Category Archives: Travel in the United States

The Antebellum Houses of Natchez, Mississippi and Monuments of The Lost Cause

Natchez- Vidalia Bridge, Mississippi River

Like a lot of bloggers, we keep an idea list for future posts as well as rough outlines of posts we’ve decided to scrap or for some reason or other just couldn’t figure out how we wanted to write the story about our travels there.  But the events several days ago on August 11th and 12th in Charlottesville, Virginia, had us thinking about a road-trip we took last year in September on a loop through Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas.  We were intent on learning more about the history and culture of some of the southern States of the USA, visiting a few of the Civil War battlefields and following along the path of the Civil Rights Movement landmarks from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. In September of 2016, in the waning months of our former president, we thought we were firmly on the path to social justice. Those members belonging to the radical fringe of civil society, the White Nationalist groups like the Ku Klux Klan, Neo-Nazis and others, slithered underground until given a green light during the presidential campaign to come out in the open.  And, after the inauguration of # 45 and despite months of warnings with the “Muslim Ban,” the dismantling brick by brick of years and decades-old statesmanship programs and policies, the threat of our social safety net being ripped out from under us and the deportation of some of the most vulnerable among us, we were still taken aback.  We watched with horror and sick hearts, as raw bigotry and hateful, anti-Semitic and racial epithets spewed from the mouths of white men (and a few women) carrying guns, knives, clubs and shields as blatant acts of intimidation.  Parading along Charlottesville, Virginia’s streets, the marchers waved their Tiki torches and carried Nazi banners with swastikas along with Confederate flags.  It wasn’t hard to compare them to old documentaries we’d watched featuring long ago Klan processions, cross burnings and the news clips from Hitler’s Third Reich rallies. And the impetus? A call to “Unite the Right” and the threatened removal of the statue of General Robert E. Lee, the military commander of the Confederate States of America and a potent symbol of the Lost Cause.

Which brings us to the pretty little town of Natchez, Mississippi, population somewhere less than 25,000, where we spent a couple of nights in September of 2016, en route to Vicksburg.  And our decision not to write about this town until now.  Because, just as Confederate monuments symbolize white supremacy and a war against the United States of America fought in the defense of slavery, the stunning collection of beautifully maintained antebellum homes pay tribute to the Lost Cause and romanticize a genteel south memorialized forever in the tradition of “Gone with the Wind.”  Vast fortunes were made growing and trading cotton and sugarcane and shipping goods upriver on the Mississippi to Northern cities and downriver to New Orleans.  Staggering wealth made on the backs of black slave labor.

 

 

We’d first learned of this town through the Penn Cage novels of Greg Iles and wanted to see some of the heritage architecture he’d written of.  Unlike so many of the South’s grand cities of the era, Natchez came through the Civil War almost unscathed with many of the mansions built before 1860 still surviving.  In the historic downtown, block after block of antebellum homes can be admired from curbside with eighty-two of the Natchez homes in the historic downtown and along the bluffs overlooking the Mississippi river, earning a distinguished entry into the National Register of Historic Places.  Natchez brags, discreetly and ever-so-politely, that half the millionaires in the US resided there before the Civil War and it’s estimated that almost one-hundred of the grand neoclassical and Greek Revival-style structures could rightfully be called Antebellum mansions.

We stopped by the Natchez Visitor Reception Area and picked up tickets to see a few of the Antebellum Mansions which have been turned into living museums with tours offered hourly.  Depending on the time of year, as many as twenty of the mansions may be open for tours.  The tours we picked lasted about an hour each and we split them up, doing two the first afternoon of our visit and a couple of tours along with a stroll about the Natchez City Cemetery (also on the National Register of Historic Places) the following day.

Stanton Hall –   Occupying an entire two-acre city block and surrounded by a wrought iron fence, this Greek Revival residence perfectly met our expectations as to how an antebellum mansion should look. Built in 1857 by Irish immigrant and cotton merchant, Frederick Stanton, the mansion was occupied by Union troops during the war. The Stanton family lived there until 1894 when the building became the Stanton College for Young Ladies.  The Pilgrimage Garden Club purchased the home in 1938 and restored it to its former splendor using many of the original furnishings belonging to the Stanton family.  If opulence ever needed a picture to define it, the inside of this mansion would do it. (No pictures of the inside were allowed, so you’ll have to take our word for it!)

 

Stanton Hall

Auburn – Completed in 1812, the Auburn home was “designed to be the most magnificent building in the territory” and was built for Lyman Harding, the first Attorney General of Mississippi.  After his death in 1820, the home was purchased by Stephen Duncan, a physician and wealthy planter, and his wife, Catherine and remained in the Duncan family until 1911 when the heirs donated the home and 210 acres adjacent to it, now a park, to the city of Natchez.  Unfortunately, the original contents of the house were sold at public auction with few being returned and the home is furnished with donated period pieces.  If we haven’t conveyed it yet, we were duly impressed by the house but by far, the most striking thing about the mansion is the free-standing spiral stairway that rises between the ground and second floor completely unsupported.

