Friday, December 22, 2017

Cruising With the Real Pirates of the Caribbean

Entrance to the Pirate Museum of Nassau
“Are ye a pirate, sir? Well then, sign aboard,” says the man in the tricorn hat, brandishing a flintlock pistol as he beckons visitors into the Pirates of Nassau Museum. Called “the best pirate attraction in the world” by British pirate historian David Cordingly, the museum in downtown Nassau, Bahamas, blends some Disney-like effects with enough real history to offer a fun look at the pirates who ruled the waters of the Bahamas 300 years ago.

And what a story it is. During the “Golden Age of Piracy” (1715-1725), the greatest conglomeration of pirates the world has ever known assembled at Nassau and created an actual Pirate Republic that terrorized the Americas and even challenged the European powers of Britain, France and Spain.  They were all here – 2,000 outlaws including Blackbeard, Black Bart, “Calico Jack” Rackham, Charles Vane, the women pirates Anne Bonney and Mary Read and dozens of others, all with one thing in common:  they were loyal to no country and an enemy to all.  

The Queen Anne's Revenge, Blackbeard's flagship, in the Pirate Museum
But these pirates were a lot different than most people think.  Formerly, they had been privateers, loosely fighting for England, France or Spain.  But when the wars ended in 1715, they had no occupation and little choice but to turn to piracy.  At this time, the world was ruled by kings, but the pirates in the Bahamas were revolutionaries and they created their own republic -- a democracy where they elected their own captains and officers. Runaway slaves were treated as equals and nearly a third of the crew on some pirate ships were free blacks. Pirates had their own laws and courts and even offered the first naval disability program to anyone injured in battle. But the real allure was best summed up by pirate Captain “Black Bart” Roberts, who said of pirating, “It was a short life and a merry one.”
Holland America's Nieuw Amsterdam

And so was my four-day Holland America cruise on the good ship Nieuw Amsterdam, bound for these same pirate waters of the Bahamas from Fort Lauderdale.  I have always loved pirates, so why not take advantage of some excellent December cruise prices to sail the historic pirate-infested waters and visit the haunts that have inspired hundreds of films, books and legends.  I would devote the cruise to all things pirate – visit a private island once used by pirates to collect water, see the famous pirate museum, visit old forts, take a pirate history walking tour (sponsored by a brewery, of course), drink some rum, eat like a pirate and stroll the colonial backstreets of Nassau, taking in many of the same views over the island that Blackbeard and Black Bart had once known.

“Life on board a pirate ship consisted of long periods of drunken idleness and brief periods of violent action…Most of their time was spent gambling and drinking huge quantities of alcohol.”    Placard in the Pirates of Nassau Museum

Half Mood Cay, Bahamas
Well, pirates never sailed on the Nieuw Amsterdam.  Oh, you could get drunk, easily enough, and there was gambling once outside the 12-mile U.S. border. But it was hard to be idle with so much to do on board the ship, not the least of which was to take in the sunset and beautiful views of the sea – the same exact view that pirates would have seen.   Technically, the Bahamas, just 180 miles off the Florida coast, are in the Atlantic, not the Caribbean. But the sea has the same sparkling aquamarine blue color of the Caribbean, with idyllic sandy beaches lined with palm trees.

The pirates originally located in Nassau because the harbor was surrounded by cliffs and could only be entered from the sea through two narrow, easily defended, passages.  In addition, the harbor was too shallow for big warships. 

The pirate flag of Calico Jack was "borrowed" for the Johnny Depp movie
From here, armed to the teeth in fast sailing sloops, the pirates could venture out into popular sea lanes to prey on Spanish treasure ships and British and French merchantmen.  The first indication the victims would have of danger approaching would be to see the Jolly Roger flapping in the breeze on the horizon – the dreaded pirate flag.  The idea for the flag most likely came from French pirates, who would soak a white flag in blood to let their victims know they would be treated with no mercy.  These flags were called
“le joli rouge” – the pretty red – which drunken English pirates translated into “Jolly Roger.”

Each pirate crew hired seamstresses in Nassau to create their own flag, which generally had a skull and crossbones, death head, crossed sabers, bleeding hearts or an hourglass to show the victims that their time was up.  Pirates never actually liked to fight.  It was dangerous, and it could damage the ship they were trying to seize.  So they liked to employ terror.  Blackbeard would tie burning fuses into his beard and hair so that he was surrounded by smoke and looked like a fiend from hell, which he also just happened to resemble in temperament and cruelty.

Sunset at sea, heading for the pirate waters of the Bahamas
On my first night at sea, there being no Jolly Rogers in sight, I spent my time in drunken idleness, but on the morrow, we were tied up off shore before the private island of Half Moon Cay, as pretty an island paradise as ever held a buried treasure chest.  Of course, as I was to learn, with the one exception of Captain Kidd, pirates never buried treasure.  That (and much of what we think we know of pirates) was invented by Robert Louis Stevenson in his classic book, “Treasure Island.”

Most pirates were alcoholic wastrels who would spend their loot in one night of drunken passion in Nassau, or gamble it away, and soon end up back living in a broken down hovel, waiting for the next adventure.  The majority of them were in their 20s, and lived short, violent lives.  Not a single pirate captain of the era had his life end naturally, most of them being hanged, shot, or killed in storms.  Or they went out in a blaze of battle, like Edward “Blackbeard” Teach, who died from five bullet wounds, 20 stab wounds and was beheaded.

Half Moon Cay, the private island of Holland America 
Half Moon Cay, where we dropped anchor, is its own pleasure palace with every opportunity from jet skis and kayaks to horseback riding in the surf, glass bottom boats, biking, paddle boarding or just lounging on the beach.  I elected to take a nature hike to the summit of the island, some 68 feet high, passing ruins of old farmsteads along the way.   There are 700 islands in the Bahamas and pirates would use ones like this to gather water and food, and lay in wait for a plump merchantman passing by.  Or to maroon pirates.  Marooning on a deserted island was a common punishment, and a cruel one.  Although it might seem like a pleasure today, the lack of food and loneliness made it a misery for those left behind.

