Civil War Battlefields, in Keeping With Inns
By James T. Yenckel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sept. 3, 1989
© The Washington Post
On the face of it, the Civil War battlefields where cannons once
roared and young troops died in brutal agony may seem a strange choice
for a relaxing fall weekend. But in an odd quirk of history, these
scenes of brief but tumultuous conflict have become quite inviting
places for a quiet getaway.
Around them has grown up a special category of small inns that
might properly be called "battlefield inns" because of their proximity
to these historic sites. Almost every one of the major battlefields in
the eastern theater of the war -- which raged from Gettysburg in the
north to Richmond, Petersburg and Appomattox in the south -- has one or
more inns nearby.
These inns, I think, have preserved harmony in my marriage.
I'm a Civil War buff, and so I've been a frequent visitor over the
years to the several national battlefield and military parks in this
area. I love to trace the sweep of a famous battle with a guidebook in
hand, imagining myself a Yankee charging a Rebel stronghold. And I'm the
sort who reads every word in every exhibit in the visitor center. My
wife shares this interest, but only within reason. When she's had
enough, she takes happy refuge in the inn and is content with a good
novel until I wander back later.
Our touring arrangement illustrates the double appeal of battlefield
inns. Located mostly in small towns or in the countryside, they can be
pleasant, sometimes sybaritic getaways in themselves. But not very far
away, if you are looking also for intellectual stimulation, are the
battlefield parks, most of which rank high among this country's most
notable historical attractions.
In the parks, you can pursue the history studiously. There is no
better way to understand a commander's brilliance or stupidity --
Yankees and Rebels alike displayed both -- than to survey the same
landscape he once did. Or you can take the historical lessons lightly
and seek your pleasure more in a walk, a bicycle ride or a drive on
roadways that weave between opposing fortifications. Another historical
irony is that these onetime fields of horror have become beautiful
parklands of grass-covered meadows and tall, shady trees.
On three short excursions recently, we visited three Civil War
battlefields not far from Washington and stayed in three inns that are
nicely representative of battlefield inns:
The Kenmore Inn in Fredericksburg, Va., an imposing mansion from the
1700s that is convenient both to the city's historic center and to the
Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania County Battlefields National Military
Park. Of the three inns, it is the only one that offers a full
restaurant on the premises.
The Inn at Antietam in Sharpsburg, Md., a Victorian country home
where you can sip wine in the afternoon on the back patio and look
southwest for miles across the rolling fields of Antietam National
Battlefield. Our upstairs room looked out east upon the Antietam
National Cemetery. This inn's breakfast was the most memorable,
featuring homemade waffles topped with fresh sliced peaches and a dab
(or more, if you dared) of whipped cream.
The Tannery in Gettysburg, Pa., a new bed-and-breakfast inn opened
this summer by longtime Gettysburg residents in the old family home. A
neatly refurbished frame house, it dates back to Civil War days when a
tannery operated at the rear of the property. It is a short walk from
the inn both to the shops of the village center and to Gettysburg
National Military Park, probably the most famous of the Civil War
Founded as a colonial port city on the Rappahannock River,
Fredericksburg had the distinct misfortune during the Civil War of
finding itself located almost exactly midway between the capitals of the
two belligerents, Washington and Richmond. In the course of the
conflict, the city itself is said to have exchanged hands between Union
and Confederate forces seven times. And just a few miles to the west,
the subsequent battles of Chancellorsville, the Wilderness and
Spotsylvania Court House (all now battlefield parks) reinforced
Fredericksburg's reputation as "the battlefield city."
The Fredericksburg battle site commemorates a failed Union assault
in December of 1862 on Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee's forces, which
were strongly fortified on high ground behind a stone wall. Union troops
were slaughtered in masses. It was, says a battlefield informational
brochure, Lee's "most one-sided victory of the war." Today a portion of
the wall still stands, a focal point for the stories of individual
heroism that are part of the battlefield park's numerous exhibits.
The Kenmore Inn, just a five-minute drive from the Fredericksburg
Battlefield Visitor Center, makes a convenient headquarters for
exploring Lee's big victory as well as Chancellorsville, another Lee win
in 1863, and the later battles of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania Court
House in 1864, when the tide of war had turned and Lee was forced into
retreat by Gen. Ulysses S. Grant.
We arrived at the Kenmore in the midst of a rainstorm, which at
least one of us felt was fortunate. It meant we would have to postpone
our visit to the battlefield. Instead we settled down on the front porch
like neighborhood folks and took in the passing scene from our wicker
chairs. The two-story, 12-room inn sits on a shady side street just far
enough away from Fredericksburg's commercial center to avoid the hubbub
of traffic but not so far away you can't easily walk there in a few
Built as a private home in the 18th century, the Kenmore has been an
inn for many years. Innkeepers Ed and Alice Bannan have run it and its
restaurant and pub for the past three years. Formerly innkeepers in New
Hampshire, they saw an ad for its sale, traveled to Fredericksburg and,
as Alice Bannan says, "bought it overnight." Since then, they have
repapered and repainted extensively.
