Richard M. Ketchum, a noted authority on the Revolutionary War, has written that "if any land in America deserves to be called Hallowed Ground, it is the red clay soil of Virginia on which so much of this nation's past is preserved."
Nowhere in America does history live more vividly than in the Old Dominion. Virginians' love of their past is legendary. And it is no wonder. As Professor C. Vann Woodward noted, an astonishing portion of the early American story unfolded in Virginia, and especially in the northern Virginia Piedmont--a rolling landscape stretching from the falls of the Potomac, Rappahannock, and James Rivers to the Blue Ridge Mountains. The region is 50 miles wide, more or less, and 100 miles in length. At its northern corners stand Washington, D.C., and Harpers Ferry, West Virginia--on the south, Charlottesville and Richmond, Virginia.
Across this lovely landscape are landmarks, celebrated and obscure, and byways where one can feel a personal intimacy with the nation's founders and the land they knew. From all across the continent, families come to visit the Piedmont to see where an ancestor died in the Civil War that saved the young democracy.
Within a little more than an hour's drive from the Prince William County community of Haymarket lie 16 Civil War battlefields, 20 historic towns, 17 historic districts, and about 60 sites listed in the National Register of Historic Places. A concentric circle extending the drive another hour would include nearly 200 National Register sites, and the great battlefields of Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, the Wilderness, and Spotsylvania Courthouse.
Visitors to the region, no matter how well versed in American history, go away much impressed that Presidents Jefferson, Madison and Monroe, who led the new nation for 32 of its first 36 years, lived, worked, and died in such close proximity as neighboring farmers. In the same region lived Chief Justice John Marshall, Jefferson's relative and political rival, who transformed the Supreme Court into an equal of the Legislative and Executive branches in the federal balance of power.
But the Piedmont's charm and historical richness derives not from the famous battlefields, Presidential estates, or national landmarks alone, but from the nooks and crannies and houses, churches, and public buildings where sub-plots of U.S. history unfolded.
Although many areas are facing urban sprawl, much of the Piedmont still retains its rural personality. The lush, gentle landscape, set off by the Blue Ridge Mountains on the west, is graced by lesser peaks of the Catoctin, Bull Run, Pig Nut, and South Mountains that Jefferson once called, "the Eden of the United States." To many visitors and residents alike, the villages, country lanes, livestock farms, vineyards, and churchyards set on the hills and tucked into valleys, are reminiscent of rural England.
The Loudoun County town of Waterford, settled by Quakers in 1733 and now a National Historic Landmark, passes the decades without discernible change. So do stone houses in other communities such as Lincoln, also in Loudoun County. William Brown, a former parliamentarian of the U.S. House of Representatives, and his wife, Jean, live in a 1730s house that has been occupied by his family for eight generations.
Every county in the region has its own timeless places, its own heroes, its own niche in the American saga. U.S. Route 15, once a trail used by Iroquois hunting parties and then known as the Carolina Road, remains a main artery. From it, short detours lead to quiet spots where history resonates as powerfully as it does at the battlefield parks or at the homes of Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe.
In a long swath between the Bull Run and Blue Ridge Mountains are houses, churches, and inns where John Singleton Mosby, the "Gray Ghost of the Confederacy," hid out, conspired, and organized guerrilla raids so effective that several counties came to be known as "Mosby's Confederacy."
Outside Middleburg, Sergeant John Champe, a young farmer who made a heroic, though unsuccessful, attempt to kidnap the traitor Benedict Arnold from the British, is honored by a hauntingly unpretentious monument on his home site. It is largely unnoticed by passing motorists.
In Thoroughfare Gap beside Interstate 66, stand, half hidden in the trees, the ruins of a huge mill that was producing flour when George Washington surveyed in the area. Twice burned and repaired during the Civil War, it operated until Harry Truman was President, and only recently burned for a third time.
To the south, visitors in automobiles can approximate the route taken by Colonial Governor Alexander Spotswood and his "Knights of the Golden Horseshoe" when they journeyed from Williamsburg across the Piedmont to enter the Shenandoah Valley in 1716. In the valley, Spotswood claimed the river and everything to the west for England.
And along the foot of the scenic Southwest Mountains, visitors can trace the night time ride of Jack Jouett, a Revolutionary hero, little known beyond the Virginia Piedmont. In the spring of 1781, Jouett rode through the night, 40 miles from Cukoo Tavern in Louisa County to Monticello, to warn Governor Thomas Jefferson of Redcoats approaching on a mission to kidnap him. Jefferson got away, else Virginia's history, and the nation's, might have been different. While history remembers the midnight ride of Paul Revere, Virginians remember the ride of Jack Jouett.
But there are, in the old villages and along the by-ways of the Piedmont, ghosts of other heroes never known and deeds never told, lost in Hallowed Ground.
A former Los Angeles Times correspondent, Rudy Abramson is author of Hallowed Ground, Preserving America's Heritage. In 1994, he was executive director of Protect Historic America. He is currently co-editor of the Encyclopedia of Appalachia.