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A Weekend with Washington

I would like to thank Holiday Inn for partnering with me to make this post possible. As always, all opinions are my own!  Kris Williams

 

For some time now, Alexandria, Virginia has been one of my favorite destinations in the United States. Located on the western bank of the Potomac River, the city is just a short drive or train ride to the hustle and bustle of Washington, D.C.

From the art galleries, boutiques, restaurants and antique shops of it’s historic center, “Old Town” to the cobblestone streets lined with 18th and 19th century architecture – complete with gas lanterns and American flags – Alexandria is one of those special places that will steal your heart.

Unlike all my previous stays in Alexandria (which revolved around work in D.C.) this trip with Holiday Inn put Alexandria front and center as I set out to get better acquainted with the man we refer to as the father of our country.

With the Fourth of July just around the corner, I would like to share with you my favorite stops in Alexandria that were once a part of George Washington’s stomping grounds.

 

The George Washington Masonic National Memorial

Built to honor the memory of George Washington, his role as a free mason and as a way to preserve the heritage of American Freemasonry – The George Washington Masonic National Memorial left me feeling as though I had entered a Greek or Roman temple.

The Memorial Hall was striking with its eight large granite columns leading you down to an enormous statue of George Washington. There he stood presiding over the hall – gavel in hand while wearing his Masonic apron and jewel. I cannot stress how small I felt in this room or how drawn I was to the statue and colorful murals that lined the walls.

  Not far from Memorial Hall was the Replica Lodge Room – a room designed to look like Alexandria-Washington Lodge No. 22 which was once located on the 2nd floor of City Hall. This room mimics the lodge Washington used to attend and displays furniture from the original location along with artifacts that once belonged to Washington himself.

From the Replica Lodge Room we made our way up to The George Washington Museum. Besides the fact the room was another jaw dropper – some of the artifacts in this room that belonged to Washington were pretty impressive.

From his family bible (complete with signature) and items that traveled with him during the Revolutionary War – right down to a strand of his hair… I was wishing I had more time to look around.

I would say my one and only complaint with the tour is how quickly they would move you through each area.

Last stop at The George Washington Masonic National Memorial was the Observation Deck.

The view from the top was absolutely beautiful – I could not have asked for better weather. Not only could I see all of Alexandria, it was easy to spot the Capital Building and the Washington Monument in nearby D.C.!

 

George Washington’s Townhouse Replica

Located at 508 Cameron Street, wedged between two larger buildings, stands a replica of George Washington’s modest home away from home.

The original townhouse – designed, built and completed by Washington in 1796 – was used by George and Martha as an office and as a place to stay when visiting Alexandria for both business and social events.

After falling into disrepair in 1855, the residence was demolished and the lot was turned into a garden.

Later in 1960, lot owners Gov. and Mrs. Richard Lowe built a replica of Washington’s former townhouse based on rough sketches drawn by a neighbor. The structure was built on the original foundation using bricks and stones evacuated from the site.

Over the years, the property has had several owners but remains a private home and is known as Alexandria’s only replica of a historic building.

Although it’s only a replica, I enjoyed this stop quite a bit.

The first thing that struck me was how small the home was – it wasn’t the grand property you’d expect to be associated with a president.

To me, George Washington has always been this larger than life character – the Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army, a Revolutionary War hero, the first United States president and the father of our country.

While I knew he had Mount Vernon as his main home, the idea of such a successful historical figure staying in this humble little home put a smile on my face. For some reason, I found it easier to connect to him.

Beyond its size, it was fun to watch as many others stopped to have a look. Like me, they commented on the structures size and laughed when they spotted the plaster bust of George Washington peaking from the first floor window.

 

Christ Church

Located at the corner of N. Washington Street and Cameron Street, its hard to believe this little church was once referred to as, “The Church in the Woods”.

While the town of Alexandria has changed significantly since Washington’s time – Christ Church has not.

That’s not to say there hasn’t been additions, modifications or restoration efforts since it was completed in 1773 – they have just been minimal enough that you’re still able to see what Washington saw when he attended.

The biggest changes made over the years have been the addition of balcony seating with support columns, the replica wine glass podium, the silver candelabras and two memorial plaques – one for George Washington and the other for another famous attendee, Robert E. Lee.

Whenever Washington stayed at his Cameron Street townhouse for business or social events, he would attend Christ Church with his family.

Funny enough (in those times) it was common for attendees to buy or rent box pews. When I heard this, I immediately thought of someone buying box seats at a baseball stadium.

…Entertainment has certainly changed over the years.

As much as I loved this stop as a whole, I think the highlight of my visit was getting to sit in the pew that was once owned by Washington himself.

Yes, it is still there!

Getting to sit where he sat, where he worshiped and where he socialized… looking up at the podium – imagining the balconies and support columns, silver candelabras and plaques removed… looking around imagining people trying to read from their bibles using the sunlight that poured through wavy glass windows…

What a wild experience.

I will never get over opportunities like this and am so grateful historical structures like Christ Church are still standing.

 

Gadsby’s Tavern Restaurant

Built in the late 1700’s the Gadsby’s Tavern consisted of two buildings – a tavern and hotel. Operated by John Gadsby from 1796 – 1808, Gadsby’s Tavern was the place to go in Alexandria for fine dinning, drinks (including the tavern’s famous – rum punch), social events and meetings, as well as a place to crash for the night.

George Washington was not only known for eating here – he and Martha Washington also attended two birthday celebrations that were held in his honor.

Today the two buildings function as a museum and a restaurant, serving lunch and dinner daily, along with Sunday brunch.

On one of my nights in town, I stopped into Gadsby’s for dinner and absolutely loved it. The first room I walked into had more of the tavern feel – a lot of worn woodwork, a fireplace and a full bar.

Just off this first room were two other dinning spaces with a completely different feel – more formal. The chairs and tables were a little more decorative (but still worn) and the walls were an off white with a light blue trim and crown molding. The room was decorated with curtains, a painting and other framed drawings.

One of the best parts were the server’s uniforms – they looked like they jumped right out of the late 1700’s with their high stockings, cropped pants, vests, shirts and aprons.

Talk about a time warp!

I spent most of my meal admiring my surroundings while grinning like a total nerd.

 

For dinner, I started with a French Onion Soup with bread and a glass of the tavern’s specialty – rum punch.

After all – how could I say no to a drink they’ve been serving since the late 1700’s?

I blame George Washington.

Following the soup, I went for the Gentleman’s Pye… described by the tavern as, “a colonial favorite – tender cuts of lamb and beef in a savory red wine stew topped with mashed red potatoes and a puff pastry crust”.

The entire experience was fantastic in both food and atmosphere.

 

Mount Vernon

The last stop on my trip brought me to Mount Vernon – Washington’s plantation home just south of Alexandria.

The estate, which sits on the banks of the Potomac River, originally belonged to George’s father, Augustine. Following Augustine’s death, the home was left to George’s half-brother Lawrence Washington. Lawrence renamed the property Mount Vernon and following his death – the property eventually made it’s way into George’s ownership.

