Monday, January 16, 2017

Exploring Petersburg National Battlefield

Living in the Upstate puts us within easy driving distance of historic coastal cities such as Charleston and Savannah, but anything further (like Wilmington or Jacksonville) requires a bigger travel-time commitment. This time we had our sights set on Richmond, Virginia, to accompany the husband on his business trip, Richmond being ‘coastal’ in so far as its location on the James River and proximity to Chesapeake Bay. However, it took a long weekend to make the excursion a reality, as Richmond is a good six hours by car from our hometown of Greenville.

The drive to Richmond isn’t as exciting as recent visits into the mountains; the scenery was mostly flat as we drove north through Charlotte, then east to Greensboro and Durham before turning north again to cross into Virginia. Shortly before reaching the state capital we arrived in Petersburg, whose location on the fall line of the Appomattox River assured it a large role in commercial activities in Colonial times, as well as in the railroad business in the 1830s. Because of this rail network, Petersburg was key to Union plans to capture the Confederate capital (Richmond) during the Civil War.

Battlefield sites from the Siege of Petersburg (1864-1865) are located throughout the city and surrounding area. To better understand the chain of events that led to the end of the war at Appomattox Courthouse, we headed to Petersburg National Battlefield, where the longest military event of the Civil War unfolded over a period of 9½ months. The trench warfare resulted in 70,000 casualties, but on April 3, 1865, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant finally cut off the last of Petersburg’s supply lines (and subsequently those to the Confederate Capital). Only six days later Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered.

The 2,700 acre park contains a 16-stop driving tour which takes visitors through all four units of Petersburg National Battlefield from east to west, starting with General Grant's Headquarters at City Point on the James River, then to the Eastern Front (where the initial assaults and the Battles of the Crater and Fort Stedman occurred), on to the Western Front (and Poplar Grove National Cemetery, both currently CLOSED), and finally to the Five Forks Battlefield. We opted to start our explorations at the Eastern Front Visitor Center, first by watching a short video and taking a look at the displays and artifacts on display, then taking a hike from the Visitor Center to Confederate Battery 5. This was one of the strongest earthworks on the original Confederate defense line, and the trail led us to the “Dictator,” a mortar used to shell Confederate batteries north of the Appomattox once Federal troops captured the line on June 15, 1864.

Although an extensive trail system (10 miles of wooded nature trails that allow bicycles, horses and hikers) connects the various points of interest within the Eastern Front unit, we opted to drive the 4-mile Park Tour Road, stopping at several of the points of interest for a closer look. The Junior Ranger Booklets we picked up at the Visitor Center were an excellent addition to the educational experience, also providing a good idea of which stops would be more interesting to the boys. For example, stop #3 at Confederate Battery 9 features examples of siege fortifications and other structures which can be explored and viewed up close without compromising the integrity of the sensitive earthworks - which in most cases are all that remain from the lengthy battles that took place here more than 150 years ago.

Our last stop in the Eastern Front unit was stop #8, the Crater. On July 30, 1864, Union troops exploded a mine under the Confederate Battery in an attempt to break through Lee’s line. The follow-up attack failed miserably as the poorly-led Federal soldiers ended up heading into the crater created by the blast, instead of around it as had been planned. Confederate reinforcements arrived, closing the gap in the line and cutting off support to the Union forces still in the crater; 10 hours of fighting later the episode was over, ending in 5,500 casualties. The ½ mile hike leads around the crater, and features the tunnel entrance, the crater, and multiple monuments.

From the Eastern Front we chose to continue on our tour ‘backwards’ to Hopewell and the City Point Unit, as the Western Front Unit was closed and the Five Forks Battlefield a ½ hour journey out of our way to the southwest. In contrast Grant’s Headquarters at City Point was just 15 minutes to the east, and the promise of a walk on the James River finally clinched our decision. Appomattox Plantation at City Point served as offices for Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and his staff, the strategic location on the James River receiving over 100 ships a day at the height of the siege. The site was also the location of the largest field hospital of the war, with its own rail connection and pier. This riverside position was responsible for our very first impression of the City Point Unit, when soon after parking our car a bald eagle coasted by on the air currents overhead - leaving us all chins tilted back and mouths agape.

