I have to admit it. I am not much of a Florida person. Raised in the north, I get confused by endless summer, though I appreciate that a few days without snow in January might be very nice…so heading to Florida in the fall is somehow more natural for me. A few more days of summer before winter sets in. Yes, I can do this. So, given the opportunity to drive with a friend down to St. Augustine on the first of November, I was happy to go. The trip had all of the proper criteria…it was short, but not hurried, ambling and random, and with a friend whose curiosity runs along the same paths as mine. Our timetable had only one constant; I was to fly home from Jacksonville on the 5th. We were leaving the 1st. It is not so great a distance.
So we treated it as a lark. Our first night was spent in Richmond with the intent of spending time wandering the battlefields and sights around Petersburg in the morning. It was raining when we awoke, but somehow, Civil War battlefields are well served by rain. We didn’t get to see all of it, and there is certainly more around Richmond proper that needs to be explored. The fact that it was Monday slowed us some – museums close, of course, on Monday. National Parks, however, are open, and with over 4,000 acres devoted to the Siege of Petersburg, you can’t really run out of things to do. We discovered a great smartphone app from civilwar.org/battlefields where we could have a running audio tour, and video clips as well for now that I am home, but there is nothing quite like standing in the middle of the place where the Southern troops are buried in nameless graves, and in the rain….something like 28,000 unidentified men and boys in this one place…to remind you of the horror that is war.
We did not make it to the Union cemetery. There is only so much you can take in a single day when you consider that in the almost ten months of the siege, something like 60,000 people perished. The battlefields of the Civil War are best taken in small doses.
We went from Petersburg proper to City Point, the town of Hopewell which was built almost overnight as General Grant’s headquarters for the siege. It was here that Lincoln spent most of the last two weeks of his life, trying to craft a postwar policy that would not punish the South beyond tolerance. Photos of Grant’s winter quarters in the log cabin on the east lawn of Appomatox Plantation were probably the most recognizable images of that campaign for me – history is written by the victors, and Petersburg was a long and costly debacle for the North. To see it all so serene and beautiful in these days, even in the rain, is almost leave to ignore the reality of history.
The buildings and the trees that remain from that time are silent witnesses to the history. Especially the trees, though they are few that have lasted the 150 years or so between. Much of the region around Petersburg was rendered a wasteland of stumps and mud during the campaign. You cannot throw that many cannonballs in the air without substantial damage. Restoration of the plantings at the plantation, including the crape myrtle alley must be more recent. They are lovely in this change of season…beautiful.
From City Point we made our way to Raleigh, North Carolina. The intent was to spend some time in Raleigh and then to make the next move onward based on time of day and the way the wind was blowing. As it turned out, we decided to rise early the next day and head toward Florida to take advantage of the location of the boat we were eventually meant to meet, now headed toward St. Augustine.
On the road by 4 a.m. the following morning, and with the time having changed over to standard time, we saw a lot of dark skies for a lot of miles. The advantage, of course, is the light traffic at that hour, but even when the sun rose, the heavy rains lay on the windshield like damp grey felt and our view was primarily small red pinpricks of light ahead of us in our lane of traffic on Interstate 95. The weather held exactly like this until we got across the Florida border. Seriously. The minute we crossed the border, the rains halted, the clouds began to break into pieces and the temperature went up. It was a little freaky. It took us almost no time to reach St. Augustine, where we were a little in advance of the arrival of the boat. So we went immediately to the spot where the first priests set foot on the North American continent, at the Shrine of Our Lady of La Leche. There is erected there a massive cross…visible from far at sea, I am told.
It is a lovely and serene location, quite at odds with its own colonial history of burning and destruction in battles from the War of Independence through the War of 1812. There is a burial ground, and a chapel dedicated to Our Lady of La Leche. Meanwhile, across the busy thoroughfare out in front, the Fountain of Youth can be viewed somewhere behind a trailer next to a gas station, for something like $10. I could not be convinced that this was something I wished to do.
So, from there we went on to the heart of the old city, to the city dock where we could meet with my friend’s husband and their boat, where they will spend the winter. Not there in St. Augustine – they left there before I was off the plane in Philadelphia. A day and a half of knocking around that part of town – which I had not really seen before, was enjoyable. We wandered around, ate at the restaurants, went to the Lightner Museum in the old Alcazar Hotel building, and enjoyed the sunshine and languor that was a part of having arrived at our destination.
From there to Jacksonville to return the rental car while my friends sailed. A quick flight to Atlanta, then onward to Philadelphia and home.