The cannons of Fort Fincastle were designed to keep pirates out of Nassau; now they welcome ships to harbor
Our next morning, we sailed and docked in Nassau, just a musket shot from the Pirate Republic Brewing Company.  With fresh beers on tap with names like Long John Pilsner and Black Beer’d Stout, this is general headquarters for pirate memorabilia in Nassau, and their shop is filled with pirate stuff, from skull and cross bone kitchen magnets to the all-important pirate bandana.   The brewery offers a combination pirate and beer walking tour for $13, which ends with a sampler tray and a giant pretzel.  Around the stone walls of the 125-year-old pub are commissioned portraits of all the famous pirates of Nassau, created by renowned Bahamian artist Antonius Roberts.
Pirate tours at the Pirate Republic Brewing Co.

The art provides a backdrop to tell some of the crazy stories of people like pirate Howell Davis, who “died like a game cock,” killing two men before he fell, and “Calico Jack” Rackham, who was probably the pirate closest to Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean films.

While in Nassau, Calico Jack fell in love with Anne Bonney, and convinced her to leave her husband, put on men’s clothes, steal the sloop Sweet William and begin a life of piracy.  Incredibly, once at sea, Anne fell in love with a fellow shipmate, only to discover that this pirate was also a woman dressed as a man – the adventuress Mary Read. The three sailed together as pirates until they were surprised by a British ship off the coast of Jamaica. Calico Jack and most of the crew were drunk and hid in the ship’s hold. Only Mary Read and Anne Bonney offered any resistance, fighting like hellcats with pistol and cutlass.
But the ship was taken and all three sentenced to hang. As Calico Jack went to the gallows, Anne told him, “Had you fought like a man, you need not have been hanged like a dog.” Anne and Mary both conveniently got pregnant in jail and escaped the hangman.

The Pirates of Nassau Museum
But many other pirates didn’t.  Just a cannon shot from the brewery is the block long Pirates of Nassau Museum.  As you walk by two fortress cannons into the front door, you plunge straight into a moonlit dock lined on one side by taverns and pubs and on the other by a full-scale reproduction of the 130-foot-long, 16-gun corvette, The Queen Anne’s Revenge, Blackbeard’s flagship.  It’s like walking (instead of floating) through Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean ride.  Sound effects replicate the creaking of the ship and the lapping waves hitting the dock, while you can hear pirates singing in the dimly lit pubs beside you.  If you’ve just come from a beer sampling (and had a couple shots of rum along the way) the illusion is very entertaining.

A life size diorama of the woman pirates in Nassau
The museum details a pirate’s miserable life at sea and how the whole pirate era finally came to an end.  Tired of the nuisance, England sent Woodes Rodgers (a former pirate himself) to Nassau in 1718 with three warships and an ultimatum for the pirates to choose: “Accept a pardon….or death.” In short order, most accepted the one-time offer of a pardon, and Rodgers cleaned up the rest, hanging ten of them at Fort Nassau.  He described his actions as: “Expulsis Piratis – Restituta Commercia,” words that still adorn the official seal of the Bahamas – “Pirates Expelled – Commerce Restored.”

Ironically, it’s the pirates who have remained heroes. You can’t throw a cutlass in Nassau without hitting a shop selling skull & crossbones t-shirts or “Got Grog?” bumper stickers, while the only tribute to Rodgers the pirate hunter, is a small statue of him reaching for a brace of pistols, located in front of the British Colonial Hilton Hotel. He looks angry.  But at least he looks dashing.  The real Rodgers, when he was a pirate, got shot in the face, blowing away his jaw and many of his teeth and it’s doubtful he looked as handsome as he does here.
The statue of Woodes Rodgers, pirate hunter


Strangely enough, the British Colonial Hilton is the very spot where Rodgers hanged his ten pirates.  And it’s also where James Bond stayed in the Ian Fleming book, Thunderball, which is about a modern day pirate in Nassau high jacking an atom bomb for ransom.

If you want to eat like a pirate, walk down Bay Street from the hotel for about a mile to a village known as “Fish Fry.” This is a row of a dozen local seafood restaurants, where the meal of choice is conch…a snail-like, beautiful pink shell mollusk that tastes like a rubbery scallop and can be grilled, stewed, fried or served cold in a conch salad with green pepper, tomato and onion, cured in lemon juice. “Cracked conch” (conch fried in a light batter) with “peas and rice,” (rice and small beans) and fried plantains (small banana-like fruit), washed down with the very drinkable local beer, Kalik, is the national dish.

Kalik is brewed in the Bahamas and the name is supposed to come from the noise cow bells make. Well, why not?  Lonely Planet will tell you not to eat conch because of its near endangered status and the fact that is quietly being fished out in the Bahamas. Conch from the Bahamas has already been banned in the U.S. since 1986 and many other Caribbean islands. But as a pirate, how could you not taste the national dish? Conch is an important part of the Bahamian diet and a major source of their protein. It’s also delicious.

Cracked conch and peas and rice


For fun, stop at D’Water CafĂ© at Fish Fry for the Big Daddy Conch Show.  Big Daddy (the rather large gentleman with no front teeth) has been cracking conch on the restaurant’s front porch for decades and will show you how it’s done with a hammer and knife.    “If you want it any fresher, go and catch it yourself,” as they say.  Though if you walk to the back of the restaurant, you can watch them pull fresh ones out of the water.  Experts say it’s kindest to only eat mature, six year old conch, and Big Daddy will help you find one.   As a pirate, you can finish off the meal with a fine Cuban cigar – legal and cheap in Nassau, but of course illegal to bring home to the U.S. 

Four mid-size cruisers land a force of 8-9,000 passengers in Nassau, but it's large enough that everyone spreads out.
And if you still want more pirates, just look across the harbor to what was in pirate days called Hog Island.  Today, thanks to some splendid PR marketing, it’s called Paradise Island.  At one time, the majority of this island of resorts and golf courses was owned by the biggest pirate of them all.  A scallywag named Donald Trump.

