Hallowed Ground

by Brian Jewell 21. May 2010 20:28


On a Friday morning, the air around Manassas is soft and quiet. Dew drops shimmer on the green rolling hills outside of town, and all is peaceful. But it was not always so.

In July of 1861, young and inexperienced troops from the Union and Confederate armies met for the first time on the fields outside of Manassas, and engaged in a fierce battle that would shatter their illusions about the glory of war. In this, one of the early battles of the Civil War, and the first one so close to Washington and Richmond (the confederate capitol), army recruits from both sides found themselves in the middle of a baptism by fire.

Today I visited Manassas National Battlefield Park, which preserves the ground where the first and second battles of Bull Run were fought. Also known as the Battles of Bull Run, both of these encounters were victories for the South, as they beat back Union forces and sent them retreating toward Washington. For modern travelers, a visit to the park gives a remarkable perspective of what the fight meant for our country's young men, most of whom were taking their first steps into warfare.

The ground of the battlefield is scenic and peaceful, but throughout the park, a number of monuments, markers and other objects tell the story of the fighting that took place there. Visitors can see a number of cannons from the battle that have been set up on top of the hill overlooking the park. There is a large monument set up to honor the Union troops who died here, as well as a statue honoring Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, who earned his nickname during the first battle here.

For me, the most moving part of the visit was the film shown at the visitor's center, which brings the conflict into human terms by telling the stories of individual soldiers, officers and civilians from both sides. Many of the young men in both armies expected the fighting to be quick, painless and relatively easy. Most thought that the conflict would end after just one battle. After a few hours of fighting, all of the surviving soldiers walked away with their lives forever changed.


Artillery cannon in the distance at Manassas Battlefield.

A monument to Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson.


A monument erected by Union veterans to honor their dead at Manassas Battlefield.

Semper Fi

by Brian Jewell 21. May 2010 06:44

The National Museum of the Marine Corps is one of those places that gives you chills.

Located in Quantico near a major Marine base, this museum opened in 2006 and has become one of the most popular tourist attractions in Northern Virginia, drawing some 500,000 visitors annually. Walking through the place today, I understood why -- this museum goes to extraoridanry lenghts to help people understand the training, commitment and creed that make the Marines our country's most lauded fighting force.

A visit to the museum is moving from the very beginning. From the outside, the large atrium of the museum is capped with a steeple-like extension, set at an angle to recall the famous photo of Marines raising the flag at Iwo Jima. In the orientation theater, active and retired Marines (including two U.S. senators) talk about the uncommon valor shown by the men in the corps, and the special pride that comes with serving the most difficult places among bretheren who are semper fidelis -- always faithful.

From there, the museum's galleries describe the recruitment and training process of young marines, then go on to detail the Corps' history, from its creation in 1775 to its current role in Afghanistan and Iraq. Along the way, extensive dioramas feature life-sized manequins that were cast from the faces and bodies of actual men serving in the Marine Corps today. Visitors walk through some of the dioramas for an immerseve experience, and many of the displays use extensive lighting, sound and environmental effects to give guests the feeling of walking through the battleground.

The museum also features an impressive collection of artifacts, from World War I training aircraft to a rare Vietnamese artillery guns. All together, there are dozens of full-sized aircraft, tanks and armored vehicles on display, along with hundreds of guns from the many different military periods.

Military history buffs and collectors will be tempted to spend hours in this museum. For me, though, the most poignant part of the places was the human stories that it tells. There were many men in uniform, as well as retired Marine veterans, visiting the museum alongside me today, and they all share in the amazing heritage of bravery and fidelity that have made the Marines famous around the world. Even after decades out of uniform, these men remain deeply connected to the Corps, and this museum is a faithful retelling of their collective experiences.




Great ideas in the District of Columbia

by Brian Jewell 20. May 2010 07:41

I've always thought that the National Parks Service was one of the greatest ideas to come out of America (you know, besides "All men are created equal," "I have a dream," "Tear down this wall," and all of the other inspirational stuff). But during my daylong visit to the National Mall in Washington, I decided that the Smithsonian Institution ranks right up there with the best cultural achievements of our country.

