But what does that all mean to teachers and students, to families with kids or to anyone seeking to visit historic sites with education in mind? Sheer quantity of resource does not automatically translate into quality of experience. Fortunately, forward-thinking planners, managers and staff have rendered the visitor experience at Virginia Civil War sites among the most engaging, entertaining and memorable among historic sites anywhere in the United States.
With the commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War and Emancipation at hand (2011-2015), planning that has been going on at the state and local levels is resulting in exciting once-in-a-lifetime special events and exhibits that can be enjoyed throughout the state.
Most Civil War sites in Virginia have some type of programming or interpretation especially suitable for kids and many have tours and programs that embrace educational standards of learning. Sites owned and operated privately or by state or national agencies offer experiences that engage families and people of any age.
One of the best examples of a site that takes its educational mission seriously, with spectacular results, is the amazing Pamplin Historical Park and The National Museum of the Civil War Soldier.
Located just south of Richmond near Petersburg, Pamplin Historical Park covers some 360 acres and includes museums with cutting edge technology, an interpreted battlefield, antebellum homes, a slave life interpretive site, living history programs, guided tours and an educational center.
The park’s National Museum of the Civil War Soldier may be the best Civil War history experience in the country for youngsters. Museum visitors are presented with the images of 13 real Civil War soldiers at the museum entrance and must choose one to be their “comrade.” As they tour the museum the comrade “speaks” to the visitors about his experiences in the war — via a personal MP3 device conveying the recorded voice of an actor reading from the soldier’s letters or journal. One of the comrades is a 13-year-old drummer boy named Delevan Miller and his presentation is perfectly appropriate for students. As they proceed through the museum visitors learn what their soldier-comrade thought about joining the army, how he felt as he prepared for battle and what he witnessed on the battlefield. At the end of the tour the visitor learns what happened to the soldier, not all of whom survived the war.
Elsewhere in the park, guests encounter living historians portraying either soldiers or civilians of the Civil War era. At Tudor Hall Plantation one can learn about life on a medium sized Southern plantation from civilian and slave perspectives. Live cannon and musket firings are demonstrated at the Fortifications Exhibit and visitors can mingle with the soldiers in the Military Encampment. The Breakthrough Trail conveys visitors through the battlefield on which the Union army of Ulysses S. Grant broke through the lines of Robert E. Lee’s Confederates, ending the Siege of Petersburg and setting in motion the retreat and pursuit that ended at Appomattox one week later. Tours for school groups are led by talented staff who are experts at engaging students.
Other high-quality experiences can be found at facilities such as Richmond’s American Civil War Center at Historic Tredegar and the Museum and White House of the Confederacy, at the Virginia Museum of the Civil War — formerly New Market Battlefield State Historical Park — at the USS Monitor Center in Newport News and at other museums and battlefields throughout the Commonwealth.
The National Park Service is the guardian of Virginia’s best-known battlefields including Richmond National Battlefield Park, Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania County Battlefields Memorial, Petersburg National Battlefield, Manassas National Battlefield Park, Cedar Creek and Belle Grove National Historical Park and Appomattox Court House National Historical Park. Battles such as First and Second Manassas, Malvern Hill, Cold Harbor, Chancellorsville, The Wilderness and The Crater come alive when a visitor walks on the historic ground.
These famous battlefields are national treasures and are complemented by the fine interpretation one expects from the National Park Service. Ranger-led programs include guided tours and programs suitable for all ages and special experiences for school groups. Many of the parks’ Visitor Centers have outstanding artifact displays, dioramas, films and interactive exhibits. Driving routes are easy to follow and have interpretive signs along the way.
A number of Civil War attractions in Virginia offer special “camp” programs for youngsters and even adults. Day camps can be found at some museums and battlefields. Pamplin Historical Park offers its amazing Civil War Adventure Camp, a two-day, one-night experience that puts campers in uniform and living the life of a Civil War soldier.
Virginia can tell the story of the Civil War, not only from a military perspective, but also from the points of view of civilians and slaves caught up in the conflict. Many of those stories can be found along outstanding historic trails. The Virginia Civil War Trails initiative spawned a system that is now found in several other states. Civil War Trails marks more than 400 sites in Virginia with interpretive waysides that tell the story of what happened where it happened. Most of those sites are marked for the first time and can be found in urban settings, in small towns and on country back roads.
The waysides contain a narrative of what happened on the site and often have sidebars that recount the experience of the local inhabitants. Visitors can trace the campaigns of the armies or the escape route of Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth. Maps are available online or at visitor facilities throughout Virginia.
In the Fredericksburg area a new trail recounts the harrowing experiences of slaves seeking to make their way to the Union army encampments and freedom. The Trail to Freedom includes a driving itinerary along the same routes of escape that slaves used to try to reach safety within Union lines. In historic downtown Fredericksburg a walking trail tells the story of John Washington, a slave who made his escape across the Rappahannock River and later authored a book about his experiences, “A Slave No More”. Maps and podcasts are downloadable online.
During the upcoming 150th Anniversary of the Civil War and Emancipation, Virginia will come alive with special events and exhibitions. Many of these are the work of the Virginia Sesquicentennial of the Civil War Commission through which an annual Signature Conference is held at a Virginia university and which also manages an 18-wheeler Civil War History Mobile that tours throughout the Commonwealth. Those planning a visit to Virginia can also go on the Commission’s Web site — www.virginiacivilwar.org — and experience “Walk In Their Footsteps,” an online resource that enables people to locate battlefields on which specific army regiments fought and provides links to other resources that may help them determine if they had an ancestor that fought in the Civil War.
Annual battle re-enactments, large and small, take place throughout Virginia. Spectators can thrill to the spectacle of battle scenarios, hear the booming discharge of cannons and rounds of musketry and smell the acrid smoke of black powder. Visitors can walk through the encampments, mingle with military and civilian re-enactors and see how laundry was done, meals were cooked and clothing was mended. Rows of “sutlers” sell everything from take-home souvenirs to authentic period artifacts.
Virginia is always at the epicenter of Civil War history and education but, particularly during the upcoming sesquicentennial commemoration of the Civil War, the Commonwealth will be a hotbed of activity as it was 150 years earlier. These next years will provide an outstanding chance to bring students and families face to face with the incredible events of the Civil War years and engage them in history in unforgettable ways.