Schools across the country are on summer break and families are planning to hit the road to spend quality vacation time together. Summer is the perfect time to take your family to a Civil War battlefield. The National Park Service’s biggest parks expand their ranger programs for the summer and the longer summer days allow your family to explore the battlefield well into the evening when temperatures are lower and crowds are smaller.
If you are considering stopping by a battlefield on your way to the beach, the amusement park or a camping weekend, here are some tips to help your family get the most out of your visit.
1. Visit rangerously. The Interpretive Rangers who work at Civil War battlefields are experts on the battles that took place on the land they steward and are conversant in other military actions in the campaign, and social and political history of the time period. They are also public historians. Their primary purpose is to bring history to the public in meaningful and impactful ways. They like talking to people and answering questions. So, make their day and ask them.
2. Get with the program. Those public historians who love to answer questions also enjoy telling the stories of their battlefields. National Park Service battlefields feature a wide variety of ranger programs that tell the story of the men who fought and the civilians who were caught in the crossfire. Many rangers create their own programming, using rare primary sources from the park's archives, so the topics are ones the rangers tend to be especially passionate about. Some parks' regular calendars and others' special events calendars include special programs aimed at children and teens. Ranger programs are included in any park admission fee.
4. Collect them all. As part of its commemoration activities for the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, the National Park Service created a series of trading cards kids can collect by visiting over 90 historical sites nationwide. The cards tell stories of the Civil War and Civil Rights. To see all the trading cards available and where you can pick them up, check out the NPS’ Flickr site.
5. Get personal. There are lots of ways to tour the battlefield. You can hike and drive. You can use the tour brochure offered for free at the Visitor’s Center or purchase an audio tour CD. If you are in Gettysburg your options even include buses, horses, Segways, bikes, and horse-drawn carriage rides. Some of these options are better than others, and if you have no other choice, any one can be an adequate introduction to the battlefield. Unfortunately, in each of these cases, you are at the mercy of what someone else thinks is interesting or important.
Several parks including Gettysburg, Antietam and Vicksburg have licensed battlefield guides that must go through rigorous testing before they are admitted to the program. Other parks don’t run a battlefield guide program, but guides can be found by searching the internet (Google the battlefield name and “personal tour guide”) or by calling the park’s Visitor’s Center and asking them for a recommendation.
Personal tour guides can customize tours for your family’s specific interests and ages and are able to read and react to the interest level as the tour progresses. Guides can ask and answer questions to encourage dialog with your family. It may sound like an expensive proposition, but depending on the number of people in your family, it may be less expensive than lunch in a fast casual restaurant.
7. Do your homework. I know, it’s summer. No one enjoys summer homework. But when my husband suggested we add a stop at Gettysburg to our summer vacation several years ago, he had one condition: before we went, we had to watch the movie Gettysburg while I provided a running commentary about what we would see and who we would hear about again. When it was time for my parents to visit the battlefield, my husband told me to have them watch the movie.
Preparing in this way allows you to become familiar with the people and places you will hear about on the battlefield. It can also introduce you to some interesting story lines you may want to investigate further once you are there.
That may all sound good, but history books are boring, right? The good news is that there are lots of great resources you and your family can use to provide this basic understanding: picture books, graphic histories, biographies, movies and popular battle histories. Check out the Intelligence Reports page to find just the right resource for every member of your family.
Do you have any tips from your family's visit to a battlefield? Comment below!
Toni is a wife, mom and history buff who loves bringing the Civil War to life for family members of all ages.