Virginia 2015: Madison’s Montpelier


Day 8: Sunday, October 11, 2015

Thomas Jefferson had another close friend nearby: James Madison. Madison lived in the town of Montpelier Station (named after Madison’s house Montpelier), near Orange, Virginia. The two friends were about 30 miles from each other, which allowed the men to visit each other frequently, staying at each other’s homes for days at a time.

Montpelier was another grand mansion, but it had been altered significantly over the years. James Madison’s grandfather first farmed the land at Montpelier, about 4,000 acres, with 29 slaves. He lived in a different home on the site, but died after about 6 months there; the official ruling was that he was poisoned by three of his slaves. James Madison’s father stayed on and built the present home, beginning in about 1764, in a Flemish Brick pattern. After living elsewhere, James Madison moved back in 1797 after marrying Dolly Madison, a young widow. They expanded the home and added a Tuscan portico. He made one more expansion to the home between 1809 and 1812. That’s a lot of building!

Montpelier

Our guide on the tour explained the series of alterations that were made to the home over the years – first enlarging the home, then turning it into a duplex, then changing it back to one home. They also described the restoration, but did not discuss the alterations that had been made by the later owners, the duPont family – and the subsequent restoration back to what the home had been in Madison’s time.

The back of Montpelier

The back of Montpelier

 

The gate to the formal garden at Montpelier

The gate to the formal garden at Montpelier

Things I learned about Madison:

  • He wrote the first ten amendments to the Constitution, you know, the Bill of Rights!
  • Madison was Secretary of State for Thomas Jefferson and supervised the Louisiana Purchase.
  • He devised the 3/5s compromise, which ruled that slaves counted as 3/5s of a person for determining representation in the House of Representatives.  Not one of his better claims to fame, if you ask me.
  • He was one of the main authors of the Federalist Papers, a series of papers arguing for the ratification of the Constitution.
  • During Madison’s time at Montpelier, there were about 112 slaves living at Montpelier.
  • He was our smallest President – at 5’4” and less than 100 pounds. He could have been a jockey!

Jon and I took a walk down to the slave cemetery on the grounds – the graves are not marked with headstones, but a few are marked with field stones. If there wasn’t a modern sign pointing out the site, you would walk right by, never realizing that this is the final resting place of unknown numbers of people. It was humbling to think of these people lying here, after toiling their whole lives as the property of someone else. The slave cemetery was a marked contrast to the opulent Madison family cemetery, obelisks, ornately carved stones and an intricate wrought iron fence.

The slave cemetery at Montpelier. There are no markers on the graves, but some have field stones.

The slave cemetery at Montpelier. There are no markers on the graves, but some have field stones.

 

James Madison's Grave

James Madison’s Grave

The Montpelier Estate isn’t just about the mansion – for those looking for a broader historical experience, you can visit a restored segregated train station, as well as a freedman’s cabin. The train station dates to 1910, and has both a white waiting room, as well as a smaller, not as nice colored waiting room. Information signs on the walls discuss the subtle distinctions, such as the fact that the colored waiting room had no view of the platform, and less direct access to the ticket office and post office. The Montpelier Train Station was fully integrated in the 1950s, and operated until 1974.

The Montpelier Train Station - built 1910

The Montpelier Train Station – built 1910

The property also includes the Gilmore Cabin, the cabin of a freed slave who worked on the Montpelier Estate. After slavery ended, Gilmore earned enough money to purchase a small piece of property only a mile from Montpelier and build a home. Historical records show that Gilmore was living in his cabin as early as 1870. Although small and rustic, there are still features of the cabin that show Gilmore’s talent as a skilled craftsman, including a window on the second floor near the fireplace. An employee was sitting inside shucking corn, ready to answer any questions that visitors had.

The Gilmore Cabin - with Jon looking annoyed.

The Gilmore Cabin – with Jon looking annoyed.

We also took the opportunity to walk a short way away to see the cemetery where Gilmore and his wife were buried. Her grave was marked with a piece of her wrought iron bed. Apparently it was traditional to bury important objects with you, and what’s more important than your most coveted piece of furniture!  The Gilmore story doesn’t have a happy ending, as the Jim Crow South was alive and well – his surviving children got shafted by the local court system when dividing up the property…

The sad reality of court proceedings for black Americans in the Jim Crow South

The sad reality of court proceedings for black Americans in the Jim Crow South

The last site on our tour was a reconstruction of the winter quarters of Confederate troops under the command of General Cademus Wilcox. The Army of Northern Virginia was camped all around Orange County, Virginia and this was just one site. The teeny-tiny cabins were eye opening; they were cramped and dirty, and you would have certainly been inviting all sorts of critters to come share your bedroom.

The Confederate Winter Camp of the Army of Northern Virginia - a reconstruction.

The Confederate Winter Camp of the Army of Northern Virginia – a reconstruction.

 

The inside of the winter cabin - imagine all the disease and parasites you could pick up here!

The inside of the winter cabin – imagine all the disease and parasites you could pick up here!

It would not have been a nice way to spend a cold winter, but seeing these reconstructions make it very clear how so many people died of disease during the Civil War. A little further down the path, there is a sign marking the site of the winter quarters (and the latrine), but you would never know it just walking through. How nature reclaims itself in 150 years…

And speaking of critters, nearby we found some European Hornets sharing a meal of sap with some Monarch Butterflies. They were huge! Easily the biggest hornets I have ever seen. And while they weren’t aggressive with us, I didn’t want to hang around and tempt them for too long!

European Hornets and some unsuspecting butterflies - so pretty, yet scary!

European Hornets and some unsuspecting butterflies – so pretty, yet scary!

 

Tickets – Montpelier: $18 per person for a tour of the house and grounds.  The café food was pretty decent as well.

 

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13 thoughts on “Virginia 2015: Madison’s Montpelier

  1. I’ve been to the main house at Montpelier a couple of times, and the train station once, but never to the rest of the property. I’d like to see the Gilmore house and the cemetery — next time.

    Interesting that, for political expediency, Madison was willing to consider a slave as 3/5 of a person when, in his neck of the woods, they considered a slave not a person at all. They were willing to consider slaves as nonhuman property when it suited them, but as part of a human if it meant that their state got more votes. Politicians never change.

    • Yes – sad that even such great men were willing to use people solely for their own economic and political gain. I would like to think we have moved past that, but…

      The cabin and the winter camp were very interesting – and just across the road from the train station. You can either walk a .5 mile trail, or drive .5 miles down the road and park right at the cabin. A worthwhile stop.

      • We saw a few of them in the fields as we were driving out, but we didn’t specifically go to see them. I wasn’t sure if it was an active racing farm – I understand the duPonts were very active in the racing community in their time. Such beautiful animals!

  2. Pingback: Virginia 2015: Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania NMP | Wine and History Visited

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