“Virginia is for Lovers" is the motto of the state tourist board of Virginia, but New Jersey can as plausibly make that boast. Virginia's comparative advantage in tourism is not libidinal but historical. Among its thousands of historical sites are some famous battlefields of the Civil War-among them the battlefields of the last great campaign ever fought in the United States. That campaign opened in May of 1864, when Ulysses S. Grant's Army of the Potomac crossed the Rapidan River, twenty miles west of Fredericksburg, to seek out Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia; it closed with Lee's surrender at Appomattox, a hundred and fifty miles to the southwest, one month short of a year later. Curious to know what traces of that epic contention have survived, my family and I recently traveled the route of the last campaign.
Grant was small and slight and famously unprepossessing. At forty-one he was a taciturn yet passionate man, who, just a few years before the war began, had been reduced to selling wood on a St. Louis street corner. The war was his big chance; an ordinary man rising to the occasion of his life, he made the most of it, becoming on the strength of his victories at Fort Donelson and Vicksburg the general-in-chief of all the Union armies. Lee, in Grant's own words, was "six feet high and of faultless form," aristocratic where Grant was plebeian, successful where Grant, in everything but war, had been a failure. At fifty-seven Lee was already suffering from the heart condition that would kill him six years later (his last words would be "Strike the tent"). Grant would live twenty-one more years, dying in agony from cancer of the throat, but not before he had secured his family's future by finishing his last campaign, the writing of his two-volume Memoirs. Grant and Lee met three times: once in 1947, during the war against Mexico, once at Appomattox, and once at the White House, when Grant was president.
Grant was new to the Virginia theater of the war in 1864, and he brought with him a new idea of how to fight there. The Union commanders before him -- McDowell, McClellan, Pope, Burnside, Hooker, Meade—had tried to capture Richmond; he would try to destroy Lee's army. Lee, outnumbered (61,953 men to Grant's 122,146), sought not to destroy Grant's army but to punish it so badly that the northern public, three years into our most horrific war, would vote President Abraham Lincoln out of office in November in favor of a Peace Democrat, who would call a halt to Grant's offensive (and Sherman's matching drive in Georgia) if Lee had not already stopped it himself.
The first battle of the campaign came just a few miles southeast of the Getmanna Ford of the Rapidan, in a thickly wooded district called the Wilderness. Ending the winter's long "mud truce" between the armies, Grant crossed the Rapidan on May 4; Lee attacked on the fifth. The ensuing battle lasted two days. It was fought in dense woods, for the most part, and was, in the words of one veteran, "simply bushwhacking on a grand scale." The gunfire ignited the trees, and wounded men caught between the lines were burned to death, their shrieks carrying back to unnerve their comrades. Grant went to pieces at one point—retired to his tent to have a good cry—and Lee's ablest general, James Longstreet, was seriously wounded by his own men. Lee himself barely escaped a bullet when he tried to lead a charge. "Lee to the rear! Go back, General Lee, go back!" a company of Texans pleaded with him. He agreed to retire if they would make a seemingly impossible attack. They did, and it worked. His men loved Robert E. Lee, and he regularly put their love to the test by asking them to die for him.
I visited the meadow where Lee used love to make war; I inspected the vestigial earthworks, read all the signs, and plunged into the eponymous wilderness. All of this is part of the Wilderness Battlefield, just off Route 3, a twenty-minute drive from Fredericksburg. I wish I had planned a family picnic in one of the bosky dells set apart for that purpose on the mossy shoulder of the park road; equipped with charcoal braziers and picnic tables, they looked inviting.
The battle ended in a stalemate, with neither side able to break the other's entrenched line. Yet for all its futility, the Wilderness decided something. The veteran soldiers of the Army of the Potomac expected that Grant would do what all their generals had done after tangling with Lee—scoot back over the nearest river. But retreat was not in Grant's nature. South, deeper into Rebel territory, was where he aimed to go. When the first columns of troops reached a crossroads in the middle of the Wilderness and their officers ordered them to march south, the men cheered. Grant had given them back their self-respect. It was a turning point in the Civil War.
