Posts Tagged ‘North Carolina’

The South: Not Just for Civil War Geeks

Yankees typically vacation in the South for two reasons. Most of the time, we cross the Potomac and head to the beautiful beaches and sea towns along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. Once there, we race rented jet-skis, play golf, crowd ocean-view restaurants, soak in the sun, and make general drunken nuisances of ourselves. We likely complain a lot, occasionally tip well (but more likely not), and then scurry back to our cul-de-sacs in the suburbs and harp on “funny sounding southerners” while trying to figure out how to screw our neighbors out of something or other.

The other reason vacationers head south is to tour Civil War sites. The greater Fredericksburg area is popular, but Richmond,  Appomatox,  Fort Sumter, Chickamauga, and Vicksburg are on that list as well. This is pretty good for the southern states. Most of these sites are well away from the coast in areas that could use some tourist dollars. And I like to think “history tourists” are better behaved than their sunburned, drunken brethren (although I’m sure we’re annoying in our own special way).

But here’s what’s forgotten, even by the history tourist: the South was crucial to colonial victory in the Revolutionary War, and has a lot to offer for students of that conflict. North and South Carolina had special significance during the Revolution, perhaps even more so than they had in the Civil War. South Carolina was literally riddled with battles of all shapes and sizes, and North Carolina was the site of one of the most pivotal battles of that entire conflict: the seldom-discussed Battle of Guilford Court House.

The early stages of the war were fought in the troublesome northern colonies, home of the original irksome Tea Partiers and a certain troupe of rabble-rousers in Philadelphia and New York. Those battles are legendary and often-taught in schools and shown on the History Channel: Lexington and Concord, Ticonderoga, Bunker Hill, Trenton, Saratoga. Those sites get all the visitors and all the attention when it comes to Revolutionary War tourism. Little attention is paid to the Southern Theater of that war, except Yorktown of course. That’s really sad: what happened in the Carolinas actually assured victory for all the colonies and assured the new United States would be as big and bi-coastal as it is today. What started in the North concluded successfully in the South.

The battle had shifted in upstate New York. The battle of Saratoga was a huge victory for the Continental Army and colonial militias. General Horatio Gates defeated and surrounded General Burgoyne’s redcoat troops in a humiliating defeat for the British. It was quite a stunning victory, really, and not only cost the British dearly in men and arms but also encouraged the French and Spanish to enter the fray on the side of the fledgling Americans. The Brits were going down for a defeat, something that simply would not stand in the eyes of the landed gentry, Parliamentarians, and King George. So the Brits came up with a new strategy.

Their new goal became not subduing all the colonies, but weakening their power by attacking the supposedly “soft” underbelly: Georgia and the Carolinas. The Brits were convinced the lower colonies were full of Loyalists, unwilling to surrender the honor of being part of the Empire to join with a band of Puritanical misfits and wannabes. All the Brits had to do was get past the coastal defenses and move into the interior where the North American landed gentry would gladly join them. With the low colonies firmly in British hands, resource-rich Virginia would fall, and to hell with the miscreants in Pennsylvania and Massachusetts. They could have their little country, firmly surrounded and contained by Britain and her loyal followers.

In March of 1780, they besieged and eventually conquered Charleston,  the biggest port south of the Chesapeake. They then moved inland, fighting and skirmishing all over interior South Carolina, picking up some Loyalists along the way but also (foolishly) stretching their supply lines and slowly whittling away at their core group of highly trained soldiers. But in their eyes, they were doing exactly what they wanted to do. Georgia was effectively out of the fray, South Carolina was theirs, and North Carolina (theoretically full of loyal British subjects) would be won. Then they could gather their strength and take back the Chesapeake Bay ports and the colony of Virginia.

After a series of mixed-result battles throughout South Carolina, bold Lord Cornwallis (descendant of barons and earls and nephew of archbishops and governors) lightened the load of his armies by abandoning equipment and supplies, and led them all into North Carolina in hot pursuit of the fleet-of-foot Continentals led by that much-beloved Quaker, General Nathanael Greene of Rhode Island. A brave and very astute commander, Greene’s motto became “we fight, get beat, rise, and fight again”, directly copying a strategy made famous by Fabius Maximus centuries earlier: war through attrition.

