deep; instead I was wondering who in their right mind starts a colony on such low ground next to a swamp…



Friday, January 27, 2017

In the darkness over Richmond

High up on a hill overlooking the city of Richmond stands a monument, lit up at night like a beacon to the heavens. We first noticed it after dinner at the Boathouse at Rocketts Landing, the illuminated obelisk demanding attention even as we had plotted our course back to the hotel for the evening.

The lighted pathway leads the eye right to the monument, upper right

We zigzagged up the hill just a few short blocks from Great Shiplock Park, the historic canal park our explorations had led us to earlier in the day. For a moment we thought we would be unable to reach it, as our route had taken us to Main Street where we would face a steep (dark) uphill hike even if we could find parking. But after turning on a maps app we discovered the roundabout way to reach Libby Terrace and found ourselves standing at the base of the Confederate Soldiers and Sailors Monument.


The memorial is located on the southeastern spur of Church Hill, in Libby Hill Park. The impressive view over the city, the James River, and what used to be the Confederate Navy Yard guarantees its suitability for a rather impressive monument. Plans had originally called for a statue commemorating Robert E. Lee, but when one was erected on the other side of the city, the Confederate Soldiers' & Sailors' Monument Association was born. The memorial was modeled after Pompey's Pillar in Alexandria, Egypt, and depicts a Confederate private standing on top of the pillar. 13 granite blocks make up the enormous pillar symbolizing the 13 Confederate States. Completed in 1894, the total cost is estimated to have been over $30,000.


Once we had reached our beacon we discovered the real treasure of Libby Hill Park – the view. William Byrd II is thought to have said that this view resembles the view of Richmond upon Thames in England, and so the vista earned the reputation as the "View that Named Richmond." A plaque informed us that the curve of the James River and the steep slopes are similar to the features of the River Thames in England, and when William Byrd II was asked by the House of Burgesses to plan a town at the Falls of the James (the same falls than necessitated all the canals and locks) in the 1730s, he named the new town Richmond.

A little hard to see, but the tower to the old Lucky Strike factory (now lofts) is visible on the left


We couldn’t have asked for a more suitable final perspective on the historical city that we had been exploring for the past few days. Despite the pull to explore the park more fully (even in the dark it was beckoning us down its cozy pathways!), we loaded the sleepy children back into the car and descended into the lights that we had just been admiring. Tomorrow was a brand new day, and our plans were to head east, towards Chesapeake Bay and the Colonial National Historic Park

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Virginia's State Capitol

Not far from the bank of the James River is the Virginia State Capitol, home to the oldest legislative body in the Western Hemisphere, the Virginia General Assembly (first established as the House of Burgesses in 1619). Virginia's original capitol was actually Jamestown, and Virginia saw a total of seven other capitol buildings there and in Williamsburg, the Capitol until the American Revolutionary War. However, the Richmond Capitol building was completed in 1788 and has been in use ever since (with the exception of a couple days in 1865 as I mention further in the post).


Thomas Jefferson and Charles-Louis Clérisseau designed the Capitol building, modeled after an ancient Roman temple in Nîmes, France: the Maison Carrée. Intended as a departure from traditional English architecture as a form of protest, the architecture is considered to be in the Early Republic, Palladian style. (For a look at the Maison Carrée, check out my post on Nîmes, and for another historic design by Thomas Jefferson, I wrote this post on Monticello!)


During the Civil War the building also served as the Capitol of the Confederacy. Possibly due to its location on Shockoe Hill, the Capitol (along with the neighboring VA Governor's Mansion & White House of the Confederacy) were somehow spared destruction while the city burned during the Confederate evacuation in April 1865. During the days that separated this evacuation from the fall of the Confederacy, Lynchburg served as the Capital of Virginia; it was during this time that President Abraham Lincoln toured the Capitol – only about a week before his assassination in DC.


During the period of Reconstruction Virginia was under military rule. In the months following the end of military control, the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals held a hearing on the dispute over leadership of the Richmond government. On April 27, 1870 as hundreds of people crowded into the building, the balcony buckled, falling to the courtroom floor – which then collapsed into the House of Delegates chamber, some 40 feet below. 62 people were killed and another 251 injured, a grandson of Patrick Henry among the dead.


