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Here on Virginia’s Route 5, driving between the fields of corn and wheat, the occasional modest home and even rarer business, history seems eerily preserved. Even though we’re 18 miles from Richmond and 22 miles from Williamsburg, there are no housing developments, no McDonalds and only one country store, which has been in the same spot since 1893.

It was along this route that Gen. George McClellan and 30,000 Union troops attempted— and failed— to take Richmond in the 1862 Peninsula Campaign. And it’s where generals Philip Sheridan and Ulysses S. Grant dug a final wedge deep into the Confederacy in 1864.

Traces of the war remain everywhere: Cannonballs lay embedded in the sides of buildings. Bullet holes mark old barns. Trenches dug by troops still border quiet lanes. It seems that every quarter-mile another historic marker commemorates the site of an important house or event.

And most of the majestic plantation houses that lined this stretch of the James River, about a three-hour drive from Baltimore, still stand, some still occupied by descendants of those who stared down the advancing Union army.

The plantations mark the earliest westward expansion of Colonial America; their owners were the first elite American class who secured their wealth on the backs of slave labor and indentured servants.

Thomas Jefferson married Martha Skelton here. Benjamin Harrison, signer of the Declaration of Independence, and presidents William Henry Harrison and John Tyler lived here, as did Robert E. Lee for much of his boyhood.

Today, eight of the plantations and/or their grounds remain open for tours; three are bed and breakfasts. All are wonderfully preserved. Their thousands of acres have been reduced to hundreds, but much of them are still farmed. It’s history come alive, Williamsburg for real. 

North Bend Plantation

North Bend PlantationLike most James River plantations, North Bend sits at the end of a long gravel road among working fields of grain, corn and soybeans, no longer the cotton and tobacco that once grew here so plentifully. A sign, “Civil War Trenches, 1864,” marks the mounds of earth along the road.

Proprietor Ridgely Copland greets her bed and breakfast guests in the building’s main hall. A quick-witted and kind woman with an seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of local history, like most of those who live in these parts, she’s kin to somebody from the history books. In her case, it’s Robert E. Lee.

She introduces her husband, George, as the great-great-grandson of Edmund Ruffin, famed Southern agriculturist and the gent who fired the first shot of the Civil War at Fort Sumter. He’s also the great-grand-nephew of William Henry and Sarah Harrison. In fact, the house was built in 1819 for John Minge, a wealthy landowner, and his wife, Sarah Harrison, the sister of William Henry Harrison, the ninth president of the United States. But George can also trace his roots back to Europe— way back. “Prove you’re related to George and you can trace your ancestors all the way back to Charlemagne,” says Ridgely.

North Bend has a weathered plantation feel, with its white siding and well-trodden wooden floors. Its interior scale is huge: 12-foot-high ceilings throughout the first floor and doorways so wide you could drive through them in a horse-drawn carriage.

Upstairs there’s a colossal armoire with a sand-blasted mirror so big and heavy it hasn’t been moved in 250 years. The four guestrooms contain many pieces original to the house, including the Sheridan Room with its enormous tester bed that once belonged to Edmund Ruffin. It dates from the early half of the 19th century, except its headboard, which was shot out in 1864 and rebuilt in 1870. It’s the size of a small truck and guests must use a two-level footstool to climb on top. Also in the room is a mahogany desk used by Gen. Sheridan when he and 30,000 Union troops occupied the plantation in 1864. In the 1940s George’s father found a secret compartment in the desk containing Sheridan’s maps of the area; a copy of one of the originals graces its worn surface now.

Downstairs is a game room with a billiards table and a parlor full of old books, many original to the house. The “best thing in the house,” as Ridgely calls it, is a copy of the “Memoirs of Kirkland Ruffin Saunders,” George’s aunt. It is a fascinating, candid account of a genteel Southern woman’s life in the early 20th century, covering everyday and major life events such as meeting her husband at a Virginia Military Institute dance: “At intermission he asked me to sit in the moonlight and he sang in his beautiful tenor voice a popular song of the time, ‘I Hear You Calling Me.’ It was lovely and I knew that night I heard his call.” 