 

Auburn Mansion

 

Rosalie –  With sweeping views and located on the Mississippi River Bluff near French build Fort Rosalie (1716), the mansion was built between 1820 and 1823 for the original owners, Peter and Eliza Little.  The home was purchased in 1857 by Andrew Wilson and his wife, also named Eliza, and was occupied by the family and their descendants until the home and the original furnishings were sold to the Mississippi State Society, Daughters of the American Revolution who maintain the home and give the tours.  Occupied by the Union Army in 1863, General Walter Gresham protected the house and its contents and returned it to the family after the Civil War. (Unfortunately, we weren’t allowed to take photos inside the home.)

 

 

Longwood – If we had to vote for our favorite mansion, Longwood would win hands-down and it wasn’t even completed.  Still the largest octagonal house in the US and known as “Nutt’s Folly,” its original owners were Dr. Haller Nutt and his wife Julia, members of Natchez’s planter elite. The couple hired a Philadelphia architect to design an “Oriental villa,” complete with a bright red, Byzantine onion-shaped dome. Construction of the eight-sided, six-story, 10,000 square-foot mansion which had original plans for a total of thirty-two rooms and twenty-six fireplaces, began in 1860 but was halted in 1861. The exterior is mostly finished but only nine rooms on the ground floor were completed when construction workers literally dropped their tools, collected their pay and abandoned their work at the onset of the Civil War.  The Nutt family moved their fine furniture inside the finished rooms, living there throughout the war and into the 20th Century with a total of three generations of the family living in the never finished home.  The upper five stories remain just as they were when the construction ceased, making the home a great analogy of the South’s rise and fall.  The Nutt’s grandchildren owned Longwood until 1968 and the property was deeded to the Pilgrimage Garden Club of Natchez in 1970 who maintain the property and open its doors for tours of the historic house museum. (This time we were allowed to take photos of the unfinished part.)

 

Longwood Mansion

 

And here was our conundrum.  Should we write about how beautiful we found this pretty town filled with antebellum homes and selling a romantic story of Old South nostalgia?  These fine and stately homes are indeed works of art: designed by gifted architects, built of the finest materials, containing the work of talented craftsmen and filled with the finest furnishings. The homes of slave owners, many passed down to their descendants, offer a glimpse into the lives of the wealthy southern aristocrats and are treasures for sure but their beauty is tainted by their history and only tell one side of the story.  And the other side? Generations of enslaved blacks who did the work that made the fortunes that built the houses.  Generations of people bought and sold throughout the South, who did their owners bidding, cared for other peoples’ needs and wants, raised children belonging to someone else, cooked and cleaned and planted the crops for their owners.

Somewhere over the decades following the tragedy of the Civil War that left 620,000 dead, “The Lost Cause” has evolved for some into a State’s Rights issue where slavery has been romanticized as a benevolent institution and the patriarchal society of the Confederacy as a grand, genteel civilization.  And unlike the Antebellum homes that offer a glimpse into the lives of the townspeople of Natchez and the wealthy Southern aristocrats who owned slaves before the war, most of the approximately 700 Confederate monuments standing in public spaces today were erected well after the Civil War.  They’re monuments celebrating slavery, secession and white supremacy and were erected as a direct corollary to the rise of Jim Crow laws and the violence and oppression of African-Americans.  And, despite what # 45 says, there’s nothing in those monuments that represents the USA’s rich heritage of diverse cultures, races and religions.

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

 

New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina: When the Levees Failed

During the ten years we lived on Padre Island off the coast of Texas, we talked several times of making the nine-hour drive to New Orleans and taking in the famous sights: the jazz and zydeco music, the shotgun, antebellum and Victorian homes, the guesthouses and outdoor cafes, the live oaks draped in Spanish moss and Jackson Square.  The talk abruptly ended at the end of August in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina, the largest and third strongest hurricane ever recorded in the US made landfall, wreaking devastation along the Gulf Coast from Florida to Texas. Along with the rest of the world, we glued ourselves to our televisions and watched with horrified fascination as the events in New Orleans unfolded in the following days.

