Meet Virginia - Day Two

For our first full day in Virginia, we started off our sightseeing itinerary at the Museum of the Confederacy -- a must-see attraction in Dad's eyes, and an eye-roll inducer for me. I will confess, I had very low expectations for this museum, and I was mentally bracing myself for an uncomfortable experience. I figured I'd be reading a lot about the "War of Northern Aggression" and pathetic justifications of the South's cause as a battle for the preservation of state's rights, not the continuance of slavery as an economic system. Dad, however, was excited to see artifacts that had belonged to Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and some of the other military leaders he admires, so I sucked it up.

Having arrived early, we snagged a spot on the first tour of the day of the adjacent Confederate White House, the home where Jefferson Davis and his family lived when he was president of the Confederacy. It was pretty standard as far as historic house tours go, one exception being the ridiculously thick Southern accent of our tour guide. It was so impossible to decipher that I found myself tuning him out for large swaths of time, though I did manage to pick up a few interesting tidbits. A bust of Davis, for instance, was smuggled out of the house after the end of the war and buried in the yard of a Confederate sympathizer, who wished to protect it from marauding Yankees. He dug it up and donated it to the museum when the Daughters of the Confederacy came looking for pieces to restore the house.

The porch of the Confederate White House.
The Daughters of the Confederacy were largely responsible for assembling the vast collection of the Museum of the Confederacy. An incredibly persistent group of women, they managed to acquire the auction log from when the contents of the Davis house were auctioned after the war, and tracked down every buyer and guilted them into returning their purchases for free, in order to preserve the glorious memory of the Confederacy. While the entire concept of celebrating the Confederacy turns my stomach, you kind of have to admire their chutzpah.

A recreation of Robert E. Lee's field headquarters.
While they were able to amass a truly enormous collection of uniforms, weapons, and other artifacts, I was further put off by the way in which it was displayed. The exhibits seemed to harken back to an earlier time in exhibition design, when more was deemed better, and context and connection to the audience weren't highly valued. The cases were jam packed with objects, often with only a small key available to ascertain what each object was. To me, it almost diminished the items' importance, since they received virtually no individual attention. It also quickly became tedious walking from overstuffed case to overstuffed case, with little interactive activity to enrich the viewing experience. I was honestly happy to leave and move on.

Since we were only a short walk away, we made a brief stop at the Virginia State Capitol, which was oddly reminiscent of the actual White House in Washington D.C., but nonetheless featured some beautiful grounds, including a nice sculpture park. There was an obligatory equestrian statue of George Washington, who is revered here not only as the father of our country, but as a son of Virginia, as well as a moving statue commemorating the civil rights struggle for equal schooling in the state.

From there, we hopped in the car and headed north toward Fredericksburg, site of a devastating battle in which the Union forces were decimated by the Confederates. On the way, however, Dad wanted to stop at the Stonewall Jackson Shrine, a miniscule national park surrounding the plantation office building where the great Confederate general drew his last breath after being accidentally shot by his own men. The original plantation house is long gone, but the modest out building where Jackson died has been preserved.

The Stonewall Jackson Shrine, in Guinea Station.

There is a modest interpretive site near the structure where you can listen to a recording about Jackson's last days, but the National Park Service employee who is stationed at the house tells a much more compelling, and emotionally resonant version of the tale. It added a much-needed human element to his story, one that make the journey there more worthwhile than it would have been otherwise.

Next on the agenda was Fredericksburg itself, where we encountered some confusion with the GPS, which took us to a historic plantation house instead of the actual battlefield site, since both were part of the same National Park Service operation. We eventually got ourselves sorted out, and Dad found himself fascinated by the landscape there. Viewing it with his own eyes, he proclaimed the Union position to be impossible, and declared that General Burnside should have been court-marshaled for ordering his men to attack the impenetrable Confederate stronghold.

Not knowing anything about the Battle of Fredericksburg myself, I was mostly interested in the terraces that had been cut into the imposing hillside to accommodate a cemetery for the dead of both sides. It was a sobering sight to behold, and to consider the huge numbers of Americans who gave up their lives that day.

We also took a nice walk around the park, albeit an abbreviated one, since Dad is still suffering from a foot fracture he incurred months ago during a trip to Las Vegas. Dad was able to envision what it was like to be a Confederate soldier with a highly defensible position in the so-called "sunken road," hidden behind a stone wall, able to pick off the charging Union soldiers with ease. For him, at least, this leg of the trip had absolutely been worth the voyage.

Nearby was the site of the Battle of Spotsylvania, a skirmish that I had actually heard of, though it was really only memorable to me because of its silly name, rather than the particulars of the engagement. However, Dad opted to skip it in favor of the Battle of Chancellorsville, where Stonewall Jackson was fatally wounded by his own troops. Given his admiration for Jackson (Dad has a statue of him sitting on his desk back home), I can see why he was drawn to Chancellorsville, but the battlefield site wasn't especially interesting. The main item of note there was the film at the visitor's center, which shed more light on the events that transpired there than the actual landscape.

By the time we were finished there, we were quickly running out of daylight, and the locations operated by the National Park Service would soon be closing for the day. Dad had had about as much walking for one day as he could handle anyway, and I had long since reached my tolerance for Civil War tourism, so we opted to head back to Richmond, where we had an average, if passable dinner at Bistro 27, a vaguely Italian restaurant near our hotel.

Tomorrow, we'll leave Richmond, but we'll continue our battlefield-heavy itinerary as we head west, towards the Greenbrier...

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