For more information visit:  Holland America





Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Columbia River Gorge is Open for Business – and as Beautiful as Ever

The beauty of the Columbia River Gorge in November 2017, two months after the fire.
September 2, 2017, started off wonderfully in the Columbia River Gorge.  It was the beginning of Labor Day weekend in one of the nation’s most beautiful scenic areas.  Located just an hour east of Portland, Oregon, this was a busy time for the area’s $100 million-a-year tourism industry.  They had been hurt that winter with 8 feet of snow falling in an area that usually gets just inches.  Interstate 84 was closed and schools and businesses had to shut down for as much as two weeks.

But now on Sept. 2, the weather was beautiful, people were hiking, biking, wind surfing, eating locally sourced foods, drinking craft beer at outdoor cafes and just enjoying the incredible beauty of a wilderness area along a river lined with cliffs, thick forests and waterfalls.

And then at 4 p.m., a fire was reported in Eagle Creek.  Near the village of Cascade Locks, some teenagers had been throwing fireworks off a waterfall into the dry forest below.  By morning, the fire they started grew to 3,000 acres.  With favorable winds, over the next two days the Eagle Creek Fire blossomed into a raging inferno, so huge that at one point it leaped across the Columbia River, sending tongues of flame into the wooded hillsides on the other side of the waterway in the state of Washington. 

More than 48,000 acres of forest would eventually be consumed by the fire
Eventually, 48,000 acres of forest would burn.  The entire town of Cascade Locks had to be evacuated, along with hundreds of other residents throughout the gorge.  Surrounded by flames, 153 hikers were cut off by the fire and had to be rescued.  I-84 was closed.  Clouds of smoke closed schools in nearby Portland, where more than an inch of ash fell on the streets.  Fighting the fire rang up of a bill of $20 million.
The falls three years ago, before the fire.

And then the fire raced to Multnomah Falls, the highest waterfall in Oregon.  A national icon, the 611-foot waterfall had at its base a famous lodge built in 1925 that attracted 1.5 million visitors a year.   Dozens of volunteers came and heroically fought the blaze throughout the night, wetting the building’s roof and soaking a 100-yard perimeter around it.  By morning, though the fire consumed a wood bridge below the falls and many trees, the historic lodge was saved.

The Gorge Today

So how much damage was done in the end?  Amazingly, the Columbia River Gorge is today a triumph of both nature and man.  On a trip through the gorge in early November 2017, barely two months after the blaze, there is hardly much sign of the catastrophic event.  Sadly, Multnomah Falls Lodge and access to the falls is closed indefinitely, mostly because of damage to the roads.  You can still see the falls, as beautiful as ever, as you race by a vantage point on I-84.  Some other viewpoints and hiking trails are temporarily inaccessible, but compared to the vast amount of wilderness recreation available here, it is very small.  The towns are completely open, I-84 is open, and the burn area is hardly noticeable compared to the rich forest land surrounding it.  In fact, many environmentalists are saying the fire, which burned up the trees rather than torching the ground below, is just part of nature’s evolution.  So here’s a review of just some of the many pleasures open and available in the gorge and Mount Hood areas, starting with ground zero where the fire started.

Cascade Locks and the Bridge of the Gods

Bridge of the Gods in November 2017.

The village of Cascade Locks is where the 2,659-mile long Pacific Crest Trails crosses the Columbia River over the very pretty Bridge of the Gods.  A poignant scene was filmed in the Reese Witherspoon movie, Wild, was filmed on the bridge.  During the fire, all residents of the town were forced to evacuate, crossing the bridge as flames approached the village from both directions.  You’d never know it today. The bridge is as beautiful ever, and all businesses are open.  The Best Western Plus Columbia River Inn at the base of the bridge is a pleasant place to stay with balconies overlooking river traffic of barges and pleasure craft. 

Thunder Island Brewing Co.
Indian legend says there was once a bridge of land here over the Columbia with a huge lake behind it.  Well, for once, an Indian legend actually makes some sense and is backed by geologists, who say there was a land bridge here that eventually washed away, helping to create the spectacular gorge.   You can walk over the manmade Bridge of Gods to Washington, but there’s no pedestrian path on the road.  Better is to have a beer, while you still can, at Thunder Island Brewing on the banks of the river.  They’re moving into town, unfortunately, but their Rolling Thunder Pale ale and other craft beers will be just as good in the new location.

A visit to the gallery and studio of Heather Soderberg / is worth a journey.  You’ll be hearing a lot about her in the near future.  She’s the first woman to own a bronze foundry and is currently working on a 55-foot-long, 12-ton cast bronze statue of an eagle that will be the largest eagle sculpture in history.  Bits and pieces of it currently fill the studio, and when finished, it will tour the country.  In the gallery, they’ll explain how bronze casts are made, but good luck understanding it.  Enough to say, it’s impressive to look at.
The head alone is as tall as a man.

The Cascade LocksAle House across the street is a cozy place for dinner with pizza and salmon chowder.  It’s a favorite hangout for people walking the Pacific Coast Trail.  It must be lonely on the trail.  The hikers we met were a talkative bunch.  As an ice-breaker, ask them what their “trail name” is and how they got it, but make sure you have a beer first.  It’s liable to be a long story.  You’ll certainly want to see the movie Wild before visiting the pub.   

Troutdale
This colorful little village is the western gateway to the gorge and a good base for touring the area.  Stop by the historic Barn Exhibit Hall, which is actually not historic at all.  The cleverly built “barn” museum is brand new, but designed to look like it’s been there forever.  Currently, there’s an exhibit on the history of the 75-mile-long Columbia River Highway, the first highway in the U.S. built as a scenic road, and amazingly, the first road to have a white stripe down the center.  You can see why they took such care to divide the road when you drive on portions of it as its twists and turns with sheer cliffs alternating from side to side.  It’s scenic and scary.   When it was built between 1913 to 1922, it was also an engineering marvel.  It still is.    

Pretty Troutdale is a mix of colors and pastels to mix with the dramatic skies often seen over the Gorge.
Though it was replaced by I-84, bits of the historic road are still open.  Sections between Troutdale and Hood River have been closed temporarily by the fire, but there is no impact from north of Hood River to The Dalles, our next stop.

Mosier
Mosier is picture postcard of a little place with a scenic park overlooking the river, the Rack & Cloth cidery, and most important, Route 30 Classics, which has ice cream, espresso and electric bike rentals.  And what a place to rent an electric bike!  