On our last visit to the US, near the eleventh anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, we finally made our way over the twenty-three mile causeway across Lake Pontchartrain to the city known as “The Big Easy.”  Wanting to experience all the city had to offer, we stayed at the Four Points by Sheraton on Bourbon Street – a choice that resulted in us wearing the ear plugs thoughtfully provided on the bed tables each night – and indulged in many of the typical tourist activities.  We wandered the streets around the French Quarter, devoured the beignets at the Café du Monde and visited Jackson Square, The Cabildo and the St. Louis Cathedral, the oldest cathedral in the US.  An afternoon ride on the Steamboat Natchez down the Mississippi gave us a view on the city’s riverfront and levee system while the city bus tour introduced us to the wards of New Orleans.  We watched the revelers after dark, listened to the famed sounds of the city, ate some memorable meals and awoke in the mornings to watch the street cleaners washing away the sins of the previous night.

Fun memories for sure and yet, our standout recollections of our time in New Orleans weren’t any of the above. The biggest impressions were made by the “Hurricane Katrina Tour” on the New Orleans Gray Line, a simple exhibit called, “Living with Hurricanes: Katrina and Beyond” at the Presbytère, and a taxi ride around the lower ninth ward on a dreary, rainy morning with a drawling, middle-aged driver named Junior.  We learned about New Orleans, more about Hurricane Katrina and its devastating aftermath and were forced to question how our middle-class assumptions had shaped our views of the victims as well as our expectations of our government.

Neighborhoods (source)

As with any story, a little context and history are necessary.  An important trade route along the Mississippi River and a shortcut to the Gulf of Mexico, New Orleans was founded in 1718 by the French, ruled for forty years by the Spanish, returned to France again and sold to the United States in 1803 as a part of the Louisiana Purchase.  A polyglot of different cultures, including American, French, Spanish, Celtic, English, German and African (free and enslaved), the city also received an influx of Creoles fleeing the revolution in Haiti.  Originally built on the slightly higher ground along the Mississippi River, the city built levees to control the flood-prone river which paradoxically increased the risk of flooding from the Gulf of Mexico.  As the city grew, it began to drain (about 1890 to the 1910’s) the area between Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi, known as the “back swamp” or “back woods” because of its cypress groves, using large pumps.  It took several decades before it became apparent that this reclaimed land was slowly sinking; many neighborhoods developed after the 1900’s are now below sea level, an area equivalent to about half of the city’s 200 square miles.  As our bus tour guide explained, it’s easier to understand how the flooding occurred if you think of New Orleans as a shallow bowl.  Earthen levees, as well as concrete and steel flood walls, are tasked with the job of protecting the homes.  (A spoiler: Investigations after Hurricane Katrina into the failure of the flood wall system that existed in 2005 called them the “largest civil engineering disaster in the history of the United States.”)

Elevation map (source)

Before the storm:  On Friday, August 26th, 2005, the city of New Orleans was alerted that a major hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico was heading for the Gulf Coast.  Saturday, the 27th, when the predicted track of the Category 3 hurricane shifted to the Mississippi-Louisiana state line, New Orleans issued a voluntary evacuation order for its citizens. All major roads (Interstates 10, 55 and 59) leading out of the city were converted to outbound traffic only.  On Sunday, August 28th, Hurricane Katrina gained strength as a Category 4 storm, then was upgraded a few hours later to a Category 5 with winds estimated at 160 miles per hour.  A mandatory evacuation order for the city was issued, the first in its history.  The Superdome was opened as a “shelter of last resort.”  Approximately 1 million people left the city with an estimated 100,000 remaining.  The National Weather Service issued the following statement:

“Most of the area will be uninhabitable for weeks … perhaps longer. At least one-half of well-constructed homes will have roof and wall failure… Water shortages will make human suffering incredible by modern standards.”

The day of the storm:  Hurricane Katrina, stretching across 400 miles, made landfall on the morning of August 29th as a Category 3 hurricane, preceded by hours of heavy rains and with winds ranging up to 140 miles per hour. Flooding began even before the hurricane reached the city and, once the storm surge arrived, the towering waves overtopped some of the levees while water below the canal walls seeped through the soil and breached areas along levees on four of the city’s canals. Flood waters rushed through the ruptures and the water rose so swiftly in low-lying places like St. Bernard Parish and the Ninth Ward, that many people had little time to reach the safety of a second floor or attic.

After the storm:  Picture if you will, Louisiana in late August after a heavy rain.  The heat would have been sweltering, in the high 90’s coupled with an ungodly level of humidity.  The sun would have been a blinding reflection off a toxic soup of sea water and mud, gas and oil from ruptured pipes, sewage from shattered lines, and all manner of household and yard debris as well as hundreds of drowned animals and floating human corpses. Survivors sitting in attics or on roofs had to have been completely overwhelmed and stunned as they surveyed the aftermath.  And perhaps the worst was yet to come in the days following the hurricane as thousands made their way to the Superdome seeking water, shelter, food and medicine.  According to one of the information signs at the “…Katrina and Beyond” exhibition at the Presbytère, the majority of the deaths were due to drowning (many residents did not know how to swim) or physical trauma caused by debris.  However,

“… A substantial number died in attics or unflooded homes due to dehydration, heat stroke, heart attack, stroke or lack of medicine. The elderly were most at risk with almost half of Louisiana’s fatalities over the age of 75.”

