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The Port-Swiller family spent a very pleasant day knocking about the Shenendoah Valley today.

Our first stop was Luray Caverns, to which I had never been before.  This is supposedly the largest of such limestone formations in the East, and also bills itself as the “most beautiful,” although how one goes about quantifying that, I really don’t know. 

I must say that I am not overly fond of enclosed spaces, and it was with a certain amount of trepidation that I made my way down the long, narrow staircase into the first chamber.  (There is no natural opening, the original discoverers in 1879 having dug out a hole themselves in order to crawl in.)  Nonetheless, once I was down, the consciousness of all that rock and earth over my head hovered only at the outskirts of my thoughts, as I was quite taken up with the natural beauty of the formations: stalagtites, stalagmites, pillars, columns, curtains – a literally unlimited variety of colors, shapes and sizes.  The concept of the millions and millions of years’ worth of drip, drip, drip that created them (still going on, too) was quite overwhelming. 

Dream Lake, at least as far as my poor photography can reproduce it.

Perhaps my favorite attraction in the place was a small lake known as “Dream Lake.”  It is no more than a few yards across, and only a couple of inches deep, but the optical effect of depth caused by the way the surface perfectly mirrors the ceiling overhead is one of the most remarkable things I’ve ever seen.  In fact, it was only the small ripple of a rivulet flowing in at one corner that convinced me it really was a reflection.  I was reminded, suddenly, of Gimli’s description of the caves at Helm’s Deep in The Two Towers, and it occured to me that Tolkien must have had some  experience of such places himself, else he never would have been able to describe it.

All in all, I suppose we spent about two hours or so underground.  Fortunately, we got to the caverns before most of the crowd (it is a very popular attraction, I understand), so we were able to stroll along at our leisure and in relative peace.   I had politely declined the offer of a headset and self-guided audio tour (on the grounds that such things are an annoying distraction), but Mrs. R and the younger gels kept up a constant relay of information from their own sets, so I was able to pick up something of an education without compromising my Luddite principles.  The ten year old in particular was in a state of absolute wonderment and delight.  We may have a potential geologist on our hands.  I must confess, though, to a certain amount of relief once we got back out into the open air.

We had originally meant simply to make the trip to Luray and back.  But as we sat eating lunch in the snack bar, I casually mentioned that we were, in fact, no great way off from the New Market Battlefield and wouldn’t it be nice to nip over and take that in as well?  Mrs. R, perhaps in good humor because I had agreed to this little outing without a murmur, readily consented.  So we hopped in the car, made the short but sweet jump over Massanutten Mountain, and rolled up to the state battlefield park.

The Battle of New Market, fought in May of 1864, was not in and of itself a terribly important clash.  Hapless Union General Franz Sigel and a force of about 6000 troops, tasked by Grant with cutting off Virginia’s breadbasket, ran into Confederate General John Breckenridge, who had about 4000.  After a short but very aggressive attack by Breckenridge’s forces, Sigel turned tail and skeedaddled back down the Valley, having suffered around 800 casualties to Breckenridge’s 500-odd.  (It would be up to “Little Phil” Sheridan to do the job properly, destroying the Confederates under Jubal Early in October of that year at Cedar Creek and proceeding to lay the Valley to waste.)

No, what’s remembered primarily about this battle (as I’m sure several of my fellow port-swillers are quite well aware) is that among the Confederate forces were a group of 257 cadets from the Virginia Military Institute, boys between the ages of 15 and 20 who had marched north to help bolster Breckenridge’s small army.  Nobody expected them to actually take part in the battle, but at a critical moment in the Southern attack, Union fire created a large gap in the middle of their line.  Sigel attempted to exploit it by sending in a regiment, and Breckenridge found he had no choice but to throw the cadets in.  They charged round a farmhouse, through an apple orchard and into the gap, where they turned back the Union attack, losing 10 killed and 50 or so wounded themselves.  The entire Confederate line then moved forward, capturing some artillery pieces and, as I say, causing the Yankees to turn tail.  VMI is mighty, mighty proud of this feat, which I understand is the only historickal example of cadets going into actual combat.

"You are such a little boy." Your humble host at the west end of the Union line, with the apple orchard and Bushong Farm in the background.

New Market is one of those nifty fields which is perfect for casual or beginner buffs.  Despite the fact that I-81 cuts right through it, things look pretty much the same now as they did 150 years ago.  Also, the area is small enough that one can readily understand the placements of the forces and follow the shifting tides of the battle.  The main path from the museum on the south end basically follows the route of the VMI cadets, passing by the Bushong farmhouse, through the apple orchard, through a fence and across the field to the Union position on a small ridge.  And once you have tramped around the field, boring your wife and children with your Napoleonic grasp of military tactics, you can reward them by showing them a pair of lovely scenic overlooks of the North Fork of the Shenendoah River, which runs hard by the battlefield on the west side.

Geology and history!  What more could a fellah ask for on a sunny Saturday afternoon?


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July 2010