"The most wasted of all days is one without laughter." ~e e cummings

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

a brief Civil War tour: Washington D.C. and Manassas Battlefield

Evan has been interested in all things War lately. He wants to know about the soldiers, the battles, the weapons, the strategy. He wants to know it all and it all makes me sick.

Every time he tries to show me pictures of guns and tanks and military uniforms my stomach turns a bit and I send a silent prayer up to the Universe that this phase, too, shall pass. Can't we go back to dinosaurs? Let's remember how cool trucks were, once upon a time, please? Can we talk Creature Powers for one quick minute? Please don't ask me who "won" the Vietnam War. Please don't ask me to tell you about Adolf Hitler. Please don't tell me you can't wait until you're grown up so you can join the Marines. My pacifist heart, no--my Mama heart, quakes at the very thought.

But he's my kid. I'm his mom and, though he may be but 8 years old, I know that the fastest way to feed the fire of a child's interest in a subject is to try to change it.

So I listen. I take him to the library where he can find all the Eyewitness Books that have all the answers to his many questions. I even planned a trip to my parents' house near Washington, D.C., from which we could explore a few places of historical, wartime significance.

We took a brief Civil War tour. And I didn't hate it. And Evan didn't run away to join the Army...just yet.

Ford's Theatre; Washington D.C.

We began, it would seem, at the end. We spent a rainy Saturday at Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C., where Lincoln was assassinated just days after the end of the Civil War.


We learned about President Lincoln's time in office, we learned about the events that lead up to the War. We learned about the final days of war and when Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S Grant at Appomattox Courthouse, bringing four years of bloodshed and destruction to a close. We learned about the timeline of events of Abraham Lincoln's final day.


We went across the street to Petersen House, the boarding house where Lincoln succumbed to his injuries the day after the shooting. We saw the bed in which he died. We learned about John Wilkes Booth, his cohort of conspirators, and the manhunt that followed his horrific crime.


...and, when our minds were full and spinning, we breezed through the street-level gift shop, which contained the single best display of books Anywhere, Ever.

...and they're all about Lincoln

From Ford's Theatre, we went, naturally, to the Lincoln Memorial.




In what would be my favorite part of the trip, we turned to descend the staircase and found ourselves facing an iconic scene.


And standing in the footprints of an American icon. 
A simple statement, etched into the stone, forever marking this space, 
forever remembering these words.


My dad, our tour guide for the day, reminded us that the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is right across from the Lincoln Memorial and, despite the rain shower that was quickly becoming a downpour, we couldn't miss the opportunity to see The Wall.


As we started down the walkway, I reminded Evan that each of the names etched into the wall is the name of an American soldier who died during the conflict.

"The letters are so small," he noticed, surprised to see it in person for the first time. "That's because they had to fit a lot of names on it." You're right, buddy. More than 58,000 names, in fact.


One name stood out.


That of my dad's cousin, a medic who was shot while attending to wounded soldiers. 
He died on his birthday.

It had been a long day and we were all sufficiently soaked, so we headed back to my parents' house, ready to rest up for another day of history.


Manassas Battlefield: The Battle of Bull Run

Sunday was a rare, cool and breezy July day outside our Nation's capital. It was sunny with some occasional cloud cover but without the threat of rain. It was the perfect day to walk a battlefield. But first, we explored the museum. I didn't take any pictures of the impressive display of uniforms, weapons, and artifacts, but it's worth factoring a half-hour or so into your trip to really take the time to look them over. 

Our favorite part of the museum, however, was this:


A 3-D topographical map of Manassas Junction, ca. 1861, the location of the first (and second) Battle of Bull Run. This map is equipped with LED lights that light up in two colors, representing the Union and Confederate armies. As a voice-over narration tells the story of the opposing armies approaching toward what would later become known as the Beginning of the Civil War, the lights on the map "move." It was amazing to see the armies meet, divide, retreat, re-group, and ultimately engage in battle. Evan was captivated. Max and Molly were actually paying pretty close attention as well.

From there, we met up with our tour guide, who led us on a 45-minute walking tour of the battlefield, retelling the story we heard in the museum, but on the actual grounds where thousands of soldiers would ultimately perish.




It's a fascinating story.

So fascinating, in fact, that after the 45-minute walking tour, Evan wanted to stay and watch the 45-minute film reenactment of the battle. So, for the third time in two hours, Evan listened to the Story of The Battle of Bull Run. It was a pretty graphic film, though...guns, cannons, blood, etc., so Molly and I only made it through about five minutes before I decided she didn't need to actually "see" the war. Max lasted another ten or so before he and my mom joined Molly and me outside to run around a bit.

From there, we concluded our Civil War tour at the nearby Stone House. Before the Civil War, this building served as a tavern. Because of its proximity to the battlefield, it was turned into a hospital during the war. It is also believed that prisoners of war were held here temporarily.



It has been well-preserved over the years, with many of the rooms even containing the original flooring. In one of the upstairs bedrooms, these initials can still be seen on one of the floorboards; the initials of a wounded Civil War soldier. How incredible is that?


Growing up just down the road from Manassas, I knew this house well. We called it the "Cannonball in the Wall House," because you can see actual cannonballs lodged into the stone. I'd never actually been inside, though, and I was anxious to hear the story of this house.


As we approached the house, I told the boys that we were going to see real cannonballs from a real Civil War battle in the stone.

Until my dad struck up a conversation about those cannonballs with the National Park Service guide at the house:

"Those? Oh, no, they're not really from battle. These walls are 18-inches thick! Any cannonballs that hit this fortress would have bounced right off."

"So....the cannonballs?"

"Yeah, they were put in by the new owners in the early 1900s. They saw an opportunity in this house and turned it into a for-profit Civil War tourist attraction. They lodged the cannonballs in there to give it some 'authenticity.' It was quite a successful stunt!"

Humpf.

I prefer my version of the story.

Lesson Learned:
I don't have to love war or conflict to find history fascinating. Unfortunately, Evan seemed to enjoy this tour just as much as I did. I had kind of secretly hoped that I'd take him to a boring old battlefield, make him listen to boring old men talk about boring old history and he'd get over this little phase of his. Not this trip...

But seriously, if you're ever in the D.C. area, it's worth the drive.

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