Initially, parts of New Orleans seemed to come through the hurricane with little damage but as more levees were breached, they too experienced flooding the day following the hurricane. It’s estimated that as much as 80% of the city experienced some flooding and in places the water may have been as deep as 25 feet.

 

explanation for “Katrina Crosses”

What we remember most in the days following Katrina, while we watched the horrific devastation unfold on our TV’s along with millions of others, was the appalling disconnect between what was being reported and our government’s botched response. Thousands of people desperately awaited water, food, shelter and medicine. FEMA’s (Federal Emergency Management Agency) eventual response, assistance and evacuation plans were miserably inadequate.  In the first days following the storm, New Orleans relied almost completely on the heroic efforts of hundreds of first responders, the US Coast Guard, medical personnel, neighbors and ordinary citizens. We watched civilization break down inside the Superdome where hasty preparations had been made to shelter no more than 10,000 citizens as a last resort; up to 35,000 people sought assistance in a reeking space where the heat was stifling, the plumbing systems had failed, the dead were unceremoniously discarded and violence and mayhem reigned. Outside was no better. Our thoughts were similar to Clarence Page, a Chicago Tribune columnist, who asked, “Is this America?”

Perhaps our most sobering lesson came, during our time at the museum exhibit when we found ourselves examining our own biases and assumptions about the New Orleans victims of Hurricane Katrina. Our biggest question over the years had been, “Why did so many stay?” The eye-opener was realizing how, for many, poverty can truly cut off avenues of escape as more than a quarter of New Orleans residents at the time of Hurricane Katrina lived below the poverty line.  Almost 30% of the city’s residents did not own a car nor did they have a place to escape to or a social support network outside the city.  Many lived on government assistance and, since it was the end of the month, had no available cash nor a credit card to pay for any expenses away from home.  Many were disabled, elderly or caring for someone else with chronic disabilities, the aged or young.  Many, who relied on their TV’s for information, learned of the impending hurricane far too late to take advantage of any public transportation that would have helped them flee the city.  One of the saddest and most ironic stories we heard from our tour bus driver was that many of the drivers authorized to provide emergency transportation out of the city had left New Orleans during the voluntary evacuation.

Sculpture of house in a tree – Katrina Bus Tour

Hurricane Katrina was the worst urban disaster in modern US history and the emergency response to the people of New Orleans following the storm was a national disgrace.  No one knows for sure how many people died during and after Hurricane Katrina although the estimate most quoted is 1,836 with 1,577 from Louisiana. It was over a month before the city was dry and many of those who evacuated the city following the hurricane never returned.

We were happy to have a chance to visit New Orleans after all the years we’d dreamed of going and found it to be a charming city that well deserves to be on anyone’s bucket list.  In fact, if you didn’t know about its recent history, you might not question how many neighborhoods seem to be refurbished or new, the numerous boarded-up buildings, the ongoing construction or the many vacant lots that still remain in the Ninth Ward.   In the French Quarter, there are few troubling reminders from the storm that ravished “The Big Easy.” Life goes on and it’s an awesome place to celebrate a special occasion or just the sheer joy of living.  But, like other cities that span a few centuries, there’s a tragic side to the city as well and it’s well worth the time to learn those stories as well.

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

Vacant lots and empty houses, Ninth Ward – September, 2016

Looking For America: Thoughts on our Travels and Black History Month

Gettysburg, Pennsylvania

Gettysburg, Pennsylvania

We’re not special.  However, we won the birth lottery by being born in a rich, western country.  And, dare we state the obvious, we won the lottery again by being born white in the US.  With no apparent barriers in our way and a little native intelligence, we reached out for the opportunities afforded by having university educations and grabbed our piece of the American dream.  We never critically questioned our privilege.

Several months ago, in September of 2016, we returned to the US for a short visit and once again, became tourists in our own country.  Against the backdrop of the divisiveness of the US election where race, religion, gender equality, basic healthcare and immigration status had become massive issues of contention, we explored for ourselves what it meant to be citizens of the US.

Gettysburg Battlefield monument

Gettysburg Battlefield monument

One of our first stops was in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania to visit the Civil War battlefield where thousands of men died fighting for conflicting ideologies: State’s rights versus Federal rights, slavery versus abolitionism and a rural, southern society versus the social disruption the north was experiencing with the spread of manufacturing, commerce and the industrial revolution.

WWII and Washington Monuments

WWII and Washington Monuments

We moved on to Washington D.C, one of our favorite cities and spent a day on the National Mall, walking past the almost finished National Museum of African-American History and Culture, returning to those monuments honoring the men and women who have served our country and many times made the ultimate sacrifice.  This was also our first visit to the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, located on the west bank of the Tidal Basin not too far from the Lincoln Memorial on whose steps Dr. King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech where he visualized an end to racial inequality.

Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial

 

Just a few steps away is the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, one of our favorites, a four-room outdoor monument commemorating each of his four terms. Perhaps because of its proximity to Martin Luther King Jr.’s memorial, one of FDR’s quotes seemed to have a special meaning.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, Washington D.C.

 

Jackson Square with St. Louis Cathedral in background, New Orleans

Jackson Square with St. Louis Cathedral in background, New Orleans

We drove from Georgia to spend a few days in New Orleans, Louisiana, another first-time visit for us in this city renowned for its French and Spanish Creole architecture, music and food.  The city’s graciousness contrasted sharply with its 19th century history as the largest slave market where more than 700,000 slaves brought to the Deep South arrived via the “forced migration of the domestic slave trade.”  Here we saw, too, where race and deep poverty played a part in 2005 in determining who escaped Hurricane Katrina – one of the deadliest hurricanes in the history of the United States – who lived through the disaster that reduced the city to a desperate, hellish nightmare and who perished. Since we were living on Padre Island off the Texas Coast at that time, we remembered watching as the tragedy played out on the news, questioning if this was really happening in “our” America.

condemned house - 9th Ward

condemned house – 9th Ward

Spending a couple of days in Natchez, Mississippi, we visited a few of the magnificent Antebellum homes, spared from the Civil War and preserved with loving care.  Before the war, Natchez boasted it had the most millionaires per capita of any city in the US.  And yet, here again we were reminded that these houses and great fortunes originated from growing sugarcane and cotton using slave labor.  Here we also learned that Natchez had been home to the second largest slave market before the civil war.

Edmund Pettus Bridge, Selma, Alabama

Edmund Pettus Bridge, Selma, Alabama

From the Vicksburg National Military Park, another Civil War Battlefield honoring those who fought and died, we made our way to Selma, Alabama.  We arrived in the small and dusty town of less than 21,000 on a September afternoon that had us wilting with the temperature hovering at almost 100 degrees.  Evidently the heat had driven everyone inside because, except for our car and a very few others, the streets were deserted. However, in our imaginations, Selma had attained an almost mythical status because of the Selma to Montgomery marches.  Here was where “Bloody Sunday” occurred on March 7th, 1965, when John Robert Lewis, now a U.S. Representative from Atlanta, Georgia, led a group of six-hundred marchers across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, en route to Montgomery.  Blocked by local police and Alabama State troopers, they were ordered to turn around, beaten with clubs and tear gassed with over fifty people requiring hospitalization.  Civil rights activists poured into Selma and Martin Luther King Jr. attempted a second march on March 9th. Finally, on March 29th, after receiving federal protection, Dr. King led a group of 10,000 marchers from Selma.  By the time they reached Montgomery five days later, the marchers had grown to over 30,000 people, black and white and representing many faiths.

Our last destination took us from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, only an hour by car.  Arriving on a Saturday, the downtown area streets looked all but abandoned and, again, the late September heat was smothering.  We paid our respects to the “Mother of the Civil Rights Movement” inside the Rosa Parks Library and Museum. Rosa Park’s arrest in December of 1955 for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white passenger inspired a 381-day bus boycott in Montgomery and ended with the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that segregation on public buses is unconstitutional.  Possibly even more thought-provoking than this museum was our visit to the nearby Southern Poverty Law Center. The Civil Rights Memorial, outside the center, is a black granite memorial inscribed with the names of forty-one Americans who died between 1954, the year the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation in schools was unlawful, and 1968, the year Martin Luther King was assassinated.  Inside the building, a timeline of the Civil Rights Movement explains the events that occurred and honors those who gave their lives.  At the end of our tour, deeply moved, we were given the opportunity to add our names to the “Wall of Tolerance” where we pledged that we too, would work for the same ideals of justice, equality, and human rights.

"We will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream." Martin Luther King Amos 5:24

Our road trip in the US a few months ago gave us a chance, again, to learn and reflect more about our country and ourselves.  In the past, our country has honored multiculturalism and diversity while straddling a divide that threatens to grow wider each day. As bleak as it seems however, there is much to celebrate and many reasons to remain hopeful.  The US’s own Civil Rights Movement continues to provide inspiration for those who seek justice today as well as sanctuary.  And it’s becoming more and more evident that there are thousands willing to take up their banners and march.

