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Trooping Through The Past On the Civil War TrailBy James T. Yenckel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 22, 1996; Page E01
In my mind, I was a valiant Civil War soldier, trooping doggedly across the Virginia countryside for two long and fast-paced days over many of the same zig-zagging routes the real Union and Confederate armies once marched. I stood where they stood, and although more than 130 years have passed, I saw many of the same sights that certainly must have caught their attention. More than once, I looked up -- as they might have -- to see an intimidating cannon aimed my way, grateful that in my journey I would never be subjected to its fury.
The Civil War armies traveled by foot, horse and wagon, but I a.m. a 20th-century trooper and in steamy mid-August I followed in their path in an air-conditioned car. It carried me over meandering, often-empty back roads through deep woods and past rolling farm fields of ripening corn, soy beans and tobacco. I stopped at still-operating churches that once served as battlefield hospitals, glimpsed a private home that still contains Civil War bullet holes and relaxed beside racing streams where one or the other of the opposing forces surely rested.
For an amateur student of the Civil War, as I am, this was an informative and exciting immersion in both the geography and the broad strategy of the conflict -- an experience that is becoming readily accessible to everyone as the result of an ongoing Virginia Civil War Trails project. A total of four special driving itineraries in Virginia is planned, each focusing on a different phase of the war. The aim is to help visitors and residents alike trace the bitter struggle's ebb and flow within the state. Two of the trails already have been inaugurated, and they guided me on my trip.
The newest route, dedicated in June, follows the 1864 campaign route of Union commander Ulysses S. Grant. In this decisive move, Grant pushed Gen. Robert E. Lee's Confederate forces south from near Fredericksburg to Petersburg, where Lee's fading army was trapped in a siege lasting almost 10 months. Dubbed "Lee vs. Grant: The 1864 Campaign," the approximately 150-mile auto route visits more than 30 historical sites linked to the duel between the opposing forces.
The first completed route, introduced a year ago, highlights 18 sites between Petersburg, from which Lee made a last-ditch break, and Appomattox Court House National Historical Park, where Lee surrendered the remains of his army to Grant a week later on April 9, 1865. This drive, about 110 miles long, is called "Lee's Retreat." Covered in tandem from north to south, as I did, the two itineraries tell the dramatic, often-bloody story of the Civil War's final year. Along the way, service stations and fast-food outlets are reasonably plentiful.
The project's goal is to install interpretive signs at historical sites as well as marking each of the routes with special Virginia Civil War Trails directional signs. The interpretive signs explain the significance of the site; the directional signs get you to them following often obscure rural roads. On the "Lee's Retreat" route, all the signs are in place, and I found my way quite easily. But work on the "Lee vs. Grant" signage, originally expected to be completed in July, was delayed, and several times I got lost and had to ask directions. A map detailing each itinerary is distributed free, and I found I needed them. Many of the Civil War trails roads are not included on the official state highway map.
At Germanna Ford, a modern highway bridge spans Northern Virginia's slim, muddy Rapidan River, and motorists can easily zip over it in a blink of an eye without ever realizing the monumental event that once occurred on this shady stretch of the river. On May 4, 1864, Union troops splashed south across the Rapidan at this spot as Grant launched the "Overland Campaign," his aggressive and costly offensive that defeated the Confederacy and ended the Civil War 11 months later.
I would have missed the ford too, except I was guided to it by my "Lee vs. Grant" map and by one of the few, newly planted Virginia Civil War Trails directional signs already up along this itinerary. Some 400 more signs, interpretive and directional, are now projected to be installed by the end of this month.
I gave myself one day each to drive the two itineraries, but I had to move too fast to absorb as much of the history as I had hoped to. Two days on the "Lee vs. Grant" trail should be a minimum, but you can cover the "Lee's Retreat" trail adequately in a day if you keep moving.