Breakfast at North Bend is a feast. Ridgely makes the fluffiest pancakes in Virginia and even the table settings are historic— guests get to eat off Sarah Harrison’s fine china. Open for tours by appointment; B&B rates range from $135 to $175. 804-829-5176, http://www.northbendplantation.com. —J.S.

Shirley

One of the first things you notice about Shirley Plantation is the 4-foot-tall pineapple on its roof. The Colonial sign of hospitality looms large over the plantation where thousands of travelers refreshed themselves with a pint of ale and a meal as they were entertained by members of the Hill and Carter families, who have occupied the house since 1738. (Several Carters continue to live on the mansion’s second and third floors.)

Shirley Plantation was settled in 1613, making it the oldest in the state. And the land has been in the same family since 1660, giving it the official designation as the longest continuously running family business in America. Three hundred of its 725 acres are still farmed.

The first floor of the house remains open for tours. Visitors start in the entrance hall adorned with portraits of the home’s original couple, Elizabeth Hill and John Carter, eldest son of Robert “King” Carter, the Colonial tycoon who is said to have more than 23,000 descendants. The most striking architectural detail of the hall is the “flying” staircase— the only one of its kind in the country. It appears to float unsupported as it climbs to the second and third floors. (Iron bars embedded in the side of the building are really doing all the work.)

The house remained untouched during the Civil War even though 10,000 Union troops camped on the home’s front lawn. The women of Shirley supplied help to injured troops during the 1862 Peninsula Campaign. When word of their benevolence reached Gen. McClellan, he ordered the plantation— and its inhabitants— to be spared. You can still get an accurate picture of the grounds, as nine outbuildings have survived including the smokehouse, kitchen and tool barn.

Guides drop interesting tidbits throughout the tour: the walls have only been painted four times in 250 years; John Carter had 23 children with two women; the family’s magnificent silver pieces survived the Civil War by being safely buried in the backyard.

There’s also the unique tradition unwittingly started by Elizabeth Carter. As the story goes, in 1748 Carter was engaged to a man she most definitely did not want to marry. She was convinced her engagement ring was glass crystal, not diamond, and was determined to demonstrate her betrothed’s frugality in front of her parents during a dinner reception. But when she etched her initials in the room’s lead glass windows, it worked, proving the diamond was indeed authentic. She didn’t get out of her engagement, but she did start a tradition of Hill/Carter brides etching their initials in the window panes with their engagement rings. Walk around the dining room and you’ll find 26 sets of initials in all, including the most recent, Harriett Carter, who married in 1995. Open daily for tours, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. 501 Shirley Plantation Road, 800-232-1613, http://www.shirleyplantation.com. —J.S. 

Berkeley Plantation

Berkeley is a plantation of firsts: bourbon was first distilled here in 1621; the James River’s first commercial shipyard was established here in 1691; “Taps” was composed here in 1862 by Union Gen. Daniel Butterfield, and it’s also where the Jamieson family, owners of the plantation since 1907, claim the real Thanksgiving occurred. Seems that after the plantation’s English settlers arrived in December 1619, they held a prayer meeting to thank God for their safe voyage, a turkey-free event that has come to be regarded by some as the authentic Thanksgiving, beating the Pilgrims to it by 100 years and 17 days. You be the judge … 

It’s also a plantation of hard knocks: In 1622, Indians massacred the 6,000-acre settlement’s entire population and, in 1743, Benjamin Harrison IV, builder of the three-story brick Georgian mansion, was struck by lightning. And in 1862, a cannonball, courtesy of Confederate Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart, missed the main house by feet, plowing into the side of outbuilding housing the laundry/kitchen, where it remains lodged till this day.

When it’s time for the house tour, be sure to note the detailed, hand-carved woodwork in the parlors, the period Waterford crystal chandelier in the dining room and the 1690 William & Mary chest in the gentlemen’s room, the oldest piece of furniture in the house. The tour ends in the basement where Civil War bullets, uniforms and other artifacts— all found on the plantation’s grounds— are exhibited. 