Electric bike rentals for a trip on the Columbia River Highway
A six-mile stretch of the historic Columbia River Highway here has been turned into a paved bike and hiking trail and heads west to the town of Hood River, passing through forest, along cliffs, and burrowing into tunnels on one hell of an exciting bike ride.  It’s hilly and up and down, but on an electric bike?  No worries.  You toggle the bike from one to four on a power scale, change gears, and never pump more than you would on a flat stretch of road.  The famous Oregon rain is also no problem.  Winds gush through the Gorge at this point, swirling clouds and dragging in squalls.  But the winds also bring bursts of sunshine.  Just when you think, well, it’s raining, do I want to be on a bike? Out pops the sun and a view of unbelievable beauty.

A few from a cutout in the tunnel looks down on to I-84 and the Columbia River.
If you get wet, dry off in the Rack and Cloth, a cute little place making their own hard cider from apples grown in their own orchard. They’ll walk you through a cider tasting of four hard ciders.  Even if you’ve tried commercial hard ciders and don’t like them, give these ciders a chance.  They are a completely different, tasty product, unlike commercial ciders, and paired with handcrafted pizzas and locally sourced delicacies like squash soup? Delicious.       

Hood River to the Dalles
Both Hood River and The Dalles are cool and quirky little towns worth a visit.  Hood River is home to Full Sail Brewery and a sloping main street lined with shops, galleries, and pubs.  This is the ground zero, recreational central of the Columbia River Gorge, and everyone is biking, hiking, sailboarding or doing something else to make you feel guilty if you’re just hanging out drinking craft beer.  Well, not that guilty.  This is Oregon, after all, and there are plenty of other people just hanging out. 

Hood River is a fun and quirky little town.

There’s a little more history at The Dalles, which has an 1856 fort (just a house is left, but nice grounds) and Klindt’s Booksellers, which has been hawking books since 1870 and is worth a journey to explore their maps and local recreation guidebooks.   Both towns, in keeping with this area of Oregon, have breweries and wineries and, increasingly, distilleries.  And did we mention marijuana is legal? 






And Now for Something Completely Different

Farming communities like Dufur and 300 days of sunshine are always just a short drive from the Gorge
The weird geography of this area creates micro climates that could not be more different.  It’s barely a 30 minute drive south from the misty, swirling clouds of Hood River or The Dalles into Mt. Hood territory, where you come into fruit orchards, rolling hills and incredibly, 300 days of sunshine.  Dufur, just south of The Dalles, is a tiny old farming community on the historic Oregon Trail with a few shops, a heritage museum and a real gem called the Historic Balch Hotel.  This historic building has been transformed into an elegant spa and countryside retreat with gourmet food and an idyllic setting.

The Resort at the Mountain is nestled near Mount Hood and offers a completely different forest landscape.
South of Troutdale takes you on the western fringes of Hwy. 26, which (along with Hwy. 35) is called “The Fruit Loop,” as it curves and twists around the base of 11,249-foot Mount Hood, passing dozens and dozens of orchards, forests, rain forests, timberline, snow-covered mountains and rivers.  The Resort at the Mountain just east of Sandy is one of Oregon’s premier lodges with a 27-hole golf course, luxury spa, hiking trails, two restaurants and bars, and best of all, fireplaces in the rooms.  On a November afternoon at twilight, with a fire going and college football playing, we noticed someone on the patio peering into our floor to ceiling glass door.  It was three baby deer.   

Bob Denman has been making hand forged gardening tools for 30 years at Red Pig Tools in Boring, OR
For a true Oregon evening, head to the nearby Skyway Bar and Grill, a real mountain roadhouse (the address is Zigzag Mile Post 43) that was built by hand in 1972 and is today filled with art, antiques, live music, craft beer and the smell of barbeque and smoked meats.   

And don’t miss the most exciting photo op of the region – Boring, Oregon.  They make the most of the odd name choice with a Boring Brewery and Boring Winery (in the same building!) and lots of opportunities to take photos of the word “Boring.”  It’s cute.  But nowhere cuter than at the blacksmith shop Red Pig Tools, where for 30 years Bob Denman, a semi-retired advertising executive, has been hand-forging gardening tools.  Bob, a life-long gardener, will tell you, there’s only one rule for weeding and that’s King Harrod’s rule:  “Kill them while they’re babies!”

Nearby Wildwood Recreation Site has a wetland boardwalk down to the Salmon River
He has researched old garden tools and found that any modern tool that does two tasks is half as efficient at each.  In his blacksmith shop, he hand forges old forgotten tools for special tasks (like weeding between cracks of patio tiles).  The tools are beautiful (if somewhat medieval looking).  Bob has been dealing with customers and perfecting his comedy-set for 30 years and if he’s in the shop, he has a 15-minute routine that is perfect, fun, educational and worth a journey.  At a time where “fire” is not exactly a friendly word in Oregon, you’ll have a lot of laughs around his flaming forge and come away with a lifelong tool and memento of this slightly wacky – but gorgeous – part of the state.

FOR MORE INFO, ITINERARIES AND SUGGESTIONS:  Hood-Gorge.com 

The elusive and spectacular Mount Hood is visible sometimes and sometimes, like our four day trip in Nov. 2017, not. 








Tuesday, October 24, 2017

The Surrenders! Part I

How The Two Large Military Surrenders at Appomattox and Bennet Place Turned Into Victories -- for Both Sides

A historically accurate representation of Lee and Grant at Appomattox at the national park site.

After four years of bloody fighting and nearly 700,000 deaths, America’s great Civil War came to a sudden and unexpected end in April 1865.  In just 17 days and only 109 miles apart, two great Confederate armies surrendered and the fighting stopped.  Soldiers on both sides, who days before were desperately trying to kill each other, shook hands, looked up old friends, traded tobacco for coffee, and swapped stories.  And then everyone went home,
No civil war in history had ever ended like this.  In fact, no war had ever ended like this.  As the surrendering Confederates marched up a dirt road to lay down their arms and flags, the victorious Union army, lining both sides of the road, saluted them.  The rebels returned the salute.  It was “honor answering honor,” wrote General Joshua Chamberlain, the hero of Gettysburg, and the Union general who ordered the unique tribute to his former enemies.