Today, the property is operated as a museum by the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association – who rely entirely on private donations and admission sales to keep Mount Vernon running.

With admission you are free to explore the grounds, which include: the mansion, blacksmith shop, slave quarters, pioneer farm, gardens, wharf, slave memorial and burial ground, Washington’s tomb, museum and education center.

Of all the stops, my favorite was the guided tour through the mansion, which was decorated to look as it did in 1799 (the year of Washington’s death). It was amazing to be able to walk through a property that old, to see it so well preserved and to get a feel for how Washington lived.

The rooms in the house were beautiful – some were very ornate with high ceilings, green walls, marble fireplaces and large crown molding, while others fell more on the simple side for daily or private use.

Of all the items in the home, I really enjoyed one of Washington’s prized possessions.

Hung on the wall of the first floor landing or entry is a case made by Washington that displays a one pound, three ounce, wrought iron key. The key – which belonged to the Bastille – was sent to Washington by Marquis de Lafayette as a gift.

On December 14, 1799 George Washington passed away at the age of 67 in his home from a short illness that started with a sore throat. His funeral was held on December 18th where he was interred in a family crypt at Mount Vernon.

As the crypt began to fall into disrepair and an unsuccessful attempt was made to steal Washington’s skull – plans were made to move his remains.

While attempts were made by some to move Washington’s body to the Capitol, Southerns fought hard to keep him where they felt he belonged – in the south.

Eventually – on October 7, 1837 – both Washington and his wife Martha were moved to the new tomb on the grounds of Mount Vernon.

After spending the weekend in Alexandria walking in George Washington’s footsteps, I was surprised by many things.

It blew my mind that so many buildings from his time are still standing. Being able to walk down the same streets and see some of the same sights Washington would have was such a surreal experience.

Also, to learn that he prided himself as a farmer first and foremost and questioned his own capabilities as a leader in the Revolutionary War went against every heroic, patriotic image I grew up with. To know a man who is still so loved and admired had his own self-doubts helped me see past the legend and straight to the man himself.

I want to thank Holiday Inn for giving me the opportunity to get better acquainted with the first president and father of our country, George Washington.

HAPPY FOURTH OF JULY!!!

(Photo of Painting hanging in The George Washington Masonic National Memorial)

This is a sponsored conversation written by me on behalf of Holiday Inn. The opinions and text are all mine.

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Gold, Gunslingers and Presidential Profiles

I would like to thank Holiday Inn for partnering with me to make this post possible. As always, all opinions are my own!  Kris Williams

My trip to Deadwood was spurred by a desire to see Mount Rushmore. When Holiday Inn told me they had two locations perfect for such a trip – one in Rapid City and one in Deadwood – I jumped at the chance to visit the old, rough and tumble, gold mining town.

Named for dead trees found scattered throughout its gulch, the legend of Deadwood has far outgrown its 3.83 square mile border. From the discovery of gold in 1874, the town’s colorful history and Gold Rush Era architecture to its notorious residents and visitors, it’s not surprising the entire town of Deadwood is listed as a National Historic Landmark District.

As with all of my trips, I looked for a starting point – a place to get my feet wet with the local history and it’s prominent players.

The Adams Museum was not like other small town museums I have encountered in my travels. Unlike others who fill their walls with junk they’ve tried to sell as some historically significant treasure – the Adams Museum was bubbling over with some of the most interesting artifacts I have ever laid eyes on.

 

From a two-headed calf and odd artifacts connected to U.S. Presidents to exhibits covering Deadwood’s history of gambling, mining, transportation, clothing, brothels, gunslingers and Native American tribes – there was no shortage of things to look at!

Of all the bits and pieces they had, my favorite corner of the Adams Museum revolved around, James Butler Hickok – better known as “Wild Bill” Hickok. This American, Old West lawman and gunslinger met his demise in a Deadwood saloon shortly after his arrival.

Photographs of Wild Bill and his personal effects covered the walls. Some of the items in the collection included a handwritten letter to his wife, his 1860 Army Colt revolver, straight razor, a “good luck” stone found in his boot and cards from the deck he was using when he was shot.

There were even two detailed, hand drawn portraits of Wild Bill – one of which – left me feeling like I had come face to face with the handsome legend himself.

Beginning as an illegal settlement on land that was granted to the Lakota people, I decided to have a better look at what put Deadwood on the map for thousands of fortune seekers, gunslingers, painted ladies and lawmen.

Broken Boot Mine was a fun family friendly stop that gives visitors an opportunity to tour what was once a working mine and gives them a chance to try their hand at panning.

The tour wasn’t very long but it was fun to walk through the chiseled out pathways, learning about living conditions for the miners, tools they used, lighting they worked by and the minerals that could be found. I also really enjoyed having a look at the wooden structures and supports built to help reinforce the pathways.

I honestly couldn’t imagine living or working in those conditions!

Following the tour, I paid a little extra to give panning a go. Lead to a covered outdoor area that had large basins filled with water – I was given a bag of pebbles and a plastic bowl known as a “pan”. Dumping the pebbles into the pan, I was given a lesson on panning techniques. With a lot of patience, persistence and soaked clothes – I got pretty excited when sparkling little gold flakes started to surface!

With every bag of pebbles visitors are guaranteed to find something – nothing you could retire on but a cool experience nonetheless.

If you are a fan of the Old West and its larger than life characters and events, you really can’t pass through Deadwood without making a stop at Saloon No. 10. While it is best known as the saloon Wild Bill Hickok was shot down in by Jack McCall – this is not the original location of the saloon.

After the original location burnt to the ground, Saloon No. 10 was moved to Main Street – where the front section was built to replicate the original saloon. From the worn woodwork, saw dust covered floors and thousands of photographs, animal heads, artifacts and antiques that cover the walls to the slot machines, live music, drinks, food and historical reenactments (where you can regularly watch Wild Bill meet his demise) – there is no shortage of entertainment.

  

One of the weirdest artifacts can be found on display above the saloon’s entrance – Wild Bill’s “Death Chair”. Supposedly, this was the chair Wild Bill sat in while playing a game of poker when he was shot from behind.

While Saloon No. 10 is a fun mix of past meets present and museum meets bar, the thing I enjoyed most about it was…

I walked in feeling like a tourist but left feeling like a local.

Over looking the little mountain town of Deadwood sits Mount Moriah Cemetery – burial place of Wild Bill, Calamity Jane and many other notable residents.

For a small entrance fee, I was given a map of the cemetery (highlighting points of interest) along with access to the restrooms. It has always struck me as funny paying to get into a cemetery – especially when paired with a gift shop on site.

We are weirdly morbid creatures, if you think about it!

 

For the most part, I really enjoyed this stop. It could get a little busy at times since tours would come through with bus loads of people but there was enough time between each tour to have some quiet time to yourself.

The graves of Wild Bill and Calamity Jane were littered with offerings from visitors – everything from bottles of alcohol to silk flowers, stacked rocks, coins and bullets.

Beyond visiting the graves – the view of the town from the cemetery is well worth the trip. You get a birds eye view of everything from the Holiday Inn Deadwood Mountain Grand Resort (large building on far left) to the main street of Deadwood (center to far right).

