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Posts from the ‘Robert E. Lee’ Category

Robert Morris Rides to D.C. – Day 4

The following is a post by Valentine Brkich, RMU senior writer, who along with 27 other RMU staff members, students, alumni, and friends, is taking part in a 300-mile bike ride from Pittsburgh to Washington, D.C. Over the next two days, leading up to and in honor of Memorial Day, Val will be writing about each stop along the way and its connection to the Civil War, which began 150 years ago…

Hancock (Md.) to Harper’s Ferry (W. Va.)

Harpers Ferry is situated at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers, where Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia all come together. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) headquarters is also located here, making it one of the few towns that the Appalachian Trail passes through directly.

Surrounded by rocky, higher ground, Harpers Ferry is a picturesque town that is best known for John Brown’s raid on the local armory in 1859. This doomed attack served as one of the precursors to the Civil War.

Because of the town’s strategic location, it was coveted by both the North and South during the war. In fact, Harpers Ferry changed hands eight times from 1861 to 1865.

During the war, as Gen. Robert E. Lee’s forces moved north into Maryland, the Union garrison at Harpers Ferry decided to stay and try to hold the town because of its strategic importance for Union supply lines. Confederate forces under Gen. Stonewall Jackson converged on the town on Sept. 15, 1862, and placed artillery on the heights overlooking the town. Recognizing that his position was defenseless, Union commander Col. Dixon S. Miles, who was mortally wounded in the battle, surrendered his more than 12,000 troops. From here Jackson led most of his men to join with Lee at the Battle of Antietam in Sharpsburg, Md.

This is my second time in Harpers Ferry (my first visit coming in May 2010 with RMU’s Civil War Study Tour), and I’m still taken by its natural beauty and the power of the town’s storied history.

Well, this is it. Just one more day to go. Next stop Washington, D.C.!



DAY 2 – Richmond, Virginia – The Capital of the Confederacy

What happened here?
Richmond served as the Confederate capital and a main source of munitions, armament, and weapons, for the Southern armies. Here, the Tredegar Iron Works produced vital munitions during the war, including the 723 tons of armor plating that covered the ironclad C.S.S. Virginia. Union armies made several unsuccessful attempts to capture the city during the war before it finally fell to the Federals in April 1865.

Legacy and Aftermath
Five days after the fall of Richmond, Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Courthouse. Today, the city still embraces its Confederate legacy, as exemplified by Monument Avenue, which features statues of J.E.B. Stuart, Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and Stonewall Jackson.

It took the Union armies four years to make it to Richmond; we did it in 45 minutes.

After filling up on a complimentary breakfast consisting mainly of an egg-like substance and coffee-flavored water, the RMU Civil War Study Tour participants and I loaded onto the bus and hit the road to Richmond – the one-time capital of the Confederate States of America.

“Wait ‘til we get to Richmond,” Dr. Barr told me as we rumbled down I-95. “They have an entirely different way of looking at the Civil War.”

I started to understand this as soon as we arrived at The Museum of the Confederacy and I saw the big carp out in front painted with a mural of Confederate generals Lee, Jackson, and J.E.B. Stuart (see photo of RMU students around the Rebel fish). Also, in the same plaza, and somewhat more apropos, was the anchor from the C.S.S. Virginia, the legendary ironclad fought to a draw with the U.S.S. Monitor during the Battle of Hampton Roads in March 1862 (see photo).

Once inside, we were free to tour the three floors of the museum, which featured hundreds of paintings, photos, and artifacts from the war, including some of the actual uniforms worn by Confederate soldiers. Brie, still wearing the same flip-flops she wore to climb Maryland Heights a day earlier, asked Civil War trivia questions to the other students as we viewed the displays.

In the souvenir shop, Ashley, a freshman secondary education major from Republic, Pa., was surprised to find a miniature figure depicting a Zouave – soldiers who adopted the flamboyant, North African–inspired uniforms of the 19th century French infantry.

“You don’t see that very often,” she said.

And she would know. Last March, she took part in the “Military Through the Ages” event in Jamestown, Vir., as a reenactor with the 3rd Regular U.S. Infantry.

Ashley has been interested in the War since the 8th grade. Now she’s hoping to better understand it from a Confederate perspective. “I never really learned about the war from their point of view,” she said. “But this is definitely helping.”

The museum gift shop had everything a Confederacy enthusiast could ever want: Confederate Christmas stockings and ornaments, Confederate breath mints, and even “Johnny Reb Natural Beeswax Lip Balm,” mint julep flavor, which I just couldn’t pass up. Dr. Barr bought a wooden slingshot carved in the likeness of Robert E. Lee (see photo). They even had a Bobby Lee nutcracker.

Next, we walked over the White House of the Confederacy, which sits right beside the museum. Built in 1818, it’s a beautiful, stately home with towering pillars on the back side. Jefferson Davis, his wife Varina, and their children moved into the house in August 1861 and remained there until the evacuation of Richmond on April 2, 1865. The house then became the U.S. Army’s headquarters and remained so until 1870. It first opened as a museum in 1896.