As I quickly learned at Germanna Ford, one of the real bonuses of driving these trails is that they took me to little-known but important Civil War sites -- both natural landmarks and historical buildings -- that I might otherwise have missed or never even have known about. Over the years, I have visited all the national Civil War battlefield parks in the mid-Atlantic, but many of the places featured on the two itineraries have never received this kind of official recognition. I was embarking on a journey of discovery, which was part of the fun.
To get an early start, I spent the night at the Hidden Inn (540-672-3625), a cozy bed-and-breakfast lodging in Orange, about 25 miles west of Germanna Ford. Once at the ford, an informational sign revealed that Lee and his troops had been bivouacked near Orange just before Grant, who outflanked them, launched his Rapidan River assault. Like Lee, whose mission was to block Grant's march to Richmond, I made my way from Orange to the river to see what was happening.
Virginia Route 3 crosses the Rapidan at Germanna Ford, and I was happy to see the first of the distinctive red, white and blue Virginia Civil War Trails directional signs pointing me to a turn-out on the south bank of the river. I parked alongside a stand of loblolly pines, and climbed from my car to read the brand-new interpretive signs. The two of them, one describing the actual 1864 crossing and another outlining tactical strategy, provided the insights I was looking for.
Rather than hitting Lee's army head-on near Orange, the signs told me, "Grant swept east around Lee's right flank to Germanna Ford." His troops seized the ford and at dawn "splashed across the river, scattering the few Confederate picket guards. Union engineers threw down two pontoon bridges, and the army poured across." And then the sign continued with an eyewitness account: "A Connecticut soldier, awed by a seemingly endless procession of men, wagons and artillery, concluded that such an army might 'overcome the world.' "
Thus prepared, I hiked about 150 yards down a gravel road to the river, where except for the bridge overhead the scene must be much as it was 132 years ago. Tall trees shade the shoreline, and today it is a quiet, pleasant spot to contemplate the hubbub that must have been created by an attacking army of 120,000 passing through. Heavy rains had fallen a day or so prior to my visit, and the river was racing fast and full. Presumably, the Rapidan was more subdued on that fateful date in 1864.
This first stop on my drive, where I spent about 30 minutes, proved an excellent example of what the Civil War drives are all about. I was guided to an important but little-known historical site and provided enough information to understand its significance. While seeing it first hand, I could reflect on what I was learning. And at many sites -- as at Germanna Ford -- I could stretch my legs on a short walk. Two days of this only whetted my appetite for more.
If the rest of the interpretive signs being installed this month on the "Lee vs. Grant" trail are as good as those at Germanna Ford, then the drive should be a big success. Between the historical stops, the route sticks mostly to winding roads passing through lovely pastoral settings that motorists on I-95 between Washington and Richmond never see. Even without the Civil War as a reason for going, this drive and the "Lee's Retreat" trail are appealing simply for the quiet beauty of the scenery.
On to Petersburg I drove in the footsteps of the dueling armies -- past the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House and Cold Harbor, all sites where they clashed in bloody battle as Grant tried unsuccessfully to crush Lee. Each was a stop where, if I had had more time, I could have spent hours rather than minutes.
Just south of the Spotsylvania battlefield, the itinerary crosses the path of an earlier engagement -- the 1863 Battle of Chancellorsville, where the legendary Confederate leader Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson was mistakenly shot by his own men on May 2, 1863. I drove over the same farm road, Route 607, traveled by Jackson's horse-drawn ambulance as it carried him 27 miles to a large plantation at Guinea Station, where he died eight days later. The site, a unit of the National Park System, is now known as the "Stonewall" Jackson Shrine, and it preserves the tiny plantation office building where Jackson was placed in his final days.
In a brief tour of the shrine, Ranger David L. Preston remarked on the significance of the Confederacy's loss. "After Jackson's death, Robert E. Lee never again won a decisive victory over the Union." As if in corroboration, Lee's 11-month-long retreat was the story being told on my drive from Germanna Ford to Petersburg and on to Appomattox. Without the help of directional signs, I had become confused about which way to head next. Preston was the first of numerous Virginians on this day to point me in the right direction.