Speaking of which, I have always wondered… why do the deceased have some of the best views?!

For my final stop – the one that inspired the entire trip – I spent the afternoon exploring Mount Rushmore. After years of hearing people say, “Mount Rushmore was a lot smaller than I expected” … I was finally getting the chance to experience it for myself!

I cannot tell you how excited I was when I turned a corner and spotted Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt and Lincoln perched on the mountaintop for the first time.

I was still driving and there they were watching over South Dakota!

Standing at the main viewing platform, I could understand why people might walk away feeling like it looked small. However, they seem to be forgetting these faces are sitting at the top of a rather large mountain.

Up close – they would be enormous!

One thing that I almost missed out on – that I highly recommend doing – is the Presidential Trail. Its about a half mile trail and isn’t hugely strenuous. There are some twists, turns and stairs but the views cannot be beat. The trail gives you the opportunity the view Mount Rushmore from many different angles.

I cannot tell you how many times I put my camera away thinking, “Ok, I have enough photos” only to pull the darn thing out again because a new angle left me awestruck.

From the allure of old stories surrounding fortunes built on gold and the infamous gunslingers it attracted, to the profiles of some of our countries most beloved presidents – my trip to Deadwood did not disappoint.

I want to thank Holiday Inn for providing me a place to hide away from the world while I escaped to the past. I will never forget the opportunity I had to walk in the footsteps of legends – who lived in a time when the world danced on the line of lawlessness and law & order.

 

 

 

Wondering why Saloon No. 10’s floor is covered in sawdust? Or why I almost missed out on the Presidential Trail? Looking for tips on visiting or places to eat? Join me on Instagram or Facebook where I will be posting more photos, tips and stories from my trip – Hope to see you there!

Kris Williams

This is a sponsored conversation written by me on behalf of Holiday Inn. The opinions and text are all mine.

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America’s First Official Thanksgiving

Located on the banks of the James River in Charles City County, Va., is the Berkeley Plantation, a three-story brick mansion with a lot of history.

Built by Benjamin Harrison IV, it is the birthplace of descendants Benjamin Harrison V, a signer of the Declaration of Independence; William Henry Harrison, the ninth president of the United States; and the ancestral home of Benjamin Harrison, the twenty-third president.

But along with a list of prominent residents, the Berkley Plantation is also the purported site of the first official American Thanksgiving.

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Now, if you are anything like me, I was quick to dispute this. After all, especially being a New Englander, we were all taught the first Thanksgiving took place in the Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts. When the Mayflower arrived on the shores of Massachusetts, with its 102 passengers and about 30 crewmembers, it was welcomed by a harsh November climate. Due to exposure, disease and shortages of food, only 53 Pilgrims survived their first New England winter.

Were it not for the help of Squanto and the Wampanoag people, those 53 Pilgrims may not have had anything to be thankful for. Squanto is known for teaching the Pilgrims how to catch eel and grow crops, as well as acting as interpreter between them and the Wampanoag. Along with Squanto’s help, the Wampanoag leader Massasoit supplied the Pilgrims with food the first winter when supplies from England fell short.

Due to the help they received, the surviving Pilgrims of the Mayflower in early autumn of 1621 enjoyed their first successful harvest. To celebrate the occasion, a three-day feast was held attended by Massasoit, about 90 of his people, Squanto and the Pilgrims. This three-day event of games, singing and dancing while two cultures sat down sharing a meal is what has been romanticized by history as our first Thanksgiving.

However, a historian working at the Berkeley Plantation was kind enough to explain that the traditional meaning of Thanksgiving was strictly a religious observance. In the past it revolved entirely around days of prayer.

Thanksgiving was not an occasion designed with the sole purpose of eating until your stomach explodes (followed up by hours of football) like it has become today.  The Berkeley Plantation also argues there is no evidence that the Pilgrims declared their festival as a Thanksgiving.

Due to overpopulation, unemployment, poverty and a failing woolen industry, people in England looked to the New World as an opportunity for a better life. Looking for religious freedom, fortune and a bit of adventure, many boarded ships to settle in Virginia Colony. While many settlers fought to survive the horrible living conditions in Jamestown, four men in England planned settlement of what would become known as the Berkeley Hundred in Virginia.

With an 8,000-acre land grant along the James River from the London Company, William Throckmorton, Richard Berkeley, George Thorpe and John Smyth looked to make their fortune in tobacco crops.  Together, they commissioned Captain John Woodlief to lead the expedition and the assignment of establishing a government for the Berkeley Hundred.

On Sept. 16, 1619, Throckmorton, Berkeley, Thorpe, Smyth and Woodlief boarded the Good Ship Margaret in Kingrode, Bristol, England. Margaret carried a total of 38 men, all handpicked by Woodlief for their strength and skill. Also on board were large supplies of food, tools, weapons, construction and agricultural tools – as well as goods to trade with the natives.

Barely surviving the two and a half-month journey across the stormy Atlantic, the 47-ton, 35-foot-long ship finally arrived at its destination on Dec. 4, 1619. Once all 38 men were rowed to shore with their personal belongings, they all knelt as Captain Woodlief led them in prayer.

 

Following the specific requests of the London Company, Woodlief declared, “We ordaine that this day of our ships arrival, at the place assigned for plantacon, in the land of Virginia, shall be yearly and perpetually kept holy as a day of Thanksgiving to Almighty God.”

And it is this well-documented event that the Berkeley Plantation believes is the first official American Thanksgiving.

It is hard to deny the documents; the fact is this event took place almost two years before the Pilgrims’ harvest celebration – and it fits the traditional meaning of Thanksgiving. Yet the Berkeley Plantation cannot deny our modern national holiday, declared by Abraham Lincoln in 1863, more closely resembles the celebration of the Pilgrims in Plymouth Colony.

Regardless of where it was originally held, and our need as humans to always be the first, to me it has always been the spirit of the holiday that’s most important. It is about being tolerant and learning to appreciate each other’s differences, which is something our colonist ancestors did not excel at despite the stories we’ve been taught.

The holiday also serves as a reminder to be thankful for, and celebrate, the positive aspects in our lives – such as time with our family, friends and good health. In the end, these are important lessons that should be remembered throughout the year, beyond our one-day celebration of overdosing on turkey and pumpkin pie.

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The Parkes Observatory

July 20, 1969 six hundred million people worldwide sat glued to their televisions watching as Neil Armstrong emerged from Apollo 11. Making his way down the ladder, Armstrong’s feet finally made contact with the moon’s surface. What followed were his famous words, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”. Joined by Buzz Aldrin, the two men walked, hopped, and loped across the desolate landscape in ghostly black and white images.

In the short 2 ½ hours they spent on the moon’s surface, they worked fast to collect soil and rock samples, took photos, and raised the American flag. They also received a phone call from then president, Richard Nixon, who described it as “the most historic telephone call ever made”. The success of this historic event, which fulfilled the late John F. Kennedy’s mission to put a man on the moon before the end of the 1960s played out on live television for all the world to see.