One thing that appealed to the couple, and to us, is the inn's
spaciousness. It was built as a mansion, and the rich have the funds to
indulge such luxuries. The hallway outside our second-floor room was
wide enough to double as a sitting room with its own comfortable couch.
Our room was furnished with a king-sized canopy bed, but there was still
plenty of space for two reading chairs, a desk and a large dresser. Ours
was one of four rooms with fireplaces. All the rooms have private baths.
The rate was $99.95 a night.
Among inn-goers, there is disagreement about staying in a place
with a restaurant on the premises. Some guests think dining rooms add
too much bustle. Personally, I find it convenient to be able to walk
downstairs to dinner. At the Kenmore, the restaurant is cozily small, so
the bustle is minimal. We had a drink first at the inn's small pub,
which is decorated much as an 18th-century drawing room.
The Kenmore has an interesting menu, and the first thing that caught
my attention on it was the crab meat piroshkies, an appetizer made with
Hungarian-seasoned crab meat baked in a puff pastry. For an entree, I
chose medallions of pork tenderloin served with a light garlic sauce,
which was, I thought, nicely prepared. A full meal with wine, dessert
and tip is about $40 per person. Breakfast is continental, and we helped
ourselves to fruit, juice, tea and fresh-baked raspberry muffins.
If I have a quibble about the Kenmore as a battlefield inn, it is
only because guests staying there might become confused about what
historical era they are supposed to be pursuing. The Kenmore has more of
a colonial-style look to it, as does the Old Fredericksburg neighborhood
that surrounds it. A bit too much wine by candlelight and you might
forget all about the battlefields and find yourself more intrigued by
such colonial attractions as the garden home George Washington bought in
1772 for his mother Mary.
If you are heading for the Antietam National Battlefield, I recommend
taking the series of Maryland back roads that roughly parallel the
Potomac River. The route west through rich and rolling farmland and over
tree-topped ridges eases you gently back through the decades to that
September day in 1862 (three months prior to the conflict at
Fredericksburg) when Union and Confederate forces clashed in their
bloodiest battle of the war.
The landscape today is as quiet and comforting as it must have been
to the residents of Sharpsburg just before the horrors of the battle
erupted on the doorsteps alongside Antietam Creek. Perhaps a visitor
today, lulled by the scenery, can sense the awful shock that the
townsfolk must have felt when the cannons first let loose. At Antietam,
Lee had attempted to carry the war into the North, but his plan was
thwarted by a bungling but lucky Union army. In the fighting at
Antietam, more men were killed or wounded, says the Park Service, than
on any other single day of the Civil War.
The fields of battle are now lush with grass, as they are at other
battlefield parks, and a national cemetery protects the remains of the
Union casualties, the graves lined up in military order. It was in this
peaceful setting, on the very edge of Sharpsburg, that we found the Inn
at Antietam. The innkeepers, Betty and Cal Fairbourn, had tea, soft
drinks and newly baked cookies waiting.
The five-room inn occupies a sprawling, wood-frame house that sits
on a tree-shaded hillock on the road leading south into Sharpsburg.
Built in 1908, the place was purchased by the Fairbourns and converted
to a bed-and-breakfast inn five years ago. The Fairbourns are the kind
of innkeepers who have given inns a reputation for hospitality. They
will make dinner reservations, and -- if you wish -- sit down and chat
with you about the battlefield park, good fishing spots and hiking
trails and, naturally, their inn.
To get the inn in shape, they put in 12- and 16-hour days painting
and papering. One major project has been planting a large flower garden
on the inn's eight acres of grounds. The garden is a source for the cut
flowers that decorate almost every one of the inn's rooms, including the
bathrooms. The house is furnished with antiques the couple has collected
over the years. Twenty years ago they paid just $5 for the beautiful
sleigh-style mahogany bed that graced our room.
I'm fond of porches, and the Inn at Antietam is blessed with a large
wrap-around porch filled with comfortable rocking chairs. That's where
we settled in for a glass of wine before dinner. On the side porch, the
view to the west is of the Blue Ridge Mountains across a small pasture
where horses graze.
On the Fairbourns' recommendation, we ate at the Old South Mountain
Inn, about a 10-minute drive northeast up to the top of Turner's Gap. As
at Fredericksburg, here too you mix a little colonial history with your
Civil War lessons. The inn is believed to have been founded as early as
1732, the year George Washington was born. The inn definitely served as
a stagecoach stop on the National Road in the 1820s, and it has the cozy
look of old brick and well-polished wood.
The menu is sophisticated and features some unusual fish dishes. I
ordered fresh fillet of pompano heaped with shrimp, mussels and clams.
