Hallowed Highway

From Gettysburg to Monticello, a 175 mile thoroughfare leads through a rich concentration of national history

Across the region, sprawl and traffic threaten sites spanning the American Revolution to the Civil War. Here, says activist Wyatt, "history is in plain sight." (Cameron Davidson/Aerial Stock)
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In fact, Fieseler says, it was the local population’s fears for their safety that prompted the first protest against the British Crown—a full decade before Lexington and Concord. In 1765, after Britain failed to provide security following passage of a new stamp tax, Frederick’s citizens burned British officials in effigy.

Many cities near routes 15 and 20 house Civil War museums, but Frederick, where 10,000 Union and Confederate soldiers were treated during the Battle of Antietam, boasts a museum of Civil War medicine. Amid the gruesome but compelling exhibits—everything from bone fragments to prosthetic limbs and amputation kits—the museum dispels some common misconceptions. Most Civil War surgeons, for example, did not operate without anaesthesia; they used painkillers—ether and chloroform—95 percent of the time. “People think [the soldiers] were all just biting bullets,” says the museum’s director, George Wunderlich.

Beyond Frederick, Route 15 narrows from four lanes to two, winding through dense forest into the heartland of the Civil War. Another all-but-forgotten struggle took place on a battlefield at Monocacy, Maryland. On July 9, 1864, nearly 6,000 Union forces, many of whom had seen virtually no action, held off 15,000 Confederates making a last-gasp attempt to march on Washington. Today, the site, south of a series of strip malls, is a national battlefield, where trails crisscross green pastures. In 2001, preservationists led a campaign to purchase an additional parcel of land here, in partnership with the National Park Service, for $1.9 million. “Five years ago, we were buying land at $5,000 per acre,” says Robert Luddy of the Brandy Station Foundation in Culpeper County, Virginia, another group of Civil War-site preservationists. “Today we’re negotiating to purchase a battlefield—at $30,000 per acre. At a certain point, conservation becomes impossible.”

After crossing into Virginia, the road widens again, skirting horse farms enclosed in white fences. A 40-minute drive south of Monocacy, on a hill just south of Leesburg, rises Oatlands Plantation, its massive Greek Revival mansion dating from 1804. The estate, once set on 3,000-acres, contained a church, a mill and extensive gardens. Although today reduced to roughly 300 acres, Oatlands nevertheless affords a sense of this hill country as it must have appeared in the 18th and early 19th centuries. New housing tracts, however, flank the surrounding roads. “So much of this landscape is disappearing,” says David Boyce, Oatlands’ executive director. “But take a photograph from the front portico of Oatlands looking due south—all you can see is pristine rural area.”

South of Oatlands, the terrain grows steeper, dotted by 19th-century hamlets and white clapboard churches. In Culpeper, the historic town center is crowded with antebellum cottages. “You have all the styles prevalent in the Victorian era,” says local historian Eugene Scheel. “Queen Anne, Italianate, Colonial Revival.”

Although architecture constituted a defining passion for Thomas Jefferson, the Francophile third president had another obsession: vineyards. After interludes as an American diplomat in Paris, Jefferson attempted to cultivate grapes at his Monticello estate; he failed to produce outstanding vintages.

But in the past three decades, Virginia vintners, having discovered that cabernet franc grapes thrive in the area’s humid climate, have planted extensive vineyards. (Today Virginia boasts more than 100 wineries.) Near Culpeper, off Route 15, signs point the way to Old House Vineyards, which has won awards for its reds. Rows of trellises line the entrance, recalling the approach to a French château. Yet Old House, set on 25 acres, has an unpretentious feel. “We’re not a snooty winery,” says owner Patrick Kearney, who purchased the farm in 1998. After buying a bottle of red, I notice ads posted for an upcoming local event any French vintner would no doubt disdain: a chili cook-off.

The journey through Hallowed Ground ends in Charlottesville at the University of Virginia, Jefferson’s architectural masterpiece, its soaring Rotunda modeled on the Pantheon in Rome. The presence of 20,000 students has transformed downtown Charlottesville into a lively center of restaurants and music clubs along Main Street. Twenty minutes away is stately Monticello and Ash Lawn-Highland, the residence of President James Monroe. Originally a simple farmhouse (Monroe called it his cabin-castle), Ash Lawn was a working farm; its small scale imparts an intimacy not to be found at Jefferson’s palatial estate.

The landscape surrounding Monticello, in Albemarle County, is also threatened by development. The Hallowed Ground initiative’s Wyatt says the solution is to create a real estate investment trust to attract investors to buy land bound by preservation easements. “Right now, there is only one market for the land, and that’s developers,” Wyatt says. “We must be as serious about buying land as developers.”


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