Blog Archives

Civil War Ballads: Richmond is a Hard Road to Travel

Written by John Reuben Thompson in 1863, “Richmond is a Hard Road to Travel” is a satirical song mocking the Union Army’s inability to capture Richmond, Virginia, the Confederate capital, in 1861 and 1862. It was set to the tune of “Jordan is a Hard Road to Travel” by Daniel Decatur Emmett, who also wrote “Dixie”.

Would you like to hear my song? I’m afraid it’s rather long,
Of the famous “On to Richmond” double trouble;
Of the half a dozen trips and half a dozen slips
And the very latest bursting of the bubble.
‘Tis pretty hard to sing and, like a round, round ring,
‘Tis a dreadful knotty puzzle to unravel;
Though all the papers swore, when we touched Virginia’s shore,
That Richmond was a hard road to travel.

Then pull off your overcoat and roll up your sleeve,
For Richmond is a hard road to travel.
Then pull off your overcoat and roll up your sleeve,
For Richmond is a hard road to travel, I believe.

First McDowell, bold and gay, set forth the shortest way
By Manassas in the pleasant summer weather
But unfortunately ran on a Stonewall (foolish man!)
And had a rocky journey altogether.
And he found it rather hard to ride over Beauregard
And Johnston proved a deuce of a bother.
‘Twas clear beyond a doubt that he didn’t like the route
And a second time would have to try another.

Then pull off your overcoat and roll up your sleeve,
For Manassas is a hard road to travel.
Manassas gave us fits, and Bull Run made us grieve,
For Richmond is a hard road to travel, I believe.

Next came the Wooly Horse with an overwhelming force
To march down to Richmond by the Valley,
But he couldn’t find the road, and his onward movement showed
His campaigning was a mere shilly-shally.
Then Commissary Banks, with his motley foreign ranks
Kicking up a great noise, fuss, and flurry,
Lost the whole of his supplies and with tears in his eyes
From the Stonewall ran away in a hurry.

Read the rest of this entry

Storm over Stone

Belle Grove Historic Plantation, Northern Shenandoah Valley, Middletown, Virginia. (540) 869-2028

Shades of Gray: Apparition at Ghost Alley

The following is an excerpt of a short story from my book Shades of Gray: Strange Tales from the Old Dominion, now available exclusively on Amazon Kindle. Order it today for only $2.99.

Dayton Lisafeld had listened attentively to the tour guide all afternoon, despite the unrelenting summer sun beating down on Fort Monroe and Chesapeake Bay. The stone walls of the fort were even hot to the touch, but they had withstood the test of time since Simon Bernard, a former aide to the great Corsican general Napoleon Bonaparte, designed them nearly two centuries ago to be the strongest in North America.

The tour guide was a woman in her early thirties with a pear-shaped body and curly brown hair. She possessed a sunny, even charming, disposition, despite her uncomfortably tight khaki shorts and the rivers of sweat that ran down her forehead. She told the assembled group about how Captain John Smith had built Fort Algernourne in 1609 at the present site of Fort Monroe, and how the current fort, upon completion in 1834, was known as the “Gibraltar of Chesapeake Bay.” She stopped to explain that the name was an allusion to the Rock of Gibraltar, one of the “Pillars of Hercules” in Greek mythology, before moving on to Fort Monroe’s role in the Civil War.

Dayton shifted nervously and waited for the tour to finish. His parents and he were on vacation and had spent the night at the Chamberlin Hotel on Old Point Comfort at the tip of the Virginia Peninsula, just southwest of the base. That night, as his parents were settling down to bed, he decided to go for a walk in the cool night air. Because Fort Monroe was still an active military instillation, he had to be careful as he walked the deserted streets. That’s when he saw it—the thing he desperately wanted to ask his tour guide about, but he was too embarrassed in front of his parents, the Asian couple with the sunglasses, the fourth grade history class and their teacher, and—most importantly—the three girls who were already giggling and pointing at him.