Lee, moving on longer lines, turned south too; and when Grant neared the crossroads town of Spotsylvania Court House, twelve miles beyond the Wilderness, Lee was there, blocking his path. From May 8 to 20 Grant assaulted Lee's trenches in attack after attack. The result was inhuman slaughter. Battered, bled, Grant finally gave it up, moving off to his left, always heading south.
I toured the Spotsylvania Court House Battlefield with a U.S. park ranger and historian, Wilson Greene. If you rent a tape at the Fredericksburg Battlefield Visitor Center, which is manned yearround (as the Wilderness and Spotsylvania are not), you can hear some of the story that Greene told me: about how the Confederates got there first only by the kind of accident Tolstoy would have relished, about how the terrain shaped their lines into a muleshoe, and about how the Federals stormed the top of this muleshoe, making it in twenty hours of handtohand combat the "Bloody Angle." Today the Bloody Angle is a swale of ground at the edge of a lush meadow. With the sun pelting down, birdsong chorusing from the woods, and a curtain of mist rising off the grass, violence seemed unimaginable in this place. When I mentioned this obvious irony to Greene, he told me about another form of violence being perpetrated here and elsewhere in Virginia: the despoiling of battle sites in the National Parks by Civil War—memento hunters, searching, illegally, for belt buckles and other booty. What's more, and worse because legal, development is pressing hard against the battlefields. "This is the fastest growing area of Virginia," Greene told me, "and a new civil war is now going on between the forces of development and those of preservation."
Greene took me to a nearby Confederate cemetery to dramatize the threat. It was a small enclosure, Sundaymorning quiet, and the high grass lapping at the names of the Carolinians and Mississippians on the headstones made me feel as if I had stepped into the past. I did not try it with my sixyearold, but you could bring a twelveyearold here and from the rusting gate, the canted gravestones, the genteel decay all around, he would sense the venerable emanations, the romance of the Lost Cause, "one of the worst for which a people ever fought," in Grant's words, but one dignified somehow, exalted, by the sacrifices made in its behalf. "See that clump of trees over there?" Greene said, breaking my reverie. The trees adjoined the cemetery, and right there, he said, a developer wanted to put up condominiums. Greene said he realized there were two sides to the thing: people had to have a place to live. Still, this was a palpable wrong: "It will defile what these brave men did here." And it will break the spell of the past forever.
Since the federal government is now all but out of the business of buying up land for federal parks, Greene and some of his historian friends have started a private foundation to prevent battle sites and cemeteries like the one at Spotsylvania from being obliterated or stained by progress. "We've got about ten years left," he said. "If these places aren't saved now, they will be gone in a decade." Readers who want to help preserve our common past should write the Association for the Preservation of Civil War Sites, P.O. Box 23, Arlington, Va. 22210.
Grant and Lee, at the close of Spotsylvania, were about halfway through "the forty days"—the period when their armies were engaged some part of every day, Grant losing an average of 2,000 men a day and Lee, who could spare them less, losing fewer. Grant sidling to the left, Lee following, the armies next met at the North Anna River. The site of the standoff that resulted there is not on park property, and the surviving earthworks left by the armies are threatened, I was told, by a neighboring gravel pit whose owner wants to expand his business not only in space but in time as well.
The next fullscale battle came at Cold Harbor, a crossroads northeast of Richmond, which was named after a colonial inn that had provided its guests with a cold hospitality—room but no board. In front of Cold Harbor, on June 3, 1864, Grant attacked Lee's entrenchments straight on, across a sevenmile front. It was one of the greatest infantry charges of the war. It lasted less than a half hour and took more than 7,000 lives. The night before the attack an aide to Grant noticed Federal soldiers pinning notes on the backs of their coats—notes that said, "Here lies the body of . . ." They knew, what to expect. Grant later repented of the attack. Still, in his Memoirs he obfuscated his decision to leave his wounded men unattended between the lines for four days after the battle rather than lose face by asking Lee for a proper truce. "While they lay there," William McFeeley writes, in his sympathetic biography of Grant, "Grant sat down and wrote the most affectionate of fatherly letters to [his daughter] Nellie. She would soon be nine, and he told her he would get her a buggy for the family pony. He simply shut out the horrors for which he was responsible and retreated into a fantasy of comfortable domesticity." Of the hundreds of wounded men left between the lines for the four days, only two were found alive.
