A Travellerspoint blog


Theme song- "Georgia on my mind", by Ray Charles

Charleston and Savannah compete for the title of the belle of the antebellum south. Savannah, was founded in 1733 on the banks of the Savannah River as a British attempt to block Spanish expanison from Florida. Old Savannah is laid out in a very orderly grid pattern running parallel to a very straight section of the river. Uniquely, the uniformity of Savannah's city blocks are broken up by 24 tree lined squares. The squares, which seem more influenced by Spanish town planning than British provide shade and give the city a charming, dignified aire that is quite different from the commerical, port city feel of old Charleson. The house styles are also quite different. Houses in Charleston are long and thin, often no more than one room wide, with a long veranda running along the length of the side of the house. Typical Savannah houses have a broader frontage, often with overhanging verandas - almost an archetype of the Southern mansion style.
Cotton was king in Savannah's heyday. Hundreds of ships would be tied up at Savannah's wharfs loading cotton for markets in Europe and the Northern states. This all ended of course with the Civil War in 1860. Being several miles upstream, old Savannah was protected against Union attack. The city funded the construction of their own ironclad, the CSS Georgia, which was moored alongside Fort Jackson a few miles upstream of the city and caused the Union navy so much concern that they never attempted to force the river. Unfortunately Savannah was completely defenceless from the landward side and when the army of Union general William Tucumsa Sherman swept in from the west they had no choice but to surrender. The garrison in Fort Jackson fled and the Georgia was scuttled in the river. She has recently been rediscovered and investigations are underway to see whether she can be salvaged.
Surrender saved the old city from destruction and post-war poverty preserved the old city and it was. In the 1980s however the elegant harbourside of blackstone warehouses was defaced by by the construction of a Hyatt hotel of astonishing ugliness. Who on earth designs these buildings? More importantly, who approves them? That said, the commerical harbour across and up the river are pretty awful. Savannah is the fourth busiest container port in the US. We took a brief but very informative cruise up the river.
We enjoyed the sweet southern hospitality - and enormous food servings - at the two oldest establishments in town. The Pirate's House serves traditional southern food in a ramshackle wooden building first constructed in 1753. It's the oldest standing structure in Savannah. Despite its name it was not a pirate's house but a garderner's residence for governor's botanical garden.
We also enjoyed a very fine meal in the Old Pink House, an old mansion in the centre of town. The Olde Pink House is the second oldest building in the city, built in 1771, it has been a residence, bank and now a restaurant. The meal and service were excellent and we were given our own tour of the building.
Savannah has a reputation as a bit of a party town, especially at St Patricks day. Unfortunately it was pretty quiet on Sunday and Monday so we opted to do a haunted pubs tour. As I mentioned before, 'ghost' tours can be pretty lame, but the tour also covered the 'unsavoury' aspects that go with boozing in a port town and we got to visit a couple of different bars. All in all the ghost stories were pretty ordinary but it was interesting to hear about the bodies that periodically show up under the floorboards and within the walls whenever these old buildings are renovated.
But all was not lost, at the end of the tour we joined three other couples - one celebrating their honeymoon, one celebrating their engagement and the other celebrating a birthday - and decided to kick on. It turned out to be a great evening of bar hopping, karaoke and lots of 'celebrating.' We all stumbled home when the bars shut at 3am. A great night and great crew!
Thanks to Jay Braunel for the photos.

Posted by paulymx 22:00 Archived in USA Comments (0)