The Plantation House

The 100 year old, 2,300 acre Appomattox Plantation was the home of Dr. Richard Eppes and his family until 1862, when Union forces arrived via the James River. Used as the offices of U.S. Quartermaster Rufus Ingalls and his staff during the siege, it wasn’t until March of 1866 when the family was able to return to the property (which by then was in near ruin) to rebuild. We started our tour in the Plantation House, which also serves as Visitor Contact Station. The boys signed the visitor log, traded in their completed Junior Ranger booklets for badges, and after receiving a few recommendations from the ranger we headed out to tour the property.

Grant's cabin

The plantation grounds included a smokehouse, dairy shed, laundry, telegraph office, stable and other structures, but not all are still visible today. Visitors can view the cabin where General Ulysses S. Grant stayed during the siege (and where his wife and son joined him for the last three months of the siege).

We continued our exploration by descending to the James River waterfront area, which served as the location of supply wharves during the siege. Additional informational kiosks, viewing decks and a decent amount of shoreline to explore kept the boys occupied until the sun started sinking lower in the sky, at which point we knew it was time to head north across the Appomattox and into Richmond – something it took Union forces almost ten months (and 42,000 casualties) to accomplish. Our drive was only about 30 minutes, but it did take us past Fort Harrison, foreshadowing for the next day’s visit of Richmond National Battlefield Park…

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Yet Another Baltic Christmas - Day 24, Priecīgus Ziemassvētkus!

Priecīgus Ziemassvētkus! Linksmų Kalėdų! Häid jõule! May your holidays be warm and bright, and may the New Year bring health and happiness!!!

I’m very grateful to everyone who contributed to this series; in the form of posts, photographs, illustrations and ideas. As to the readers, the friends who commented and translated, and those who put me in contact with bloggers and authors all over the world, a heartfelt paldies - the series would not have been a success without you. A special thanks to Inga, whose beautiful logo is gracing each post in this third iteration! There is a Latvian saying trīs lietas, labas lietas (three things are good things), and truly this third year of the Baltic Christmas series has been ‘a good thing’ for me… On this final day of 24 Days of a Baltic Christmas I’ve put together a chronology of all the posts we’ve seen this month; I hope it helps facilitate a revisit to your favorite post, and serves as a reminder for any that you might have missed.

After kicking off the series on December 1st, Day 2 brought a rundown of all the Baltic Christmas markets scheduled for the month. On Day 3 we visited a market that had already taken place – Seattle’s Bazaar – through Inta Wiest’s photos.

On Day 4 the Lithuanian Honorary Consul Dr. Roma Kličius shared photos of the Lithuanian Christmas tree at the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. The following day (Day 5) we traveled to the Museum of Science & Industry in Chicago where all three Baltic countries have Christmas trees displayed as part of the Christmas Around the World Celebration.

Author Daiva Venckus returned to the series on Day 6 with her post on
Lithuanian pre-Christian rituals and superstitions in today’s Catholic celebration. Then on Day 7, the 24 Days of a Baltic Christmas gift guide, followed by Inga’s Latvian Honey Torte recipe on Day 8.

Day 9 was musings on modern day piparkūku baking, and Day 10 featured a Latvian Christmas story by Margarita Stāraste Barvika, introduction by Inga.

On Day 11 we headed into Latvia’s National Forests with Māris and Nora in search of a Christmas tree. Then on Day 12 Karl Altau joined us with his post Wishing you a Mixed-up Estonian Melting Pot Christmas!

The Kristaps Porzingis Santa ad was on Day 13 (along with some other fun things concerning the Latvian Knicks player), and then on Day 14 we welcomed Lithuanian author Jenn Virskus with her memories of making žagarėliai with Teta.

Day 15 brought a quick round-up of a few Baltic drink options ranging from cocktails for a themed holiday dinner party to a digestif for a quiet after-shopping gift wrapping session with your husband.

Daina, from the blog Latvian-American Adventures and Opinions joined us on Day 16 with a post on celebrating the winter solstice. On Day 17 I touched on a Latvian favorite holiday staple, pelēkie zirņi (or grey peas).

Let the Journey Begin’s Ilze explored the Rīga Christmas market with us on Day 18.

On Day 19 we welcomed Catherine Nurmepuu, a first-generation Estonian-American, to the series. She wrote about Christmas with her Estonian grandparents, and shared a way for us to include our ancestors in our holiday celebrations.

It was back to Lithuania on Day 20, to visit the Vilnius Christmas market with Elizabeth from the blog In Search Of. Day 21 brought us Inga’s recipe for Aleksandra torte, as baked by Holden’s test kitchen.

I was delighted to have my grandmother join us on Day 22 with her comparison of Christmas past and present! And finally on Friday (Day 23) I shared five links for you to check out while taking a break from your final Christmas preparations.