Cannon at Appomattox battlefield and surrender site.
So how did America’s bloodiest and most violent war come to such a sudden and honorable end?   It’s easy to find out for yourself on a weekend trip by visiting the two surrender sites, which are only a few hours drive apart in Virginia and North Carolina.   You can stand at the spot where both surrenders took place, stroll down country roads where little has changed since 1865, and -- at a time when people are tearing down Civil War monuments and reinterpreting how we think about the Civil War – reach your own conclusions about the men who actually fought it.    

As historian Shelby Foote said, “Any understanding of this nation has to be based on an understanding of the Civil War.  It defined us.”   And any understanding of the Civil War has to include an understanding of how these unusual surrenders came about and what they meant.   Honor answering honor.  There’s a concept worth a journey to explore.

The Road to Appomattox

At the end of March 1865, both Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant were worried.  After three years of bloody warfare, Grant and the Union army had encircled Petersburg, the rail junction southwest of Richmond that protected the Confederate capital.  But in a 10 month siege, Grant had racked up more than 40,000 casualties with very little to show for it. His great fear was that Lee and his 60,000 man army would somehow break out of the siege and head south to link up with Joe Johnson’s army of nearly 90,000 Confederates in North Carolina.  Together, the Rebels could continue to fight for another year and a war weary Northern populace might not stand for that and sue for peace.

Union trenches at Petersburg 1865
Lee, on the other hand, faced even greater challenges.  His troops were starving, disillusioned, out of supplies and deserting.  After 10 months of nearly constant trench fighting, moral was at its lowest point.  And Lee knew his lines were spread too thin, and he could not continue to hold Petersburg.

And he didn’t.  In a series of battles culminating at Five Forks, Grant pushed Lee out of Petersburg and forced him to retreat west across Virginia.  Rather than just follow him, Grant was always sure to keep Union cavalry ahead of and to the south of Lee to prevent him from joining Johnson. 

The road that Lee took to his meeting with Grant in Appomattox Court House has changed little since 1865
By April 9, 1865, near the little village of Appomattox Court House, Lee realized his situation was hopeless.  With his army surrounded and starving, Lee put on his best dress uniform (thinking that he would spend the evening as a prisoner of war), and told his generals, “There is nothing left me to do but go and see General Grant and I would rather die a thousand deaths.”  After sending a white flag with a note to Grant, he sat down under an apple tree to await Grant’s reply. 

This is the place to join him.  Rather than start at the main visitor center, the best way to enjoy Appomattox Court House National Historic Park is to start about a mile to the west, at a roadside stop on Hwy. 24 called “The Apple Tree Site.”  Because a rumor started that Lee actually surrendered here under an apple tree, the entire orchard was cut down by soldiers looking for souvenirs.  So there are no historic witness apple trees here today, but you can still sit where Lee sat by the Appomattox River in a quiet place that is otherwise unchanged and think, as Lee must have done sitting in his fine uniform, how it all came down to this. 


Robert E. Lee


The son of a Revolutionary War hero, Lee had been the second best student in his class at West Point and had fought with bravery in the War with Mexico.  At the start of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln offered Lee full command of all Union armies.  Although a slave owner (like 12 of America’s first 18 presidents) Lee abhorred the idea and wrote, “Slavery as an institution is a moral and political evil.”  But he could not draw his sword against his family and friends in Virginia, so when the state succeeded, he went with them.  As he sat under the apple tree, he knew that in a cruel irony, the U.S. government had seized his house in Arlington, VA, and turned his front yard into a cemetery for the war dead.  All 400,000 graves in Arlington National Cemetery today are on land once owned by Robert E. Lee that the U.S. government took from him.



With Lee in the Apple Orchard

It’s difficult to imagine Lee’s thoughts.  Around him, the South was in ruins. A quarter of the men of military age in the South were dead, and nearly every city, factory and railroad was destroyed or under occupation.  

When he finally received a note from Grant asking him to find a location for a meeting, Lee climbed aboard his famous gray horse Traveler and with just one aide with a white flag, rode down the Richmond-Lynchburg Stage Road toward the Union lines. 

The road Lee took to the McClean House is unchanged and looks much like it did in 1865.
You can follow Lee down this same road through a landscape that is virtually unchanged.  The road is lined with a split-rail fence with views of rolling farm land.  Birds sing and it is deadly quiet out here in the country.  In about a mile, a village of 20 buildings comes into view.  Ten are original from the 1860s or earlier; another ten have been painstakingly reconstructed to what they would have looked in 1865.  


The reconstructed McClean House in Appomattox
All cars are parked some distance away, so you are literally seeing the town of Appomattox Court House just as Lee would have seen it.  There’s a tavern and stores, some farmhouses and even the county jail.  In the center of town is the impressive Court House with its bell tower.  As you walk along the dirt and gravel roads, costumed interpreters will greet you.  When I asked one where the bookstore was, he looked puzzled and said, “Ain’t got no bookstore in town, but there’s a general store over yonder.”  They don’t break character.

It was here that Lee met local resident Wilber McLean and was ushered to his house.  McClean had lived near the first battle of the Civil War in Manassas, VA.  He moved to get his business away from the fighting, so it was with great irony that the war ended in his parlor.

The Richmond-Lynchburg Stage Road climbs a small hill to where Grant entered the scene.
Instead of going into the house, continue on the Richmond-Lynchburg Stage Road for another half mile up a small hill, with fences and views of the countryside in all directions.  At the top is a cemetery of 18 graves, each with a Confederate flag.  These were the Southern boys who had the hard luck of being the last killed in the last action on the last two days of the war on the eastern front.  It was at this spot that Ulysses S. Grant rode up and met General Phil Sheridan and was informed that Lee was waiting for him in a house down below. 


A small graveyard for the last Southern soldiers killed in battle.

With Grant on Stage Road

An extremely modest man, Grant was, as usual, wearing the uniform of a private with the bars of a Lieutenant General sewn on the shoulders.  He was muddy, from a long ride, and he never wore a sword.