However, the necessary repairs were made, and in 1904 two additional wings that were not in the original plan were added to provide space for the legislature. In 1960 the structure acquired National Historic Landmark status. More recently in 2007 a $100 million renovation was completed, updating the HVAC, mechanical & plumbing, as well as adding a 27,000 sq. ft. space under the south lawn. This expansion serves as a modern-day visitor’s entrance and contains additional office space and meeting rooms.


Capitol Square features multiple monuments to prominent Virginians and events in Virginia, including the 1858 Virginia Washington Monument. The states around the base include Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Lewis, John Marshall, George Mason and Thomas Nelson Jr. Nearby is a ‘Zero Milestone’ statue that measures highway distances from the city of Richmond (1929).


Along the north end are a line of statues. The General Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson statue was installed in 1875, and Governor William Smith’s statue in 1906. The Dr. Hunter Holmes McGuire Statue dates to 1904. There is also a statue dedicated to Harry F. Byrd Sr. (1976), and finally, the newest addition to Capitol Square is the Virginia Civil Rights Memorial (2008).


In the southwest corner stands the Bell Tower, construction of which was finished in 1825. Still used for ceremonial ringing, it now houses a Visitor Center. Nearby is the Edgar Allan Poe statue (1958) which commemorates the writer’s time living in Richmond.  The Oliver Hill Building was finished in 1894.


Free guided tours of the Capitol building are available; the one hour tour includes the underground Capitol Extension and Rotunda, Jefferson Room, Old House Chamber & Old Senate Chamber, and the present-day legislative chambers located in the 1906 wings (when the General Assembly is not in session). Tours run Monday through Saturday starting at 10am for walk-in visitors (9am for groups by appointment) and going until 4pm. Sunday tours and self-guided tours are also available; see Virginia General Assembly website for details.


Monday, January 23, 2017

Crossing the James


The shores of the James River in downtown Richmond are rife with recreational opportunities: pedestrian bridges, riverwalks, green space, rock climbing spots, and even National Park sites such as Tredegar Iron Works, the National Historic Landmark that is now a part of the Richmond National Battlefield complex. It was an unseasonably warm, but overcast day when we emerged from Tredegar and headed across the street to explore the riverfront.


Immediately across Tredegar Street a bridge crosses to Browns Island, a park that often hosts festivals, concerts and art displays. Dozens of pathways crisscross the island, which was formed in formed in 1789 with the development of the Haxall Canal. Named for its first settler, Elijah Brown, the land was at one point divided from Johnson’s Island by a spillway; today the two islands are one. We found the canal lock system interesting to observe, but the lure to cross the river was strong and we didn’t linger long.

Commemorating the African-American boatmen of the James River

The T. Tyler Potterfield Pedestrian Bridge crosses the James from Browns Island to Manchester, on the southern bank of the river. The first few hundred feet feature an art exhibit entitled “Three Days in April 1865: Follow the time line of the devastation and of the emotions of defeat for many and of the exhilaration and triumph for others as expressed by witnesses during the evacuation and burning of Richmond.” When the capital of the Confederacy fell to the Union army in the days following the defeat at Petersburg, the city burned; quotes from participants & observers tell the story of those three days.



The exhibit ends with pictures and descriptions of the evacuation routes used by the Confederates, with the modern-day vista compared to what the view would have looked like 150 years ago. The remnants of the Richmond-Petersburg Railway Bridge were clearly visible, the supports the only remnants of the bridge burned by retreating troops. Although it was rebuilt the following year, it burned again in 1882.


We continued across. The supports of what was formerly called the ‘dam walk’ (and now is the pedestrian bridge) are concrete piers, built in 1901 to divert water into the canal during low-water spells. Rails up top carried cranes that could lower diverters between the piers, both of which examples of are displayed on Brown's Island. The bridge opened last year after 15 months of construction that was continuously halted for high water, spawning fish, even the drowning of a homeless woman; the dangerous hydraulics formed by the river surging over what's left of the 116 year-old levee walls helped fuel the turbines that drove the first street car system in the US.