I hope you enjoyed this third year of counting down the days to a Baltic Christmas! We’re so thankful to have been part of your holiday preparations this month, and hope you found some Christmas spirit here on Femme au Foyer. I wish you and yours a very merry Christmas and a fantastic New Year.

Until next year,


Friday, December 23, 2016

Yet Another Baltic Christmas - Day 23

Five for Friday, 24 Days of a Baltic Christmas edition

Only two days left in the countdown! With everyone in the throes of final preparations before Christmas Eve, I leave you with these five links on Day 23 of the 24 Days of a Baltic Christmas...

Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, represented by MSI Christmas trees

1. Estonia and Latvia have kicked it up a notch with the feud over which was the site of the world’s first decorated Christmas tree. Rīga says it was first, in 1510, Tallinn claims a much earlier tree (1441), and Lithuania, “though (it) has no claim to the first Christmas tree… hopes to compete with even larger and more elaborate presentations…” Read all about it in yesterday’s New York Times article “Who Tossed on the First Tinsel? Two Baltic Capitals Disagree.” Then eat some piparkūkas and wish your Baltic neighbors priecīgus Ziemassvētkus, putting the feud off until next year.

2. The Latvian and Estonian winter solstice celebrations often feature mummers, costumed figures who are thought to bless the households they visit, encourage fertility, and frighten away evil spirits. Meanwhile in Austria, the traditional “Perchten” groups are also chasing away the evil winter ghosts…

3. Need some last minute gift tags? Print out a few sheets of these holiday gift tags by Phoebe Wahl from Taproot magazine! Although a bit more Nordic than Baltic, they’ll holidize and festivate your packages in no time, helping to bling in the New Year...

 4. These photographs by Alexey Kljatov feature snowflakes in extreme close-up, the natural symmetry astounding in detail. View the gallery before going out to shovel snow…

source here

5. Finally, the Christmas card of Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid is called 'We Are Stronger Together.' The card was drawn by illustrator Kärt Einasto and the soundtrack is by Maarja Nuut, the arrangement of her song Õdangule specifically made for the occasion.

That's all for today. We’ll see you tomorrow on the final day of our countdown to a Baltic Christmas!

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Yet Another Baltic Christmas - Day 22 and vecmammas svecītes

Today on 24 Days of a Baltic Christmas please welcome my grandmother Ilze; longtime reader, first time contributor! 

In the big city I now live in, one definitely knows it is Christmas time as the Christmas lights are everywhere – in stores, malls, trees & windows. Homes are decorated with bright lights of different sizes and colors, some even twinkling. I do like the lights, but in my childhood in Rīga, Latvia, Christmas did not start in late October; it began at the very end of December… and there weren’t strings of lights everywhere. (Yes, we did have electricity!)

There were candles, special small white candles for the trees, sometimes also in different colors. And there were special candle holders that were made to securely fit on the tree branches, which were stored year to year together with the tree ornaments. The family Christmas tree – freshly cut – was set up early on Christmas Eve in the living room. Always a tall tree, reaching up to the 10ft ceiling. Decorated with ornaments, handmade or store bought, elaborate heirlooms. And the small candles, many, many candles.

After supper the family gathered around the tree and the “grown-ups” lit the candles, one by one. It was amazing to watch the room growing lighter. The warm glow of the flickering flames made even the smallest children sit still. A small twig would catch the heat of the flame and the room would fill of the scent of Christmas…

Was it dangerous? Yes. There was one Christmas Eve, I was probably 4-5 years old, when my grandpa walked between the tree and the window and the sheer curtain touched a candle and suddenly went up in flames! I remember screaming and was taken out of the room, and do not know how the fire was extinguished. But later that evening things were back to normal, the candles were relit, we were singing and the children had to recite their poems or perform a piano piece.

I still have a tree every year – a live, “real” Christmas tree – in my living room. It is trimmed with ornaments and strings of lights. But I always have a few candles in it. On Christmas Eve for a brief moment the electric lights are turned off and the candles lit. If only for a few minutes, we let the glow of the candles in a tree spread the magic and warmth of Christmas that only candlelight can give.

Paldies vecmamma! I'm grateful that you were willing to share your memories and impressions with us, just as I'm thankful for each of the songs sung by candlelight around your Christmas tree each year. Christmas Eve has for me been forever characterized by the smells and sights of gathering in your living room for the holidays - from the hot beef bouillon served upon returning from the Christmas service, to the unique table settings, to those minutes spent in the gleam of the candles in your Christmas tree... 

