Unbearable Florida heat and humidity, wives off on their own adventures, more than a slight danger of boredom—how are a couple of golden agers to spend their summer vacation? Tim McMurrich and I have been friends for 45 years (although we lost contact with each other for 30 of those) ever since we were part of a stellar softball outfield in the ‘70s. We hatched our plan to tour Civil War Battlefields over cocktails during the Christmas holidays (not surprisingly our spouses began planning alternate summer plans the same evening). So, began an 8-day Odyssey from Richmond to Gettysburg and back to DC, sometimes marginal hotels, frequent gastric overindulgence, a huge dose of history and encounters with our fellow Americans.
Day 1 – Richmond
A short flight from Tampa for me, a longer one for Tim from Hartford. We met at the modern Richmond airport and immediately jumped into our first stop. First, a slight digression: Tim, a retired Chief Actuary at Sun Life of Canada and head of their US Banking Group, is an avid Learning in Retirement student and teacher at the Five College Consortium in Northampton, MA; so many things OLLI to discuss during our trip. First stop with an OLLI connection—the Virginia Governor’s Mansion, until quite recently the residence of Joseph’s brother, the Honorable Terry McAuliffe.
Beautiful trees and flowers, many historic items on the first floor and well-informed docent, made this a memorable first stop. Alas, no McAuliffes (or any other governors) in sight. After a couple hours wandering through historic downturn Richmond we adjourned to dinner, adult beverages and the first of several La Quintas.
Day 2 – Petersburg
Grant’s HQ at the confluence of the James and Appomattox Rivers where he directed the 10 ½ month siege of Petersburg. Fore-shadowing the fall of Richmond and the end of the war. Lovely Battlefield Park on the Petersburg Eastern Front, featuring tours of Confederate defensive works. Guided tour of Jefferson Davis “White House” and small, attached museum in downtown Richmond. So many battles, now largely lost to our memories: the Seven Days of 1862–Chickahominy Bluff, Beaver Dam Creek, Gaine’s Mill, Glendale, Malvern Hill, and Drewry’s Bluff; and the 1864 Overland Cam-paign—Cold Harbor and Fort Harrison.
An unexpected treat was the Museum of the Civil War at the Tredegar Iron Works, also known as the Arsenal of the Confederacy. Capped the day with a tour of the Western Petersburg Front and the Five Forks Battle-field—the last major engagement of the war—and the superb Museum of the Civil War Soldier.
Day 3 – Appomattox
National Park Service has done an amazing job of restoring this lovely little village to its Civil War ambiance. Understated museum and period buildings. We’re struck here, and at the other battle sites by the lack of crowds. Maybe the war doesn’t hold the same allure for younger generations.
Day 4 – Monticello
Jefferson’s iconic home has been on my bucket list for many, many years. Wonderful ride through the Shenandoah foothills, short side trip to the magnificent University of Virginia campus and a shuttle to the top of the mountain site. Mansion is much smaller than expected and a marvel of 18th century tech. Wonderful, uncrowded tours of grounds, home and gardens. Respectful coverage of Jefferson relationship with Sally Hemmings in a newly opened exhibit.
Day 5 – Manassas and Harpers Ferry
As reasonably knowledgeable Civil War buffs, Tim and I decided to engage private tour guides for the second half of our trip. Good decision and surprisingly inexpensive.
Two very different battles at Bull Run, the first contested by two untested armies, both of which assumed a short war, complete with picnicking spectators; the second thirteen months later, between battle hardened, bloodied veterans. The First was notable for Thomas Jackson acquiring his “Stonewall” nickname the Second battle as the high water mark of Southern power. Hard to believe that so much young blood was shed on these lovely rolling fields.
Visitor Center is about a mile from downtown Harpers Ferry, which is filled with restaurants and souvenir shops, but still very interesting. The armory and arsenal where John Brown staged the famous uprising is surprising small. The location at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah is quite lovely.
Day 6 – Antietam
The bloodiest one-day battle of the war was fought by more that 100,000 combatants and left more than 23,000 dead or wounded on the field. Wonderful guide walked us over the entire battleground for four hours on a perfect Virginia July day. Many monuments and informative signage added to the experience and a very good visitor center. Should mention that every National Park center we visited had top notch videos. Of course, Antietam, essentially a tactical draw, was used by the Union to announce Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.
Day 7 – Gettysburg
Neither of us had visited Gettysburg in more than 30 years. Our tour was very informative: especially the museum and self-guided auto tour. The town is totally tourist oriented, but the Park Service has done a nice job of preserving the solemnity of the battlefield itself. There are hundreds of monuments erected in memory of the soldiers on both sides, which are at once enlightening and annoying.
Kevin Chittim is a retired CEO (laser and optics technology). Since joining OLLI in 2013, Kevin has taken more than 70 OLLI courses in history, politics, literature, science, social science and humanities. Kevin facilitates Great Books discussion courses for OLLI and is a member of the OLLI Board.