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Virginia: Battlefields and beauty in the US

By Roger St Pierre

Picture the scenario: there I was, sat in a wheelchair being trundled through the Philadelphia International Airport terminal by our gold braid bedecked BA captain.

At our side strode his first officer, dragging my wheelie bag in his wake, with the rest of the crew following us in neat line-astern formation, like some kind of honour guard.

It was a suitably dramatic ending to an adventure packed 10-day East of the Appalachians American road trip that took me skirting round but not entering the US capital city as the sat-nav took me trawling through the tumultuous pages of American Revolutionary War and Civil War history.

The ever-helpful people at the Holiday Autos hire car brokerage had started me off on the good foot. Hot off the early evening arrival from Heathrow, I arrived at the Dollar Rent-a-Car check-in desk to find I’d been given a free upgrade to a spanking new, fuel-efficient Toyota Prius hybrid that was to prove itself a faithful travelling companion over the following days.

Not only did it provide better value for my rental dollar but my fuel fill-ups would add up to less too.

Evocative ambience

The stunningly beautiful Shenandoah Valley beckoned. This was the cockpit of the Civil War and retains an almost achingly evocative ambience tinged with melancholy.

The profusion of battlefields large and small are still haunted by the troubled spirits of the brave soldiers who gave their lives in that horrific combat that pitted fathers against sons, brothers against their siblings, friends against neighbours.

The battlefields over which grey uniformed Confederates fought the dark blue Union columns have been preserved while military cemeteries dot the rolling landscape.

There are several American towns that bear the name Lexington – the best known of them being the one in Massachusetts, a township that on the morning of April 19,1775, witnessed the first shots of the American Revolution.

But it was to Lexington, Virginia, the county seat of Rockbridge County, that the smooth running Prius took me, along scenic Route 39 Byway, with its quaint little villages, attractive woodlands and rolling farmlands as I approached from the west.

Laid-back lifestyle

Lexington’s immaculately preserved downtown features cosy eating places, first-rate gift shopping and a taste of gracious laid-back Southern lifestyle – yet manages to be a proper living town, rather than just a tourist honeypot. But, believe me, there’s plenty to attract all those out of towners.

This is home to the Virginia Military Institute – the oldest state-supported military college in America – where smartly clad cadets take visitors on free guided tours and regular full-uniform parades provide a colourful spectacle.

On the parade ground stands the imposing George C Marshall Museum, dedicated to America’s first five-star general, the man assigned with the task of winning the peace once the Second World War drew to an end. Here I was privileged to visit the behind the scenes archives and examine some of the remarkable documents which led to the formulation of the Marshall Plan, that inspired programme which got the world back on its feet.

The military institute’s own lovingly conserved museum features an outstanding antique firearm collection, as well as, rather bizarrely, the stuffed horse of the renowned Confederate hero General Stonewall Jackson.

Restored garden

Jackson’s home, with its pretty little restored Victorian garden, can be visited at 45 Washington Street while this formidable warrior lies buried close by, at South Main Street, along with 144 Confederate veterans, two Virginia state governors and Margaret Junkin Preston – the eminent ‘Poetess Laureate of the South’ and first wife of the great general.

Also on South Main is the Museum of Military Memorabilia, with its outstanding collection of American, British and international uniforms.

Jackson’s commander in chief, General Robert E. Lee, is also buried in Lexington, in a dignified little chapel on the Washington and Lee University campus. Memories of both these timeless Southern heroes are evoked during candlelit guided ghost tours of downtown.

Just outside town, I visited tiny Brownsburg, with its diminutive museum of rural life in the South, and the Cyrus McCormick Farm, which celebrates the inventor of the mechanical grain reaper.

Deeded by King George III to no less a personage than Thomas Jefferson, in 1774, just a year before the outbreak of the War of Independence, the Natural Bridge – a towering stone arch spanning delightfully shady Cedar creek – is a ‘must see’ landmark. Attractions at the bridge include the East Coast’s deepest caverns, tumbling waterfalls, a Manacan Indian village, wax, toy and monster museums and a butterfly farm, as well as spectacular night-time sound and light shows.

Stonehenge – in plastic

Ending my packed Lexington visit on a fun note was a sundown visit to Foamhenge, a free roadside attraction originally erected as an April Fool’s joke – replicating Stonehenge in plastic foam.

Ever since, as a small schoolchild, I first heard that stirring freedom song ‘John Brown’s Body’, I’ve always wanted to visit the site of Brown’s desperate insurrection, so I was eager to get to Harpers Ferry, West Virginia.

Here, where two broad rivers, the road, the railway and three states all meet, was the strategically sited government arsenal that the formidable Brown – messianic hero or deranged fanatic, depending on your viewpoint – was intent to seize as the trigger for a hoped for nationwide slave uprising.