Greene did that over and over in the southern campaign, and culminated that strategy at Guilford Courthouse near Greensboro. He met Cornwallis’ 1900 crack troops with over 4000 of is own. He knew his men didn’t have the skill or fortitude to defeat Cornwallis, but he’d have them pound the British as much as they could. Worked, too. Worked fabulously well. The Brits won the battle due to superior tactics and arms (and, supposedly, through the use of nasty friendly-fire tactics), but they paid a high price for their victory. Cornwallis lost a quarter of his men and (due to “lightening the load” weeks earlier) most of their supplies. Cornwallis had no choice but to retreat over inhospitable land to coastal Wilmington. The British lost their chance to split the Colonies forever, and were eventually met with defeat in Yorktown months later.

There’s a lot we don’t know about the history of our own country. We tend to remember a few key events (poorly), but miss the whole. It’s quite interesting, actually, how one event leads to another, how  a series of small defeats can lead to a great victory and the eventual redirection of history. The Battle of Guilford Courthouse is one such event.

Oh, and North Carolina is my favorite Southern state. Just thought I’d toss that out there. 🙂

[I didn’t own a digital camera when I visited Guilford Courthouse, so no pictures. All illustrations & maps are public domain.]



Guilford Courthouse National Military Park

The order of battle

Natty Green’s Brewing Company

Google map to Guilford Courthouse

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Mistakes Were Made

I really screwed up my trip to the Smokies. For some strange reason, I decided to stay at a resort named Fontana Village, south of the park boundary in North Carolina. It was close to the park, yet away from the tourist trap of Gatlinburg. It sounded nice enough: cabins, horses, kayaking, bike rentals, sports fields, etc. I thought it’d be a good place to unwind and enjoy nature without a lot of noise or nonsense. So I booked it and made my way down.

I had a light breakfast as usual, I get so nervous flying I try not to eat much beforehand. I flew into Charlotte, picked up a rental car and then drove all the way to Fontana. It’s pretty remote, about a four hour drive, didn’t stop for lunch, just grabbed some snacks from a Quik-E-Mart. Got to Fontana just as it was getting dark, and because it’s off the beaten path, it was really dark. Nice, windy roads as well. I knew that once I got there, that was it for the night. I arrived, check in and, well, the place was dead. Right away, I realized what a horrible mistake I made. It was October, way off-season. I was one of maybe 8 guests in the whole place, just about everything was closed. Dinner in the hotel restaurant was trucked in from God-knows-where, and it was lousy: some sort of overcooked chicken tetrazzini nightmare. Restaurants were hours away, I was beat, so I choked down what I could (not much) and went to bed.

Morning came, and there was not much available for breakfast, either. Single-serving corn flakes, 6-oz cups of OJ. Disastrous. But hey, I was near the park. Forget about the lousy accommodations, I didn’t travel all that way to sit in a hotel room anyway. So I grabbed my gear, and headed to the woods (the Twentymile Trail, to be specific).

Oh good God it was awful! The prior day’s malnutrition hit me like a sledgehammer to the sternum. I was so low on energy, I could only walk about 10 minutes before needing a breather. I was sitting on every stump, lump, rock and log I came across. It was torture. The peanut-butter crackers I brought weren’t doing the trick, either. Why, oh why, didn’t I swallow my pride and eat more tetrazzini? Why didn’t I grab a yogurt at the weak breakfast buffet (there was yogurt, wasn’t there)? I felt like I was on a forced march in Bataan or something, except it was a chilly autumn in North Carolina instead of summertime in the fetid tropics. Every step was agony. Every breath was labored. I could hear the pulse from my pounding heart in my eardrums. It was awful.