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Driving through New South Wales, seven miles north of a small town called Parkes, I noticed a dish towering over a cluster of trees just off in the distance. Miles of flat open land stretched out around it, covered in a grass that gave off a golden glow in the late afternoon sun. Something about it just seemed so out of place-it really was in the middle of nowhere. Parking in the visitors’ lot, I couldn’t get over how enormous the Parkes Observatory was, and the more I got to know about it, it just continued to become even more beautiful.

The Parkes Observatory telescope was completed in 1961 with a 210ft movable dish. It is the second largest in the Southern Hemisphere and is still considered one of the best in the world. Although it has been involved in tracking many space missions over the years, its biggest claim to fame came in 1969 when NASA reached out to Australia asking for help with the Apollo 11 mission. NASA needed stations that could track Apollo 11 while the moon was over Australia.

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A total of three stations were used to track Apollo 11 while also relaying communication to NASA for the live broadcast of the landing. Originally NASA chose the Goldstone station in California and Honeysuckle Creek near Canberra, Australia as the main receiving stations. The Parkes Observatory was only supposed to be a backup station incase the other stations were unable to pick up signals from Apollo 11. However, that all changed when NASA realized the moon would be directly over Parkes Observatory when Apollo 11 was scheduled to land. Parkes then went from a backup to a main receiving station for the mission.

When the cameras on the Lunar Module were triggered all three stations picked up the signal. It was then up to NASA to bounce between each station to see who had the best coverage of the landing. The first eight minutes of the broadcast were carried by Honeysuckle Creek until NASA saw the quality of the images coming from Parkes. For the rest of the 2 ½ hour live broadcast, NASA stayed with Parkes’ signal. This made Australia the first to see the images seconds before the rest of the world. Due to the success of the Parkes’ telescope, NASA went on to build three telescopes for their Deep Space Network matching Parkes’ design.

Walking around the grounds of Parkes Observatory, I couldn’t help but imagine the excitement that went through the small town. Not only were they a huge component in the broadcasting of the Apollo 11 landing, their design went on to directly influence NASA’s program. It was definitely a huge accomplishment not only locally but for Australia as a whole.

The Parkes Observatory is just one of the many beautiful stops I would have never known existed if it weren’t for a little detour in my travels due to curiosity. With the success of Apollo 11, the stars were no longer out of reach of human contact. This one mission opened the imaginations from the young to old from 1969 to today. In that short 2 ½ hour live broadcast, all of those watching worldwide became one-we had done it.

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Discovering New Orleans Through Its Civil War History

I would like to thank Holiday Inn for partnering with me to make this post possible. As always, all opinions are my own!  Kris Williams

It has been a few years now since I learned about my ancestor William Z. Morey, who served on the side of the Union during the Civil War. At the age of 44, William enlisted as a private in the 26th Regiment, Massachusetts infantry, company H.

In November of 1861, the 26th regiment was ordered to report to General Butler. Sailing from Boston on the Constitution, they arrived on Ship Island off the coast of Mississippi on December 3, 1861.

It was here that William worked chopping wood, while Butler’s forces were readying themselves for their big move on New Orleans.

In April of 1862, the mouth of the Mississippi River was opened to the Union army by the success of Farragut’s fleet, which led to the occupation of forts St. Phillip and Jackson by the 26th Regiment.

In July of the same year, the 26th regiment moved on to occupy the city of New Orleans. This is where my 4th great grandfather’s regiment stayed until the summer of 1863.

However, the journey ended for William on January 12, 1863 when he died in a New Orleans Hospital.

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Up until I learned of William, New Orleans is where I had my first drink. It was a place that revolved around food, music, old cemeteries, mysterious swamp stories, voodoo and of course, Mardi Gras.

New Orleans was never a stop I associated with the Civil War.

With the generous help of Holiday Inn and inspired by my family’s personal connection to the city and time period, I decided to revisit New Orleans in hopes of getting a unique view of the city through it’s Civil War history.

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Civil War Tours of New Orleans:

My first introduction to the city’s Civil War history was through a Civil War French Quarter tour with Civil War Tours of New Orleans. Owned, operated and created by Nic Clark, the walking tour lasted about three hours and covered everything from secession to Union occupation.

With a love for Civil War study that spans over 20 years, over a decade of experience as a tour guide and a degree in History from Centenary College of Louisiana, Nic was like a walking encyclopedia.

There wasn’t one question he didn’t have an answer for – his knowledge on the topic was pretty impressive!

Although there were many points of interest covered on the tour, I wanted to share with you the ones I enjoyed most… the most surprising, lost little details (unknown to many visitors) on how the Civil War has played a part in shaping New Orleans culture.

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Tujagues:

Located a short 10-15 minute walk from Holiday Inn Chateau Lemoyne, Tujagues was not only the first stop on the tour – it was one of my favorites.

Nick explained that much of the bar remained the same as it had back when it was a popular hangout for Union soldiers. The soldiers would have walked through the same door, would have belly upped to the same bar and looked into the same mirror that you do today.

What put this stop on my list though… were the coffee cups.

Nick made a point of ordering a coffee so I could see what it was served in – a plain old glass tumbler.

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This is when I got a lesson on the Confiscation Acts of 1861 and 1862, which allowed Union forces to confiscate Confederate property. From weapons to slaves, right down to silverware and fine china – whatever wasn’t nailed down and held value could be confiscated.

The decision to continue using cheap, glass tumblers are a defiant, daily reminder of when the city was ransacked by the Union army.

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Café Du Monde:

Popular with both locals and tourists, Café Du Monde has become a New Orleans landmark and tradition since opening in 1862. 24 hours a day, 7 days a week – you will find patrons covered in powdered sugar, while enjoying their beignets, and chatting over cups of chicory coffee.

While beignets are delicious and understandingly popular, have you ever wondered how chicory coffee became a New Orleans’ staple?

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During the Civil War, the port of New Orleans was slapped with a blockade that was put in place by the Union Army. While the act crippled the local economy, New Orleanians were forced to find creative ways of making due with supplies they had on hand.

Being the second largest importer of coffee in the United States, the people of New Orleans decided to cut their coffee with another ingredient to stretch their remaining supply.

Enter chicory.

Although New Orleans was not the first to use chicory as a coffee substitute, I was surprised to learn that the use of chicory in New Orleans is a direct result of the blockade that was placed on New Orleans during the Civil War.

As to why New Orleanians still drink chicory today, Nic speculated it could be attributed to combination of tradition, an acquired taste or again, a defiant reminder of the city’s past.

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Jackson Square and “Beastly” Butler

While touring the French Quarter with Nic, the last thing I expected to hear was that Butler was from Lowell, Massachusetts – the town of my birth.

On this third stop, I learned several things of interest about the disliked Union General Benjamin Butler, the treatment of Union soldiers in New Orleans, confiscated goods that made their way to Boston, as well as a mark Butler left on Jackson Square.

Benjamin Butler was known in the North as a successful lawyer, a controversial Major General in the Civil War and politician, who served as a Massachusetts congressman and as the 33rd Governor of Massachusetts.

