A Hidden Jewel

Today was mostly a “drive day,” with only a few stops.  I had a reservation at Carolina Beach State Park near Wilmington, North Carolina in the evening, making for a long drive today. 

 
 
Above:  I continued my southward voyage, stopping at the Petersburg Battlefield in Virginia for a few hours.  Then back on I-95, I crossed into North Carolina and pulled into Wilmington that evening, then camped at a state park nearby.

 

I got up and had breakfast at Prince William Forest Park, being just about the only camper in the 100-site campground.  I loved this place, as I mentioned in my previous entry, and will definitely camp here again the next time I visit northern Virginia.  It’s a great location and for campers it would be a terrific home base for explorations into the surrounding areas, like Washington, D.C. or the numerous historic and cultural sites nearby. 

I left the campground around 8:30 and stopped at the park’s Visitor Center, where I learned a lot more about Prince William Forest Park.  Looking at the park map, I realized that it was right next to the Marine base at Quantico, Virginia – in fact, earlier that morning at the campground I heard what sounded like live ammunition training.  I walked into the Visitor Center and was greeted by a friendly woman park ranger, who told me that during World War II, this area had been the training ground of the OSS (Office of Strategic Services), the forerunner of the CIA, but now it’s run by the National Park Service.  Judging by the small number of visitors I’d seen in the park so far, it seemed like an undiscovered jewel.

The Petersburg Battlefield

After spending a half-hour at the Visitor Center learning about the park’s history, I returned to my truck and got back on Interstate 95 heading south, past Fredericksburg and Richmond.  Late in the morning, I pulled into the Visitor Center parking lot at Petersburg National Battlefield, east of Petersburg, Virginia.  I’d been to the Petersburg battlefield two or three times during the past 30 years and it’s always been one of my favorite stops in Virginia.

Towards the end of the Civil War in the summer of 1864, the advancing Union Army, brimming with supplies, troops, and momentum, met the weary Confederates here and both sides dug in.  Over the next several months, both sides slugged it out but neither one budged, and as the Union troops extended their entrenchments, the Confederates matched them.  Petersburg was a crucial railroad hub, so once it fell, nearby Richmond – the capital of the Confederacy – was doomed.  In the spring of 1865, after nine months and over 70,000 casualties, the Union troops finally broke through the Confederate lines, then Richmond fell shortly afterwards, and a few days later, Robert E. Lee and the Confederate Army surrendered to General Grant at Appomattox, ending the Civil War.  The long entrenchment battle at Petersburg was a preview of the massive entrenchment warfare style that would dominate World War One, 50 years later.

I’ve always been fascinated by the Petersburg battlefield, mainly because it was such a unique conflict.  Most Civil War battles occurred over a few hours or perhaps a couple days, but Petersburg was a drawn-out affair with both sides digging in for months and trying to outlast the other.  It was the longest battle of the war, by far, and this style of trench warfare was something rare during the Civil War, except for a few other places, like Vicksburg. 

I walked into the Visitor Center and was greeted by a friendly National Park volunteer at the front desk, who gave me a map of the park.  After I stamped my National Park passport, I walked around the mostly-empty museum and then watched a 20-minute movie of the battle.  Afterwards I drove around the park, stopping at a few sites. 

The most interesting site at Petersburg is the “Battle of Crater.”  Union troops, desperate to break through the Confederate entrenchments, spent weeks digging a tunnel under both lines, then they piled up kegs of dynamite in the tunnel and let it blow.  It was a good idea but, with typical Union ineptitude, they had done no planning and hadn’t told their soldiers what they were supposed to do after the explosion.  So, typical of Union efforts throughout the war, the bravery of their soldiers was superseded by the incompetence of their leaders.  By the way, and as I described in my www.DelsJourney.com website, my great-great-grandfather, a fellow named Ransom Myers, fought at Shiloh with the Michigan cavalry in 1862, lost his arm to a sniper, then re-enlisted as a Union courier late in the war and fought in eastern Tennessee, so my interest in the Civil War is personal.

After a few hours at Petersburg, I got back in my truck and drove through downtown Petersburg, which is pretty run down and has seen better days, then I continued south on Interstate 95, crossing into North Carolina (state #38) where the sign at border said, "North Carolina:  The Nation's Most Military Friendly State."  From there I drove on to Wilmington, where I pulled into Carolina Beach State Park just before sunset, and after checking in with a friendly and bubbly woman staffer behind the desk who spoke with a true Carolina drawl, I found a great, secluded campsite in the half-full campground.  It was about 70 degrees and, with the balmy breeze, the pine trees and the sandy campsites – not to mention the drawl – I felt like I was finally in The South.

Virginia to North Carolina