The south end of the pedestrian bridge connects with the James River Park System, a 550-acre riverside park that offers hiking, paddling, fishing and other activities – even rock climbing. The concrete and granite pilings of the old Richmond-Petersburg Railway Bridge have entertained rock climbers since the 1980s. Anchors and other permanent climbing apparatus assist climbers, while overhead a lookout tower stands guard over the river.


Heading west along the river will connect visitors with the Buttermilk trail and the Belle Island trails, while crossing east through the climbing area takes you under the Manchester Bridge (US Route 60) and to the Manchester Floodwall walk. The views of the bridges, historic relics, downtown skyline and James River are phenomenal, but it was time to turn around.


In fact, I had asked the boys to turn around about halfway over the pedestrian bridge, but was quickly rebuffed by my eldest son who proclaimed “I want to be able to tell dad I walked across the river!” Well, we had walked across the river, and as we made our way back across we took in the scenic views of downtown Richmond.


Upon our return to Brown’s Island we walked under the Rivanna Subdivision Trestle, which is the upper level of Triple Crossing. Richmond is the only place in the US where three different rail lines pass over one another in one spot. Today the crossing is operated by Norfolk Southern and CSX Transportation, and although there has never been a documented three-way train meet at the crossing, it is still a popular destination for rail enthusiasts.


After crossing back to the mainland visitors can walk east along the Canal Walk towards Triple Crossing, while heading west along the river will take you to the Belle Isle Pedestrian Bridge – which leads right back to Belle Isle on the south shore of the river. We lingered in the gardens of Haxall Headgate Park, an educational site to demonstrate the benefits of riparian buffers.


Having retrieved the car we drove back east along the river, paralleling Browns Island, past Triple Crossing, all the way to Great Shiplock Park. The very east end of Chapel Island, the lock connected the James River with the Richmond Dock, completing the James River and Kanawha Canal system that bypassed 7 miles of falls on the James. Interpretive displays offer the history of the Kanawha Canal locks, which were built between 1850 and 1854. After examining the locks we explored a small section of the island, which although beautiful was rather polluted, and so we didn’t stay long. An interesting fact; in March through June the fishery in this area is influenced by anadromous fish which are migrating from salt water to fresh water on their annual spawning runs.

View from locks over canal towards Richmond

To conclude our day on the James we continued east to the Boathouse at Rocketts Landing seafood restaurant. The community was named for Robert Rockett, a ferry operator in the mid-1700s. A prosperous seaport from 1790 to 1830, the area eventually became more of a manufacturing center for tobacco - the nearby Lucky Strike and Philip Morris plants a testament to this history. We ordered dinner, and from our second floor perch above the river we watched the sun set over Richmond, the lights of the city gradually becoming visible in the waning daylight. Here the river makes a big curve south, some 20 miles later reaching City Point (part of the Petersburg National Battlefield Historic Site), from where it turns east again on its route to Newport News, the Chesapeake, and finally the Atlantic. The next day we would be following the river on its easterly journey, once again traveling back through history - but this time to the days of the Revolutionary War and the first permanent European settlers

View of Richmond from Boathouse at Rocketts Landing

For a guide to Richmond's Canal Walk area, visit the RVA riverfront website here.

Great Shiplock Park

Friday, January 20, 2017

Touring the Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site

While in Richmond, another historic site to visit that might bring a respite from Civil War battlefields is the Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site. Managed by the Park Service, it is also a National Historic Landmark and a National Historic Site. Located at 110½ E. Leigh Street on "Quality Row" in the Jackson Ward neighborhood of Richmond, Virginia, the site was established in 1978 to tell the story of the life and work of Maggie L. Walker, and to preserve the restored and originally furnished Walker home.


From the National Park Service website: “Maggie Lena Walker devoted her life to civil rights advancement, economic empowerment, and educational opportunities for Jim Crow-era African Americans and women. As a bank president, newspaper editor, and fraternal leader, Walker served as an inspiration of pride and progress. Today, Walker’s home is preserved as a tribute to her enduring legacy of vision, courage, and determination.” Mrs. Walker was the first woman to serve as president of a bank in the US, among many other accomplishments, including what was possibly the first school strike of the civil rights movement when Maggie’s class staged a boycott to protest the inferior graduation facilities offered to the Colored Normal School.