You can now turn around and re-approach the village from the direction Grant would have come.  If anything, this approach is even more beautiful and timeless today as you descend a small hill, the road a dirt ribbon lined with fences as it curves to a small village of white buildings below.

The short walk gives you time to consider the position and feelings of Grant.  He too had gone to West Point and fought with bravery in the War with Mexico, but from there on, his life differed greatly from that of Lee.  Depressed by serving away from his family, Grant took to drinking and was forced to resign from the army.  He failed at every business he entered and became so poor that he was the only US president who lived with his family in a log cabin that he built with his own hands.  By the time the war started, Grant was reduced to working as a clerk in his father’s leather business. 
U.S. Grant

But Grant had gone to West Point and with the war starting, officers were needed.  Grant was given some basic military jobs drilling raw recruits.   Through a political friendship, he secured a small independent command and quickly demonstrated a military brilliance that has had few equals in history.  As he rode down the hill, Grant had many contemporary critics who considered him a “butcher” who won victories only by having superior numbers.  But today, modern historians consider Grant one of the greatest military geniuses of all time with his victories at Vicksburg, Chattanooga, and here at Appomattox all masterpieces of military strategy.

As he approached the McClean House, Grant tied his horse Cincinnati next to Lee’s Traveler and the two most famous horses in America, well known to every citizen at the time, chewed grass together, peacefully, side by side.

Inside, Grant was embarrassed by his shabby and muddy uniform and his first act was to apologize to the splendidly dressed Lee.  They reminisced about Mexico and then got down to business.  Grant had conferred with Lincoln, and together they wanted nothing but that the Southern armies would lay down their arms, return to their homes and obey the laws of the country.  Grant added that all Southern officers would be able to keep their side arms, a great military honor at the time.  Lee said this would have a “very happy effect upon my army.” 

The McClean House in 1865.  The original was torn down by speculators in 1893 hoping to make money from it.
It was rebuilt in 1940s.

Lee then mentioned that in the Confederate army, the soldiers owned their own horses, unlike the U.S. where they were owned by the army.  Grant, having been a small farmer, knew the value of a horse in the spring to putting in crops, and allowed the Confederates to take their horses with them.  Again, Lee said, this will have “the best possible effect upon the men.”  Lee also stated that his men were starving, and Grant immediately ordered rations sent to the Confederate camps. The papers were drawn up and signed.  The two generals went outside, Lee mounted, and they saluted each other. 

When Lee returned, he was surrounded by his troops, many crying, begging him to break the army up into small guerilla bands and continue the war.  But Lee asked them to accept the parole, return to their homes, and obey all local laws.  He later wrote, “I believe it to be the duty of every one to unite in the restoration of the country and the reestablishment of peace and harmony.”

The original chairs and tables at the surrender were seized as souvenirs (by everyone including General Sheridan and George Armstrong Custer).  They now reside in the Smithsonian in Washington D.C.  Lee sat in the wicker chair.  Grant used this table and black leather chair. 

On Grant’s side, the victorious Union army began celebrating and firing off victory cannons, but when Grant heard it, he ordered an immediate stop.  He told his officers, “The war is over, the rebels are our countrymen again, and the best sign of rejoicing after the victory will be to abstain from all demonstrations in the field.”  He later wrote he was “sad and depressed. I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought.”  

Grant and Lee met shortly on horseback the next day.  Among the many soldiers reuniting with old friends was Grant.  Pete Longstreet was Lee's second in command, but before the war he had been the best man at Grant's wedding.  Grant and Longstreet had a warm friendly greeting and handshake at Appomattox and would remain friends for life.

Over the next few days, some 30,000 parole forms were printed and given to the Southern troops, and in small groups of three to four, they set off walking on the long trudge home to Texas, Alabama, Mississippi and all points south.  Soldiers from the north and south mingled together and shared food and stories.  Even Lee was able to joke, when he saw his old army friend George Meade, who commanded the Union army at Gettysburg.  Lee said, “What are you doing with all that gray in your beard?”  Meade smiled and replied, “You have to answer for most of it.”

It looked for one brief, shining moment that a war as violent as the Civil War, fought over an issue as divisive as slavery, could actually end in a peaceful way.  And then, on April 14, 1865, just five days after the surrender, Abraham Lincoln was assassinated.  And everything changed.

IF YOU GO:   The modern town of Appomattox moved several miles from the surrender site at the old village of Appomattox Court House, so while today the modern town has chain hotels, restaurants and all services, the National Park site is virtually unchanged from 1865.  
The Lee Chapel in Lexington, VA where he is buried



There are plenty of places to stay and eat in Appomattox, but better is to travel an hour more west to Lexington, VA, where Robert E. Lee is buried.  Lexington is the home of the Virginia Military Institute (where Stonewall Jackson taught before the war) and Washington and Lee University, of which Lee was president after the war.  They are both buried here, Lee in a beautiful chapel on the campus, Stonewall in a small graveyard on the edge of town.  

Even the horse Traveler is buried here, in a tomb beside Lee, just outside the church.   Lexington is one of the prettiest towns in Virginia, a peaceful, historic place, surrounded by gorgeous homes, all on the edge of the Shenandoah Mountains.  

There are many memorials to Lee in town, but it is well to remember, that Lee himself was against any type of monument to the war.  He wrote in 1869 about a proposed Gettysburg monument, “I think it wiser not to keep open the sores of war but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife.”  

Lee most likely would have disapproved of the many statues in his honor and thought it best to forget the war and move on.

Tourist information:  Lexington

The Surrenders, Part II  (coming soon)

Bennett Place, North Carolina where Joe Johnson surrender to William Techcumsa Sherman.
Most people, mistakenly, think that Appomattox is where the Civil War ended.  In truth, there were still 90,000 well-supplied Confederate soldiers ready to do battle, and Confederate President Jefferson Davis was ordering them to fight.  It was the second surrender, now preserved as a North Carolina state park, where Joseph E. Johnson surrendered to William Techcumsa Sherman at Bennett Place, that has often been forgotten and overshadowed – but might actually be the more significant of the two major surrenders.   That’s because something dreadful and game-changing happened between the two surrenders.  President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated.


Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Ten Things You Probably Don’t Know About Charleston, SC

That Will Make You Want to Visit

The backstreets of the historic district
Everyone knows Charleston, SC, is one of America’s most historic cities, but there’s a lot more than history occupying the town’s 1,600 pre-Revolutionary War buildings, including new breweries, distilleries and clubs. Charleston has become a Williamsburg with bars.  And James Beard award-winning restaurants.  And one-of-a-kind shops and galleries.

Of course, there’s still plenty of history dripping from the Spanish moss on every corner waiting to be discovered. 

So here’s 10 fascinating facts about this quirky town where Stephen Colbert grew up and Bill Murray is a part owner of the baseball team.

1.     Charleston was started as a colony of Barbados

In the 1660s, Barbados, the tropical island off the coast of Venezuela, was the richest speck of land on earth.  And the most congested.  Every inch of the tropical island was covered with 800 sugar plantations.  An incredible 500 windmills used renewable energy to convert the sugar cane to the “white gold” used to sweeten tea throughout Europe. The little island’s population was larger than New England’s, but the majority of people were enslaved Africans, who did all the backbreaking work to make plantation owners rich.  There was only one problem with this scenario.  The island was starving. 


Because every inch of land was used for sugar plantations, Barbados couldn’t support the beef and crops needed to feed the island’s population.  So, much like the other powers in Europe, Barbados established a colony to support and feed the homeland.  The colony these Barbadians started eventually came to be the city of Charleston. 

2.     You can see the many influences of Barbados all over Charleston – in the names of the streets dating back to the Barbadian founders, in the vividly colored buildings of pink, yellow and lavender giving the town a Caribbean feel, and in the basic architecture of the houses, which came to be called the “Charlestown Single House.”
Charleston single house with "haint blue" porch ceiling.

This is the famous one-room-wide house facing the wind.  All the rooms in the
house opened to a piazza, or porch.  The windows on both sides of the house could be opened
to create a much needed draft in the heat
of summer.  Any walking or carriage tour of Charleston will show you dozens and
dozens of these Charleston single house homes – but the idea for them came from Barbados. 

3.     The roofs of the piazzas on all the 
      Charleston Single Houses are 
      painted“haint blue.”  African slaves believed this color warded off evil spirits and they wouldn’t work in a house that didn’t have it.

4.     Charleston was the largest slave port in America. 

Any history of slavery in America begins in Charleston.  Because it was founded by a slave plantation economy from Barbados, Charleston took on the same model and became the principle port where slaves entered North America with some 40 percent of them passing through Charleston.  By 1860, there were 400,000 slaves in South Carolina, more than 57 percent of the population; of the 15 people in America who owned 500 slaves or more, eight were in this state.

In Charleston’s early days, slaves could be paraded and sold on any street corner that could gather a crowd, but by July 1, 1856, abolitionists forced the sale of slaves off public streets, and 40 slave marts were established for private sales.  Only one has survived, and today it is the Old Slave Mart Museum, a one-of-a-kind place telling this chapter of the American story. 

The Old Slave Mart Museum 
Enslaved Africans began their journey by sailing the “Middle Passage” in filthy, overcrowded ships filled with disease.  Those who survived, were brought to Sullivan’s Island in Charleston’s harbor, where they were interned to weed out the sick, weak and dying.  The survivors were then placed in a baracoon --- jails, where they would be fattened up, washed, clothed, have gray hair dyed black and their bodies greased, all to increase their market value on the auction block.  Ryan’s Slave Mart had one of the largest of the baracoons, and today it forms the heart of the museum.

A top slave with a skill like carpentry could fetch $1,500 – about $38,000 in today’s value.  A young attractive light skinned woman could sell for even more.  “If God has bestowed beauty upon a slave woman, it will prove her greatest curse,” one slave woman wrote.

It is an odd sensation to be inside the Slave Mart discovering the ghastly history that took place here, just a few hundred feet from carefree tourists clattering by in horse drawn carriages.   

5.     Charleston freely acknowledges the many accomplishments contributed to the city by enslaved Africans.
You can feel the influence of Barbados in Charleston.

Unlike Washington D.C., where politicians seldom mention that the White House was built by slaves, in Charleston the contributions of enslaved Africans are a principal part of any discussion of the city.  In the Charleston Museum (the oldest museum in the U.S.), the Fort Sumter museum, and on home and plantation tours, you learn that many enslaved Africans were skilled craftsman – carpenters, stone masons, brick makers, gardeners, painters, blacksmiths, iron workers, and plasterers.  Not only did slaves build this incredible city of homes and gardens, but they were also responsible for its wealth.  

South Carolina was the only state that imported slaves for their knowledge.  Since it was the principle rice growing state in America, they imported slaves from the Windward Coast of Africa, from Senegal to Sierra Leone and Liberia, because these people had been growing rice in their homeland for a thousand years.  Rice production was tedious work – ten times the labor effort of growing cotton.  But the profits were gigantic.  Charleston became the rice king of America with 120 ships arriving in port every day.  By the time the American Revolution started in 1775, Charleston was the richest city in all the colonies, and the fourth largest.

The gardens at Middleton Place were built and maintained by enslaved Africans.

6.      The plantation at Middleton Place holds family reunions – for descendants of former masters and slaves.  One spot that does an excellent job of illustrating how much Charleston owes to enslaved Africans is Middleton Place.  The plantation home was burned in the Civil War and today Middleton Place is best known for having the oldest formal garden in the country.  Gardens in the 18th century were based more on symmetry and contrasting the many shades of green to be found in hedges, trees and lawns, so this is not a garden of colorful flower beds, but a subtle, mathematical creation. 

The gardens at Middleton Place


Like everything else from this period, these magnificent gardens were built and maintained by enslaved Africans.  Only here, they get credit for it.  Eliza’s House, a freedman’s house from 1870, has been restored into a small museum telling their story.  The names of all 2,800 slaves who worked at Middleton Place from 1738 to the end of the Civil war are listed, along with the jobs they held, and, chillingly, the price that was paid for them. There is Judy, a house wench and seamstress purchased for $70, and Cuffy, a carpenter who was bought for $60.   Old Jenny came for just $15, but it must have been a package deal because Paul, her son, a gardener, fetched $70.  

