Historic Virginia

Some may question the wisdom of visiting Virginia in the dead of summer. The truth is that when you’re from Alabama, there is not much that Northern Virginia can do to make you any more uncomfortable. It may be hot as blazes in both areas, but the countryside is in full bloom and the days are long, allowing plenty of extended time to see things.

The major disadvantage is that the rest of vacationing America has opted to be here at the same time. On the weekends, I-95, the main route into and out of Washington, is one big parking lot. I came on I-95, but I returned on two lane U.S. 15. I like the back roads and Highway 15 takes you through a whole series of Mayberry’s. This is NASCAR country, not Starbucks.

I was able to combine a business visit to Charlottesville and the University of Virginia with visits to several of the area’s major battlefields and historic homes. I started my tour in historic Fredericksburg, scene of one of R.E. Lee’s resounding victories over the poorly led Union Army of the Potomac. My first stop was the ancestral home of the Fitzhugh family, Chatham Manor.

I had a personal interest in visiting Chatham as one of my oldest and dearest friends, Emily Fitzhugh, is a direct descendent of William Fitzhugh who was the original owner of Chatham and a prominent figure in Colonial Virginia. The Virginia Fitzhugh’s can trace their genealogy to the thirteenth century in Norman England and there is compelling evidence that the family originated in Normandy prior to the 1066 invasion. William Fitzhugh’s mother was the daughter of Robert “King” Carter of Williamsburg, the first millionaire in Virginia.

In 1768, William Fitzhugh began construction of a manor house set on the bluffs on the Northern side of the Rappahannock River, overlooking Fredericksburg. He named his home Chatham Plantation in honor of the William Pitt, the Earl of Chatham, and a supporter of Britain’s North American colonies. The plantation covered over 1,200 acres and was worked by over 100 slaves.

The Manor house and many of its dependencies have survived almost intact in spite of being occupied by the Union Army on several occasions. The house was ravaged by looters and used as a hospital after the carnage at the battles of Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, The Wilderness and Spotsylvania Court House.

Today Chatham has been restored to its Colonial state and serves as the headquarters of the National Park Service in the area. I was able to tour the interior as well as the remaining grounds and gardens that continue to have an outstanding view of the Rappahannock and Fredericksburg. Emily, I am glad to report that the Yankee’s are taking good care of the old home place.


After Chatham, I did the driving tour that includes four of the major battlefields of The War for Southern Independence. The first battlefield was Fredericksburg (Dec. 1862) and I managed to locate the approximate position General Barksdale’s Mississippi Brigade held during its successful defense of the river crossing that delayed Burnside’s massive army long enough for General Lee to fortify Marye’s Heights. When Burnside ordered a direct infantry assault of these fortifications, one of the bloodiest defeats of the Union army took place. Burnside retreated back across the Rappahannock and gave up command to General Joe Hooker.


Hooker was known in the press as “Fighting Joe” and he vowed not to make the mistake of attacking Lee who was dug in on the heights behind Fredericksburg. Instead, in the spring of 1863 he made an attempt to turn Lee’s flank by sneaking most of his army upstream on the Rappahannock while leaving a large force under General Sedgwick to hold Lee in place.

Lee’s cavalry soon discovered the Union plans and Lee made the decision to split his small army and ambush Hooker in the dense woods on the south side of the river. He placed General Thomas J. Jackson in command of this force and instructed him that his objective was not just the defeat of Hooker’s army, but its total destruction. Lee wanted to follow up Hooker’s defeat with an offensive into Pennsylvania that would capture Washington and end the war.

Jackson moved over 30,000 men into position and attacked the flank of Hooker’s army, rolling it up and routing it. When Hooker realized that his was in danger of losing his army, he ordered Sedgwick to cross the river at Fredericksburg and attack Lee’s rear. Once again Lee split his remaining forces and drove Sedgwick back across the Rappahannock. Hooker then ordered a general withdrawal and limped away in defeat.

Though Chancellorsville was clearly a victory for Lee, it came at a great price and fell short of his primary objective. General Thomas J. Jackson fell victim of friendly fire and died several days later. He could not be replaced. Lee also failed to destroy the Army of the Potomac. The victory at Chancellorsville gave Lee the opening he needed to invade the North, but left a formidable and massive opponent on the field. This Army would soon be commanded by General George Meade and he would repulse Lee’s invasion at Gettysburg later that year.

I was able to visit the approximate spot that Jackson fell to his own pickets during a nighttime reconnaissance. Many historians think that this was the turning point of the war. We’ll never know if Jackson could have made a difference in the ultimate outcome. I doubt it.


I mentioned that Meade took command of the Army of the Potomac prior to Gettysburg and forced Lee to retreat back to Virginia. At Gettysburg, it was Lee constantly attacking fortified positions and suffering the same bloody fate he had always inflicted on a series of Union commanders. Meade’s victory was important, but his decision not to press his advantage and allow Lee to retreat missed an opportunity to destroy Lee’s army and end the war.

Meade was a tenacious fighter, but no great strategic leader. That great leader came in early 1864 when President Lincoln appointed General U.S. Grant to overall command of the Army of the United States. There was definitely a new sheriff in town. Again, the Union army crossed the Rappahannock and again, Lee out maneuvered it and dealt it a bloody flank attack, nearly routing a large portion of the Federals.

The battle was fought almost hand to hand in a dense jungle of undergrowth. Fires spread and during the long night the cries of the wounded from both sides filled the smoky darkness with their pleas for water and help. I consider the next morning to be the beginning of the end for the Army of Northern Virginia. In the past, every time a Union army moved South, Lee dealt it a stunning blow and the blue clad soldiers were ordered to retreat.