Known as “Beastly” Butler in the South, he was strongly despised and is still disliked today.

One of Butler’s most notorious and widely disliked orders was Butler’s General Order No. 28, which was put in place on May 15, 1862.

During the occupation of New Orleans, the women of New Orleans would publicly disrespect, insult, even physically abuse the Union Soldiers in protest of their presence in the city. From swearing and spitting at soldiers to ignoring their presence and dumping the contents of their chamber pots on soldiers heads from upper floor windows…

Butler looked to put an end to the unlady-like behavior.

The act basically stated, if a woman were to openly mistreat any United States soldier or officer… it was then acceptable to treat her like a common prostitute.

Although the purpose of Butler’s act was to tell the women of New Orleans – if you weren’t going to behave like a lady, you wouldn’t be treated like one – it opened the door to women of the city being assaulted by less than respectable men who perversely twisted the intention of the act.

I can see why Butler would have been hated.

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In addition to acts like the one above, Butler was known for his questionable behavior when it came to the Confiscation Acts.

Butler was known for seizing everything from property, to cotton and other personal belongings of value from New Orleanians he deemed disloyal to the United States. Adding salt to the already festering wound, Nic said Bulter would then sell these goods at rigged auctions – making a personal profit off of the confiscated property.

During this part of the tour I was surprised to learn, one of the many things looted… errr confiscated… from New Orleans by Butler were five bronze-colored bells that were sold to a church in Boston.

Another unexpected connection to home!

After all these years, there is still at least one physical mark left on New Orleans from Butler. To check it out, Nic brought me to Jackson Square to have a look at the statue of General Andrew Jackson.

The statue, which was erected before Butler’s arrival, sits on a large stone base in the center of the square. Just beneath the statue, “Beastly” Butler had the words “The Union Must and Shall Be Preserved” engraved …serving as a final reminder (or dig) of the city’s fall, which goes unnoticed by most today.

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St. James General Hospital

For as long as I have known about my Civil War ancestor William Z. Morey, I have struggled to locate the hospital he passed away in. Every document I have lists his place of death as St. James General Hospital in New Orleans, LA… cause of death consumption.

With every new search on its location, I hit a new dead end – until I met Nic.

Although St. James was not on his Civil War French Quarter Tour, I have to credit Nic for helping me break through this brick wall.

When Union forces occupied New Orleans, it wasn’t uncommon for them to use local hotels as makeshift hospitals. So, the hospital William died in was actually St. James Hotel – used and referred to as St. James General Hospital during the war.

Once Nic filled me in on this little secret, I was bummed to learn the hotel had moved a couple of doors down and it’s original location was torn down in the late 1800’s to make way for the Board of Trade Plaza.

Being the persistent (annoying) person that I am… I decided to reach out to several local historical societies as well as The Board of Trade Plaza, in hopes they might have more information on the original St. James… or with any luck – a photo of the old building.

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I have had no luck finding a photo, however chairmen from the Board of Trade Plaza were kind enough to leave me a book titled, 316 Magazine Street March 16, 1968 Plaza Dedication – The New Orleans Board of Trade, Ltd written by Edward J. Cocke. The book dives into the history of New Orleans and The Board of Trade Plaza… which included a couple of blurbs on the St. James Hotel.

Located on Magazine St., the St. James Hotel was built in 1856 and was considered a fine hotel for its time. Just five years later, the hotel began to serve as a Union hospital until 1865.

My ancestor William, was admitted into St. James Hospital on January 1, 1863… dying 11 days later on January 12th of consumption.

According to the book, the entrance to the Board of Trade Plaza was hidden by a five story structure that stood in front of it, the St. James Hotel. In 1889, the hotel was bought by the Board of Trade to serve as an annex and the lobby was renovated into an elaborate, open air entrance way from Magazine St. Once the building was bought, St. James hotel moved to another location just a few doors down from the original structure.

While I was upset to learn the original hotel was gone, I was happy to learn elements from the old building were salvaged to decorate the open air entrance way into the Board of Trade and it’s courtyard.

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According to the book, the “square Corinthian cast iron columns and arches” from the first floor of the St. James were reused in the entrance of the Board of Trade (pictured above on the right). In addition to the columns and arches, they also utilized “the cast iron arched lintels of the fifth story windows to form a blind arcade of five arches, corresponding in detail and spacing to the original windows of the old hotel…” to decorate the opposite side of the plaza (pictured above on the left behind the trees).

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They also reconstructed three of the six original window openings with the “cast iron cornices and consoles” from the third floor of the old hotel to decorate the inside of the open air entrance. Looking past the main gate in the photo above, you can see these details decorating the inside wall on the right.

Even though the actual building is long gone… the character of the original St. James has been carried over into the open air entrance and courtyard of the Board of Trade Plaza.

As I stood peering through the main gate, I couldn’t help but wonder if any of these elements decorated the window my ancestor may have gazed out of during his stay…

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Oak Alley Plantation

While Oak Alley Plantation is not located in New Orleans, I felt that it was important to visit a plantation since they played a huge part in the Civil War and would have been directly affected by the war and  blockade in New Orleans.

Located an hour west of Holiday Inn Chateau Lemoyne in New Orleans, I was excited to revisit Oak Alley Plantation. Known for it’s beautiful oak lined entrance and appearances in popular TV shows and movies like Interview with a Vampire – I have always appreciated Oak Alley’s straight forward approach in teaching the history of plantation life.

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The Plantation House:

Situated on the west bank of the Mississippi River in Vacherie, Louisiana, Oak Alley Plantation was built in the late 1830’s by Jacques Roman. Nine years later in 1848, Jacques died of tuberculosis leaving his wife Marie Therese Josephine Celina Pilié Roman (aka Celina) in charge of the estate.

Besides the fact Celina was incapable of running a sugar plantation, she had an extreme problem with spending which nearly bankrupted the business. This lead to her son, Henri taking control of the property in 1859 in hopes of getting things back on track.

Although Oak Alley didn’t suffer from any physical damage from the Civil War, like all plantations, it did suffer economically. Between the family’s debt and the end of slavery, Henri’s efforts to save the estate were failing.

The family was forced to sell the plantation at auction, where it sold to John Armstrong for a $32,800 ($480,000 in today’s money).

From there, the property changed hands several times and began to fall into disrepair. For a while it was even inhabited by a herd of cows… Not kidding. During a bad thunderstorm, the cows managed to break into the abandoned plantation house and there they lived for 12 years – destroying the Italian marble that once covered the entire first floor.

It wasn’t until 1925 that the mansion and it’s 1,200 acers were bought by Andrew Stewart for $50,000. Andrew and his wife Josephine renovated and modernized the house running it as a cattle ranch and later reintroduced the growing of sugar cane.

Following Andrew’s death and shortly before her own on October 3, 1972, Josephine decided to create a non-profit foundation known as the Oak Alley Foundation. Donating the home and 25 acres of land, the purpose of Oak Alley Foundation has been to keep the historic home and grounds open to the public.

