Richmond: Civil War Central and much more

Short Hop

Confederacy's capital boasts history, parks and fine art

December 14, 2003|By Renee Enna | Renee Enna,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

You can't visit Richmond without confronting the Civil War.

The city is so rich in Civil War history that you can't miss it, even if - like me - you're not a Civil War buff.

In fact, a weekend visitor invariably confronts one of two pickles: If you aren't particularly interested in the War Between the States, you'll feel guilty bypassing what is just about Civil War Central. And if you are a war buff eager to immerse yourself in the subject, you won't have enough time to do it justice.

Richmond is a medium-size town (population about 200,000) that plays big, with an abundance of riches for the visitor. But on a weekend trip, it's hard to enjoy them all since most shops and museums close at 5 p.m. on weekends, and on Sunday some don't open until noon - if they're open at all. (Monday also is an iffy day.)

I planned the weekend as a bonding trip with my 78-year-old mom. And though we gave it our best shot, cramming as many things as possible into a weekend, I can't wait to come back and take in the town at a more leisurely pace.

We stayed at a downtown hotel within walking distance of many attractions, including the dining and shopping district of Shockoe Slip (which borders Richmond's canal and, beyond that, the James River). It was also a short drive from Carytown, another bustling district worth visiting, as well as many museums and historic sites.

Richmond was founded in 1607. Jamestown Settlement and Colonial Williamsburg are just an hour away. Richmond became the state capital in 1780 and was the Confederate capital during most of the Civil War.

For a quick history lesson, the Virginia Capitol is a good place to start. The majesty of the building, designed by Thomas Jefferson after an ancient Roman temple, sets a proper stage. Free half-hour tours of the building are scheduled daily, offering a capsule lesson in Richmond's history.

This is a spot where folks such as Patrick Henry, Aaron Burr, Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis made their contributions, good or bad, to the history books.

The Capitol is a home to art too: Jean-Antoine Houdon's statue of George Washington, an incredible, life-size marble rendering, stands in the rotunda. Martha Snellings, our informative guide, told us that Houdon, a celebrated French sculptor selected for the task by Jefferson, spent several days at Mount Vernon, where he persuaded Washington to let him take a plaster mold of his face.

While you're here, spend a few moments outside in the Capitol park, where statues of famous sons, including Edgar Allan Poe (who grew up here), overlook nicely landscaped grounds.

The Capitol was one of the few destinations where we didn't get lost, probably because it was located across the street from our hotel and we walked there. Though it's feasible to see a lot on foot, things aren't that close together.

You need wheels to fully enjoy this city. You also need a certain amount of patience, because most of the streets downtown (and throughout much of the area) are one-way.

Our first war trek landed us at the Richmond National Battlefield Park Visitor Center, operated by the National Park Service. This is an essential starting point for those planning to take the four-hour driving tour of the Civil War battlefields around Richmond.

Two exhibits here made our visit worthwhile. "Richmond Speaks: Voices From the Home Front" is a captivating audio journey based on letters written by civilians, young and old, as they coped with the horrors and sadness of the war.

And a movie, All the Past We Leave Behind (screened every 40 minutes), does a thorough job explaining the city's historic and geographic significance during the war. Visitors also can walk across the James River to Brown's Island and Belle Isle, which served as a prisoner of war camp. There is also a great view of the James River rapids.

At the Museum and White House of the Confederacy, as you might expect, the focus is on the Southern side of things during the Civil War. The museum houses the world's largest collection of Confederate artifacts and flags.

Extending from the visitor center is the Riverfront Canal Walk, an appealing place for a stroll through history. This beautifully designed 1-mile walkway opened in 1999 and adjoins the city's canal system, which was first envisioned by Washington. You can opt, as we did, for a pleasant 35-minute canal cruise, during which you'll hear the story of Henry Box Brown, a slave who claimed his freedom by mailing himself north in 1849. The cruise also allows views of the wildlife on the canal's banks, including a resident blue heron.

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