Meet Virgina - Day Three

In a nod to my interests, we ended our time in Richmond this morning with a tour of Hollywood Cemetery, a place that had initially come to my attention due to an engraving in our hotel bathroom entitled, "A View from Hollywood," which does indeed possess an enviable view of the city. The hotel's driver had recommended it to us the day before when he drove us to the Museum of the Confederacy because the weather had been so fine yesterday (we took advantage of the hotel's complimentary driver service for that particular jaunt because we weren't sure what the parking situation would be near the museum.)

It wasn't difficult to persuade Dad to go, considering the prestigious cemetery is considered to be the "Arlington of the South," and features the burial plots of two U.S. presidents (James Monroe and John Tyler), the only Confederate president, Jefferson Davis, and the notable Confederate generals J.E.B. Stuart and George Pickett. Thankfully, the hotel provided us with an excellent map of the premises, otherwise we would have been there for the better part of a day trying to suss out the location of the various significant tombs.

There was an interesting pyramidal monument to the Confederate dead, which was surprising in its scale, if not its elegance. Considering the South were not the victors in the war, I actually found it appropriate that their memorial was on the humble and uncomplicated side.

Naturally, the omnipresent Daughters of the Confederacy had a monument of their own, though it bothered me a lot more. The implications behind their inscription seems to be that the South lost due to a quirk of fate, bad luck, if you will, and not because their cause was not just. Plus, in my mind, the soldiers of the Confederacy did not enter a "glorious immortality;" they were fighting to protect a morally reprehensible economic model, in addition to threatening the sovereignty of the United States. It is sad that so many people lost their lives in the name of that cause, but I'm not sure that they deserve to be celebrated for it.

Monroe and Tyler were buried in the "President's Circle," by far, the most elegant section of the cemetery. Monroe's mausoleum was my favorite, with graceful, Flamboyant Gothic lines and a striking black finish. It looked more like an architectural flourish on a French cathedral than any tomb I've ever seen.

Jefferson Davis, it turns out, suffers the eternal indignity of being buried across from a gentleman named Grant, though he is apparently of no relation to the Union general. One would think that the cemetery establishment would have prevented that from occurring, given how sensitive southerners are towards protecting their "glorious" heritage.

With our tour of Hollywood complete, we left Richmond and headed south, toward Petersburg. Dad was keen on seeing the site of the Battle of the Crater, a particularly bloody moment in American history. Intent on breaking the siege of Petersburg, an important railway depot in supplying the Confederate forces, and the last line of defense standing between the Union and the conquest of Richmond, Union soldiers with mining expertise dug a tunnel under the Confederate fortifications, filled it with explosives, and blew and enormous hole in their defenses. The idea had been that the Union would charge into the gap, and take Petersburg while the Confederates reeled in shock.

What happened, however, was that the Union soldiers themselves were so stunned by the magnitude of the explosion, and under such poor leadership, that they marched straight into the massive crater that was formed by the explosion instead of around it. The steep banks of the crater trapped them, where the Confederates, who now had the high ground, were able to slaughter the trapped men.

Though there was a great interpretive trail at the site, and plenty of natural beauty to behold, we found ourselves unimpressed by the remnants of the actual crater. Apparently, many of the Union dead were buried directly in the crater, by covering the corpses with dirt. The hole was further filled in during the 1920s, when the land served as a golf course. Now, there is a moderate depression at the site, which doesn't really give visitors a feel for the plight of the Union soldiers who were trapped there. 

Slightly disappointed, we headed west towards Appomattox, where we found ourselves on a seemingly endless stretch of road with little in the way of provisions, either gas or food. We finally found a gas station and were able to fuel up, but we had to drive far off the beaten path to locate a McDonald's for lunch, such were the food options along that particular stretch of highway.

In Appomattox, we visited the brand new branch of the Museum of the Confederacy, which was much better than the original back in Richmond. Frankly, they probably could have used the money they spent creating a whole new museum at Appomattox to spruce up their flagship space, but it was nice to see that they were at least cognizant of the latest trends in museum presentation. Almost every display was interactive in some way, and the rooms were full of audio-visual presentations. The objects were given more space, so they could be appropriately appreciated, and even I was excited to see the uniform worn by Lee at the surrender, as well as the pen he used to sign the agreement.

We made one last stop before continuing on our way to the Greenbrier, at Appomattox Courthouse, the historic village maintained by the National Park Service, where Grant actually accepted Lee's surrender. There, I learned that the surrender did not actually occur at the courthouse, but at a private home, which was disassembled and moved to the Smithsonian for preservation. Eventually, since the Smithsonian didn't have room to display it, they returned it to Appomattox Courthouse and restored the building, which you can visit today. The house itself wasn't particularly impressive, but it was cool to stand in a spot where history was made.

With the sun threatening to dip below the horizon, we wrapped up our tour of Appomattox and got back on the road, this time winding our way through the Allegheny Mountains, to the Greenbrier. If the sun hadn't been in our eyes the entire time, it probably would have been a breathtaking drive, but it was difficult to appreciate it while being partially blinded.

The Greenbrier was duly impressive once we finally reached it, but we found ourselves flabbergasted when we laid eyes upon the interior. The inside of the building was a riot of colors, patterns, and textures. There was literally nowhere to look where the eye could rest. Giant scale floral prints met and clashed with damasks and oriental details. It looked like a southern woman got drunk on mint juleps, passed out, hallucinated a garden party, and decided to use it as decorating inspiration. The guest rooms weren't any better, and they seemed rather old and tired. Considering the expense of staying there, I was expecting something more luxurious.

Without a dinner reservation for one of the resort's restaurants, we were relegated to eating at the family-friendly cafe overlooking the casino, where we had a spectacularly underwhelming meal. I ended up with a lame ham sandwich with some sad, soggy sweet potato fries, and the entire meal proved to be ludicrously overpriced given the quality. It was certainly not an auspicious start to our stay at the Greenbrier, and an unfortunate end to a busy day of tourism. Hopefully, tomorrow will prove to be better.

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