(An interesting side note… one of the co-owners of Cafe Du Monde is a descendant of the original owners of Oak Alley Plantation!)

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Slavery at Oak Alley Exhibit:

What I love about Oak Alley is that it does not hide it’s history. It is dedicated to teaching visitor’s of the Plantation about life on the plantation in full – from the grandiose life of the plantation owners to the daily life of Oak Alley’s enslaved community.

Wandering this section of the grounds visitors are able to check out a house slave’s cabin, a field slave’s cabin, a post-emancipation residence and a sick house.

It was interesting to learn about the difference in work, treatment and clothing between the house slaves in comparison to the field slaves. The work was not as physically demanding, however their work did not end until the plantation owners went to bed. They were responsible for watching the children, cooking dinner and running errands for the family. For this reason – house slaves were dressed well to reflect the plantation owners social status.

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Field slaves faced grueling 12-14 hour work days… which I would imagine was unbearable in the hot and humid Louisiana summer. One plaque even discussed the inadequate food rations provided by the Roman family, which resulted in slaves growing their own gardens and raising their own animals to make up for the stingy rations.  Add the efforts in tending to their own gardens and raising their own animals after a 12-14 hour day in the fields… sleep doesn’t sound like something they got much of.

I was surprised to learn some slaves sold what they grew back to the Roman family. The small source of income helped them buy young livestock and other necessities to further provide for their own families.

Although slavery is no doubt one of the darkest periods in our history as a nation – the stories from this time period are important ones to tell. Oak Alley does a fantastic job of covering the history of the plantation as honestly, accurately and tastefully as possible, which I believe is an important element in making sure we never repeat the failings of our past.

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Civil War Encampment: 

On the grounds of Oak Alley plantation you will find a Civil War encampment, which consists of a commanding officer’s tent. I was told all the artifacts in the tent belonged to Confederate General Richard Taylor.

The encampment was one of the many reasons I wanted to return to Oak Alley. I hoped that visiting this section would give me a better idea of what life might have been like for my ancestors who served.

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Stationed at the camp was a man dressed in Confederate uniform, who was able to give me some background on the tent and all the artifacts inside. I was surprised to learn the tent would have taken a total of two hours to put up and take down.

While the tent was an example of a Confederate General’s tent, I was told a Union General’s tent would have looked similar. For my ancestor William and my other ancestors who served as privates, the best they would have had was a pop tent or a blanket and tree for cover.

Between the unfamiliar climate and lack of cover – no wonder so many soldiers died of disease!

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Chalmette National Cemetery:

Driving 20 minutes east from Holiday Inn Chateau Lemoyne, I finally arrived at the last stop of my journey, Chalmette National Cemetery.

Originally established in May 1862 as Monument Cemetery, Chalmette National Cemetery has become the final resting place for nearly 16,000 soldiers and some civilians. Out of the 16,000, about 200 of those are unknown – no names mark their stones,  just numbers.

Luckily, William Z. Morey was not one of those 200.

In fact, like many others, William had been laid to rest at another location before being moved to Chalmette National Cemetery.

The cemetery was long and narrow – I couldn’t get over how many headstones there were. There was only one road in and out making it easy to navigate but I still had no idea where to begin.

Grabbing a printed self guided tour, I noticed there were only five highlighted graves… one of which was only 5 plot numbers off from William.

Talk about luck!

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After a few minutes of searching section 62 and 13 fire ant bites later (a story for another day), I finally found my 4th great grandfather, William Z. Morey!

For awhile I stood in silence, wondering what it was like to be his wife Elizabeth… learning that her husband had passed and that her eight kids were then fatherless.

I wondered what it would have been like for her, knowing that his body wouldn’t be coming home. Instead, he’d be laid to rest in some far off state. What kind of ceremony did they have for soldiers like, William – if anything?

Having seen photos of his grave online, I knew other descendants had visited his grave… but did his wife or kids ever get the chance?

Finally, how would he have have reacted to being known by and having his gravesite visited by a 4th great grandchild?

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Did William belly up to the bar at Tujagues? Did he care for the chicory or spend time in Jackson Square? Would he have had stories to tell about “Beastly” Butler or experienced poor treatment from locals for being apart of the occupation?

It is all very likely…

Its clear to see the Civil War left it’s mark on New Orleans, which leads me to believe the War and New Orleans would have left a mark on my ancestor, William Z. Morey.

I would like to thank Holiday Inn for helping me connect with my ancestor. Being given the opportunity to revisit New Orleans in this unique way, I can honesty say the city’s past and what I have learned about my ancestor’s time there has forever left a mark on me.

 

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Haunted by a Queen’s Broken Heart

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Most people get into paranormal investigation for their love and interest in the supernatural. For me, that was not the case. Although my family and I shared several unexplainable experiences, it was my love of history that pulled me in.

Paranormal investigation has brought me to historic locations across the United States and around the world. These locations opened my eyes to places and people I never knew existed. Many of their stories, which are stranger than any fiction, have left me amazed, horrified and even inspired. One of the stories that still comes to mind is a famous 12th century English castle, believed to be haunted by a queen’s broken heart.

Castle Rising Castle, built in 1140 AD, is located in the English countryside. This beautiful, old stone structure stands surrounded by a wall of dirt carpeted with grass and wild flowers. Inside its walls lay a labyrinth of rooms connected by narrow passageways and spiral staircases. It is within these passageways, staircases and rooms that people claim to see unexplainable shadow figures, and hear the sounds of footsteps and inconsolable sobbing. To get a better understanding of this supposed haunt, let’s take a look at the life of a previous resident who locals believe is responsible for the activity.

Queen Isabella of France was born to King Philip IV of France and Queen Joan I of Navarre in Paris around 1295. From the time Isabella was an infant, her father had promised her in marriage to King Edward II of England to resolve territorial conflicts between France and England.

As a child, following the death of her mother, Isabella was raised by the family’s nurse. Growing up in palaces around Paris, she was given a good education and developed a strong love for books covering topics such as history, astrology, geometry and romance. She grew to be known for her high level of intelligence, charm, diplomatic ways and beauty. However it was a rare talent she developed of rallying people to follow her that would eventually lead to the fall of her husband.

At the age of 12, on January 25, 1308, Isabella married King Edward II of England at Boulogne-sur-Mer. Their marriage was hardly a story of “happily ever after.” From the beginning of their marriage her husband King Edward was rumored to have questionable relationships with other men he had taken a particular liking to. In many ways he was known to have held these men in higher regard than he did Isabella. It was then up to this child bride to use her intelligence and diplomatic nature to find her place within the marriage and political arena.

Piers Gaveston — a soldier described as arrogant, reckless and headstrong — was the first of her husband’s favorites that Isabella was forced to contend with. Although Edward held Gaveston in his good graces, he was strongly disliked by the English barons and Isabella’s father King Philip IV of France. This led to his brief exile to Ireland. After his return to England, the baron’s dislike for Gaveston caused his execution in 1311 following Edward’s failed campaign against Scotland.

