LEESBURG, VIRGINIA —
For photographer Kenneth Garrett, it was the assignment of a lifetime: photograph some of America's most historic and sacred sites.
The award-winning National Geographic photographer traveled from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, the site of the bloodiest battle of the American Civil War, to Charlottesville, Virginia, home of Thomas Jefferson, America’s third president.
The 290 kilometer (180-mile) route is called the Journey Through Hallowed Ground National Heritage Area, because many historians believe more history was made there than any other region in the country.
"Our book is called Journey Through Hallowed Ground because we think these places are so important that they have a spiritual meaning,” Garrett said on a recent snowy day as he re-visited some of his favorite sites in Virginia.
One of those spiritual places was a battlefield in Virginia where he photographed a Tuscarora Indian honoring the 12,000 natives who died there in a tribal skirmish long before English settlers arrived.
“He smokes a peace pipe and when the smoke rises, he communicates with his ancestors, he has a spiritual relationship with that space,” Garrett said.
Another place with spiritual significance is The Oatlands Plantation near Leesburg, Virginia, which is known to have had the largest slave population in the region.
“I grew up during the Civil Rights era of the 1960s and I don’t really understand the mentality of slave owners," Garrett said. "It’s a reality of our past.
"The Founding Fathers really struggled with what to do about slavery, but it was part of the economics of the time and they didn’t really know what to do about it," he added. "They knew it was wrong but they didn’t know what to do. They couldn’t figure out a way to get out of it.”
Today, the early 19th century mansion is owned by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, a privately funded nonprofit organization that's working to save America’s historic places.
It's a commitment that doesn't come without challenges, according to Garrett.
“The director here, Andrea, has to work really hard to try to raise enough money to keep this place solvent," he said. "It’s a really important historic home ... but how do you make the property pay its own way so that it can be open to the public and future generations can enjoy the place?"
One of the ways the Oatlands property is tackling that challenge is by hosting various events such as weddings and art exhibits to keep itself afloat.
Much of the hallowed ground route is also known — and being preserved — for its spectacular natural beauty.
In the historic and picturesque Paris Valley, Virginia, virtually all the land is under conservation easement which means you can't build more houses or high rises.
“Many of the houses in this valley date to the late 1700s — more or less the same time as the American revolution," Garrett said. "The land here hasn’t really changed in 200 years and we would like it to stay that way for future generations to see what the land looked like when we first settled here.
“Jefferson, Madison, of course George Washington, John Adams ... the people who lived in this corridor right here in the Piedmont of Virginia were the ones that had the pioneer spirit, the risk-taking spirit to form a new nation based on the principles of liberty for all,” he said.
Many of those pioneers, including nine presidents, were born or had homes in The Hallowed Ground territory, including James Madison, fourth president of the United States and the individual many historians regard as the primary architect of the U.S. Constitution.
The Jefferson home is often the site of many patriotic events.
"On the fourth of July, they have an annual immigration and naturalization ceremony where the people that are lucky enough to be due that month get to receive their citizenship papers on the steps of Monticello, where Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence,” Garrett said.
The Hallowed Ground trail also passes through some of the most significant American Civil War battlefields in the country, including Virginia's Manassas National Battlefield Park, the site of two major battles.
“What’s really interesting here on this battlefield in 1861 is that people came out from Washington, D.C., on the train with picnics and lounge chairs to watch the battle, because they thought that the southern secession and this whole idea of a Civil War was just a game," Garrett said. "It didn’t turn out that way.”
Jon James, Superintendent of the park, says about 600,000 people — from the United States and abroad — visit the battlegrounds each year to learn about its history and also enjoy its green open spaces.
"We have over 40 miles of trails, people trails as well as horse trails and it's an oasis," he said.
James says it's important to preserve places like the Manassas battlefields so that future generations can learn about their history. Teaming up with organizations such as the Journey Through Hallowed Ground Partnership are essential to that mission, he said.
"Strength comes from unity and to have a number of historic sites, scenic areas, recreational areas, all working together to promote each other and be a chain of the history and heritage of the area is really what it's all about," he said.
Further north in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, lies the site of a battle that many consider a major turning point in the war, and also the place President Abraham Lincoln issued the "Gettysburg Address."
It is a place that Garrett was particularly touched by during his photography expedition.
“To me it was really, really moving to stand there on the edge of the forest where Robert E. Lee told his soldiers to walk out into that wheat field and just be mowed down by canons and guns," he said. "Literally 50,000 casualties in a four-day battle there. It’s just astonishing that we would stand there and shoot our own brothers like that.”
Kenneth Garrett's photographs, which will be included in a new book, are currently on exhibit at Washington Dulles International Airport in Virginia.