My parents have spent their retirement years reconnecting with history. Whether it be researching deep into our family tree or touring state capitals, they are fascinated by anything that gives them the opportunity to gain a greater understanding of what has shaped our family and the America we know today. It is equally interesting to me, though I don’t have the ability to go on the lengthy tours that they enjoy now that they’re retired.
Recently, however, I was able to join them over a weekend in central Virginia retracing the steps of Thomas Jefferson and visiting the place where the Confederate Army surrendered to the Union Army in the American Civil War.
First up: Monticello
We began with Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s main residence, just outside of Charlottesville, VA.
It was a gloomy, rainy day, but that didn’t stop us from doing the full tour inside the house and around the extensive grounds. If the property looked that good on a dreary day, I can only imagine how impressive it is when the sun is shining.
Thomas Jefferson was an admirer of Palladian architecture and reflected that style in Monticello, Poplar Forest (his nearby retreat), and at the University of Virginia, which he helped establish. Since visiting, I have decided that my future home will be modeled in this style… if I can ever afford it.
The interior was simple but impressive. Unfortunately no photography was allowed inside, but there was plenty to admire. Jefferson collected American Indian artifacts and displayed them prominently inside of the main parlor. He also got a lot of inspiration from French architecture and building techniques, leading to him installing alcove beds, skylights (a first in the United States), storm windows, and other state-of-the-art touches in his home. He also had some of the first indoor privies (bathrooms) in the nation.
As a Virginia plantation owner, Jefferson also owned slaves. He opposed the practice, however, calling it a “moral depravity.” He simultaneously owned a plantation with slaves while advocating for emancipation – quite the contradiction. He ultimately concluded that abolition would have to be the next generation’s cause as the movement would not gain enough traction during his lifetime to force real change. Of course, American slaves would not be freed until Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation took effect on January 1, 1863 – 37 years after Jefferson’s death.
At his core, Jefferson was a farmer. He had grown up in and around agriculture his entire life, experimenting with different crops, planting methods, and soil conservation practices.
He is quoted as saying, “No occupation is so delightful to me as the culture of the earth, and no culture comparable to that of the garden…But though an old man, I am but a young gardener*.”
The sizable vegetable garden and vineyard that still grow on Monticello are a nod to his practice.
I could imagine Jefferson spending time in this cozy overlook contemplating his thoughts, reading, or taking in the scenery.
Jefferson, of course, is buried on the grounds. The cemetery is still owned and cared for by his descendants.
Up next: Poplar Forest
Poplar Forest was Thomas Jefferson’s family retreat – a large plantation that was inherited by he and his wife upon his father-in-law’s death.
While Monticello was built for entertaining, Poplar Forest was meant to be a private retreat. The only famous known visitor to the home was Andrew Jackson, who stopped by after attending a nearby event. It was also there that Jefferson wrote an early manuscript of what would later become his only published book, Notes on the State of Virginia.
Did I mention Jefferson was a self-taught architect? Yeah, he drew up the plans for this house, too. Because he had nothing else demanding his attention, like, oh, being the Governor of Virginia, or Secretary of State, or President of the United States.
Poplar Forest has many of the unique features of Monticello, including storm windows, skylights, and alcove beds. Jefferson also engineered an ingenious gutter system underneath the roof of some adjoining offices.
The home itself is going through an extended renovation to restore it to its original look after more than a century of private ownership. The interior is much simpler than Monticello, but it is still impressive to visit and see Thomas Jefferson’s fingerprints on literally every corner of the estate.
Our last stop: Appomattox Court House National Historical Park
Shifting forward half a century, we concluded our weekend at Appomattox Court House National Historical Park. As the name implies, Appomattox is run by the National Park Service which means it is FREE (though not all national parks are free), and there are lots of extra goodies that the National Park Service offers to immerse visitors in the experience.
As an example, when we arrived, a park ranger informed us that there would be an “immersive history experience” with an actor who was playing the role of a Civil War soldier stationed at Appomattox following the surrender of the Confederate Army. After watching a brief video about the history and significance of Appomattox, we made our way to the meeting place for the immersive history.
The actor, portraying a captain in the Union Army, took us through the events surrounding the surrender and what took place afterwards. His first-hand account humanized the events of the Civil War in a way that I hadn’t experienced before.
Next, we walked around the grounds of Appomattox Court House. The National Historical Park has actually preserved the entire small town, restoring homes and structures to what they would have looked like on the day of the surrender.
The Park Service was offering free ice cream while we were there, so of course we indulged. Neapolitan for me!
Walking along the gravel roads among the houses of this tiny rural Virginia town left a big impression on me. Of all places, this is where the surrender occurred? Well, yes, because it’s where both armies and their generals happened to be when the Confederate Army finally had to admit defeat.
It was pure happenstance. The surrender was signed in the home of a private, wealthy individual in the town. As I stepped into the front room where General Grant and General Lee drafted and signed the surrender document – can you imagine?? – the weight of history was tangible. A different outcome would have completely changed the course of American history. It was one of those moments where the saying, “you have to know where you’re from to know where you’re going” really hit home.
After all of the visits, my takeaways were these:
- The weekend far more informative and enjoyable than I had expected it to be. I always enjoy hanging out with my parents, but I expected the history to be pretty dry. It wasn’t. It was fascinating.
- Have an open mind about Poplar Forest. It is worth a visit, but don’t expect it to be as impressive as Monticello simply because it was meant to be a much simpler home and is currently undergoing major renovations.
- Monticello takes a solid half-day to tour. We had planned to explore the University of Virginia and Charlottesville that afternoon, which we would have had plenty of time to do, but the driving rain put a damper on our plans…literally.
- The Michie Tavern on the road to Monticello is the perfect place to stop to eat before or after your Monticello visit. Their fried chicken is off the chain!
- Poplar Forest and Appomattox Court House can easily be done in a day, with time to spare to explore nearby Lynchburg.
- Enjoy the stunning scenery along the drive. The Blue Ridge Mountains are beautiful any time of year! As Jefferson said, “…there is no quarter of the globe so desirable as America, no state in America so desirable as Virginia, no county in Virginia equal to Albemarle, and no spot in Albemarle to compare to.”
What to know for your visit
- Address: 931 Thomas Jefferson Parkway, Charlottesville, VA 22902
- Tickets are $25-$55 for adults during peak season from March through October.
- If you can, get the $55 “Behind the Scenes” tour. It will take you to the upstairs areas of the home, which were not open for tours until recently.
- Tours begin at 9:00 a.m. and end at 5:10 p.m. Tickets purchased online will be given an assigned time.
- The visitor’s center has bathroom facilities, a gift shop, a café and small museum area.
- Plan three to four hours for your visit.
- Address: 1542 Bateman Bridge Road, Forest, VA 24551
- Tickets, which include a guided tour, are $15 for adults.
- Tours begin at 10:00 a.m. and end at 4:00 p.m. from March 15 through December 30. Hours are restricted in winter.
- Plan two hours for your visit.
- Address: 111 National Park Dr., Appomattox, Va 24522
- Entrance fee: FREE
- Hours: 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.
- Plan at least two hours for your visit.
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