Ten acres and five terraces of boxwood and flower gardens stretch a quarter-mile from the front door to the James River and are sprinkled with weeping willows and sinewy crepe Myrtles. During the Civil War, President Lincoln twice visited Berkeley to inspect Gen. McClellan’s 140,000 troops during their encampment at the plantation. Outside of wartime, it’s easy to imagine that these serene grounds were an ideal pondering and wandering spot for its famous owners, Ben V, a three-time Virginia governor/signer of the Declaration of Independence, and his son William Henry Harrison, aka “Old Tippe-canoe,” the ninth president of the United States. Open daily to visitors, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. 12602 Harrison Landing Road, Charles City, Va. 804-829-6018, http://www.berkeleyplantation.com. —K.B.

Edgewood Plantation

Dot Boulware thought she was looking at a ghost, she tells her bed and breakfast guests over a morning meal of French toast made from croissants stuffed with cream cheese and strawberries. “I couldn’t believe my eyes,” she says, her own brown eyes bulging. “There were two young men in Civil War uniforms standing at my front door. They had their horses tied up on a post by my porch. When I asked them who they were, one said he was Jeb Stuart. I said, ‘Yeah, right. Then I’m Florence Nightingale.’”

They were really two students from William & Mary College re-creating Confederate Maj. Gen. J. E. B. Stuart’s 1862 ride to Richmond to warn Robert E. Lee of the Union army’s strength. The students told Dot that her bed and breakfast, then a private residence, was one of Stuart’s stops along his famous ride. “Right then and there I knew I had to do more on the history of the place,” she says of the once-rundown house that she and her husband, Julian, had purchased in 1978. “I figured if it was worthy of being a historical landmark, it already would have been.”

Dot learned the property was originally part of Berkeley Plantation’s 17,000 acres. If it doesn’t look like any other building along Route 5, it’s because its builder and owner, Spencer Rowland, was from New Jersey and he brought with him a Yankee fondness for Gothic Revival, an architectural style unheard of in antebellum Virginia. It was Rowland’s daughter Lizzie who etched her name in a window on the second floor. As the story goes, she died of a broken heart waiting in vain for her lover to return from the war. Some— i.e., Dot— say Lizzie’s ghost remains waiting.

Throughout its history, the 7,000-square-foot building also served as a church, post office, telephone exchange, restaurant, nursing home and a signal post for the Confederates to spy on McClellan’s army.

When the Boulwares bought the circa-1849 structure, it came with several outbuildings, including a 1725 Benjamin Harris Grist Mill, which ground corn for both the Union and Confederate armies and the remains of slave quarters, which Dot and Julian renovated into two additional guest rooms. They opened the B&B in 1983.

Dot’s style of decorating can best be summed up as “waaay-over-the-top.” Literally every square inch of wall and floor is covered with Victorian dolls, dresses, pictures and primitive and Colonial antiques. Guest rooms have fabulous antique beds somewhere beneath all the pillows, armoires, settees and displays of antique clothing, shoes and whatnots. For the antique buff, it’s a feast for the senses. And for anyone who likes listening to a good story, the manic Dot will feel like a long-lost beauty parlor friend by the end of your stay. Open daily for tours; overnight for B&B guests. Edgewood also hosts high Victorian teas for groups, $24 to $34. Rooms range from $132 to $198. 4800 John Tyler Highway, 804-829-2962, http://www.edgewoodplantation.com. —J.S.

Sherwood Forest

Sherwood ForestIf you’re a believer that a man’s character can be determined by the way he treats animals, then you would have had no complaints about John Tyler. Upon entering the grounds of this 10th president’s 1730 plantation, Sherwood Forest, the first thing you encounter is the graveyard dedicated to centuries of dearly departed Tyler family pets: dogs, horses, cats, goats—and even the prez’s favorite horse, whose epitaph he personally wrote: “Here lie the bones of my old horse, General, who served his master faithfully for 21 years, and never made a blunder. Would that his master could say the same.”