I'll be spending the next few days exporing Manassas and the Prince William County area of Northern Virginia. Today, though, I rode the train into Washington for a quick look at the Smithsonian and other attractions around the National Mall. Though I visited some of these places as a middle-school student years ago, returning as an adult gave me a new appreciation for just how great these museums are, and what a point of pride they should be for all Americans.

I began with a visit to the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. This museum holds millions of items from our past, ranging from antique arms and armor to steam locomotives, famous musical instruments, and a host of things in between. One of the most famous is the large American flag that inspired Frances Scott Key to write "The Star Spangled Banner" during the war of 1812. I was captivated by a wing with various exhibitions on America's presidents, which included artifacts from the White House, video interviews wiith former presidents, a gallery of first ladies' ball gowns and a special section on Abraham Lincoln, complete with one of his famous top hats.

Next, I took a stroll down the mall to the National Museum of the American Indian, the newest of the Smithsonian museums in Washington. This institution does an amazing job of telling the stories of America's diverse native peoles, from the northeastern woodlands to the desert Southwest and the icey fjords of Alaska. The artifacts and informational panels were chosen by the individual tribes and groups they represent, and the exhibits give a fascinating job of describing the past and present triumphs and struggles of indigenous people in America.

In addition to the museums, I also took time to enjoy the National Mall, spread out between the Washington Monument and the U.S. Capitol.  On the grounds of the capitol complex, I happened upon the National Botanic Garden, an attraction that I wasn't aware of. A quick trip inside revealed hundreds of plants from all parts of the world, inside a conservatory that proved a welcome relief from the bustling Mall and capitol just outside.

You could spend a week in D.C. without running out of things to do. But even a daylong trip was enough to remind me of just a few of the things I love about this country.


Julia Child's kitchen on display in at the National museum of American History.


An original Kermit the Frog puppet, on display in the pop culture gallery at the National Museum of American History.


Abraham Lincoln's top hat.


This colorful mask on display at the National Museum of the American Indian was used in tribal ceremonies in the Southwest.


One of many exotic plants cultivated at the National Botanic Garden.


Another rare flower fromthe National Botanic Garden.

Art comes alive in St. Charles

by Brian Jewell 7. May 2010 06:57

Artwork takes on a whole new hue when you get to talk to the people who are creating it.

Today I visited St. Charles, a town in eastern Missouri known for it historic 1800s downtown and its association with Lewis and Clark's expedition. There's plenty of charm on the brick-lined streets, and many historic sites to visit. But the one that interested me the most was the Foundry Arts Centre.

Created as a railroad car manufacturing facility in the 1940s, the foundry later closed and sat dormant for years. In the 1990s and early 2000s, a community effort helped to turn the facility into an arts center with gallery space for artwork exhibition and studio space where local artists can work.

Today the Foundry Arts Centre is the cultural headquarters of St. Charles, hosting concerts, art shows, lectures luncheons and other events. The permanent galleries on the bottom floor host a series of changing exhibitions of work by local and regional artists. In the upstairs section, some 25 working artists have studios, where they can be found creating paintings, sculptures, fabric art, pottery and other art forms.

My favorite part of the visit was walking through the studios and meeting the artists who work there.  Two of them are retired art teachers who are pursuing their life passions now after decades in education. They explained the inspiration behind their work, and shared some of the processes and techniques they use to create painting and pottery that they love and that appeal to art buyers.

Meeting these guys helped me to put a human face on the artwork, and allowed to see the items in front of me through the perspective of their experience, creativity and passions. If you're only a casual art liker, a visit to the foundry just might turn you in to a bona fide art lover.


Will the real Jesse James please stand up?

by Brian Jewell 6. May 2010 06:42

The story of Jesse James, which I knew little of before this trip through Missouri, just keeps getting weirder and weirder.