Having narrowly escaped capture by the Scots, and despite the civil war that broke out in England against Edward and Gaveston, Isabella stood by her husband. Turning to her family back in France, she wrote asking her uncles for their support of her husband while she worked to make allies of her own.

During this time of turmoil in England, Isabella gave birth to the future king Edward III and soon found herself once again second in her husband’s eyes.

While Edward looked to get revenge for Gaveston’s death, he found a new favorite and confidant in Hugh Despenser the younger.  Being the same age as Edward, Hugh Despenser also shared common enemies. As England struggled through famine, financial problems, continuous failed campaigns against Scotland led by Edward and his power struggle with the barons, Isabella tried, unsuccessfully, to work with Hugh Despenser. The barons who also disliked Hugh, reached out to Isabella asking her to publicly request that Edward exile him to prevent a war.

The Despenser’s exile was short lived. It wasn’t long before Edward formed a plan to bring back Hugh while defeating the barons. Together Edward and Hugh ruled and imposed a harsh revenge confiscating land, and imprisoning or executing their enemies along with punishing their enemies’ extended family members. They eventually turned their sights on Isabella, leaving her behind to fend for herself during one of Edward’s campaigns against the Scottish. They stripped her of her land and household, arrested and imprisoned her French staff. The custody of her children were given to the Despensers after she refused to take an oath of loyalty to them. Isabella, betrayed by her husband, now looked to take radical actions against him and Hugh Despenser the younger.

As tensions between England and France continued to rise, Isabella saw a chance to act. When Edward refused to pay homage to her brother, King Charles IV of France, her uncle began attacking and taking land under English control. Afraid to leave England — because he thought the barons would use the opportunity to rebel against him and the Despensers — he sent Isabella to France as an ambassador. To mend the tension created by Edward’s disrespect, Isabella agreed to a truce promising her son Edward III would come to France to pay homage in his father’s behalf.

With her son’s arrival, Isabella’s plan was put into action when she refused to return to England. Edward II began sending urgent messages to King Charles for the return of Isabella and his son Edward III, to which Charles responded that the “queen has come of her own will and may freely return if she wishes. But if she prefers to remain here, she is my sister and I refuse to expel her.”

Isabella and Edward’s marriage was clearly over. Dressing as a widow she publicly claimed that it was Hugh Despenser that destroyed their marriage. She then fell in love with Roger Mortimer.

Roger Mortimer was an English lord, husband and father of 12 who had been arrested and imprisoned at the Tower of London by Edward II. Following his escape from the Tower, he fled to France for safety where he was eventually introduced to Isabella. As Isabella worked to assemble a court she also promised her son in marriage to Philippa, daughter of count William I of Hainault, in exchange for a large dowry. With the dowry and a loan from her brother Charles, Isabella and Roger raised an army to defeat their common enemies, Edward II and the Despensers.

After setting sail from France with their army, Isabella and Roger landed in England with little resistance. As their army swept inland, it only continued to grow in size as others opposed to Edward II’s regime joined her forces. As word of Isabella’s success and advance reached Edward, he managed to flee to Wales.  After recovering her children from the Despensers, Edward and Hugh were finally captured.

As punishment, Hugh Despenser was dragged by a horse and presented to Isabella and Roger in front of a large crowd. He was then hanged, castrated and drawn and quartered, while his father Hugh Despenser the elder was captured, killed and fed to the local dogs. Most of Edward and Hugh’s major supporters were executed while those with a smaller role were pardoned. As for Edward II, he was deposed and placed under house arrest for the rest of his life only to die a sudden and mysterious death in which the possibility of Isabella and Roger’s involvement is still debated.

Following the arrest of Edward II, Prince Edward was confirmed as Edward III. Being far too young to lead the country, Isabella was appointed regent. Together, Isabella and Roger Mortimer ruled over England for four years. In those four years the pair became obsessed with accumulating wealth and land, while their former supporters began to question Isabella’s rule and Roger’s behavior.

Isabella’s son Edward III then married and became increasingly annoyed by Roger’s display of power. After working quietly to gather support, Edward III followed through with his plot to take control of England. Surprising Isabella and Roger at Nottingham Castle with 23 armed men, Edward III arrested Roger. Isabella begged her son to have mercy on her lover, and while she avoided execution, Roger was not so lucky. Though Edward III did show him some mercy — by not having him disemboweled or quartered.

After spending a short time under house arrest at Windsor Castle, Isabella moved into her own castle, Castle Rising. It is here that Isabella was reported to have suffered from fits of madness over the death of her love Roger Mortimer.

Isabella was promised in marriage to Edward II as an infant. She was a young woman who had a love for romance novels only to become a queen that was unloved and betrayed by her king. She then gave birth to a son who would grow to execute the only man she ever loved.

Could Queen Isabella be haunting the halls of Rising Castle, still mourning the death of Roger Mortimer? No one could really say for sure, but this is what some locals believe. Learning her story breathed life into what was otherwise just a beautiful stone shell, known as Rising Castle.

Despite Isabella’s flaws and the fact that history has dubbed her as the She-wolf of France, it was hard not to be impressed by her determination and accomplishments. It is also upsetting to think of her still roaming the halls of Rising Castle grieving, hundreds of years after Roger Mortimer’s death.

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The Antietam National Battlefield Memorial Illumination

I would like to thank Holiday Inn for partnering with me to make this post possible. As always, all opinions are my own!

– Kris Williams

Have you ever learned of a location that left you with an extreme desire to go? For me, that was the Antietam National Battlefield. Not only did I have to get there someday, I needed to get there for a specific day.

That one special day, everything in me insisted on experiencing, was The Antietam National Battlefield Memorial Illumination.

I am willing to bet many of my readers will be left wondering the same things I did when I first heard of this location and event… What is Antietam all about? And what is an Illumination Memorial?

It is amazing how much we don’t know about our own history. While I am sure every American has heard of the Civil War, I think Gettysburg will be the one and only battle they are familiar with.

Although Gettysburg is definitely one of many battles that shouldn’t be forgotten, the devastation at Antietam is one most Americans have never heard of… Unless, of course, you live local to the battlefield or you’re a Civil War buff.

So, what was Antietam?

On September 17, 1862, about 100,000 soldiers engaged in battle in the small town of Sharpsburg, Maryland. Antietam, referred to as Sharpsburg by Southerners, was a 12-hour battle that left a total of 23,000 men dead, wounded or missing. Known as “The Bloodiest One Day Battle in American History”, it was a narrow victory for the Union Army.

At the cost of 23,000 men dead, wounded or missing, what did the Union gain?

There were a few things the Union gained from the victory at Antietam.

  • Due to other losses, the Union’s morale among soldiers and citizens was shaken. The North needed a victory more than ever in hopes of turning things around. The win at Antietam not only give the North a badly needed morale boost, it put a stop to the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia’s first invasion into Union territory.
  • It also enabled Lincoln to release The Emancipation Proclamation. With its release, the North not only fought to preserve the Union, it looked to bring an end to slavery.
  • Finally, the victory squashed all threat of British intervention on the side of the Confederacy.

What is the Illumination Memorial all about?