This morning something all together different happened; Grant attacked and moved his army downstream trying to place it between Lee and the Confederate Capital in Richmond. Under Meade’s command, and with Grant’s strategic leadership, the two armies never broke contact until April of 1865 at Appomattox Courthouse. Grant’s army of 150,000 men pressed Lee’s less than 60,000 every day. The Union took devastating casualties and inflicted the same.

There was a major difference. The Union could replace every man and all the equipment it lost. Lee could not. The outcome had been decided at the Wilderness, but it took nearly a year of fierce fighting and thousands of causalities before in ended.

Today the battlefield, while well marked, is still a jungle of undergrowth and scrub timber. I was there in early August and could imagine how miserably hot it had been that summer day in 1864 when the Army of the Potomac finally found a leader worthy of its brave men. It is interesting to note that the Western troops commanded by Grant, Sherman, Sheridan and Logan never lost a battle beginning with the Battle of Belmont in 1861 and ending with the surrender at Appomattox Courthouse in 1865.

There are monuments to these Western Regiments scattered from Shiloh, Vicksburg and Chattanooga in the West to the Wilderness, Spotsylvania and Petersburg in the east. These hardy sons of Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois answered the call to preserve the Union and in the process they destroyed slavery and forever changed the way Americans view themselves. When combined with the industrial might of the Eastern states, they defeated the best troops and best Generals the South could muster.


I believe James Madison to be the most under rated figure in American history. This is the guy that not only wrote most of the U.S. Constitution, he personally guided it through a very difficult and acrimonious ratification process. His authorship, along with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay of the 85 newspaper articles published in support of Constitutional ratification, are today known as the Federalist Papers. There has never been a great central idea so well explained to the common man.

It would be impossible to do this today, unless someone could condense the whole body into 140 characters or less and send out a tweet. Madison not only wrote the Constitution, but he led the fight in Congress to pass the first ten amendments to the document that we now refer to as the Bill of Rights. Among other things guaranteed by the Bill of Rights, I am able to write about the ineptness of our elected leaders because Madison thought free speach and freedom of the press were essential for a free society.

Like every freedom we have, freedom of the press is a two edged sword. Not only do you get to read but you are saddled with Fox news and Rush Limbaugh as well. Fortunately most of us know how to change channels. Sorry about that, the devil made me do it.

After serving as Jefferson’s Secretary of State and engineering the Louisiana Purchase, Madison led the country, as its fourth President, against the British during the War of 1812. After serving two terms as President, he retired to Montpelier to live life as a farmer and senior statesman. Most of the luminaries of the time, including Jefferson and Lafayette, were guest.

The drive to Montpelier winds through the Virginia countryside and is not really close to much of anything. The approach to the house and grounds looks very much as it would have during Madison’s lifetime. He built the house over many years and there were additions and renovations during the time he and Dolly lived here.

Since 2004, the home has been undergoing a massive renovation that has restored its architectural integrity. A nationwide hunt is underway to recover as many of the original furnishings, books and paintings that the Madison’s were forced to sell in later life just to make ends meet. I was fortunate in that there was not a large crowd on hand and I was able to see and ask questions without seeming to be pushy.

I would strongly recommend that you make an effort to visit this beautiful home and farm. James and Dolly Madison were the John and Jackie of their era and much of the government buildings in Washington bear witness to their influence.



It is a well documented fact that most of the great figures in history have been red heads. The list of red haired luminaries includes Napoleon Bonaparte, Cleopatra, Galileo, Winston Churchill and Queen Elizabeth I, not to leave out Willie Nelson and Lucille Ball. This does not come as a shock to many of us. In fact, it seems an extension of the natural order of things, so it makes sense that the greatest American of all time, Thomas Jefferson, would be a red head.

Red hair was not the only gift God gave Jefferson. He was a very bright and curious youngster and absorbed a basic education through a series of tutors and local school masters. By the time he entered The College of William and Mary at the age of 16, he had mastered Latin, Greek, French and the violin. At William and Mary, he excelled in the classic curriculum of the time and graduated with highest honors in 1762.

There is no point in listing Jefferson’s honors, titles and positions or speaking of the high offices he held. He laid out what he considered his most important achievements on his tombstone. The list is very short:


I was able to visit the two places that were dear to Jefferson’s heart. The University of Virginia in Charlottesville is very accessible and I took a late afternoon walking tour of the original campus. The highlights of the tour included the Rotunda, the central building of the University, the Academical Village and the Pavilion Gardens, all designed by Jefferson personally.

Jefferson’s love of architecture is nowhere better evidenced than his design of the major buildings at UVA. His years in Paris as an American envoy gave him a classical perspective that defies the fact that he was completely self-taught. This perspective is also evident at his home Monticello, just out from Charlottesville.

Jefferson started building Monticello in 1772 and he never completed it to his satisfaction. His active mind continued to think up improvements to the house, gardens and farm that supported the family and slaves. There is not a home open to the public anywhere in the country that better reflects the man who lived there than Monticello. Jefferson and his life inhabit every room and you get the feeling that he only stepped out and would be soon returning.

I did not have enough time to see the entire estate in the detail that I would have wished. That would be at least an all day endeavor. I did get a complete tour of the home, a brisk walk around the gardens and grounds and a drive by of the outer areas. My visit was interrupted by a fire alarm that forced the evacuation of the house and threw the finely honed schedule all out of kilter. Fortunately, it turned out to be a faulty smoke detector, but as you would imagine they are taking no chances with such a national treasure.

Thomas Jefferson remains the red haired historical figure with whom I would most like to have dinner and a conversation. I wouldn’t mind an intimate evening with Cleopatra, but she’d have to lose the snake.

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