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

 

Three Days in July, A Cyclorama and the Enduring Symbolism of Gettysburg

Gettysburg Battlefield, Pennsylvania. Photo by No Particular Place To GoIt was hard to imagine the brutality of war as we drove through the Pennsylvania countryside.   The landscape was fifty shades of green with rolling hills, great rock outcroppings and a sky of brilliant blue.  And yet, on the days of July 1st through July 3rd of 1863, the bloodiest battle of the Civil War was fought with over 51,000 soldiers wounded, missing or dead at its end.  A war that had begun over states’ rights and numerous contentious issues of free versus slave states, which foreshadowed the greater question of the preservation of the Union, gradually had evolved into an all-out effort to subjugate the old South and banish the institution of slavery.  Like all American school kids, we’d grown up learning the bones of the story and reciting dry facts.  As adults, we’d read our share of the countless books and essays that have been written about it.  And yet, during our visit to the Gettysburg National Military Park, the significance of the Civil War seemed especially sobering in view of the great rifts and divides currently afoot among the people of the United States today. Gettysburg Battlefield monument, Pennsylvania. Photo by No Particular Place To Go

At the Gettysburg Museum and Visitor Center we watched a short film which sketched in the historical events leading to the Civil War and, two years into the war, explained the importance of Gettysburg as a turning point in the conflict.  Nearby, a massive painting called a cyclorama piqued our interest and got our undivided attention as it showed in painstaking detail, the final battle in Gettysburg where the Confederate infantry brigades attacked and made one last attempt to overwhelm the Union soldiers.  Known as Pickett’s Charge, the decisive defeat of the south at Gettysburg came in less than half-an-hour with more than 5,000 Confederate men broken upon the fields: missing, wounded, dying or dead.Cyclorama at Gettysburg Museum, Pennsylvania. Photo by No Particular Place To Go

 

Cyclorama at Gettysburg Museum, Pennsylvania. Photo by No Particular Place To GoA trendy form of entertainment in the late nineteenth century, cycloramas were panoramic images built in the round that gave the viewer, who stood in the middle, a 360-degree view of the action; battles, of course, were popular depictions.  Hundreds of cycloramas were made and the most popular ones would travel from city to city to be displayed, often accompanied by music and narration to make the viewing of the image a complete performance. Today, only about thirty survive worldwide with three cycloramas located in the United States: Gettysburg, Atlanta and Boston.  The Gettysburg Cyclorama, painted by French artist Paul Philippoteaux, is enormous at 42 feet high (4 stories) and longer than a football field at about 380 feet. After spending months of research on the battlefield, it took Philippoteaux and his assistants well over a year to complete the huge canvas in the early 1880s.  First exhibited in Boston in 1884, the painting suffered a lot of abuse over the years including being sliced into panels and trimmed down to fit into exhibit spaces as well as temperature and humidity fluctuations, water damage, rotting and tears and fire damage not to mention improper storage.  By the time the National Park Service acquired the cyclorama in the 1950’s, and did some restoration work before exhibiting it for the centennial anniversary of the battle, it was in sad shape.  In the late 1990’s a massive conservation effort, the largest of its kind in North America, restored and repaired this historical artwork so that it could be appreciated by the more than 1 million visitors who visit Gettysburg every year. Cyclorama at Gettysburg Museum, Pennsylvania. photo by No Particular Place To Go

 

Cyclorama at Gettysburg Museum. Pennsylvania. Photo by No Particular Place To GoAfter spending quite a bit of time walking around and examining the cyclorama, we piled back into the car and took the self-guided audio tour around the huge park which covers over nine square miles.  There are approximately 1,300 markers and monuments scattered in the fields and along the roads describing what occurred and commemorating the relevant brigades who fought there. Gettysburg Battlefield monument, Pennsylvania. Photo by No Particular Place To Go

 

Gettysburg Battlefield monuments, Pennsylvania. Photo by No Particular Place To Go

 

Gettysburg Battlefield monument, Pennsylvania. Photo by No Particular Place To GoIn the July heat following the Battle of Gettysburg, the smell of thousands of dead soldiers decomposing permeated the countryside and residents in and around the nearby town of Gettysburg carried peppermint oil and pennyroyal to help mask the stench.  Fearing an epidemic, the bodies of the dead were hastily buried, many only crudely identified with a pencil written note on a board.  Many more corpses, unnamed, were buried in shallow trenches and mass graves. Shortly thereafter, the State of Pennsylvania appropriated funds for the Soldiers’ National Cemetery and purchased a site which included the ridge where the Union forced back Pickett’s Charge.  The reburial of the Union dead began on October 27th, 1863, nearly four months after the battle, with countless graves reopened and the remains identified if possible, many by the things they carried. The bodies clad in Union uniform were placed in wooden coffins and moved to their final resting place.  The grisly exhumation of the original graves took months to accomplish and was overseen by Samuel Weaver who made sure that only the boys in blue were placed in Gettysburg’s National Cemetery.  Any grave containing Confederate dead was closed again, the corpses left in place.Gettysburg Cemetery, Pennsylvania. Photo by No Particular Place To Go