“This was the only fort in the South that never fell into Confederate hands,” the tour guide continued. She could see the fourth graders were getting restless in the heat, so she moved the group closer to the Casemate Museum and the shade. “From here, Major General Benjamin Butler ordered that all slaves who escaped to Union lines would be considered contraband and not returned to their former masters. Can anyone tell me what this order was called?” No one raised their hands. “It was known as the Fort Monroe Doctrine,” the tour guide explained without losing her smile.

Dayton’s mind drifted back to the previous night. He was walking not far from where the tour group was now, on the other side of a cluster of military apartments. It was dark, almost pitch black. The moon was just a sliver and hidden behind wispy, gray clouds. A street lamp buzzed and hummed, and its soft, bluish light barely illuminated the lamp itself. Dayton got a chill, and he stopped. Something in the back of his mind—nothing more than a feeling, really—warned him not to continue down that street.

He looked at the apartment windows. They were all dark. Not a single person was awake. That was strange enough, given that it was only—he looked down at his cell phone. It was already past midnight. When he looked back up at the street, a cool breeze drifted past and he caught a whiff of the ocean. He no longer felt alone. The street was as empty as it had been before, but now that feeling in the back of his mind grew more insistent. That primitive primate’s brain that warned his distant ancestors of a predator’s approach told him to run.

So he did. He ran from the narrow avenue until he was safely back at the hotel.

“Confederate President Jefferson Davis was held prisoner here, in this building, for two years after the war,” the tour guide related. “Now, I’m going to take you into the museum, where you will see a recreation of his cell. The conditions of his imprisonment were terrible. Kids, try to imagine if your bedrooms looked like this!” A few of the adults laughed.

Read the rest of this entry

The Deterioration of Lee’s Army

Confederate General Robert E. Lee

As I’ve been visiting battlefields and researching the American Civil War in Virginia, and reconciling that information with my own experiences in the military, it hit me what a massive and difficult endeavor fighting the Civil War actually was. At the height of the war in the Gettysburg Campaign, General Robert E. Lee commanded roughly 75,000 men in the Army of Northern Virginia. To put that into perspective, in 1860 Richmond, Virginia had a population of 37,910. How difficult is it to sustain an army the size of a city?

To sustain any army, it needs food, uniforms (shoes especially), guns and ammunition, access to clean water, sanitation, shelter from bad weather, and some kind of medical care. It’s estimated dysentery alone, brought on by poor sanitation, caused over 95,000 deaths in the Union and Confederate armies. 415,000 soldiers died from disease, accidents, drowning, heat stroke, suicide, murder, and execution, far exceeding battlefield deaths. Those are the soldiers that died–far more were simply incapacitated, bedridden, or unable to fight.

It’s incredible how long these large armies continued to fight without just completely deteriorating from attrition alone.

Beyond basics like food, clothing, shelter, and weapons, soldiers need to have a reason to continue fighting–they must believe in a cause, in eventual victory, and be willing to endure hardship and work together, especially in an army where regular pay is virtually nonexistent. This psychological measure of a soldier’s willingness to fight is called morale. Even the best fed and well-equipped army in the world will disintegrate if its morale is low enough.

Read the rest of this entry

Shades of Gray: Incident at Belle Island

The following is an excerpt of a short story from my book Shades of Gray: Strange Tales from the Old Dominion, now available exclusively on Amazon Kindle. Order it today for only $2.99.

The early afternoon sun baked Belle Island, causing the water of the James River to retreat from the bleached boulders in the rapids along the northern edge of the island. From the perspective of the picnickers on the east side of the island, the ruins of a distant hydroelectric plant gleamed white. Summer and Anna May Long, 13 and 12 years old, played with their younger cousin, Humpy Andrews, in an open field. A short distance away, Humpy’s parents were busy trying to light the coals in their portable grill, while his uncle Cooper sat on a nearby picnic table, strumming his favorite acoustic guitar, a Gibson J-45. A dozen other relatives stood and talked, or made themselves busy preparing the picnic tables for dinner.

With the Robert E. Lee Memorial Bridge looming in the background, Anna May tossed Humpy’s favorite baseball cap to Summer, while Humpy jumped to try and catch it. “Humpy! Humpy! Humpy Andrews!” she teased. Anna May was a head taller than her sister. She had long blonde hair that her mother kept saying was a bit too long, but she refused to have it cut.