Petersburg, once a key Confederate rail center, marks the end of the "Lee vs. Grant" trail and the beginning of the "Lee's Retreat" trail, which makes it a natural place for an overnight stopover. Here the two armies also paused for nearly 10 frustrating months. I stayed at the Owl & the Pussycat Bed & Breakfast (804-733-0505), an elegant Queen Anne-style Victorian mansion in historic Olde Towne Petersburg.
(If I had spent two days on the "Lee vs. Grant" trail, which I recommend, Richmond also would have made an ideal stopping point. Just 20 minutes from the Cold Harbor battle site, downtown Richmond is home to the Museum of the Confederacy, the Confederate White House and the Virginia Historical Society, which maintains the world's largest collection of Confederate-made weapons.)
Pursued by Grant, Lee's army hastened to defend Petersburg when Union forces attacked on June 15, 1864. Grant believed that by taking Petersburg he would cut the supply line to Richmond, which was heavily defended. The attack failed, and the two armies became locked in what is considered the longest siege in American warfare. For 10 months, Grant gradually encircled the city, but when Lee at last seemed about to be trapped, he led his army on April 2, 1865, in a desperate escape attempt that ended a week later at Appomattox.
The story of the siege is well told at the Siege Museum in Olde Towne and at the Petersburg National Battlefield, where the earthworks that sheltered both sides still can be seen. Before beginning my second day's drive, I went for a short, quite scenic walk into a woodsy ravine near the park's visitor center to see a replica of the notorious Dictator, the stubby, 17,000-pound Union mortar that lobbed shells into Petersburg during the siege. The original Dictator has disappeared, but the mortar on display is similarly made and saw action in the war. Even compared to modern artillery, it looks ferocious.
A four-mile driving (or hiking and bicycling) route through the park links Union and Confederate lines and then exits the park to the west toward the little crossroads town of Sutherland, first stop on the "Lee's Retreat" trail. At the Petersburg battlefield visitor center, I had purchased an audio tape ($8.95) that provides supplemental information at each of the stops on the trail. My practice was to play the tape en route to each stop and then read the interpretive signs when I got there -- a double dose of details I hoped would register more permanently in my memory.
At Sutherland, both the sign and the tape outlined Lee's escape strategy. He hoped to be able to march into North Carolina, link up with Confederate Gen. Joseph Johnston's army there and move against the Union army led by William Tecumseh Sherman. But in the race to Appomattox, Grant thwarted all of Lee's efforts to turn south. His ultimately futile flight, hampered by lack of supplies and daily Union attacks, is chronicled at the stops along "Lee's Retreat."
Because all the directional signs were in place, I was able to find my way through this stretch of Virginia woodlands and farmlands without once getting lost. But I did have to pop into a country store in the village of Deatonville to ask the nature of the crop that covered the surrounding acres. "Soybeans," I was told politely by the shopkeeper, who seemed amused that I hadn't recognized them. I detoured once near Appomattox to rest on the sandy beach at Holliday Lake State Park.
The prettiest spot on either trail is Sailor's Creek Battlefield Historical State Park, where the last major battle of the Civil War was fought on April 6, 1865. Its centerpiece, the colonial-era Hillsman House, is perched on a grassy ridge that offers lovely panoramas of the encircling woods and fields. During the battle, the small structure became a Union field hospital, treating the wounded on both sides. Though the house was closed when I stopped for a look, a park brochure noted that "bloodstains remain on the floor, evidence of the fierceness of the battles."
Perhaps the most touching moment came near the very end of my trip, at Appomattox Court House National Historical Park, which preserves the tiny community where Lee surrendered to Grant, essentially ending the Civil War. Under a shady tree in front of the stately McLean House, where the signing took place, Ranger Cynda Carpenter described the meeting between the two commanders.
Though they had fought bitterly for 11 months, the two generals "engaged in small talk," said Carpenter. And as the minutes ticked away, it was Lee who finally had to speak up and say, "Isn't it time to get down to business?"
And then, like the soldiers, Union and Confederate, who had made the long journey from Germanna Ford to this spot, I departed Appomattox and returned home.
© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company