At 300 feet in length, this clapboard house is the country’s longest frame house, but is surprisingly modest in grandeur. Tyler moved in after his term had ended in 1845 and converted its 1,600 acres into a self-sufficient plantation, which has been owned and used as a private residence by the Tyler family ever since. There’s the 1660 wine house (Tyler made his own), the circa-1745 smokehouse and milk house and the birdbath added to the garden by Tyler’s bride, Julia Gardiner. The house is open only during garden week in April, but the grounds are open year-round. 14501 John Tyler Highway, Charles City, Va., 804-829-5377/9722, http://www.sherwoodforest.org. —K.B.

Westover

Westover PlantationsWestover, considered one of the country’s finest examples of 18th-century Georgian architecture, boasts the most-copied front door in America, according to its current owner Muchhi Fisher. William Byrd II, founder of Richmond, built the house in 1730, and the Fisher family purchased it in 1952.

Byrd had the plantation’s massive wrought-iron gates— audaciously topped with his initials— made in London in 1709. The main entrance leads to a pebbled path along the river, shaded by a canopy of century-old tulip poplars. Feel free to camp out on one of the benches and absorb the majesty of the sweeping lawn, which includes an English yew supposedly planted by George Washington. Across the James, bald eagles hang out in treetops of a lush preserve.

Also be sure to check out the underground tunnel, running from the river and under the house to the dry well, which served as an escape route from attacking Indians. In the formal gardens, among the winding paths, you’ll find the tomb of William Byrd II himself. And don’t forget to visit the one-of-a-kind nine-hole privy— complete with fireplace. Grounds and garden open daily, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. House tours available only during Historic Garden Week in Virginia. 7000 Westover Road, Charles City, Va. http://www.jamesriverplantations.org/westover.html. —K.B.

Belle Air

The quaintest of the batch, Belle Air breaks the “if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen ’em all” stigma about plantations. Built in 1670 by shipwrights, modest Belle Air— with not a column in sight— is considered the sole authentic example of a 17th-century frame dwelling in the state. “It’s been very interesting living here,” says Meriwether Major, the four times great-niece of Meriwether Lewis, whose husband bought the house in 1947. “It’s been very educational, and I enjoy giving tours to people tremendously. But it’s a lot of hard work, too.”

Heart-of-pine floors and exposed wooden ceiling beams warm the cozy interior, as do formal antiques such as a John Fisher tall case clock, part of the Meriwether family’s personal collection, and a small wooden bench on which Gen. Grant reputedly sat. Also of interest are original prints by Scottish ornithologist Alexander Wilson. Major tells the story of Meriwether Lewis bringing back different birds collected during his Western travels for Wilson to copy and describe. “Many of these birds had never been seen before,” says Major. “And some are extinct today.”

The house and its gardens, maintained by the lady of the plantation herself, are open to the public during April’s Historic Garden Week or for private group tours throughout the year. 11800 John Tyler Highway, 804-829-2431, http://www.jamesriverplantations.com. —K.B.

Piney Grove

One of the highlights of staying at Piney Grove at Southall Plantation is eating breakfast in the circa-1790 log corn crib that now serves as a dining room. In fact, the home is considered the best preserved example of Early Log Architecture in Tidewater Virginia.

Furneau Southall established his 300-acre plantation at the spot where the Chickahominy Indians once thrived before the English expansion from Jamestown. Mr. Southall served as deputy-sheriff of Charles City County and was also responsible for the local administration of the first federal census in 1790.

The house has had just three other owners since. Joan and Joseph Gordineer bought the property in 1984 and have turned the grounds into a collection of historic homes saved from the wrecker’s ball.  Guests can stay in Ladysmith House, an 1857 Greek revival farmhouse that the Gordineers salvaged from a Caroline County, Va., farm and transformed it into a five-room bed and breakfast. Also on the property is Ashland, an 1835 Tidewater home; Dower Quarter, a pre-1835 slave quarters; and Duck Church, a former 1917 one-room schoolhouse later used as a church.

The grounds offer English gardens, a pool and a half-mile nature trail that runs through last-generation forest. 16920 Southall Plantation Lane, Charles City, Va. Rooms range from $130 to $260, including full breakfast. 804-829-2480, http://www.pineygrove.com. —K.B. 

For more information on all James River Plantations, events, accommodations and dining in the area, see http://www.jamesriverplantations.com.

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