The Walker home was designated a U.S. National Historic Landmark in 1975. It includes several buildings, but the crown jewel is the building Maggie lived in from 1905 until her death in 1934. Our visit began at the Visitor Center at 600 N. 2nd St. in the Historic Jackson Ward. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, this neighborhood was one of the most prosperous black communities in the U.S. The banks, insurance companies, stores, theatres and other institutions were all black-owned and operated, and today Jackson Ward is considered the birthplace of African American entrepreneurship.

The view from the Visitor Center of the 1890s rear-addition to the Maggie L Walker home

The Visitor Center faces the courtyard across from the Walker home. Previously these were all the backyards of the homes on “Quality Row” here on E. Leigh St. The Walker home expanded over the years to accommodate their growing family and eventually annexed the entire yard; when the historic site was created the fences were knocked down, the neighboring duplexes were restored to their 1925 appearance, and exhibits and park offices were installed. We watched a short movie on Mrs. Walker’s life and accomplishments, and then headed over to the house for a Ranger-led tour.

Lauris found some of the titles on Mrs. Walker's shelves familiar!

As we were the only guests on this particular tour, the Ranger was able to tailor his presentation to the boys interests; we learned about Mrs. Walker’s life in Richmond through the minutiae of everyday life (ice boxes, washboards and writing desks) as well as a fascinating portrait of a more intimate nature (old photographs and Mrs. Walker’s library). Our guide was patient and knowledgeable, and the boys stayed on their best behavior through the end of the tour when they were presented with Junior Ranger badges.

The boys giving the Park Service Jr. Ranger pledge


Our visit to the Maggie L. Walker Historic Site was short, not more than a couple of hours. However, during that time we received another piece of the puzzle that is this historic area of Virginia, one that offers a completely different perspective than that of war-torn Civil War Richmond. We tucked that knowledge securely away (along with our Junior Ranger badges) and headed towards the James River for yet another puzzle piece – the Virginia State Capital

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

On the battlefields of Richmond, Virginia

It was a journey backwards through history; starting in Petersburg where the key battles were fought resulting in Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender at the Appomattox Courthouse, then a stop at City Point (Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s strategic river & rail junction during the siege of Petersburg), and then on to the embattled Capital of the Confederacy. Located less than 100 miles from the Union Washington, D.C. capitol, Richmond, Virginia served as the capital of the Confederate States of America for (almost) the whole Civil War. Due to its tactical importance because of location on the James River and at the center of multiple rail lines, the city was a primary target of the Union Army. The most famous series of battles were the Peninsula Campaign (1862) & the Overland Campaign (1864), and it was this extended proximity to fighting that necessitated the construction of numerous hospitals and military prisons in city limits. The city finally fell to Union forces on the same day that Petersburg was lost – April 3, 1865 – and large portions of the city were destroyed by fires set during the evacuation.


Richmond National Battlefield reflects the diversity of the city’s assets during the Civil War; the Park's resources include the site of a naval battle, a key industrial complex, the Confederacy's largest hospital and dozens of miles of original fortifications. A complete tour of all ten units would require an 80-mile drive: Chickahominy Bluff, Beaver Dam Creek, Gaines’ Mill, Glendale, Malvern Hill and Drewry’s Bluff from the 1862 Seven Days’ Battles, and Cold Harbor, Fort Harrison, Parker’s Battery and Totopotomoy Creek from the 1864 Overland Campaign. In addition, the National Park Service managed Richmond Battlefield includes Chimborazo Medical Museum (one of the largest military hospitals of its day), and Tredegar Iron Works, the Confederacy’s most important iron foundry and rolling mill.


Tredegar is a good place to begin a tour of Richmond National Battlefield. The Visitor Center has exhibits and movies to introduce the story of Richmond during the Civil War and the battlefields around the city, and the 9-acre site contains five original buildings, a historic canal wall, ruins and artifacts. We started our explorations on the second floor of the visitor center in the Map Room where we picked up Junior Ranger books & checked out the children’s corner before heading upstairs to the third floor to watch the introductory movie and examine the exhibits.