Entering the house from the back, we were first brought into a small staging room in the basement with white brick walls, a brick floor, and two large photographs on the walls: one of Davis and one of his wife. There, our spirited tour guide for the day, Dean Knight, gave us a quick run-down of the tour and politely asked us to not take any photographs and not to touch anything.

Minutes later, he politely reprimanded me after I temporarily forgot the rules and touched the wallpaper.

Knight led us to the formal dining room, where a large painting of George Washington hung on the outer wall. “The Confederates lost no opportunity to draw parallels to what they were doing and what Washington had done nearly a century before,” said Knight. “To them, they were fighting the second Revolutionary War.”

After walking through the rest of the house, Knight took us outside for a walking tour of the town. About a block up the street, we paused near the Valentine Richmond History Center (a wonderful name, in my opinion), which once held the eclectic collection of Mann S. Valentine, Jr., the independently wealthy creator of Valentine’s Meat Juice. Doesn’t that just sound yummy?

Next, we strolled over to Capitol Square, where the 60-foot-tall George Washington equestrian monument stands near the Virginia State Capitol and the Virginia Governor’s mansion (see photo).

“Washington’s my boy,” said Brian, a senior secondary ed. major from Bethel Park, with a particular interest in the Revolutionary War. “That’s my homedog,” he added.

After admiring Brian’s “homedog” for a few minutes, we walked a short distance to St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, where both Lee and Davis attended services during the War. Davis was here attending services on April 2, 1865 when he received a telegram from Lee that the Union army had taken Petersburg and that Richmond would be next. He immediately left and headed over to his official office in the former U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit building, which overlooks the Virginia State Capitol (see photo).

Along the way, we passed by a somewhat out of place statue of Edgar Allen Poe, which Elise, a junior business management major from the North Hills, was rather excited to see. “I was born on Poe’s birthday,” she explained, “which is also Robert E. Lee’s. I guess that’s why I like Lee so much. We’re B.F.F.’s.”

Elise believes so many Americans are still obsessed with the Civil War because of the major impact it had on our society. “It changed the history and structure of our entire country,” she said.

I asked her what she thought of the day’s tour thus far, and she said she liked hearing about Davis’s retreat from Richmond. “I didn’t know all that,” she said, “and I liked getting a different perspective of things from the tour guide’s point of view.”

A little later, eating lunch at an Irish-themed restaurant, I asked Brian what he thought of the Museum of the Confederacy. “I really liked it,” he said. “There was a display of some of the pipes that the Confederates made and used to smoke tobacco. That was cool. That’s a part of the War I never really thought about before.”

Just then, the bartender brought over a bottle of (GASP!) Hunt’s Ketchup for Brian’s fries. “This is an outrage!” he said. “Man, that’s treason.” What else would you expect from a Pittsburgher?

Following lunch, we walked about a mile or so over to the Tredegar Iron Works, the South’s main industrial center during the War, which today houses The American Civil War Center. Our guide was Mark Howell.

“Tredegar was, by far and away, the largest industrial complex in the South,” Howell explained, as we stood among the ruins (see photo). “That’s one of the main reasons the capital was moved here from Montgomery, Ala.”

Howell told us that, much like the foundries in Pittsburgh, Tredegar was built near the water to supply power and as a way to transport coal and other materials to the site. Also, before the start of the War, much of the coal used there to make iron was brought in from Western Pennsylvania for of its higher quality.

After touring the museum, we loaded back into the bus and weaved through the back neighborhoods of Richmond to Hollywood Cemetery, the final resting place of over 18,000 Confederates, including President Jefferson Davis, Maj. Gen. George E. Pickett, and Gen. J. E. B. Stuart. The cemetery also holds the remains of Presidents James Monroe and John Tyler, three children of General James Longstreet, and approximately 2,000 casualties from the Battle of Gettysburg.

The most striking memorial in the cemetery, however, is the 90-foot, granite pyramid that, in 1869, became the first memorial in Richmond to the Confederate soldiers (see photo). An imposing structure, the pyramid was constructed entirely without mortar and sits on top of a mass grave that holds the bones of thousands of unknown Confederate dead.

Our final stop of the day was the remains of the Cold Harbor battlefield. Here, between May 31 and June 12, 1864, Union forces suffered anywhere from 10,000 to 13,000 casualties, with nearly 2,000 killed; Confederate casualties numbered around 2,500. In his memoirs, Grant said that he “always regretted that the last assault at Cold Harbor was ever made,” and that “no advantage whatever was gained to compensate for the heavy loss we sustained.”

As we stood between two cannon overlooking the field, Dr. Barr went through the chronology of the battle to give the students a feel for where they were standing (see photo). Then we followed the park trail, which winded through the woods where most of the fighting took place.

During the walk, students paused to read signs that pointed out the many still visible trenches where soldiers from both sides took refuge during the battle. It was a somber walk for many, who paused in silence to visualize the bloody, two-week battle that took place over this wooded landscape 146 years ago.

Next stop, Fredericksburg….