Theme song -

We arrived in Charleston quite late, around 10pm after an epic drive from Williamsburg. We'd booked a room at the Comfort Inn on the outskirts of the old town. It was far too far to walk into town at that time of night so we took a $5 taxi ride to the waterfront around 11pm. Market St is the centre of the bar and restaurant district and we were delighted to find it absolutely pumping. We ventured into a couple of bars - just to orient outselves - and then headed home a little after midnight.
Charleston is the epitome of a southern city. The weather is warm and sultry all year round - while we were there is positively tropical ~ 35c and 90% humidity. Charleston was the heartland of the Confederacy. It was the first state to seceed from the Union in 1861 and the first shot of the war was fired on 12 April 1861 when Confederate artillery bombarded Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbour. The bombardment was partially a symbolic act and no one was killed at the time, but it transformed the rebellion from a constitution argument into a savage civil war that would leave more than 600,000 people dead and devastate the south for more than a century.
You can visit the remains of Fort Sumter on a cruise of Charleston harbour. There is little of the original structure left nowadays as the Union navy blasted it to smithereens in their attempt to retake Charleston. Along with Mobile Alabama and New Orleans, Charleston was probably one of the most important ports in the South. So desperate were the Confederates to break the Union blockade that they resorted to extreme and ingenious measures. In 1863, engineer Horace Hunley arrived in Charleston with an extraordinary contraption. It was a 40 foot long iron tube (made from a steam boiler), a little over 5 feet in diameter with a streamlined front end and a propeller at the rear. Nowadays we'd probably call it a torpedo, but it was in fact a man powered submarine. Seven men sat shoulder to shoulder on a bench running the length of the submarine and turned a crank to drive the propeller. The commanding officer stood at the front and navigated via the tiny windows in the conning tower. People do some heroic things in war but to crew the CSS Hunley required insane bravery. Inside this claustrophobic coffin if anything went wrong, there was no escape. During testing the Hunley sank twice and killed 13 of its crew, including Hunley, but still men volunteered. In 1864 the Hunley set to see and attacked and sank the USS Houstatonic with a spar torpedo - the first successful attack by a submarine in history (in the days before powered torpedos, a mine was attached to the end of a long pole on the front of the boat and rammed into the target - it was as dangerous to the attacker and to the attacked). The Hunley miraculously survived the attack and headed for shore but somewhere on that journey she disappeared. She was found recently and raised from the seabed and is now undergoing restoration. The eight brave crewmen were all found still in their seats.
While the Civil War brought death, destruction and poverty on Charleston, ironically it also preserved Charleston's classical charm. With the end of slavery Charleston lost the main source of its wealth - the sugar, rice and cotton plantations - and it slipped into a terminal decline. It became a backwater and was not redeveloped in the way that other port cities were. Consequently the beautiful wooden houses, mansions and plantations escaped the destruction wrought by progress. Old Charleston is beautiful and we visited the Aitken-Rhett house in the city, which has been preserved 'as is' in its current state of decay. We later visited Middleton plantation just out of town.
It's also fun. Charleston has a well deserved reputation as a party town, offering both great eating and great drinking opportunities. During the day we did a food tour of Charleston which was excellent. We tried fried green tomatos and grits, which is basically a porridge of roughly stone ground corn meal. It was surprisingly tasty. That evening we did a historic bar tour. It was excellent. The guide, Scott, was a man after my own heart - passionate about history, historical truth, politics and beer. Some of the other travellers however were a little more interested in the beer portion of the tour. Nevertheless, we visited about 5 bars, got an excellent overview of Charleston's sordid history (gotta love the sordid history), debated politics and got well and truly trashed. For what was supposed to be a two and half hour tour, we didn't finish up till around 1am.

As an aside to the bar tour - all old cities have their ghost tours. We've done our fair share and tend to avoid them as most are often pretty lame. I mean, when you cut right down to it, what exactly is a ghost tour? The stories are always pretty dubious - probably because there aren't really any ghosts. The thing is, and Scott was very passionate about this, there is enough real tragedy and horror in places like Charleston that no should really need to make up 'ghost' stories. At Charleston's 'new' town hall and exchange building, built in the post revolutionary period the ghost tours were all lining up to go down into the basement to look at a room where four men, who may or may not have been pirates, may or may not have been hung, and who may or may not still haunt the building. Two feet from there was a plaque commemorating a speech made by President George Washington in the early 19th century. But as Chris pointed out, this very spot was Charleston's slave market for almost a hundred years. Literally hundreds of thousands of men, women and children were marched through here, inspected, bought and sold into a life of misery and hardship. During the years eighteenth and nineteenth century some 12 million people were transported from West Africa to the New World. More than two thirds never survived the journey. It is a tale of real horror and shame and this spot - the largest slave market in the United States - it is neither commemorated nor mentioned in any other tour.

Posted by paulymx 13:14 Archived in USA Comments (0)