And what of the dead wearing the Confederate gray, moldering on a battlefield far from their homes?  A women’s group in North Carolina began to advocate for the return of these southern soldiers so that they too could be honored for their sacrifice and laid to rest.  And finally, after nine years, the first of the shipments south of the remains of 3,320 soldiers began. Most of the dead were reinterred in the Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia, but many also found their final resting places in the town cemeteries of Raleigh, Savannah and Charleston. Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Photo by No Particular Place To Go

November 19th is Remembrance Day at Gettysburg.  The day honors those who gave their lives in the war and commemorates the dedication of the Gettysburg National Cemetery and Abraham Lincoln’s eloquent address.  In his brief speech honoring the men who had fought and sacrificed their lives, President Lincoln urged the living to continue their fight for the preservation of the country.  In the years following the Civil War, Gettysburg has become a symbol of healing, a place where former Union and Confederate soldiers returned to reflect upon the battle, but also to shake the hand of a former enemy.  Maybe we all need to remember, despite the contentious political climate that exists today, what has kept our nation united these many years since the Civil War… We can only hope.

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

 

Don’t Know Much About Art But We Know What We Like: The Grounds For Sculpture

Until some family members moved to “The Garden State” a few years ago, we’d never had a reason to visit New Jersey, a state we knew best as the setting for a couple of our favorite series, “The Sopranos” and “Boardwalk Empire.”  Tough and gritty shows that were entertaining but a long way from the peaceful, idyllic image that “Garden State” should evoke.  Wasn’t it the place where: New York City dumped its garbage, a skyline of industrial towers and chimneys belched fumes into the atmosphere, and the trashy reality show “Real Housewives of New Jersey” was filmed?  But we’ve had to change our uninformed opinion of the state as each time we visit, we get a chance to drive through some of New Jersey’s cities. We’ve seen scenery that lives up to its license plate motto with beautiful gardens and parks, rivers, forests, hills and mountains. Grounds for Sculpture, Hamilton Township, New Jersey. Photo by No Particular Place To Go

One of our favorite places during our visit to the state this time can be found at #80 Sculptors Way, Hamilton Township, New Jersey.  In fact, right at the beginning of the lane leading into the Grounds for Sculpture, we were welcomed warmly by an enthusiastic, sign-waving group that gave us an inkling that we might not be visiting any old, staid and contemplative indoor/outdoor museum.  We might actually have fun!

An enormous "au naturel" beauty (and her hissing cat) overlooks the parking lot.

An enormous “au naturel” beauty (and her hissing cat) overlooks the parking lot.

The 42-acre park sits on the site of the former New Jersey State Fairgrounds and opened to the public in 1992.  It’s the brainchild of J. Seward Johnson, Jr., one of the heirs of the immense Johnson & Johnson medical products fortune.  Johnson is a philanthropist and a painter-turned-sculptor whose bronze figures can be found in many American cities as well as throughout the world.  The Grounds for Sculpture brings together many of his works as well as showcases compositions by other renowned American and international artists in an evolving collection of over 270 contemporary large-scale and life-size statues.Grounds for Sculpture, Hamilton Twonship, NJ. Photo by No Particular Place To Go


Grounds for Sculpture, Hamilton Township, NJ. Photo by No Particular Place To Go

 

Grounds for Sculpture, Hamilton Township, NJ. Photo by No Particular Place To Go.A walk through the grounds is an interactive experience with Mr. Johnson’s sculptures showing “ordinary people doing ordinary things.”  We strolled around and through outdoor rooms separated by tall hedges and treed tunnels, enjoying the lush landscaping and variety of plants, flowers and trees as well as approaching each new area with a sense of anticipation for the next surprise – the next tableau.  At one point during our walk we heard a woman singing and the sound of water running.  Rounding the corner of the outdoor room and much to our amusement, we spied commonplace pieces of clothing hanging from pegs and a woman showering.

"Employee Shower" by Carole Feuerman

“Employee Shower” by Carole Feuerman

Interspersed throughout the park were familiar scenes straight out of well-known paintings from the Impressionist period.

Grounds for Sculpture, Hamilton Township, NJ No Particular Place To Go

 

Grounds for Sculpture- Hamilton Township, NJ. Photo by No Particular Place To Go

 

Grounds for Sculpture - Hamilton Township, NJ. Photo by No Particular Place To Go

But, we don’t want to forget the additional six indoor galleries with exhibitions like the painted figure inspired by Vermeer’s “Girl with the pearl earring.”

Grounds for Sculpture-Hamilton Township, NJ - Photo by No Particular Place To Go

And an unexpected iconic scene that made us smile!

A life-size Marilyn in an iconic scene from the movie , "The Seven Year Itch."