I met a man, 20 years my senior, trotting happily down the trail, not a care in the world. Definitely walking a faster pace than I. Cheerful and friendly, he piped up. “Good morning” he chirped. “Top of the trails just around the bend, wait till you see it!” “Thanks” I groaned, trying to conceal my fatigue through a hearty façade. I waited until he passed behind the trees, and continued the slow, painful, protein-deficient struggle to the top of the hill … and then I saw it.

Around a bend, a gap formed in the trees. The morning fog burned off, the sun started to peak through. I lifted my weary head, and looked out. The sight took whatever feeble breath I had clean away. I was overlooking a sunlit carpet of red, orange, and gold, as far as the eye could see. I was looking at the majestic, glorious tops of the great forest of Smoky Mountains National Park, and it was fabulous. I felt like Bilbo Baggins, poking his head from the gloominess of Mirkwood and seeing hope in the butterflies. It was spectacular, and awesome, and inspiring, and rewarding.

I turned back down the trail, and with gravity’s assistance, I made it back to the lodge. After a quick shower and nap, I hopped in the car and drove an hour or so to the nearest restaurant, sat down, and ate a steak the size of a toilet seat.

It’s a truly spectacular park, after this ill-fated hike I spent another 3 days in the area and it was wonderful. I only spent one night at Fontana Village, though :-P. Now before folks complain, let me just say I went off-season, and it was 15 years ago. Whether Fontana Village is any better in the summer, or has improved the place since then, I cannot say. But I can definitely say an autumn trip to the Smokies is well worth any lodging hassles.


[I didn’t own a camera when I took my trip to the Smokies. Pictures are all in the public domain as far as I can tell. If you know of any copyrights that apply, please let me know. Bilbo’s image is copyright 1977 by Rankin/Bass Productions.]


Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Fontana Village

The Story of the Fontana Dam

Google map of GSM NP

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Hazards of Time

There are a few problems with blogging about collections. One is the problem I’m having blogging about Fort Raleigh. I know I was there, I remember crossing the bridge to Roanoke Island and taking the detour to a beautiful patch of flora along the Albemarle Sound.

But other than that, I don’t remember anything.

I can imagine the same problem with other collectors. “Who gave me this alpaca Beanie Baby?” “How did this otaku manga get mixed in with my Marvel comics?” “Where did I get this train car covered with illegal aliens?” … hmmm, actually a model train car covered with illegal aliens sounds pretty nifty. 🙂

I guess it’s appropriate that the one site I seem to have forgotten is Fort Raleigh, for Fort Raleigh marks the site where a colony of 116 men, women & children simply disappeared while their captain sailed for supplies. To this day, it’s not known what happened. Some say they were slaughtered by nearby natives, others think they moved inland looking for food and died, others think a storm swept them all away. The truth, of course, is they were abducted by aliens.

Here’s what I really want to know: did I forget about Fort Raleigh because of time? Age? Maybe I was so giddy after visiting Kitty Hawk I didn’t absorb anything from Fort Raleigh. Or maybe Fort Raleigh doesn’t really have anything to teach us. The story of the Roanoke colony is taught in grade school (or at least it was, maybe it’s not on any No Child Left Behind test). One of the key reasons I travel to the parks is the opportunity for locational learning, where one can see and feel the space where an important event happened or a particular natural wonder is showcased.  But at Fort Raleigh, there’s really nothing to see. Yes, it’s a beautiful park, but other than that, there’s nothing really to connect one to the event it’s supposed to commemorate.

Without a connection, there’s no opportunity to learn and, for me at least, no reason to remember.

[I didn’t own a digital camera when I visited Fort Raleigh. Pics are from Wikipedia Commons (see comments).]



Fort Raleigh National Historic Site

America’s Lost Colony

25 Strangest Collections on the Web

Google map to Fort Raleigh

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Beep! Beep! Honk! Honk! — Curse of the Drive-By Tourists

It’s an odd sort of thing: a National Park that’s really just a stretch of road. But that’s what the Blue Ridge Parkway is: a stretch of road. It’s a terrific stretch of road, however. It runs between Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, and Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina, and contains some of the nicest scenery east of the Mississippi. There are great swaths of sparsely developed land on both sides of the road, and plenty of small towns and great diners and other out-of-the-way places up and down the Parkway.