Cold Harbor is a National Historical Park today. It's not much to look at—just a row of old earthworks fronting on a clear field of fire. A beautiful wooded glade surrounds the battlefield, but my rambles in the woods were inhibited by the fine print in a park brochure disclaiming responsibility for any damage done to me by "poisonous snakes." Caveat tourist.
Facing another stalemate, Grant shifted his troops out of the trenches at Cold Harbor and, for all that the baffled Confederates knew, into thin air. Lee was in the dark for several vital days as the Army of the Potomac moved not against Richmond but against Petersburg, below Richmond. If Petersburg fell, the supply line to Richmond would be cut. Starved of supplies, Lee would have no choice but to quit his entrenchments and fight it out with Grant in the open.
In the event, Grant managed to get his whole army across the James River (by a 2,100foot pontoon bridge) and to the gates of Petersburg before Lee knew where he was. But dithering by the Union generals charged with making the initial assault on the lightly held Petersburg trenches cost irreplaceable time. Taking advantage of it, Lee was just able to get enough men into Petersburg to cheat Grant of his victory and prolong the war by ten months.
The siege of Petersburg and Richmond that now commenced was a vast undertaking, with the opposing trenches covering nearly thirtyfive miles. Grant's strategy was to exploit his advantage in numbers by slowly extending his lines to the southwest of Petersburg. Lee would be forced to follow suit, and eventually his lines would thin out to the breaking point. To fill those stretched lines, Lee would in time contemplate the desperate step of drafting Negroes to fight in the cause of slavery.
No short article can convey the wealth of Civil War sites in and around Richmond—the visitor should pick up a map to history at the headquarters of the Richmond National Battlefield Park on Chimborazo Hill. The Petersburg National Battlefield takes two hours to tour by car. Its highlights include a remnant of the famous crater left when the Federals tried to blow up a section of the confederate line ("The effort was a stupendous failure," Grant wrote in his Memoirs, using one of his rare adjectives) and the place where Lee mounted his last offensive of the war—a bloody, failed attempt to punch a hole in the Union line.
The city of Petersburg itself is worth at least a day's tour. It boasts a fascinating Siege Museum, where the visitor can gain a vivid idea of what life was like under Grant's guns. In addition, many houses that were damaged by those guns are still standing, among them the house where Grant and Lincoln met on April 3, 1865, just after Lee had pulled out of Petersburg. The owner invited the men into the parlor, but Grant said, "Thank you, sir, but I am smoking," and he and Lincoln stayed on the porch. While they were sitting there, a courier rode up and Grant was handed a telegram announcing that Richmond had fallen.
The house where this historic event took place is today deserted, run down; it borders a tobacco factory, also deserted. Yet it was here that Abraham Lincoln knew what might have been the greatest happiness of his life. Think of it; picture it. Grant opens the envelope and says, "Mr. President, Richmond is ours…. And Lincoln, delivered from his years-long nightmare—how would he react to such news? He had only days to live; this was his blessed moment. That the place where Lincoln's dream came true (Richmond captured, the end of the war at hand) should be a shabby wreck is appalling.
When Grant's sidling to the southwest of Petersburg finally menaced the railroad connecting the city to the remaining Rebel supply depots in western Virginia and North Carolina, Lee had no choice but to abandon Petersburg and Richmond. On forced night marches that left the roads littered with his exhausted men—scarecrows by now—he drove his dwindling army southwestward, hoping to link up with Joe Johnston in North Carolina, and then to turn on Sherman, coming up from the south, before dealing with Grant, coming down from the north. As everybody knows, he didn't make it. Surrounded at the village of Appomattox Court House, he surrendered the remnant of the Army of Northern Virginia to the Army of the Potomac on April 9, 1865.
