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The Chronicles of Richmond

Originally Published in MotorHome Magazine

Of the 10,455 military engagements that took place during the four tumultuous years of the
War Between the States, 2,154 took place on Virginia soil. It’s almost impossible to drive
more than a few miles in any direction in Virginia without seeing signs of Civil War
activity. Two of these locations, the Museum and White House of the Confederacy, and
Pamplin Historical Park and the National Museum of the Civil War Soldier, are situated just
25 miles apart. Like many of the battlefields and sites that played a significant part in
the conflict, both have been preserved for history — and provide a vivid view into what
life was like for those who lived during some of the hardest days of our country’s history.
If you start early in the day, it is possible to visit both of these locations in a single
day, starting with the Museum of the Confederacy in the heart of Richmond, and continuing
south to Petersburg where Pamplin Park is located. However, since there are many other
historic sites in Richmond — ranging from Tredegar Iron Works (location for the main
interpretative center for the National Battlefield Parks) to the venerable Hollywood
Cemetery (final resting place of, among others, General Jeb Stuart) — you might want to
consider setting aside a day for each of these Civil War venues. As Virginia’s state
capital, Richmond also boasts a number of other attractions, by the way, including the
museum, historic gardens, carriage collection, nature center, children’s farm and 100-acre
park that, together, comprises the wonderful Maymont House. You don’t need to be a Civil
War buff to appreciate Virginia’s unique place in American history, but it helps.
Museum and White House of the Confederacy At the onset, the Confederacy
chose Montgomery, Alabama, as its capital, but when the state of Virginia seceded, the
heartbeat of the South was moved to Richmond, just 100 miles south of Washington, D.C. One
of the first orders of business for the newly created government was to find a home for
Confederate President Jefferson Davis that would accommodate his growing family, while
providing a suitable place for conducting the business of government — and for continuing
the gracious entertaining for which the South was famous. So it was that the city of
Richmond purchased a stately mansion, which became known as the Confederate White House.
Built in 1818, the home dominated a knoll overlooking Shockoe Valley. Today it is
surrounded and dwarfed by tall buildings, but the structure has been beautifully restored,
and provides visitors with an insight into the lifestyle of the Davis family. The
neo-Classic home originally belonged to a doctor. During the ensuing years, it changed
hands a number of times. A subsequent owner had added a third floor to the home, providing
adequate space for the Davises and their servants. The mansion even had been plumbed to
accommodate a flushing toilet. At first, whale oil provided light for the ornate gasoliers,
which hung from the ceilings of each room. At a later date, natural gas was piped into the
home. The brick exterior of the mansion was covered with stucco, which was scored and
painted. As you approach the front of the mansion from the street, you might be surprised
at how plain it appears. However, such town homes saved the stately appearance traditional
to a southern home for the rear of the residence, which, in the case of this mansion,
overlooked gardens. It is in the rear that you will see the lofty portico so often
associated with Southern homes. The mansion provided a comfortable home for the Davis
family, as well as serving as the political and social center for the Confederacy. In
keeping with tradition, the basement was set aside for servants. It was here that the Davis
children took most of their meals, and it is where you will begin your tour (which includes
11 rooms that have been restored and furnished as they appeared during the days they were
occupied by the Davises). The ornate state dining room, which had a table that could seat
20 guests, also served as a place for Davis to spread out maps when meeting with his
generals. Servants had to carry food to the dining room from a detached kitchen and up
steep stairs. After state dinners, the men would retire to the parlor to smoke cigars and
discuss the war, and the ladies would occupy the adjacent drawing room. On the second floor
is the office where Davis planned war strategies with his staff. Although there were
government offices a few blocks away, Davis was not in good health, and preferred the
comfort of his home office. Right next to the office was the spacious nursery, which was
occupied by the five Davis children and their nanny. A favorite room of Jefferson and
Varina Davis was the small library, where the Davises often retreated to read. On the
mantle are two vases that were given to Davis by the Emperor of China when Davis was
serving as secretary of war. In the spacious bedroom shared by Jefferson and Varina are two
early recliners, known as reading machines. Adjacent to the bedroom is a small room where
Varina kept a sewing machine and desk — in addition to official business expected of a
first lady, she kept herself busy making and mending clothes for her children. On March 31,
1865, as Union troops closed in on Richmond, Davis sent his family southward. Two days
later, he also fled, attempting to stay ahead of Union troops. Two days after Davis
departed Richmond, President Abraham Lincoln paid a visit to the devastated city. While
there, he was the honored guest at a reception hosted by Federal officers in the
Confederate White House parlors. The mansion would never be occupied as a residence again.
During the reconstruction years, it served as military headquarters, and was then returned
to the city of Richmond. After auctioning off the remaining furnishings, the structure was
used as a school for a number of years; in 1890, when it was learned that the city had
plans to tear down the home to make room for a new school building, the ladies of Richmond
formed the Confederate Memorial Literary Society and took action. Soon afterward, they
received the aging home from the city of Richmond. When it opened as a Confederate museum