Courtesy of National Park Service

The big problem with the Parkway is the phenomenon of the drive-by nature tourist. Growing up in Western Massachusetts means growing up loathing one particular type of tourist: the leaf-peeper, that sightseer who comes up once a year, clogging our roads, looking at the world through their side window. It’s even worse when they won’t even get out of their cars to have lunch & help the local economy: they just turn around and go back to Rhode Island or Boston or wherever they come from. Eventually, it’s safe for the locals to get back on the roads, but by then, fall’s over and the roads to the mall get overloaded with Christmas shoppers….

Ah well, at least it’s only once a year. On the Blue Ridge Parkway, however, you get these types all year round. But unlike the roadways of Western Mass., the Parkway isn’t a real travellers road, it is just for the tourists. They’re not clogging up roads that working folk have to travel, so that’s fine. But I still get peeved by these drive-by tourists, even on roads built for them.

Courtesy of National Park ServiceMy big beef is this: nature is meant to be experienced, up close. It cannot be appreciated from the air-conditioned comfort of your Lexus SUV. You need to get out, put feet to ground (or paddle to water, or snowshoe to snow, or mountain-bike tire to trail, or whatever your modus operandi may be). That’s how you see the glory of nature. Get off your butts, and climb that ridgeline. Not only will you get some exercise, but then the views and vistas will be truly earned! And earning the reward makes the reward so much more satisfying.

Beyond that, in my opinion, roadside tourism leads to a misunderstanding of nature. It leads to a belief that nature is this broad, sturdy, indestructible everything, and that’s just not true. It also leads to this belief that nature is this serene, safe place, devoid of danger, and that’s not true, either. Nature can harm and can be harmed, it is strong yet delicate, it is diverse yet encompassing. Nature is so much more than just treetops and mountains visible from a roadside turn-off. It is trees and moss and roots and rocks and newts and squirrels and flowers and worms and all those other things not visible from behind a windshield.

So next time your driving along some scenic road, pull over, get off your butts, and walk the woods!

Courtesy of National Park ServiceI’ll talk about Shenandoah & the Smokeys later on, but here are a few non-National Park System sights I visited along the Blue Ridge Parkway:

  • Eastern Virginia has a lot of cave attractions, most are west of the Parkway. I visited Luray Caverns in New Market, Virginia. It was OK, rather touristy, but has some nice formations.
  • Charlottesville, Virginia is a great small town. It’s both the home of Thomas Jefferson and Dave Matthews. You can visit the former’s home (Monticello). I don’t think the latter would appreciate an uninvited visitor, however. 😉
  • Montpelier, the home of our 4th President, and the man creditted with writing much of the Constitution, James Madison, is in nearby Orange, Virginia.
  • The Natural Bridge is further south in, oddly enough, Natural Bridge, Virginia. It is said George Washington himself carved his initials into the stone, they’re clearly visible from the walkway.
  • The National D-Day Memorial is just off the Parkway in Bedford, Virginia. I didn’t care for it, however. Far too grandiose in my mind. I’ll comment on this in later posts, but I like simple memorials & monuments, not something that belongs on a Franklin Mint collectible. I did take a few unspectacular pics when I was there in spring of ’07.
  • Roanoke, Virginia has a surprisingly hip downtown area with some good restaurants & interesting shops. No brewpubs, though. 😦
  • Asheville, North Carolina is another nice little town. The famed manse, the Biltmore Estates, are nearby. I hear they’re a “must see”, which is, of course, why I didn’t visit them. 😛

Courtesy of National Park Service[Sadly, I didn’t own a camera when I toured the Blue Ridge Parkway. All pictures on this post courtesy of the National Park Service]


Blue Ridge Parkway

Luray Caverns



Natural Bridge

National D-Day Memorial

Google map to the Blue Ridge Parkway

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