Every American who has read anything about the Civil War has been to Appomattox in imagination. It is the village of our coming together, the hallowed ground, where, all passion spent, we became the United States. The real Appomattox Court House matched my vision of it; rarely have federal dollars been spent more wisely than to keep it preserved as a nineteenthcentury village. Properly, in my view, the Park Service nowhere mentions that the McLean House, where the surrender took place, was virtually looted by Grant's souvenir-crazed staff after he and Lee had finished with History.
Five days after the surrender, on Good Friday, several hundred miles to the south of Appomattox, a ceremony was held at Fort Sumter to mark the fourth anniversary of its surrender by Union forces under Major Robert Anderson. Lincoln was invited, but he chose to stay in Washington instead—he and Mrs. Lincoln planned to go to the theater. Several thousand people, including many notables, did come to Charleston Harbor for the ceremony, and at the strike of noon they gasped as a sergeant handed Anderson, looking much older than his sixty years, the shot—ripped flag that had flown over Sumter throughout the bombardment that had set off the great war. A young woman from Philadelphia left this picture of the scene as Anderson prepared to run the old flag up over Sumter:
General Anderson stood up, bareheaded, took the halyards in his hands, and began to speak. At first I could not hear him, for his voice came thickly, but in a moment he said clearly, "I thank God I have lived to see this day," and after a few more words he began to hoist the flag. It went up slowly and hung limp against the staff, a weatherbeaten, frayed, and shel-ltorn old flag, not fit for much more work, but when it had crept clear of the shelter of the walls a sudden breath of wind caught it, and it shook its folds and flew straight out above us, while every soldier and sailor instinctively saluted.
The present day isn't just an encroachment on history; since the days of the inn whose limitations gave Cold Harbor its name, accommodations and eating places have no doubt greatly improved. In the Wildernéss Spotsylvania area a historically resonant place to stay is the Richard Johnston Inn, at 711 Caroline Street, Fredericksburg. Built in 1788, the inn offers period rooms at moderate prices ($50 for a single to $100 for a suite), which include a light but savory breakfast. Ask to stay in the "summer kitchen," off the patio: it has a private entrance, a huge fireplace, and a private bath. Just up Caroline Street is Chimney's Tavern, which, like most of the buildings in Fredericksburg, was built in the Colonial era. It serves a mixture of hearty fare, like roast rack of lamb, and the usual contemporary excrescences (did George Washington eat quiche?). In warm weather, lunch is served on the patio, to the pleasing accompaniment of live guitar music.
In Richmond the Jefferson Sheraton Hotel, at the corner of Franklin and Adams, is not another anonymous chain hostelry; though it is in a shabby district, it is a grand hotel, built in 1895 and run as The Jefferson until 1980, when it closed. The Sheraton Corporation took over the hotel, spent five years and $46 million on its restoration, and reopened it in 1986. Singles go for $95 $100, doubles $109$114. A Sunday brunch is served in the Rotunda, a huge marble-columned room. For $16.95 you can eat a whopping meal, drink enough champagne to make you rue that day, and listen to a swing band one-two its way through the great songs of yesteryear. Reservations are a good idea; so is proper dress.
The best meal I had in Richmond was at the Jade Elephant, an unpretentious eatery on Grace Street, near Virginia Commonwealth University. My lunch consisted of Cajun chicken, a fresh salad, good beer, and fine coffee. I spent three hours there, eating, drinking, reading General Grant's Memoirs, and listening to Cole Porter and Gershwin tunes on the sound system.
Any visitor to Petersburg should stay at Mayfield, an elegant eighteenth-century inn just south of the city, on Route 1. Rooms go for $55$80; the rates include a memorably ample and delicious breakfast, served in a lovingly restored dining room with rich painted paneling and an ornate chandelier.
The Radisson Hotel in Lynch burg—which is just west of Appomattox and has more places to stay—is centrally located in Virginia's "Hill City," near historic walks and places (our room overlooked a plaque commemorating the birthplace of Douglas Southall Freeman, the great Lee biographer). Coming back from dinner, my wife, son, and I met Jerry Falwell, whose ministry is located in Lynchburg, crossing the parking lot. He greeted us with a genuinely warm "Good evening!" which booming salutation helped to make it so.
We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to firstname.lastname@example.org.