The Long Road

Theme song - "This is not the way home", The Cruel Sea

Williamsburg is a trio of towns situated on a penninsula that juts into Chesapeake Bay. All are historically important. Williamsburg as I mentioned was the original colonial capital of Pennsylvania. A little way along the penninsula is Jamestown, the first surviving English settlement in North America. The Pilgrims of Plymouth Rock may claim to have been first but Jamestown was settled in 1607, 13 years prior to the Mayflower. But Jamestown wasn't the first either. The first English settlement was on Roanoake Island in 1598, but the settlement vanished, a mystery that remains unsolved to this day. At the end of the penninsula is Yorktown, where the British army under Lord Cornwallis surrendered in 1781. What had formerly been a strong position for the British army became untenable when the French joined the War of Independence on the side of the Americans. A combined American / French campaign drew the British fleet north to New York and then cut off the British garrison in Yorktown. Cut off by the French fleet the British had little choice but to surrender. In popular history the surrender at Yorktown is seen as the end of the war, but the war went on for another two years.
One of the stretches of water around Chesapeake Bay is called Hampton Roads. In 1862 one of the most important naval battles took place in Hampton Roads. When Virginia joined the Confederacy, they inherited the naval dockyard at Newport. One the US' newest warships, the USS Merrimac was in port for engine repairs. Attempts by Union sailors to sail her out of the dock were unsuccessful so they set her on fire and scuttled her in the harbour. Confederate engineers raised her, repaired the engines and rebuilt her with an armour plated deck. Armour was a radical new development and when news reached Washington there was a panic to find an appropriate response. A contract was given to a Swedish/American engineer, John Erikson, to deliver an ironclad warship within 90 days. The result was even more radical than the Merrimac. The USS Monitor looked nothing like any ship afloat. She had no superstructure, mast or funnels. The deck was absolutely flat and her only distinguishing feature was a single turret. She was completed in 100 days and set off immediately for Hampton Roads.
The very same day as the Monitor set sail, the Confederate Merrimac, now renamed CSS Virginia, also set sail. Her task was to break the Union blockade on Chesapeake Bay and she proved to be outstandingly successful. Of the four Union warships, all wooden sailing ships, guarding Hampton Roads, the Virginia sunk two outright, severely damaged another and ran her aground. Her armour had proved to be impervious to all shot and shell. She sailed out the next morning to finish off the remaining ship but found herself facing the bizarre looking USS Monitor. For the first time in history two armoured warships were going head to head. All day they fought but neither could damage the other. It was a once only battle as they never fought again. Both ships had tragically short careers. The Monitor capsized during a storm a few months later while the Virginia was scuttled when Union troops overran the penninsula.
The wreck of the Monitor was discovered some decades ago and artifacts from the wreck have been progressively recovered. A few years ago the entire turret and cannons were raised and are now being treated in the Newport News maritime museum. They also have a full scale replica of the USS Monitor. It was an excellent display but we couldn't stay long as we had a long drive to Charleston ahead - some 450 miles. The directions provided by our GPS were quite amusing - get on I-95 and drive for 8 hours. For a country obsessed with cars I must say the state of America's highways leaves a lot to be desired. They are right up there with Poland's for quality and that isn't an exaggeration. Some highways are in absolutely appalling condition. That said, the I-95 was not one of those. It was in good condition and quite smooth. Apparently this is because it is the main drug smuggling route from Florida to Washington and New York and the proceeds of crime get cycled back into the infrastructure.
The tne highlight of the trip was 'Pedro's South of the Border' just south of the North Carolina border. For 150 miles we read amusing billboards telling us of all the amazing sights and facilities that were waiting for us just 'south of the border.' And it lived up to all the hype too! It was like a gigantic brightly painted concrete circus at the crossroads. Although we were running well behind time we stopped, wandered around the crazy shops and had some Mexican food - not the best I must admit! After that little bit of excitement it was another 4 hours on the road before we finally arrived in Charleston at about 10pm.

Posted by paulymx 19:07 Archived in USA Comments (1)


Theme song - "She's a Maneater", by Hall & Oates (our Ipod is broken and we have to listen to US radio)

We'd taken much longer in Gettysburg than we'd intended and didn't set off for Washington until after 11am. We lost the previous night's hotel booking - too bad, so sad - so had rebooked new accommodation at the Gallery Inn Hostel. We arrived just after 1pm but couldn't check in so we stowed the bags, parked the car and caught the subway downtown. Washington is built around a central mall, a green stripe that runs down the centre of the city from the Capitol Building to Arlington Cemetery across the Potomac river.
Around the edges of the Mall are the museums of the Smithsonian Institute. We went straight to the Aerospace Museum, certainly one of the most popular. The original Wright Flyer, Lindburg's 'Spirit of St Louis', Amelia Earhart's plane and Howard Hughes' record breaking H-1 are on display. The interesting thing about the excellent Wright Brother's exhibit is that it actually gives the brothers credit for making the first powered, controlled flight of a heavier than air aircraft. For decades the Smithsonian exhibition had given that credit to Samuel Langley, one of the Wright's competitors. I mean, who were these self-trained, self-funded, secretive Wright brothers? Bicycle makers!! From North Carolina!! While Langley was a Harvard graduate polymath and, most importantly, a former president of the Smithsonian. The Smithsonian only acknowledged the truth in 1942.
We also visited the Natural History Museum, much to Shelly's amusement. The museum is very popular and has a lot of interesting fossils but I must admit that their display is a little out of date. We didn't stay too long otherwise Shelly would have killed me.
We visited the International Spy Museum. Although it was a little bit corny it was actually very good, especially it's coverage of the Cold War period. I think spying is much easier to do these days where everyone has a phone with a camera and electronics can be shrunk down to a pinhead size.
There is a lot of security around the Whitehouse these days so we didn't go in. For a while we watched a soccor match on the Mall against a backdrop of the Washington Monument before wandering back into town. We stopped at the Occidental for a lavish meal before heading back to our hostel in Dupont Circle. The Hostel was more of an apartment in an old townhouse. It was spare but quite lovely.
The next day we drove up to Arlington Cemetery. Arlington was formerly the estate of Robert E Lee, the famous Confederate general. He fled to his estate in Virginia when the war started and left Arlington in the hands of his wife. The Union government seized Arlington on the basis that Lee had not paid $90 in back taxes and to prevent him or his descendents ever reclaiming the property they converted it into a national cemetery.
We debated going back into the city to visit the Lincoln Monument but there was no convenient parking and we didn't feel like taking such a long walk in the heat, so we decided to hit the road and go to Washington's estate Mount Vernon. Frustratingly our GPS could not find Mt Vernon - Hello! Isn't it a national monument??? We followed the very poor road signs for a while but were soon hopelessly lost and gave up. We decided to stop at Shirley Plantation instead. We arrived half an hour before closing and got a personal tour of the estate. It is amazing to think this property has been in the same family since the mid 1600s. Interestingly Robert E Lee was related the Shirley family.
After Shirley we drove to Colonial Williamsburg. Williamsburg was original capital of Pennsylvania Colony. After the War of Independence it became somewhat redundant. In the 1940s John D Rockefeller bought up the remaining properties in Williamsburg and began an extensive restoration of the whole early town. Costumed actors walk around the town performing contemporary occupations. It's an interesting and pretty little town.