As we approach the end of the 24 Days of a Baltic Christmas, I wish each and every one of you a few moments of calm in your holiday bustle, and the simple pleasure of the warmth of candlelight on these dark winter nights. Enjoy your final svētvakara preparations, and we'll see you tomorrow on Day 23 of the countdown!

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Yet Another Baltic Christmas - Day 21 and Alexander Torte!

In recent years Alexander cake has seen a rebirth of popularity, garnering recognition in contests such as the annual Chicago Tribune Holiday Cookie Contest where Aelita Kivirist recently won an Honorable Mention with her version of the Latvian recipe. Dare I say it, but the torte is yet another case of a dispute in origin, just as the Estonian/Latvian Christmas tree debacle - the Finns also claim Alexander cake as their creation, their version called Alexanderbakelsen. The stories are remarkably similar; the czar of Russia, Alexander the First, visited the capital city Rīga/Helsinki somewhere around 1814/1818 when he was served this shortbread layered cookie/torte on his birthday, named in his honor. And although Wikipedia gives credit to the Latvians for Alexandertorte, the dessert also goes by the names Alexander Torte, Aleksander Torte, Aleksandra kūka and Aleksandra torte, so I’m not sure there’s any definitive answer. Meanwhile, Estonians have their version (Aleksandrikook), justifying its appearance today on Day 21 of the Baltic Christmas series, and I'll add that in Denmark it is known as hindbærsnitte, just to mix things up a bit… The truth of the matter will not be unearthed in this 24 Days of a Baltic Christmas post (surprise!); instead, Inga is sharing her recipe as baked by Holden’s Test Kitchen…

Most every Latvian femme au foyer has her own go-to Alexander Cake recipe, and they come with a variety of toppings and crusts. However, the key is in its simplicity; the torte is just two layers of crust sandwiching a layer of raspberry jam and topped with a lemon juice glaze. The tartness of the lemon juice provides a perfect contrast to the sweet shortbread, and although the layers can be tricky to size perfectly, the end result is cut into bars which helps hide any imperfections.

Aleksander’s  Torte


(For the cake)

FLOUR                              2 cups       
BAKING POWDER               1½ teaspoons
CINNAMON                        ½ teaspoon
SUGAR                              ¾ cup
UNSALTED BUTTER            ½ cup
SALTED BUTTER                ½ cup
EGG                                 1

(For the filling)

RASPBERRY JAM                 ½ - ¾ cup

(For the glaze)

LEMON JUICE                     from 2 lemons
POWDERED SUGAR             1 pound

1. Preheat the oven to 375°.

2. In a large bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, cinnamon, and sugar.

3. In a small bowl, lightly beat the egg with a fork.

4. Cut all the butter in small pieces, add to the flour mixture. Using a pastry blender, cut the butter into the flour until crumbly.

5. Add the beaten egg to the flour and mix with a fork until blended.  Form the dough into a ball, cover with plastic wrap, chill in the refrigerator about ½ hour.

6. Divide dough into three equal parts.  Roll out each piece fairly thin onto a lightly greased cookie sheet.  Poke a few holes with a fork (so the dough does not bubble off of the sheet as it is baking), and bake in the preheated oven about 20 minutes, or until golden brown.

7. When the cake sheets have cooled slightly, spread one with half the raspberry jam.  Place second cake sheet on top of jam, and spread remaining jam.

8. Place third cake sheet on jam, and cover with glaze:

9. FOR THE GLAZE: Squeeze juice from the lemons.  Add juice in small amounts, slowly, to the powdered sugar, constantly mixing it in, until the glaze is the “right” consistency.

10. When the torte has cooled completely*, cut it into small squares with a very sharp knife.

*This torte tastes best when allowed to stand a few hours or overnight, to let the flavors meld.

A special thank you to my mother for allowing me to share her recipe, and to Holden’s Test Kitchen for the photographs and another test-run! This is another one of those recipes that often finds itself on the holiday dessert table, because it can be made ahead, is relatively easy to put together, and provides wow-factor for the taste buds and in appearance. Whenever we make Aleksandra torte it always disappears off the plate – the kids and adults just can’t seem to get enough! 

As we count down the final days to Christmas, I want to express my gratitude to all of our readers for helping make this year’s 24 Days of a Baltic Christmas series a success. Thank you for all of your comments, shares, likes and words of encouragement; that’s the driving force behind it all – to share our Baltic Christmas with the world…

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