in 1896, many of the furnishings that had been acquired or purchased following the Civil
War were returned to the mansion. In 1976, a new museum was built next to the White House
to store and display the thousands of artifacts that had been accumulating for more than a
century. During the next 12 years, the Confederate White House was restored to its original
opulence, and in 1988 was once again opened to the public. In the museum are paintings and
photos of significant battles, and a rotating display from a collection of 500 flags and
banners, many of them tattered battlefield flags. Among the thousands of other items is a
recreation of the field headquarters tent used by General Robert E. Lee (the display of
original items includes his bed, high cavalry boots, hat and silver table service), and the
coat and vest worn by Jefferson Davis when he was captured (donated by Varina Davis).
Pamplin Historical Park and the National Museum of the Civil War Soldier A
battle that was brief but carried a great deal of significance took place in the early
morning hours of April 2, 1865, 20 miles south of the Confederate capital in Richmond. For
9-1/2 months, Southern forces had held off a well-supplied U.S. Army that had Petersburg
under siege. Both civilians and Confederate troops felt the impact of the ongoing battles
and seriously dwindling food and military supplies; one rail line had been kept open, but
it could not keep up with demand. With little hope of a Confederate victory, and in spite
of facing an army that outnumbered his three to one, General Robert E. Lee refused to
surrender. The Confederates had spent the winter during the campaign digging into frozen
dirt to build up their breastworks, but as April 2 dawned, Yankee troops made their move. A
short, decisive battle brought an end to the Petersburg Campaign and, with Petersburg
fallen, allowed Grant to advance into (and capture) Richmond. It would be another week
before Lee would surrender his arms to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House,
but the War Between the States was all but ended. For more than 130 years, the breastworks
left behind by the Confederates at the Breakthrough remained undisturbed. Since 1994,
thanks to the descendants of the family that once owned the site of this historic event,
visitors can tour what has been called the most comprehensive, privately owned museum of
the Civil War. In 1992, when Dr. Robert Pamplin Sr. and his son, Robert Pamplin Jr. —
direct descendants of the Boisseau family, original owners of Tudor Hall Plantation —
learned from the Association for the Preservation of Civil War Sites (APCWS) that some of
their ancestral land was being threatened with development, the Pamplins joined forces with
APCWS to purchase the 75-acre parcel. Soon afterward, they purchased an adjacent parcel
that contained Tudor Hall, home of their maternal ancestors. By 1994, Pamplin Park Civil
War Site opened to the public with an interpretive center and a walking trail along the
3/4-mile-long Confederate earthworks. That was only the beginning. On Memorial Day, 1999,
with the addition of the 25,000-square-foot National Museum of the Civil War Soldier and
three miles of interpretive trails surrounding the preserved earthworks and other exhibits
on 422 acres, the complex adopted its current name. Visitors come from around the world to
tour what has been heralded as one of the premier Civil War sites in America. The highlight
of the complex is the National Museum of the Civil War Soldier, which was completed at a
cost of $13 million. It has merged 1,000 original artifacts with state-of-the-art
technology. Before entering this interactive museum, visitors are invited to view the
photos and read a brief description of 13 soldiers from both the North and the South. They
can select the soldier who will be their comrade as they tour the museum. Through a
personal headset, visitors will hear a narration describing what they are viewing, and at
specified stops, the visitor will hear the actual words of their soldier, as taken from
their diaries and letters. At the end of the tour, each visitor will discover what happened
to his or her soldier. Some died in battle or of wounds, and others survived the fighting,
returning to their homes and families. The dioramas in the museum are realistic down to
minute details. From life at encampments, where soldiers played music and games in their
leisure time, to gruesome field hospital scenes, you can see the sights and hear the sounds
of Army life. Smaller displays have items of special interest, like a Bible with a bullet
embedded in it, which saved a soldier’s life, and two “Minie” balls that fused together in
a midair collision. Tudor Hall, the simple but handsome home on the premises, was occupied
by only two families from 1812, when it was completed, until 1994. The second family to own
the residence conveyed the home to the Pamplins. For several months prior to the final
battle of the Civil War, Tudor Hall served as headquarters for Confederate General Samuel
McGowan and his staff. Today, half of the house is furnished as it would have looked as a
plantation home, and the other half takes on the character of a military headquarters. The
complex also includes other antebellum homes, slave quarters with a demonstration garden, a
military encampment and fortifications exhibit and the Battlefield Center. At the
encampment, costumed guides can be seen mending clothes, building fires, cooking and
engaging in other activities necessary for survival. At the Battlefield Center, which has
been designed to resemble the breastworks, there is a multimedia presentation on the battle
at Pamplin Historical Park. In 2005, a new dimension was added to Pamplin Historical Park.
The Civil War Adventure Camp is an overnight experience where you can live the life of a
Civil War soldier. For 18 hours, you will take your turn at standing guard duty, learn how
to load a musket with gunpowder, help prepare stew and hardtack for your dinner, eat dried
meat and fruit for breakfast and sleep in a tent or bunkhouse. However, you will enjoy some
comforts unknown to Civil War soldiers — the tents probably don’t leak, and you will enjoy
the convenience of a modern bathroom.

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