Posted by paulymx 15:51 Archived in USA Comments (0)


Theme song- "The Sullivan Ballou letter" read on the Civil War Soundtrack (see below)

South and central USA is haunted by the ghosts of the American Civil War. More Americans died fighting in the Civil War than in all of America's other wars combined. There are hundreds of battlefields and monuments to this bitterly fought conflict and none is more poignant and important than Gettysburg. Gettysburg is a little over two hours drive north of Washington. Amazingly, the Northern and Southern capital cities, Washington an Richmond are less than one hundred miles apart. Both sides in the war repeatedly attempted to take each other's capital, which has left us with a legacy of dozens of battlefields in this small area.
In 1863, Confederate General Robert E Lee led his army north towards Washington in an attempt to knock the Union out of the war. Things had been going particularly bad for the Union cause recently and Lee felt a decisive victory near Washington would be enough to swing popular opinion against the war. He secretly moved his army up through the Shenandoah Valley. The Union army knew Lee's s plans and attempted to intercept him, but they had no idea where his army actually was. Even today much of the US countryside remains heavily wooded. In 1863 it was entirely possible for two massive armies to move through these forests completely unnoticed.
The two armies blundered into each other in the tiny town of Gettysburg on 1 July 1863. The battle raged for 3 days and involved over 200,000 men. For two days the Union army recieved the worst of it, slowly falling back with heavy loss. On the third day Lee decided to launch a frontal assault on what he considered the weakened Union lines. This would be known as Pickett's Charge. 20,000 Confederate soldiers advanced on a mile long front across a mile of open ground into a storm of fire. The men were so packed together and advancing at a steady march that there was no way the Union fire could miss them. Cannon and cannister shot ripped huge holes in their ranks, but they simply reformed and kept coming. Sheer weight of numbers pushed them right up to the Union entrenchments but they couldn't break through and finally fell back, exhausted. The battle was a slaughter. The war would run for another two years and many thousands more would be killed before it ended, but Gettysburg was a turning point. Some 50,000 men were killed or wounded, including the flower of the Confederate army killed in Pickett's Charge. The South could not sustain such losses and would eventually collapse.
President Lincoln came to Gettysburg in 1864 to attend the dedication of the national war cemetery that had been created on the battlefield. He was not the main the speaker and had been asked to say only a few words. The guest speaker, Edward Everett, a professional orator, gave a two hour speech, delivered word perfect from memory. Lincoln then stood up and delivered his Gettysburg address. It took less than 2 minutes. The audience gave him polite applause but didn't think much of it. The newspapers agreed. Lincoln himself thought the speech a failure. But, Everett knew better and complimented him on capturing "in two minutes what I took in two hours." The Gettysburg Address is a magnificient piece of oratory and rightly goes down as one of the best speeches ever made.
Gettysburg battlefield is enormous. The visitor centre sells an excellent self drive CD that allows you to drive to all the major battle sites and explains what happened. It's a very good set up and well recommended. We had intended to visit for a couple of hours and drive on to Washington, even going so far as to prebook accommodation in Washington. We decided however to stay on in Gettysburg, which is a pleasant little town, to see all the sights. That night we ate at a tavern built in 1776 and enjoyed Rita's famous frozen ice custard (yum!). The next day we finished our battlefield tour and visited the impressive museum before heading on to Washington.

The Sullivan Ballou Letter - terrible, emotive and astonishingly articulate.

Posted by paulymx 07:11 Archived in USA Comments (0)

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