It was a badly conceived venture that ended in abject defeat and execution for those who did not die, hopelessly outnumbered by 90 troops, in the one-sided battle. But it did indeed set the scene for the tragic and monumental Civil War that broke out less than two years later, on April 12, 1861 – a bloody conflict in which Harpers Ferry changed hands no fewer than eight times.

The town has moved on and grown remarkably little since those tumultuous times and has thankfully been protected from rampant commercialism.

Riverside location

Besides its exquisite riverside location, nestled in a cradle of wooded hills, and its lovingly restored stone buildings and wide main street, Harpers Ferry has such attractions as the 87 life-sized figurines to be seen at the John Brown Wax Museum, stores restored to period style and a glorious stretch of the 2,100-mile long Appalachian National Scenic Trail walking route, as well as the former Storer College, which opened in 1867 to provide education for newly emancipated blacks in the Shenandoah Valley.

They say it pays to save the best for last and Gettysburg was certainly the most powerful magnet of the whole trip.

Here, just over 150 years ago – on July 1-3,1863, to be exact – 170,000 soldiers fought one of the pivotal battles of the American Civil War, on the anniversary of which President Abraham Lincoln gave his historic Gettysburg address, just 10 sentences long but speaking volumes.

Unlike Harpers Ferry, this critically located Pennsylvanian town has mushroomed down the years.

Today Gettysburg Battlefield is 6,000 acres of hallowed ground, containing more than 1,300 separate monuments and markers – making it one of the world’s largest collections of outdoor sculptures. Also here is the Soldiers’ National Cemetery – last resting place of some 3,500 Union dead.

Visitors are invited to tour the National Military Park by foot, bicycle, horseback or on guided bus or car tours – and even by Segway.

15,000 re-enactors

Ranger-led walking tours, soldier encampments and re-enactments, in which as many as 15,000 re-enactors take part, all give visitors an extraordinary insight into the events of that steamy July, a century and a half ago.

The massive four-year old visitor centre, with its 12 fascinating galleries, dramatic cinema presentations and monumental 377 feet by 42 feet cyclorama oil painting, depicting Pickett’s heroic charge gives yet more spine-tingling ambiance to a thought-provoking and emotive experience.

The full-scale re-enactment is always held on the first weekend in July and attracts 30,000 or more spectators as infantry, cavalry and artillery recreate the most important battle in American domestic history.

Not surprisingly, the lively town, and nearby East Berlin and New Oxford, have an abundance of antique and bric-a-brac shops, many of them specialising in military collectibles. Of its 8,000 inhabitants, more than 5,800 of Gettysburg’s citizens are employed in the tourism industry.

The area’s other claim to fame is its apple country, making blossom-time and the harvesting period good times to visit.

The facts

When to go

This southerly region of America’s Colonial heartland is a year-round destination with four distinct seasons. Summers can be swelteringly hot and humid and winters severe but both seasons have their charm while the famous blossoms of spring and multi-coloured leaves of autumn are divine.

How to get there

Most of my route was within an easy day’s drive of a full third of the American nation’s total population. Ideally, fly in to Washington DC and out through Philadelphia International, both with very frequent flights to Europe.

How to get around

You will need a car to follow my road trip itinerary. Bookable before you go, Holiday Autos ( has a 25-year history of yielding the best car rental deals, from 30,000 locations worldwide. Today the world’s biggest rental brokerage, the company was the first to offer fully-inclusive, pre-paid car hire and provides the best prices from the leading brands, with positively no hidden extras.

Where to stay

Lexington: Riders Rest B&B. Sit on the front porch and enjoy stunning views of the Allegheny and Blue Ridge Mountains. Built in the 1920s, this charming house offers just four guestrooms.

Harpers Ferry: Quality Hotel. Large and dated roadhouse and the music in the Vista Tavern was deafening but the food? Wow! All you could eat king crab meat and all the fixings at a bargain price.

Gettysburg: The Martin House B&B. 20-minutes out of town at Fairfield. What a great veranda for that sundown drink and hosts Lynn and Dale Martin let me take my pick of the comfortable and capacious guestrooms. I enjoyed a generous breakfast here. A home-from-home gem.

What and where to eat

Yes, traditional American home cooking – pot roasts, meatloaf, apple pie and all that – does have its merits, when you can find it, that is, but generally, the further you get from the big cities the more bland and stodgy the restaurant offer becomes, with a paucity of fresh veg and massively over-sized portions. Here in the Old South everything seems to be destined for the fryer or the barbecue.

At top-end many American restaurants are world-class but very expensive and watch for the sting of those wine prices.

What to speak

English (with an American bias)

What to spend (and tip)

US$. Better leave a 20% gratuity or the waiter will pursue you down the street!

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