A life-size Marilyn from the movie, “The Seven Year Itch.”

Perhaps the only sobering moment was at the beginning of our visit when we came upon Seward Johnson’s “Double Check,” a life-size bronze figure of a businessman, seated on a bench, reviewing a contract.   Located near the North Tower of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, it was the only piece of art that survived intact.Grounds for Sculpture, Hamilton Township, NJ photo by No Particular Place To Go

A sign nearby explains the exhibit.

“Rescue workers in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 tragedy got their only smile of the day when a “victim” lifted from the rubble turned out to be a bronze sculpture by artist Seward Johnson. “Double Check” was set up among the wreckage, becoming a makeshift memorial, as flowers and heartbreaking remembrances soon covered the piece.

Deeply moved, Johnson reverently collected all the messages of love and pain, cast them in bronze, and welded them to the piece exactly as he had found them one month after the tragedy.  Johnson’s reinvented work, “Makeshift Memorial” was ceremoniously installed on New Jersey’s Hudson River Waterfront Walkway, which overlooks lower Manhattan and the former site of the World Trade Center.”

Grounds for Sculpture-Hamilton Township, NJ. Photo by No Particular Place To Go

Art can make you appreciate the world around you, make you think and hopefully, make you look at the world a little differently. (We also like art that makes us laugh occasionally but that’s just us.) We don’t know much about art but we know what we like.  And our visit to J. Seward Johnson’s Grounds for Sculptures definitely got our thumbs up!

Inspired by Grant Woods "American Gothic."

Inspired by Grant Woods “American Gothic.”

Note: Unless otherwise mentioned, all works are by J. Seward Johnson

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash  Grounds for Sculpture

 

Planes, Trains and Automobiles or What We Did On Our Vacation

We didn’t plan to neglect writing our blog posts while we traveled from Portugal to the US but, as master procrastinators who can find that one excuse is as good as another, that’s exactly what we did.  Any blogger will tell you that writing a post takes time and a fair amount of discipline and we found both of those to be in short supply once we landed in the US.  In fact, rather than the slow travel we both have found we enjoy so much, we behaved exactly like tourists.  We tried to cram as much sightseeing and visits with friends and family as we could into the roughly six weeks we were back in our home country.  The map below will show you the ocean crossed and the ground we covered.August-September 2016

We kept a calendar and a folder to organize our bus tickets to and from Lagos to Lisbon, our airline and Amtrak reservations, the AirBnB house that we rented to share with family members during a family reunion and an upscale hotel on Bourbon Street in New Orleans.  We collected numerous maps and brochures from tours of the Gettysburg and Vicksburg Battlefields, a walk around the monuments of the National Mall in DC, a sculpture Garden in New Jersey, an aquarium in Atlanta, a ride on a steamboat up the Mississippi River, multiple museums in several cities and tours of antebellum houses in Natchez, Mississippi.  We even took a day trip south of the border to feast on some authentic Mexican cooking.  17 nights were spent in guest bedrooms, 16 nights in hotels, 7 nights at an AirBnB rental and 2 nights on Amtrak trains.  We packed and unpacked our suitcases 15 times.  An estimate of the miles we traveled by air was a whopping 6,372 and we logged in somewhere around 4,943 miles by land.  But who’s counting? 🙂 Just adding it all up made us exhale a big “Whew!”

Most importantly we renewed ties with friends and family.  And we kept learning.  It’s never too late to learn more about the War of 1812 or the US Civil War, how and why Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and what a beignet and the “Best fried chicken in the South” tastes like.  We also delved into the Civil Rights Movement and reminded ourselves why it still matters today.

We returned home a week ago to Lagos, Portugal with heavier suitcases, a great sigh of relief and a promise to ourselves that next year family and friends will have to cross the Atlantic to see us. We’ve unpacked the suitcases for awhile (can we help it that we’re already thinking of future journeys?), washed the mountain of laundry that tumbled from our bags and are in the process of making the rounds to say hello to our new friends.  We have several hundred photos to edit and lots of stories to tell about life here and there.  And it’s way past time to resume a healthier diet and engage in some much-needed exercise!

Sure writing takes time but we’ve missed the fun of rehashing and thinking back on where we’ve been, what we’ve seen and learned as well as the chance to share our experiences.  We’ve missed the give and take of online friends, comments and replies, the support of the blogging community and the chance to “meet” more of the traveling community – those who travel near and far as well as those who travel by armchair or in their dreams.  We’re looking forward to telling some tales, sharing some places and stringing our words together in a way that’s, hopefully, both entertaining as well as interesting. Thanks for hanging in there with us.

And in case we haven’t emphasized this point enough: It’s good to be home!

Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

cobblestone walkway along marina, Lagos, Portugal

Cobblestone walkway along marina, Lagos, Portugal