Memorial Day 1998. Virginia. There is something about riding motorcycles that doesn’t encourage you to focus on the destination. Rather, you just want to ride. The reason you climb on the saddle is to ride, not to go anywhere. And riding a motorcycle allows you to be part of where you are; you are not just looking at the scenery, as if from the outside, as you do in a car (or what motorcyclists call a cage).
Still, Chris Flannery and I had to make a decision regarding the trip. Which direction should we take? We chose the Piedmont area of Virginia, because we knew the roads there were lovely this time of year, and we knew that our general direction should be toward Civil War battlefields. It was for Memorial Day.
We rode South, through West Virginia and the twisties in the Appalachian Mountains (in the rain), into the Shenandoah Valley where the sun reappeared. Taking the Blue Ridge Parkway, in and out of fog, we ended up at the University of Virginia. Walking the spacious lawns, seeing the serpentine walls and gardens, colonnaded pavilions, and the classical rotunda inspired by the Pantheon in Rome, we realized that this was both the beginning and end of our trip. Thomas Jefferson was the father of the University. He regarded it as one of his three greatest achievements. He laid the cornerstone in 1817, designed the Rotunda, drew the plans, raised money and supervised its construction, and served as the first rector. He also hired the faculty and designed the curriculum (which, by the way, is very similar to the curriculum of the Ashbrook Center).
Just up the road at Monticello, the home Jefferson built between 1769 and 1809, we came even closer to Jefferson’s mind. The place is lovely and close to its appearance, inside and out, as it was in his day. It is full of his loves. It is the reason, as one of his contemporaries said, Jefferson had an "unpardonable rage for retirement." Maps of the New World. Paintings of its discoverers. Indian antiquities and curiosities from the Lewis and Clark expedition. Books in the five languages he could read. Religious paintings. A bust of George Washington. And the wonderful portrait of John Locke. A copy of the Declaration of Independence, his greatest achievement—a reflection of the American mind, he called it—hangs without ostentation in the library.
When our guide mentioned that both Jefferson and John Adams died on July 4, 1826—the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration—I noticed that two women standing near me couldn’t keep their eyes dry. They were not the only ones to shed tears of reverence that day, in that room, at the source of all things American.
We continued up Constitution Route to the next county and Montpellier, the home of James Madison. The home of "the greatest man in the world" (Jefferson’s words) is not as meaningful. It had to be sold after his death, for Madison, like most of the other Founders, died in poverty. The building has been much added to since then, and there is virtually nothing of the original inside. The Park Service is still looking to reconstitute it. No matter, James Madison’s legacy is our fundamental law, unchanged in its essence for over two centuries. Not a bad accomplishment for this slight, retiring and unassuming man. The Constitutional Convention forced his active mind to become public. It is revealed in the Constitution, and especially in The Federalist, arguably the greatest commentary on government ever written. We did see Mr. Madison, in the simple and modest Madison family burial plot, in the middle ripening farmland, approachable only by a narrow unpaved roa
During the next four days we visited a half dozen battlefields brought on by the crisis of the Republic. The Civil War, perhaps the last battle in the American Revolution, came about because of the flaw that inhered in the practice of the new political order dedicated to the principles of equality and liberty. The Founders did everything they could to place slavery on the course of ultimate extinction, yet the institution prospered. Worse, an ideology justifying it grew bolder and louder, until finally it was drowned in the thunder of civil war.
We visited Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, the Wilderness, Spottsylvania Court House, Harpers Ferry, Antietam, ending up at Gettysburg. These are deeply moving, hallowed places. They are places to visit only when you are prepared to let somber emotion move your soul. Only when you are ready to breathe deeply and shed tears in public, should you go. The greatest things were at stake. The courage and the nobility of the men, on both sides, is palpable. You are in the midst of forces and powers that you want to understand, but at that moment you can only feel. Your heart expands to a size you thought not possible, your eyes see through granite grave markers, you hear the whispering of the dead. You are awakened by the fury and bedlam and the noise of battle.
The Wilderness (May 5-6, 1864), the first time Grant met Lee in battle, proved to the South that Grant was different from previous Union commanders; even in tactical defeat he would not back off. The fighting moved some dozen miles South to Spottsylvania Court House (May 8-19). The fighting was ferocious and long lasting. But the most brutal fighting took place at the Bloody Angle. (The 126th Regiment of the Ohio Volunteer Infantry, commanded by Col. Benjamin F. Smith fought there; and Smith, along with many others, died there.) For about twenty hours, in driving rain, the most fierce hand to hand combat of the entire war took place. The terrible slaughter signaled a new shift in each side’s perception of the war. Grant would press toward Richmond, no matter what the costs. And Lee knew that from now on his part in the fighting would be entirely defensive. It was only a question of time.
We ended up at Gettysburg. Standing in the cemetery where Lincoln most clearly explained why the war had to be won, we once again returned to the mind of Jefferson and the character of the nation. It was a fine trip. We came home.