Before I begin, I should preface this post by saying one of my favorite t-shirts declares I ❤ history. Consider yourself duly warned.
My family has a tendency toward history vacations. I've had this blamed on a fifth grade report I did for school. That was also the first paper I ever wrote on a computer, but that's a different story. I was assigned to research Pennsylvania. I used encyclopedias, books from the school library and got a huge packet of tourism information mailed to me from Pennsylvania. Besides things like exports and population, my report had to include information on the state's history and culture. I wrote a paragraph on the battle of Gettysburg. That tiny bit of recycled history got my dad's attention.
When my family went on vacation to Florida and all things Disney, we also drove up to Pennsylvania. We took some narrated bus tour around Gettysburg. There were monuments and fields. It didn’t make a huge impression on me. It was something we did. I got a souvenir book and a slick National Parks brochure. End of story. Right?
Wrong. In seventh grade I learned more about the Civil War in social studies, I had one of my first excited moments of being able to say ‘I’ve been there’ when my text book discussed Gettysburg. I was when it called Vicksburg the turning point of the Civil War because my guide at Gettysburg had said it was the turning point (I took things rather concretely at this point). Ron Maxwell’s movie Gettysburg came out and I stumbled across the book Killer Angels. My first copy of Killer Angels is tattered, its binding coming off, corners missing and very dog-earred all these years later. It provided such a sense of conflict, of people, of breathing life into a place. Yes, it is fiction. It has its errors, but it is dear nonetheless. When I had to choose something to read for my high school oral communications class, I took the passage of Killer Angels where Colonel Chamberlain addresses the men forced to join his regiment from the 2nd Maine. I was hooked.
My family headed to Virginia in what seems now as a whirlwind trip. In about two weeks, we visited Manassas, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Spotsylvania, Richmond, Cold Harbor and Appomattox Court House. I was awash in names, places, and casualties. We visited Washington, DC to see Arlington Cemetery, the presidential memorials, the Iwo Jima Memorial and the sobering experience that is the Vietnam Wall. We stopped at the Air & Space Museum and the National Museum of American History. This spring I rediscovered my journal from this trip. How I wish 8th grade me took better notes. It is odd what memories and images stick with me from this trip. Fredericksburg is a stone wall and a lingering feeling of being appalled at how close development was to the little land preserved (a feeling reproduced years later when I visited the Alamo). Appomattox was the outside of the McClean house and a cat I petted. Spotsylvania is being disappointed that there were only some signs. Cold Harbor is staring at the rolling ground (the remains of earthworks) and feeling stunned that so many men could be killed and wounded in a half hour (some estimates are up to 7000 Union troops). Chancellorsville is the remains of a furnace. I can remember watching the trees around me on the battlefields near Richmond as if soldiers were going to come out of them 130+years later.
I’m not going to recount all the different reenactments I’ve been to other than to say nothing has quite compared to seeing 15,000 reenactors (and maybe 30,000-40,000 people total if you count spectators. I could be misremembering the total crowd side) at Gettysburg in 1998. One of the actors from the movie was there recreating his role. It was the visit to Gettysburg after that where we discovered Battle Walks. Battle Walks are 2-3 hour long programs in detail about one specific aspect of the battle. We got to traipse all over the place – through fields, up Big Round Top, down into a railroad cut and more. I have nothing but awe for the rangers that lead these. I wish I could keep track of a fraction of the knowledge they do. I’ve notebooks full of jottings from these walks and others; it’s impossible to keep up.
Other family history trips have included stops at Antietam, Monocacy, Petersburg, Boston, and Sailor’s Creek. When friends went out to California with me, we stopped at the San Francisco Maritime National Park and Alcatraz (Which made listening to Al Capone Shines My Shoes excellent last week). Two years ago we went on a Lincoln trip with the bicentennial of his birth. I love getting a sense of history from where it happened, to have a backdrop to go with the settings touched on in fact and in fiction. I find it so exciting to think of my times at those places when I read or see them on the big screen (National Treasure 2 had me jumping up and down because they showed the boathouse at Mount Vernon and I’d been there the summer before and departed from the boat house).
I think having been to these different places helps me as a teacher and librarian as well. I can share my excitement for the place with my students. I have pictures to share so they can experience it more fully. It also leaves me with an ever growing list of places to go. It can also lead to pleasant surprises when new books come out mentioning places I’ve been, such as The Genius Files
This summer my family is getting ready to go to the 150th Anniversary of the Battle of Manassas. They also want to hit Belle Grove and Cedar Creek, a new location for them. I’m staying behind to work summer school, but I can’t wait to learn about what they all get to see and hear.