At its height, Tredegar employed 800 free and slave laborers, making it the fourth largest iron works in US history. Founded in 1836, it harnessed the power of the James River and the Kanawha Canal, and together with other foundries made Richmond the center of iron manufacture in the southern US. Already well known when the Civil War started in 1861, Tredegar operated 24 hours a day to meet the Confederate demand for artillery and ammunition, producing 1,100 cannons in addition to the casemates of several warships that include CSS Virginia (a reconstructed USS Merrimack). On April 2, 1865, warehouses along the James River were being burned by evacuating Confederates, and Tredegar was only saved from this fate by an armed battalion of workers who blocked the attempt of the mobs to destroy the foundry buildings. The iron works would play an important role in rebuilding the South after the war.


Ulysses S. Grant’s 1864 Overland Campaign began with the Battle of the Wilderness near Fredricksburg, and ended with the Siege of Petersburg. The campaign was part of a coordinated surge across the South, and the pressure ultimately stretched the South’s resources beyond capacity. One of the Overland sites included in the Park is Fort Harrison, and because of its former reputation as the strongest point on the Confederate line of defense (as well as being the only fort that fell in 1864), we decided to make it the second stop on our Richmond battlefield tour.


After the Battle of Cold Harbor (where 16,000 lives were lost in a two week period), General Grant crossed the James River and directed his main effort against Petersburg. In a surprise attack designed to prevent Lee from shifting his troops south, Union soldiers captured Fort Harrison on September 29th. As the Visitor Center at the fort is seasonal (and closed during the winter), we instead headed out on the half-mile self-guided walking trail of the battlefield that features signs and details of the battle and on the fort.


In 1864 most of the Confederate forces were in Petersburg and there were only about 200 Confederate defenders at the fort. These soldiers were poorly armed and the Union attack overwhelmed the fort quickly with relatively few casualties. If it wasn’t for the failure of Union forces at the other Confederate forts in the coordinated attack, the military significance of the victory would have been greater. As it was, the fort was enlarged by the Federals, and together with Fort Brady served to protect Grant’s supply system from Confederate gunboats moving downriver.


We had hoped to make a couple more stops, at the Cold Harbor and Gaines’ Mill units. However we got so carried away at Tredegar Iron Works that we ran out of time, and so further exploration of the Richmond battlefields will have to wait. However, this wasn’t the end of our Richmond explorations… Stay tuned for more adventures in this historic Virginia city!


My favorite monument of the trip, on the grounds of Tredegar Iron Works

Monday, January 16, 2017

Exploring Petersburg National Battlefield

Living in the Upstate puts us within easy driving distance of historic coastal cities such as Charleston and Savannah, but anything further (like Wilmington or Jacksonville) requires a bigger travel-time commitment. This time we had our sights set on Richmond, Virginia, to accompany the husband on his business trip, Richmond being ‘coastal’ in so far as its location on the James River and proximity to Chesapeake Bay. However, it took a long weekend to make the excursion a reality, as Richmond is a good six hours by car from our hometown of Greenville.


The drive to Richmond isn’t as exciting as recent visits into the mountains; the scenery was mostly flat as we drove north through Charlotte, then east to Greensboro and Durham before turning north again to cross into Virginia. Shortly before reaching the state capital we arrived in Petersburg, whose location on the fall line of the Appomattox River assured it a large role in commercial activities in Colonial times, as well as in the railroad business in the 1830s. Because of this rail network, Petersburg was key to Union plans to capture the Confederate capital (Richmond) during the Civil War.


Battlefield sites from the Siege of Petersburg (1864-1865) are located throughout the city and surrounding area. To better understand the chain of events that led to the end of the war at Appomattox Courthouse, we headed to Petersburg National Battlefield, where the longest military event of the Civil War unfolded over a period of 9½ months. The trench warfare resulted in 70,000 casualties, but on April 3, 1865, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant finally cut off the last of Petersburg’s supply lines (and subsequently those to the Confederate Capital). Only six days later Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered.