Every year, Middleton has a reunion of the family members who trace their history back to the Middleton name.  Since 2006, the descendants of the 2,800 slaves who lived there have been researched and also invited; some 200 attended in 2016.

7.     Charleston was a major battleground in the American Revolution. 
Mention the Revolution, and most people think of Boston, Paul Revere, Philadelphia and the Liberty Bell, but there were actually 135 engagements during the Revolution in South Carolina, more than in all New England.  

As the richest city in the colonies, Charleston was a major prize and the British sent an expedition of nine ships to capture it in June 1776.  Quick thinking Americans built a fort out of rubber-like palmetto palm tree trunks and sand.  To the disgust of the British, their cannonballs bounced off the soft palm trees, or got imbedded in the sand, while the American guns were able to do great damage to the British Navy.  This attack failed, but in 1779 the British sent an even larger fleet and laid siege to Charleston.  The Americans surrendered in what was to be the largest colonial defeat of the war.

8.       Today, historic Charleston looks so much like it did during the Revolution, that when Mel Gibson filmed The Patriot here, all he had to do was take down signs and put mulch on the streets.  The fire department wouldn’t let him remove fire plugs, so every time there was a fire plug in a scene, he placed a woman in a big hoop skirt directly over it.

Poe's Tavern near Fort Moultrie
Fort Moultrie, where the first battle took place, disappeared long ago, but a second fort still stands and a museum tells the role this spot had in three wars.  After visiting, stop by the Poe Tavern for a drink.  Edgar Allen Poe was stationed at Fort Moultrie in 1827 (although to escape gambling debts and family problems, he had enlisted in the army as Edgar A. Perry).  Several of his famous short stories were written here or based on the area.

9.     Another revolutionary war battlefield is now the hippest place in town.

The real fighting during the siege of Charleston in 1779 was right downtown in what is now Marion Square.  Not that long ago, there was little for tourists north of this park, but today, the Upper King Street neighborhood is the hippest hood in town and booming with new eateries and clubs, while the park hosts a weekly farmer’s market and art shows.

When it opens in spring 2018, Hotel Bennett will rise from the park in attractive tiered building offering 179 luxury rooms and suites, many with spectacular views and balconies overlooking Marion Square.  With a rooftop pool, a 1,000-seat music venue, view bars, and indoor and outdoor meeting space, the hotel will have the grandest location in Charleston. 

The seafood tower in The Ordianry

The eight blocks north of here are now one long string of James Beard restaurants, music clubs, and lowcountry cuisine cafes with tap houses and distilleries sprinkled in.  It’s packed with people and even lines on weekends, and busy every night.  TheOrdinary deserves all the raves. From their spectacular shellfish tower signature dish to oyster sliders, the restaurant is simply amazing, transforming an old bank into a chic multi-level shellfish house.  The Macintosh was the first big name on the street (Executive Chef Jeremiah Bacon is a five-time James Beard semifinalist).  How could you not love a place that has a Bacon Happy Hour?  Prohibition is a 1920s style speakeasy with live music six nights a week ranging from bluegrass to Cuban jazz.

There are at least seven breweries in downtown Charleston with more on the way.  On Upper King, try the Charleston Beer Works and the spectacularly named, “Closed for Business” – both are tap houses with a wide selection of local beers, which, like anywhere in the south, tend to run to light, pales, sour, fruit and ambers.

10.   The Civil War started in Charleston with the type of “battle” all wars should have – no one was killed. 

Everyone knows the Civil War started at 4:30 a.m. on April 12, 1861, when Confederate forces fired the first shells at Fort Sumter.  Some 3,000 bombs later, the United States forces surrendered.  No one had been killed. 

The Huntley, the world's first submarine, also fought in Charleston Harbor. 

Less well known is that the American forces came back in April 1863 and commenced the largest bombardment in U.S. history.  For 20 months, the Union hurled seven million pounds of metal at Fort Sumter, and were never able to take it.  They also bombarded Charleston in what was to be the longest bombardment of any American city in history, destroying much of the town.  And regiments of African American troops assaulted Fort Wagner which protected Charleston, in an attack depicted in the movie Glory.  Nothing succeeded, and Charleston was only taken when Sherman marched to it from Atlanta.

It's amazing, given the history, how much has survived here.

Of course, Charleston had also been destroyed by a fire in 1838 with 1,200 buildings burned, and then was hit by Hurricane Hugo in 1989, which damaged 80 percent of the homes and left 50,000 people homeless.  And if that’s not enough, Charleston is also on a major geologic fault and an earthquake in 1886 destroyed much of the city (and many experts think Charleston is way overdue for another). 

All of these historic incidents are depicted at Fort Sumter National Monument.  A visit is mandatory, and free – if you swim.  But it costs $21 if you want to take the hour ferry each way.

Unfortunately, yet another disaster – this one manmade -- occurred on June 17, 2015, when a crazy psychotic killed nine members of a bible study group at the Emanuel AME church, just a few blocks from Marion Square.

The tower of the Emanuel AME Church stands proud.

Through all of these tragedies, Charleston has survived, endured and come out stronger and better.

On the second anniversary of the shooting, it was announced that famed architect Michael Arad, designer of the National September 11 Memorial in New York, will create a piece to honor the victims of this tragic shooting.  

It is perhaps because Charleston has endured so much that it is so beautiful.  Walking its quiet backstreets on tree-shaded brick sidewalks is one of the great joys of visiting this city.  On every block there’s something to admire.  Peek through a gate to see a private garden, duck down a tree-covered alley, wander through a graveyard, or read the plaques mounted on hundreds of homes to see who lived here.  There is no place else quite like Charleston.

IF YOU GO:
There are hundreds of flower baskets in Charleston

The CharlestonConvention & Visitors Bureau is one of the best in the nation with a large, incredible visitor’s center packed with helpful advice.  The Hyatt House and Hyatt Place share a common courtyard and are ideal place to stay, within walking distance of the historic district, and smack in the center of the exciting new restaurants and clubs along Upper King Street.  They Hyatt House has a kitchen and order your own omelet breakfast.  Bulldog Tours does excellent walking tours of the historic district.