History on the Blur

Wednesday, March 28, 2012 Road Junkies 0 Comments

Williamsburg, VA to Fredericksburg, VA

On our way to Fredericksburg today, we decided to pause in Richmond to catch a couple of places we missed when we were there over the weekend.  Our first stop was the historic St. John's Church, the site of a famous speech.
Built in 1741 and still an active Episcopal church, St. John's (above) was where Patrick Henry delivered his impassioned "Liberty or Death" speech to the Virginia Convention in 1775.  That oration was credited with tipping the balance in persuading the Virginia legislature to send troops to fight against the British and join the revolution against the monarchy.  Uniting with Massachusetts in this effort transformed it to a national movement, rather than a regional one.
As we arrived at the church, three Richmond school buses were loading up a herd of sixth graders who had just experienced a powerful history lesson.   Today these middle schoolers sat in the pews where the convention delegates met while professional actors in 1770s attire portrayed delegates, recreating some of the debates and arguments of that meeting.  The reenactment ended with Patrick Henry's immortal "Give me liberty or give me death!" speech.  Think that might be more memorable than reading the social studies book?  In addition to these educational performances, public reenactments are performed each summer Sunday and on the anniversary of the speech.
From the church, we made our way to Monument Avenue.  Extending nearly five miles from downtown Richmond westward, Monument Avenue is a grand tree-lined boulevard populated with gracious homes, churches and apartment buildings of architectural significance.  At regular intervals on the grassy mall that divides the lanes of the street stand imposing statues of Confederate leaders.
The street was conceived as planners sought an appropriate site for a Robert E. Lee memorial after his death in 1870.  Once Lee's memorial was unveiled in 1890, construction began on the additional monuments. The final list also included Confederate President Jefferson Davis, Generals J.E.B. Stuart and Stonewall Jackson, and Navy leader Matthew Maury with the last statue unveiled in 1929.
Controversy erupted in the 1990s when a group of citizens proposed adding a statue of the ground-breaking African American tennis player and Richmond native son Arthur Ashe to Monument Avenue.  Opposition came from both supporters of Ashe, who didn't want to see him memorialized amidst those who fought to preserve slavery and from those who wanted to maintain the avenue's purity as a Confederate shrine.  In the end, Ashe's statue was added to the avenue.
From Richmond, we drove to the coastal Westmoreland County, the birthplace of several early American leaders.  One the way, we couldn't resist stopping for a letterbox at the location where John Wilkes Booth met his demise.  With that delay, it was 3:30 by the time we reached our first stop on the Westmoreland famous sons tour— Stratford Hall, the stately home of four generations of the Lee family.  Built in the 1730s, Stratford Hall sits on 1,900 acres along the Potomac River.  In 1807, Robert E. Lee was born here, and according to Martha, our very knowledgeable tour guide, he spent only four years on the plantation before his spendthrift father landed in debtor's prison and lost the estate.
Stratford Hall, the Lee family home
Leaving Stratford after 4:00, we dashed nine miles over to the George Washington Birthplace National Monument.  Significantly more modest than the majestic shrine erected at the location of Lincoln's log cabin birthplace in Kentucky, the Washington site includes an outline showing where the house of his birth once stood and replicas of a typical colonial house and garden.  Nearby are a memorial obelisk and the family burial ground. 
George Washington birthplace site
We didn't have the opportunity to explore all the grounds because we wanted to see the spot where Westmoreland hero #3 on our tour came into the world.  Another nine miles got us there, on James Monroe Highway.  Although Monroe contributed significant accomplishments to the American fabric, he lacked the glamour of the military exploits of Washington and Lee.  No more than a simple roadside park with a small visitor center and a minor obelisk, Monroe's birthplace paled in comparison to even the Washington site.
James Monroe birthplace monument
After this whirlwind tour of these locations, we arrived in Fredericksburg about 6:15, just in time to get stopped in a traffic snarl created by an overturned tractor trailer.  Too late and tired to start on the many Fredericksburg sites today, we finally made it to the local Bravo Cucina for dinner before falling into bed.
 "Thanks a lot for ticking me off!"
Dianne, to Ken after he removed a tick passenger that climbed on board at the Booth site and attached to my shoulder

  • Miles driven: 194
  • Weather: 57° to 70°, sunny to rain 
  • States today: 1 (VA)
  • Letterboxes found: 2
  • Monuments on Monument Avenue:  6
  • Stately homes on Monument Avenue:  215
  • Ticks on board:  1
  • Interpretive signs we read today:  187