Jamestowne, Yorktown, Williamsburg, and GettysburgMarch 28, 2011
Spring vacation came to Hillsdale College ten days ago, and it came none too soon. When we moved here from Tulsa, Oklahoma a bit less than four years ago, we left a sunny city with very mild winters for rural Michigan – where a sunny winter day is rare, indeed. And on that occasion I promised my wife that every year, when Spring vacation came, I would take her and our brood to see the sun.
The first year we flew on frequent flyer miles to San Diego and rented a van. The next year we went to the outskirts of Philadelphia and to DC. Last year we went back to Tulsa to see old friends. And this year we drove to Williamsburg by a somewhat circuitous route via Front Royal, Virginia and Skyline Drive along the Blue Ridge Mountains. The drive itself was glorious – sunshine the whole way – and we made sitting in the car not only tolerable but a pleasure both for our children and ourselves by listening to The Fellowship of the Ring, the first volume of The Lord of the Rings, as read by Rob Inglis.
We have now listened to The Lord of the Rings in its entirety three times. The first time we did so it was riveting, and our children – instead of asking when we would get to our destination – asked, instead, whether we could drive on. The second and third times the novelty had worn off, but the story told and Inglis’ use of different voices to represent the different characters was absorbing nonetheless. When we turned the CD player off at times when navigating was difficult, our children complained. Mindful of this, I ordered The Hobbit as read by Inglis this morning. I know of no author, other than Homer, who can give more pleasure than J. R. R. Tolkien – and I wonder at the fact that four years ago I had not read a word of anything he had written.
After spending a night at a cheap motel in Williamsburg, we drove down to Jamestowne, where the dogwoods were already in bloom. I had last visited the site roughly fifteen years ago. I knew that a great deal of archaeological work had been done in the interim, but I was not prepared for what I found. The visitor’s center is excellent; the movie shown there is, alas, a bit pedantic and politically correct. It is aimed at children in grade school. But the site itself is now laid out in a fashion that makes everything easy to understand, and the Archaearium nearby displays the artifacts and skeletons dug up by the archaeologists to great advantage. Much that we could only infer from the written record is now confirmed by the remains that have been found.
What struck me at the time is the similarity between the original Jamestowne settlement and the colonies sent out in the 8th, 7th, and 6th centuries B.C. from the Greek homeland to the Italian mainland, Sicily, certain Aegean islands, Cyrenaica in what is now Libya, the sea of Marmara, and the Black Sea. As in the case of Jamestowne, only men were at first sent, and the colonies were usually established on an island just off the coast or on a headland that could easily be fortified – which describes the Jamestowne settlement to a T.
The next day we went to Yorktown, which has a splendid new visitor’s center. There the movie was excellent – so good, in fact, that I bought a copy for classroom use. The battlefield itself is easy to walk, and one can follow the various stages of the struggle without trouble.
If you have never been to either site, you should visit both. Jamestowne is on the James River; Yorktown, on the York River. Both are located in exceptionally beautiful places.
Colonial Williamsburg itself is pretty much as it was fifteen years ago – interesting and for children enlightening. After spending some time there, we drove up the James River on Route 5 – the oldest highway in the United States – visiting plantations dating back to the 17th and the 18th centuries on the way. To give you a sense of what it was like in those environs at that time: At Westover, at the beginning of the 18th century, William Byrd had a library with 3000 books. Every morning, he read a little Greek and a little Hebrew before riding off to Williamsburg to do serve on the governor’s council. On some occasions, he took time to read something in Italian or French.
Gettysburg – which we visited a few days later – has also changed. When I taught at Franklin and Marshall College in the early 1980s, I used to drive over to Gettysburg from Lancaster, Pennsylvania to walk the battlefield. There was a visitor’s center then, but it does not compare with the one opened in 2008. The movie, narrated by Morgan Freeman, is fabulous. The cyclorama, built around a painting of the battle the size of a football field produced by a Frenchman in the 19th century, is remarkable. And the museum – with seven or more brief films focused on aspects of the civil war and an enormous number of artifacts – is as fine a facility as I have seen. We had only a day to spend. It would have been worth two. If you have never gone, you should go.
The battlefield has changed very little, but the driving tour laid out did a fine job of bringing home to us the various stages of that three-day battle at the beginning of July, 1863. I have to say that the National Parks Service does a fine job in its management of these sites. We will no doubt go back in five or so years when our younger children are old enough to appreciate what these sites have to offer. I look forward to the trip.