May is finally upon us, and summer will be here before we know it. And that can mean only one thing – vacation time! Backyard barbecues, splashing in the pool, lounging in the hammock, hiking around a Civil War park…
Hiking around a Civil War park? For summer vacation? Am I serious? You bet I am!
Visiting a Civil War park, or any historic site for that matter, can be a great addition to any summer vacation plans. In fact, planning a trip to one or more historic sites can make for a great vacation all by itself any time of year.
I’ve done this myself from time to time. During spring break my junior year in high school I flew out to meet my sister in Tennessee, after which the two of us drove to Virginia and crammed in as many Civil War sites as we could in one week. The following year, while most of my fellow graduates hit the beaches at South Padre Island the first week of June, I hit I-40 East in my sometimes reliable, no-air-conditioning Mustang II, headed back to more of those transfixing historic sites.
I must have had the Civil War bug pretty bad to choose monuments and markers over beaches and bikinis. To this day, that probably remains the most superbly disorganized trip I’ve ever taken. And I’m still amazed that that car held up long enough to get me home. I clearly remember the stops along the side of the road every 100 miles or so to add another quart of oil. And the relief I always felt when the engine actually started once again, when I was alone in some remote area of a park with the sun going down. But it was great fun. Well, most of it was.
Much of what I did and saw on that trip was spontaneous, “get out the map and let’s see where I’ll go today” sort of planning. And while that can be fun, a little more advanced planning isn’t a bad idea either. A visit to a Civil War site can be both enjoyable and educational, whether you’re by yourself or with a large group. It’s worth a little time to plan ahead.
Don’t think you’ll have a lot of time to visit? That’s okay – you can still plan ahead for the time that you will have. Don’t think you’re heading someplace that has any war-related history? You might be surprised! The war touched more areas of the country, including what today is the western United States, than is generally known. A little advanced snooping around might just turn up a site or two where you’re headed that is related to the war in some way. You just never know until you look. So let’s get started on planning your next (or first) Civil War visit.
Ready, Set… Where We Going?
Believe it or not, you’ve got several questions to answer when you start planning your visit. First off, where are you going to go? How much time will you have once you’re there? Will this be your first visit to the site, or have you been there many times before?
Are you going to spend all your time at a single historic site, or are you going to split what time you have between more than one? Are you more of a museum person, or would you rather spend your time tramping through woods and fields? Maybe a little of both? If you’re visiting a battlefield park, have you read up some on the battle? Or is it all brand new to you? Did you have a relative who fought there? If so, do you know what outfit he was in?
These are just a few things to get you started thinking. How you answer questions like this can help you decide how to plan your visit.
Take Gettysburg for example. Someone visiting America’s most popular Civil War attraction for the first time will probably have a much different agenda than someone making, say, their 20th trip to the area. Especially when it comes to Gettysburg, a first-time visitor could easily wind up feeling overwhelmed by all there is to see and do. Museums, bookstores, antique shops, gotcha shops, historic buildings, restaurants. And that’s just the town – we haven’t even made it to the park yet! (And did I mention that it’s a big park?)
Let’s say you’ll be in the Washington D.C. area for a few days and you’d like to drive up to Gettysburg when you have some free time. You’ve never been to the park before. You’ve recently become interested in the battle and know a little about it, but not a great deal. You figure you’ll have about half a day or so to spend there, and you have to decide what to see and what to leave out.
How to approach this? Well, you could just hop in the car and drive to Gettysburg, and wing it once you get there. Maybe you could just drive out in the park and look around, stopping every so often to read the various markers and monuments, and snap a few pictures.
Can you learn about a battle like this? Well yes, it’s possible. But it can take a lot of time. And unless you already have a reasonably good grasp of the events that took place, it might all be a bit confusing, especially at first. Even getting your directional bearings can be a challenge at some parks if you’re not familiar with the area. (Sometimes it’s a challenge even if you are familiar with the area. As many times as I’ve been to Shiloh for example, there are still times when I get turned around among all those trees.)
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