Today I visited the Jesse James Wax Museum in Stanton, a small Missouri town not far from St. Louis. Official history indicates that Jesse James was killed in 1882 in a rented house in St. Joseph, Missouri (the home is now a St. Joseph museum). But the owners of Jesse James Wax Museum hold that James faked his own death and left Missouri, and resurfaced in 1948 as a 100-year-old man under the name J. Frank Dalton. According to this version of the story, the real James returned to Missouri and lived for three years before dying in 1951.

The wax museum is dedicated to making the case that J. Frank Dalton was Jesse James. Displays use grainy black-and-white photos of the two men, along with the testimonies of several of James' contemporaries, to try to convince visitors of this alternate version of history. During a tour of the museum, guests see a number of wax figures depicting scenes from James' life, as well as a figure of the elderly Dalton after making his debut in public. Also on display are a number of antique firearms, as well as a computer-generated aging photos used to demonstrate how Jesse James would have aged into a old man resembling Dalton.

"The evidence they found was amazing," said Tammy Franklin, my guide to the museum who was a true believer in the story. "It really does make sense."

The story is certainly compelling -- if Jesse James succeeded in faking his own death in 1882 to ultimately escape pursuit, it would be the greatest criminal exploit in American history. I've been so taken in by the tale that I've spent much of tonight reading historical accounts online, looking at the evidence presented by both sides. Most academics and scientists who comment on the issue point to a 1996 DNA test that confirms that the man buried on the farm in Kearney shares DNA with James' sister. But to the true believers, the DNA test had several underlying innacuracies and, thus, proves nothing.

For me, the deciding factor is this: J. Frank Dalton was introduced to the public by Rudy Tirelli, one of the proprietors of Meramec Caverns in Stanton. The owners have long marketed the caverns as a hideout of the James gang in the 1800s, and drew no small ammount of media attention with their claims to have found the real, un-dead outlaw.

Sounds to me like Tirelli and company had a financial motivation to promote the tale of J. Frank Dalton. And if you make a trip to the Jesse James Wax Museum, they'll make few bucks off of you, too. But for those who are fascinated with the legend and lore of Jesse James, or who can't pass up a good conspiracy theory, this museum makes an interesting half-hour visit.

Hero or villain? The Jesse James Farm

by Brian Jewell 5. May 2010 08:17

To many students of history, Jesse James is one of the most notorious villains ever to live in the United States, robbing banks and killing enemies all over the country for decades during the mid-1800s. But for a fair number of his contemporaries in western Missouri, James was a freedom fighter and folk hero.

I learned a fascinating story about James life and motivation for his violent actions at the James Farm, a historic site in the small town of Kearney, Missouri, where James was born and lived much of his early life. During a tour of the museum, I learned about the violent Civil War-era events that motivated Jesse and his brother Frank James to begin their life of violent crimes. The James boys and their family, who supported the South in the Civil War, saw significant abuse at the hands of Union sympathizers. After the war, when a new Missouri constintution disenfranchised and marginalized those who had supported the rebel cause, the James brothers began robbing pro-Union banks as a form of vigilante justice.

After seeing an introductory video and touring the small museum, I took a guided tour of the James house, which was built in the early 1800s. During the tour, I heard stories of the family's life there, including some of the attacks that the boys' mother and siblings endured by federal marshals pursuing the outlaws. The boys' mother lived there until the day she died; after that, Frank James came back and lived in the home as well, giving tours of the farm to curious passers by who came to see the birthplace of the already-infamous Jesse James.

After he was killed in St. Joseph, Jesse James was brought back to the farm and buried there, where a gravestone and memorial still stands. Reading the inscription on the headstone, you would think that Jesse James was a first-rate hero. It's a good reminder that history is never quite as simple as it seems. And after visiting the home and hearing its stories, I have a new appreciation for the difficult time in our history that this family's struggle represents.


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