Dessert was a raspberry crepe filled with vanilla and chocolate ice
cream and topped with chocolate and raspberry sauces. It was a fully
satisfying meal. The price, with cocktail, wine, salad, dessert and tip,
was about $45 per person.
Back at the inn, wrapped butter cream candies were waiting in our
room. They were just one of several hospitable gestures that make a stay
at this inn so agreeable. On the desk in the dressing room was a handful
of postcards, perhaps not unusual at many lodgings. But each of these
already carried a 15-cent stamp. A bouquet of orange gladiolas decorated
the bathroom counter. The room rate was $75 a night, which included
those fresh peach waffles for breakfast the next morning.
I have toured Gettysburg National Military Park many times, and I am
always dismayed by the prospect of the sightseeing tower and other
commercial attractions that have sprung up around it. I sometimes wish I
could close my eyes to the clutter until I was safely within the
protected boundaries of the park, which is not only the most famous of
the parks but maybe the most scenically beautiful.
Still, if I had kept my eyes closed I would have missed the Tannery,
which sits on the busy main street about midway between the center of
Gettysburg and the park entrance. We had made reservations at another
inn, but the room there was unacceptable and so we were looking for an
alternative. As we rounded a curve on Baltimore Street, there stood the
handsome Tannery with a "vacancy" sign hanging by the porch.
We were a little puzzled why such a centrally located inn should
still have a vacancy on a busy Saturday afternoon. But part-time manager
Cindy Swope -- the daughter of innkeepers Charlotte and Jules Swope --
quickly explained. The inn was so new that the sign had just been
delivered. We apparently were among the first passersby to see it.
Others spotted it soon enough, and the inn's four rooms filled for the
Gettysburg was a turning point in the Civil War. On the first three
days of July in 1863, Lee made his second major attempt to carry the war
behind northern lines. Repeatedly, his forces assaulted the Yankee
positions and the outcome wavered at times. On the final day,
Confederate George E. Pickett's 12,000 troops advanced across open
fields in one more try -- Pickett's Charge -- but the Union held all the
advantages and the attack was repelled. Gettysburg has come down through
history as the "High Water Mark of the Confederacy." It was also the
beginning of the end for Lee's army. Surrender at Appomattox Court House
came a year later.
Abraham Lincoln made his Gettysburg Address four months after the
battle, and his words, echoed by schoolchildren down through the
decades, have earned the Gettysburg battlefield a special place in the
hearts of Americans. It was a Northern victory, but the South put up a
valorous fight. It is not really surprising, then, that the park is as
crowded as it usually is throughout much of the year.
I mention the crowds not to dissuade but so you will know what to
expect. And to serve the crowds, the town of Gettysburg provides the
ubiquitous adjuncts to modern American tourism: fast-food outlets, ice
cream shops, gift boutiques, a wax museum and worst of all -- because it
intrudes so rudely -- a high-rise viewing tower. Right there in the
heart of it all is the Tannery, somehow managing to uphold its dignity
amid the clutter. Its sign is discreet, reflecting its style among some
of the more garish beckons of its neighbors.
The three-story Tannery proved to be an excellent refuge for
relaxation. It, too, has a nice front porch where you can watch the
passing throngs from a distance. Built in the 1860s in Gothic revival
style for a prosperous tradesman, it was in its day one of the most
richly ornamented homes in the town. The Swopes refurbished it inside
and out prior to its opening as a bed and breakfast.
Our first-floor room was large and filled with light from several
big windows. The decor was bright and colorful, and the floors were
highly polished. In one corner stood a big basket filled with large
fluffy towels. This is the Tannery's solution to the problem of where to
put towels and washcloths when rooms don't have a private bath. At the
Tannery, the two downstairs rooms share one bath and the two upstairs
rooms share another. (We are early risers and our neighbors were not, so
we managed without any problem.) The cost for our room was $75 a night,
which included a large continental breakfast.
For dinner, we tried the Dobbin House Tavern, which has the
reputation of being the best restaurant in town and is within walking
distance of the Tannery. Its look is 18th century colonial. I generally
like atmospheric dining, but the Dobbin House seemed a bit crowded, dark
and worn. The menu is fairly standard but satisfactory. I had veal
medallions, which were prepared decently but without any flair. A full
meal with wine, dessert and tip is about $25.
Because the Tannery is so convenient to the battlefield park, you
can get there early before the crowds begin to show up. Many visitors
make the full auto tour, which takes at least a couple of hours. But
I've found it is more satisfying to limit the driving and walk one or
more of the park's trails. You can more readily pretend you are a Union
or Confederate trooper, standing the same ground they once did. How
terribly frightened they must have been at the awful prospect around
Battlefield parks are inviting places for a quiet getaway, as I
said at the outset, but you shouldn't go away without absorbing at least
one disturbing lesson that comes clear in all of the Civil War
battlefields. For all the tales of valor, the war for the combatants was
always brutal and often deadly. After a tour, head back to your inn,
take a seat in a rocking chair on the porch and think about it for
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