— Valentine J. Brkich

DAY 1 – Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia

What happened here?
On Oct. 16, 1859, abolitionist John Brown led 21 men on a raid on the federal arsenal in order to acquire weapons, with which he planned to arm slaves for a war against slavery in Virginia. The raid was quelled two days later by U.S. Marines led by Col. Robert E. Lee. Brown and seven of his raiders were later hanged, following trial for treason. This was also the site of the Battle of Harpers Ferry (Sept. 12–15, 1862), where Confederate soldiers under Maj. Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson fought and captured the Union garrison in order to secure a line of supply for Lee as his army moved farther north.

Legacy and Aftermath
John Brown’s failed raid did much to put an already divided nation on a path to war by striking fear in Southern slave owners and by creating a martyr for Northern abolitionists. The battle for the town, almost three years later, was a major victory for the Confederates, who inflicted 217 casualties and captured more than 12,000 Union soldiers, as well as a large cache of weapons and supplies.


I really shouldn’t have gone running yesterday, I thought to myself, as I slogged my way up the steep, rocky trail to Maryland Heights, overlooking Harpers Ferry, W. Va.

We left Robert Morris University in the early morning and rode through a driving rainstorm all the way to this historic town at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah River. On the tour bus I was joined by 14 students in RMU’s Civil War Study Tour class, taught by Dan Barr, Ph.D., associate professor of history.

As we made our way down the PA Turnpike, I introduced myself to a woman named Kristen, a part-time student from Allison Park and the mother of four: a son, 17; and three daughters, 22, 14, and 12.

I asked her why she signed up for the class and tour.

“I hope to learn as much as I can, rather than in the classroom,” she said.

Kristen admits she knows very little about the Civil War. “I would consider myself a Civil War novice,” she said, sharing how the 2003 movie “Cold Mountain” had piqued her interest by giving her a look at the war from the home-front perspective. “That made it real to me,” she said. “I hope I can do the same for my own students some day.”

Like many of us, Kristen is intrigued by the war’s ability to still captivate us almost 150 years later. “I think our society is still obsessed with the Civil War because it was all about us,” she said. “It went to the heart and soul of who we were, and it continues to shape who we are today.”

We arrived at Harpers Ferry in the early afternoon, and within seconds of stepping off the bus, we knew we’re in the South. The muggy air smacked us in the face as gnats buzzed incessantly around our heads.

Our tour guide, Bill Sagle, seemed amused by our reaction to the heat. “You think this is bad,” he said, “you should come here in July.”

For the next two hours or so, Bill gave us an insider’s look at the town, going hour by hour through Brown’s raid and sharing details you won’t necessarily find in your text book. At one point we were all sitting inside the famed Engine House, a.k.a., John Brown’s fort, where the abolitionist held over 40 captives before being overtaken by U.S. Marines led by Col. Robert E. Lee.

When Bill finished his talk, we mentioned our plans to hike up the trail to Maryland Heights, where in 1862 fierce fighting took place in the Battle of Harper’s Ferry. “Good luck,” he said. “I highly suggest bug spray and snake repellent.”

That got the attention of some of the girls in the group.

“Snakes!” they exclaimed. “There’s snakes up there?” I’m not sure if it was fear of disturbing a sleeping rattler or just the stifling heat, but several of the students decided to forego the climb to the heights and instead explore the town. The rest of us took the footbridge across the Potomac to begin our ascent. Our group included one girl, Brie, the president of RMU’s History Club, who was wearing flip-flops and carrying a Prada bag.

On the way up the trail I got to talking with Matt, a grad school student currently doing his student teaching at Western Beaver. It turns out he’s also a Civil War reenactor with the Beaver County-based 63rd Regiment of Pennsylvania Volunteers, Company C.

“This is nothing,” Matt told me, as we started the 2.1-mile climb. “Last year we hiked Camp Allegheny, 12 miles, in full gear.”

I asked him his opinion on protecting history in places like Harpers Ferry. “Historic preservation is key,” he said. “It’s protecting what your ancestors did for you.”

As a future teacher, Matt sees the value in trips such as these. “You have to get out there and get your hands on history,” he said. “So many students think history is boring. But when you get them out there, and they can see it and feel it themselves…that’s how you can get them excited.”

Forty minutes later, we we’re at the top of the mountain. We paused briefly to catch our breath and gaze down at the rivers and town far below. Of the 10 of us who started the climb, seven make it all the way to the top, including Brie in her flip-flops.

On the way back down the hill, I started talking with Jordan, who is just finishing up his freshman year at RMU. I asked him how it went.

“Good,” he said, “although, my experience was a little different than the average freshman.”

Jordan joined the Army right out of high school and was stationed at Fort Polk in Louisiana. A cannon crew member in a field artillery unit, he spent 10 months in Afghanistan, returned home for one year, and then spent another 15 months in Iraq. He still serves in the National Guard today.

When Jordan came back from Iraq, he started looking around at different schools. That’s when he found out about RMU’s program for veterans and how, through the Federal Yellow Ribbon Program, he could attend the university for free. “That’s all I needed to hear,” he said.

Soon we were back in town and ready to call it a day. So we climbed aboard the bus to head down to Thornburg, Va., for the night.

Next stop, Richmond – the capital of the Confederacy.

Stay tuned…