The 2,700 acre park contains a 16-stop driving tour which takes visitors through all four units of Petersburg National Battlefield from east to west, starting with General Grant's Headquarters at City Point on the James River, then to the Eastern Front (where the initial assaults and the Battles of the Crater and Fort Stedman occurred), on to the Western Front (and Poplar Grove National Cemetery, both currently CLOSED), and finally to the Five Forks Battlefield. We opted to start our explorations at the Eastern Front Visitor Center, first by watching a short video and taking a look at the displays and artifacts on display, then taking a hike from the Visitor Center to Confederate Battery 5. This was one of the strongest earthworks on the original Confederate defense line, and the trail led us to the “Dictator,” a mortar used to shell Confederate batteries north of the Appomattox once Federal troops captured the line on June 15, 1864.


Although an extensive trail system (10 miles of wooded nature trails that allow bicycles, horses and hikers) connects the various points of interest within the Eastern Front unit, we opted to drive the 4-mile Park Tour Road, stopping at several of the points of interest for a closer look. The Junior Ranger Booklets we picked up at the Visitor Center were an excellent addition to the educational experience, also providing a good idea of which stops would be more interesting to the boys. For example, stop #3 at Confederate Battery 9 features examples of siege fortifications and other structures which can be explored and viewed up close without compromising the integrity of the sensitive earthworks - which in most cases are all that remain from the lengthy battles that took place here more than 150 years ago.


Our last stop in the Eastern Front unit was stop #8, the Crater. On July 30, 1864, Union troops exploded a mine under the Confederate Battery in an attempt to break through Lee’s line. The follow-up attack failed miserably as the poorly-led Federal soldiers ended up heading into the crater created by the blast, instead of around it as had been planned. Confederate reinforcements arrived, closing the gap in the line and cutting off support to the Union forces still in the crater; 10 hours of fighting later the episode was over, ending in 5,500 casualties. The ½ mile hike leads around the crater, and features the tunnel entrance, the crater, and multiple monuments.


From the Eastern Front we chose to continue on our tour ‘backwards’ to Hopewell and the City Point Unit, as the Western Front Unit was closed and the Five Forks Battlefield a ½ hour journey out of our way to the southwest. In contrast Grant’s Headquarters at City Point was just 15 minutes to the east, and the promise of a walk on the James River finally clinched our decision. Appomattox Plantation at City Point served as offices for Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and his staff, the strategic location on the James River receiving over 100 ships a day at the height of the siege. The site was also the location of the largest field hospital of the war, with its own rail connection and pier. This riverside position was responsible for our very first impression of the City Point Unit, when soon after parking our car a bald eagle coasted by on the air currents overhead - leaving us all chins tilted back and mouths agape.

The Plantation House

The 100 year old, 2,300 acre Appomattox Plantation was the home of Dr. Richard Eppes and his family until 1862, when Union forces arrived via the James River. Used as the offices of U.S. Quartermaster Rufus Ingalls and his staff during the siege, it wasn’t until March of 1866 when the family was able to return to the property (which by then was in near ruin) to rebuild. We started our tour in the Plantation House, which also serves as Visitor Contact Station. The boys signed the visitor log, traded in their completed Junior Ranger booklets for badges, and after receiving a few recommendations from the ranger we headed out to tour the property.

Grant's cabin

The plantation grounds included a smokehouse, dairy shed, laundry, telegraph office, stable and other structures, but not all are still visible today. Visitors can view the cabin where General Ulysses S. Grant stayed during the siege (and where his wife and son joined him for the last three months of the siege).


We continued our exploration by descending to the James River waterfront area, which served as the location of supply wharves during the siege. Additional informational kiosks, viewing decks and a decent amount of shoreline to explore kept the boys occupied until the sun started sinking lower in the sky, at which point we knew it was time to head north across the Appomattox and into Richmond – something it took Union forces almost ten months (and 42,000 casualties) to accomplish. Our drive was only about 30 minutes, but it did take us past Fort Harrison, foreshadowing for the next day’s visit of Richmond National Battlefield Park



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