“Give it back!” Humpy squealed. “I’m telling!”

“Tattle tale!” Summer replied. The cap fell a few feet short of her hands and she scrambled to scoop it up before her cousin could beat her to it. In contrast to Anna May, Summer’s hair was cropped short. She was much more of a tomboy. She wore a light blue t-shirt featuring a character from her favorite cartoon: Meatwad from Aqua Teen Hunger Force. ‘The bun is in your mind’ was stenciled underneath the illustration.

“Hey, Summer!” Anna May shouted. “I bet Humpy is too scared to go in the woods. Humpy, ain’t you a scaredy cat?”

“Am not!”

Summer stuck out her left hand to block Humpy while she hid his baseball cap behind her back with her right. “Didn’t you know these woods are filled with the ghosts of Yankee prisoners? Some of them are still lurking on this island. They don’t know they is dead.”

Humpy struggled to retrieve his cap. “That ain’t true, is it, Anna May?”

“I’m afraid so,” Anna May replied. “But if you don’t want your cap back, then you can just wait out here while we explore that creepy ol’ power plant down yonder.”

“What? That ain’t fair! I wanna come with!”

“You sure, with the ghosts and all?”

Humpy hesitated.

“Let’s go ask Mamma,” Anna May said, and she took off running toward the picnic site while Humpy struggled to catch up. She ran up beside her sister and leaned in close. “When we get to the ruins, you hide and we’ll give Humpy a good scare!”

Read the rest of this entry

Shades of Gray: Specter of the Past

The following is an excerpt of a short story from my book Shades of Gray: Strange Tales from the Old Dominion, now available exclusively on Amazon Kindle. Order it today for only $2.99.

English had been spoken in Hampton Roads for four hundred years, ever since the first British colonists arrived in 1607 on the Susan Constant, Godspeed, and Discovery. During the Civil War, the tranquil water of this natural harbor was the scene of a skirmish between the first American ironclads, the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia. Late in 1862, Union General George McClellan seized control of the natural ports at the mouth of the James River with an army of over 100,000 men, not very far from where Rita Mae presently walked.

Rita Mae, however, knew nothing about those historic events. Her mind wandered to thoughts of college in the fall and the fun she would have when she finally moved away from home. Both her parents were employed at the nearby Naval Station Norfolk, the largest naval base in the world. They had moved out to the suburbs to escape the congestion around the base.

That particular weekend, her parents were away at a conference and Rita Mae was on her way to pick up beef fried rice from a Chinese takeout in a strip mall not far from the subdivision where she lived. The driver of a gray Bronco honked as he drove by, and she smiled politely in return. It was a boy she had met at a party several nights before, but she did not remember his name.

None of the buildings she passed had been there before she was born. Eighteen years earlier, farmland had stretched for miles around Hampton Roads. Then the sprawl came. Land that had been owned by one Virginian family for centuries disappeared under parking lots and model homes. No evidence remained of the dirt roads once trod on by hundreds of thousands of Union and Confederate soldiers between the mouth of the James River and Richmond. Every once and a while, however, a tobacco plant poked through the dirt in an undeveloped lot—it was all that remained of the rich tobacco fields that had fed the area’s economy for centuries.

A giant Willow Oak stood behind the strip mall. Rita Mae had walked or driven past it a least two dozen times in her life, but she never noticed it until that day. That particular day, a neon orange ribbon was tied tightly around the circumference of the tree, which must have been nine to ten feet at its base. It had been there a long time, and Rita Mae suddenly remembered playing near it as a child. She felt drawn to it. Her stomach churned and a tear streamed down her face. Startled, she quickly wiped the tear from her cheek and looked around to see if anyone had noticed.

She was alone.

The feeling became more intense as she stepped closer to the tree, but that feeling seemed to be pulling her toward it. Her shoes pushed aside the gravel, twigs, and broken glass at the edge of the sidewalk. Something twisted deep in her stomach and she had to brace herself against the rutted bark. As her fingers explored the deep crevices in the Willow Oak’s skin, a bright flash enveloped her mind. She wondered if she was dying as the sky grew white and the breeze melted away.

* * *

Read the rest of this entry