Thursday, June 25, 2015

A Trip to Gettysburg with the Kids

As the followers of this blog's feeds on Facebook and Twitter know, I often take my twin sons to Civil War sites in and around Northern Virginia. I am a big believer in exposing them to history at an early age. They may not really "get it," but I am sure that deep down, an understanding, or better yet, an interest, is taking root.

Truth be told, I started reconnecting with the war just as the boys were born. In those early days, I spent what little down time I had writing posts and researching, much to my wife's chagrin! As the boys grew, I grew too, as a writer, blogger, and amateur historian. I suppose it was fitting that for their fifth birthday I would take them to the granddaddy of all Civil War battlefields -- Gettysburg. I also planned to make the vacation their first camping trip. My own parents could hardly believe that their son, a fan of the luxury hotel, was voluntarily returning to a campground after all these years. We opted on a Kamp Kabin at the Gettysburg/Battlefield KOA -- not exactly roughing it, but try spending a few days with little boys and no access to a private restroom.

The twins are no strangers to battlefields. After all, they first visited Manassas National Battlefield Park when they were almost three. Since then, they've returned to Henry Hill on numerous occasions. (We are only twenty-five minutes away. How wonderful it is to have a major Civil War battlefield at your doorstep.) They've also crossed Burnside Bridge at Antietam and walked through the historic streets of Harpers Ferry. But I would be lying if I didn't admit a bit of trepidation about spending a few days at Gettysburg with them. Manassas is one thing, but Gettysburg is quite another.

Even before driving up US-15, I started by kindling some enthusiasm for the story of the battle. I showed the boys some edited scenes from the film, Gettysburg. Jack would continually ask me, "Who won, the blue guys or the gray guys?" every time he saw a scene from the battle. I had nightmares that he'd do the same once out on the field. Drawing from their recognition of a few key Civil War personalities, I also told them about Lee leading the Confederates, and how President Lincoln gave a speech there.

Excited to be camping....

Gettysburg is a family-friendly place, which makes visiting with little ones easier than at some destination like California wine country. However, I was determined to keep the kids away from the tourist traps and show them the proper way to visit a Civil War site. It is never too early to teach kids how to engage in respectable and respectful tourism.

We started at the Gettysburg National Military Park Visitor Center. Unfortunately, and perhaps surprisingly, our first run-in with a Ranger was a little disappointing. He brushed us off when I asked for those Civil War NPS collectors cards and advised that we should come back tomorrow to get them instead. He never explained why. The Park Service redeemed itself the next day when a new Ranger handed each of my very happy boys a complete set of Gettysburg cards.

The film at the VC may have been a bit much for the boys' little brains -- try teaching concepts of slavery and emancipation to rising kindergartners -- but the Cyclorama had them in awe. They marveled at what they were seeing and couldn't believe that it was only a painting. We also walked through the museum. The boys each spent time looking at various artifacts from the battle and watching the informational videos. Jack was a bit more engaged; Cam moved at breakneck pace so that we would leave to check-in at the campground sooner.

Of course, battlefield stomping took top billing for us. We visited some key sites on Thursday evening. The first time Jack looked out over the field where Pickett's men advanced, he exclaimed to me, "That was a long way to march!" Pretty insightful for a new preschool graduate. We also made our way to the Father William Corby Monument, where I produced a copy of the statue in green plastic from their toy soldier set and told them what the good padre was doing there. We eventually reached the Angle and the Copse of Trees. Jack stood mesmerized by the stone wall. He remembered seeing scenes of all those "blue guys" waiting there to receive the Confederate charge.

Jack looks at the Union position around the Angle.

We rose early on Friday and headed back to the battlefield to beat the crowds and the heat. Best idea ever. The boys and I had most of the stops to ourselves, including Little Round Top. Jack could only shout "Wow!" when he looked out over the field from up there. The boys particularly loved climbing to the top of the 44th New York Monument, or "the castle" as they called it. I also walked with the twins to the scene of the 20th Maine's fight, and reminded them of the scene in the film where the men in blue fixed bayonets and rushed the Confederate attackers. After Little Round Top, we stopped at Devil's Den, but the boys surprisingly took a pass on checking out the huge boulders. Seeing the Pennsylvania Monument, Jack and Cam were eager to meet the challenge of going all the way to the top. Only later did I realize that Cam was confronting his own fear of heights. No wonder he rushed to get back down!

Native sons checking out the Virginia Monument.
Jack gestures towards the staging area for Pickett's division. As friend Harry Smeltzer of Bull Runnings put it, Jack already has a good point and a certain future with the NPS!

Before heading back to the campground, we stopped at the Seminary Ridge Museum. Although I knew that the boys were a bit too young, I really wanted to check out this relatively recent addition to the Gettysburg scene. Just like everything else, the admissions fee is waived for little ones under six, so I didn't lose too much money in doing so! The boys were moved by the lifelike wax tableaux of hospital scenes at the Seminary. They had a lot of questions about the care of the wounded, and I used the visit as a way of teaching them that war is a "bad thing that hurts people."

From the top of the Pennsylvania Monument.
Studying a hospital scene at the Seminary Ridge Museum.

We spent Friday afternoon shopping for souvenirs on Steinwehr Avenue. Jack and Cam both bought a few Civil War-themed items, including the requisite bag of plastic soldiers. After eating an ice cream and waiting out a torrential downpour while visiting Oak Hill, we headed back to our cabin. As I watched the boys play outside with toy sword and miniature flags, I knew that something had sunk in when I saw them charge, shouting "Irish Brigade forward!"

"Dad, can I get this?"

On Saturday I took the twins to Steam Into History in New Freedom, Pennsylvania, about an hour east of Gettysburg. If your kids like trains as much as mine do, and like their father does, this is a must-see attraction. We did the hour long excursion to Glen Echo. The train is pulled by a replica of the 4-4-0 locomotive that took Lincoln to Gettysburg. Passengers sit in recreated 19th century passenger cars. Jack and Cam were thrilled to hear the steam whistle as the train chugged along past small towns and farms. As an added bonus, the day we rode an entertainer dressed in Union blue told local stories about the Civil War and sang songs from the era. Overall, a family won't go wrong paying a visit to Steam Into History.

What a fine example of Industrial Age beauty!

Returning to Ashburn, I considered the trip a success. The boys seemed impressed with the battlefield, and I am sure they learned a thing or two. Meltdowns were kept to a minimum. I suppose flexibility on my part was key -- the schedule can't be too fixed or rigid with little ones in tow. And you got to make room for a swim in that campground pool. Jack and Cam may not remember every little detail about what they did, but I am pretty sure they will always remember their first trip to Gettysburg. We all do!

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