The Antietam National Battlefield Memorial Illumination is an annual event that honors the memory of each soldier who was killed, wounded or went missing during the Battle of Antietam.

On December 5, 2015, I was fortunate enough to experience their 27th Memorial Illumination, which was hosted by the Antietam National Battlefield, the American Business Women’s Association and the Washington County Convention and Visitors’ Bureau.

In memory of each solider, a candle is carefully placed on the battlefield. In total, 23,000 candles line a five-mile route that is included in a driving tour.

During this driving tour, visitors are instructed to only use their parking lights and are expected to drive through without stopping or getting out of their vehicles.

Due to the popularity of the Antietam National Battlefield Memorial Illumination, lines to get into the event can be a two-hour wait.

I promise you; it is well worth it.

My Visit to Antietam National Battlefield Memorial Illumination…

Starting my day at Visitor’s Center, I had a chat with the staff before grabbing some pamphlets and a self-guided Battlefield tour.

Jumping back into my rental, I started to make my way around Antietam’s 11 points of interest. However, before I could even focus on Antietam’s history something else caught my eye.

The first thing I noticed, which was hard to miss, were the volunteers. I had gotten to the battlefield around 10am but you could tell they had started their day hours earlier.

They were everywhere.

Young and old… Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, veterans, local organizations and residents. Working in large groups, they carefully placed each luminary. Using rope, they worked tirelessly to be sure each was placed with the others in straight lines.

Watching the process and the number of people involved was pretty impressive.

Battlefield Highlights…

While there are several points of interest at Antietam, I have decided to highlight the ones that affected me the most during my visit since It would be impossible to cover each location and monument properly in this short article.

Dunker Church

Built in 1852, this little church became the center of several attacks made by the Union Army against the Confederates. As if a battle breaking out around a church wasn’t odd enough – the use for it following the battle would put a chill up most spines.

Like most homes and buildings at the time, the church was used as a makeshift hospital looking after some of the 17,000 wounded soldiers. Some even believe the church was used as an embalming station by the Union Army following the battle of Antietam.

Bloody Lane

The three-hour battle, which took place on The Sunken Road is an unimaginable one. In that short period of time, 5,500 men were killed or wounded… earning the otherwise quaint, country road the name, Bloody Lane.

It was on this 1.5-mile trail that 2,200 Confederates did all they could to hold off 10,000 Union soldiers.

The survivor’s stories of the battle are horrific to say the least. Then there are the photographs that show the old farm road over flowing with the dead…

For a place that would otherwise be viewed as peaceful countryside – this location was once someone’s worst nightmare and final resting spot.

As I stood where 5,500 men once fell… I couldn’t help but get upset.

Antietam National Cemetery

Antietam National Cemetery was created to solve problems the large number of dead created for the living. Originally, soldiers were buried where they fell in shallow graves. Before long, the bodies started resurfacing.

Besides the fact this would be a horrific sight, this problem would lead to disease and death for those living in Sharpsburg. In order to solve the problem, money was raised to build a cemetery to bury the dead.

At first, the plan was to bury both Union and Confederate soldiers in the new cemetery. However, tensions between the North and South were still too fresh. To deal with the problem, Confederates were moved to three local cemeteries while 4,776 Union soldiers were moved to the newly created, Antietam National Cemetery.

Before it became a cemetery, this plot of land was used by Confederate artillery. Today, you can visit and pay respects to the Union soldiers who were buried here, as well as dead from four other wars.

There were a few things that hit me emotionally at this location…

  • One was knowing those buried here were just fraction of those who died during the Battle of Antietam…
  • Second, For every stone that bared the name of the dead… there were several markers that just displayed a number. The number of bodies that weren’t identified are heart breaking. Imagine how many families saw their loved ones off only to hear nothing in the end. I’m sure in their hearts they knew their loved one’s fate… but not knowing the how, when or where they were laid to rest must have been hard to deal with.
  • Finally, the statue of a Union private, which stood in the middle of the cemetery, was hard to miss. Encircling this statue were lines to a poem, followed by headstones… his comrades, that all seemed to be standing at attention.

The Antietam National Battlefield Illumination

Headed back to the Visitor’s Center with a new appreciation of Antietam, I was lucky enough to attend the Illumination Ceremony.

During the Illumination Ceremony, many people involved in the memorial including organizers, volunteers and state representatives spoke on the importance of the Memorial Illumination and what it has meant to them personally. There was prayer and song for those who died during battle. At one point TAPS could be heard from Dunker Church followed by Amazing Grace on bagpipes from the Visitor’s Center.

It was during this ceremony that I learned the Antietam National Battlefield Illumination was in its 27th year and 1,500 people volunteer annually to help setup the candles.

The fact that that many still people care today, about an event that happened so long ago, left me speechless.

There were several points during the ceremony that touched me, but the moment that stuck with me most of all came when a musician approached the microphone.

Taking to his guitar he began to play as he sang the words to Hallelujah. His voice and the words to the song eerily drifted over the battlefield and with it my heart sank.

The reality of my trip, of the whole experience had finally hit. With a fresh pair of eyes and a sun that was quickly setting, I stood surrounded by thousands of flickering little bags of light.

These flickering little bags of light stood in formation, stretching for as far as I could see in all directions.

23,000 luminaires.

23,000… each representing a husband, father, brother, son, uncle and friend who had died, had been wounded or had gone missing where I stood in a 12-hour battle.

23,000 men.

I stood imagining the shadows of these men standing beside me. I imagined the sounds and smell of the gun and cannon fire. I imagined the chaos, horror and fear that would come with battle. I imagined the dead, the dying and the wounded crying out for help.

To say I was overwhelmed with emotion would be an understatement. I wondered if it were strange to be so emotional over an event that took place long before I was born?

As the ceremony came to an end and the crowd began to disperse, I found myself left behind in the silence with a handful of others who had permits to photograph the memorial.

As I sat, surrounded by candlelight, I realized two things.

  • One was that numbers are cold and are incapable of telling the full story. Simply hearing or reading the number 23,000 does not make the same impression as seeing that number physically represented. I found the candles made it easier to grasp just how devastating Antietam was.
  • The second thing I realized, no distinction was made when it came to who was Confederate and who was Union. No one cared. The purpose of the memorial wasn’t to remember one side or the other. Who won or who lost. The point was… They were all American.

The Civil War wasn’t some far off battle fought between two foreign lands. It was fought in our own backyards and pitted our ancestors against each other. It tore families apart, leaving in its wake hundreds of thousands of dead and left a generation of Americans in shambles.

At a time when our country couldn’t be more divided, there are many lessons to be learned at Antietam that couldn’t be more important.

I would encourage everyone reading this article to visit.

From the history of the Antietam Battlefield itself, as well as the buildings and memorials that stand as reminders of the past, to the 1,500 volunteers that give up countless hours to thoughtfully place each candle and the hundreds if not thousands who wait to enter the memorial each year…

The Antietam National Battlefield Memorial Illumination is an experience I will never forget.

I will be forever grateful to the Holiday Inn for helping me check this must see destination off my list and – I look forward to returning one day.