Brandywine Battlefield

Living in eastern Pennsylvania as we do, we are never too far from a Revolutionary War site. We are surrounded by the stuff. Despite that, I really don’t know as much as I ought to about the Revolution. It just doesn’t engage me as a subject so I really only retain the scratchiest general knowledge about it. This is not because I am British. Nope. I am totally on the side of the Americans. I am just really not into military history unless it intersects with some other genre of history that I am into. I only know as much as I do about the Civil War because I am married to a big Civil War nerd and learning osmosis happens.

Anyway, one of the local Revolutionary history sites we had not visited in the almost 8 years since moving here was a pretty big one: Brandywine. It was the biggest battle of the War, with the most troops fighting and doing so continuously for 11 hours over 10 square miles. The battlefield is only open seasonally and on particular days so we have just never gotten around to making a plan to visit work. Mr Pict, however, was determined we should finally visit so we got our act together and went.

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We started off at the Visitor Center where some friendly, chatty staff placed the battle within its wider context for us. Mr Pict also got deep into the weeds of a conversation with them about why the site doesn’t have National Park status. The rest of us scuttled off into the adjoining museum. Small as the museum was, the information boards were some of the clearest and most informative I have encountered. I was actually finally able to grasp the chronology of the conflicts that occurred in our region and why the American and British sides manoeuvred that they did. I always love a diorama and they had several. Meanwhile the 12 and 14 year olds entertained themselves in the dress up corner.

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The rest of the trip was a driving tour. We could have hit up a couple of dozen points of interest along the route but nobody was really enthralled at that prospect so we kept to the highlights. We started at the house of Gideon Gilpin, a Quaker farmer. It was the property that Lafayette used as his quarters and where he returned after being shot in the leg during the battle. Incidentally Lafayette turned 20 days before Brandywine which kind of blows my mind. I personally just like old buildings so I enjoyed wandering around and looking at the shapes and the stonework. Near the house is a massive sycamore tree that is over 300 years old which means it was around during the battle. I kind of love that living connection to the past.

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The next stop was the Benjamin Ring house that Washington used as his HQ. The interior was not yet open so we just skirted its exterior. I didn’t find it too interesting to look at. However, we got chatting to a volunteer guide who, while telling us that his hobby is making replicas of historic guns, revealed that he lives in the house that was the site of the last witch trial (more of an interrogation) in Pennsylvania. Obviously I had to steer the conversation in that direction. Much more interesting to me than battles and military leaders.

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We went to find Jefferis Ford, which is the spot where the sneaky British forces managed to cross the river. American troops were defending all of the other fords along the river but, for some reason, neglected to protect Jefferis Ford. Quite the oops. Anyway, we cross the bridge that now spans that area and looked down at the dun brown water and then we went on a trek up hill and down dale trying to find a spot with decent sight lines where I could do a three point turn. So that was annoying.

The final stop was at the Birmingham Quaker Meetinghouse. This was the location of some ferocious fighting and fallen soliders from both sides are buried in a mass grave in the small walled cemetery that abuts the meetinghouse. As much as military history is not my thing, cemeteries very much are. After visiting the walled graveyard, I therefore wandered off into the adjoining larger cemetery. Most of the stones are very small and simple, since Quakers traditionally do not approve of ostentatious memorials. I went in search of the grave of artist NC Wyeth but really stood no chance of locating it since his family’s stone is a simple one set into the ground. Our kids were all out of tolerance for this parent-driven excursion as it was so were not up for entertaining my cemetery wanderings.

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While the cemetery largely comprised standard grave markers, there were some very elaborate memorials. Just outside the gates were monuments to Lafayette and Casimir Pulaski, neither of whom is buried in Pennsylvania let alone that cemetery. Inside the cemetery, however, is a large monument containing a marble statue that really is quite at odds with the rest of the graves. It marks the plots of the family of John Gheen Taylor. Want to know why he got to break the rules? That would be because he was the cemetery president.

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So that was our trip to Brandywine Battlefield. I don’t think I will feel the need to return but, surprisingly, I did actually learn something through my visit. Plus it is always nice to go for a wander somewhere new. Now I am actually keen to visit the Museum of the American Revolution so that I can put together some more of the details of the war. Because goodness knows I am not going to sit down to read a book about it or even watch a documentary. Once I feel ready to return to museums, that one is going to be high on my list.

Virginia Battlefields

Mr Pict and I seem to have a bit of a tit-for-tat or quid pro quo thing going on when it comes to touring historic places: I get to visit a cemetery and he gets to tour a Civil War battlefield.  Having dragged everyone around Arlington National Cemetery the previous day – and two of the kids really were dragging their feet around there – the following day was dedicated to sites of Civil War battles.  While my blog post about the Cemetery was very probably too detailed, I will tell you in advance that my post about the battlefields is likely to be a bit threadbare and impressionistic because it really is not my area of expertise.

We started out our day at Fredericksburg, which I believe featured in a few cycles of warfare.  We watched an informative video presentation in the National Park office but apparently it all went in one ear and out the other because this is what I think I know about the action there*: by the Autumn of 1862, Lincoln needed a Union victory in order to bolster support for his administration so the pressure was on for Burnside and Hooker to take Richmond; the plan involved Burnside relocating his troops across the Rappahannock River at Fredericksburg; various bits of the plan went pear-shaped and the result was a Confederate victory.  In addition to the video, the building housed a small but effective museum.  I thought it was well-balanced in terms of its focus on the two sides of the conflict and in terms of its narrating of the experiences of combatants and the civilians.  I especially liked a wall of framed portraits on hinges that revealed information about the individuals portrayed when opened.  My youngest son, meanwhile, enjoyed the challenge of building a pontoon bridge.


What the boys really enjoyed, however, was discovering a lizard inside a wee cranny and my youngest found an injured moth which he decided to adopt for the duration of our walk around the site.  He named the moth Stick and chose a suitable tree away from the car park to relocate it to.



The area of battlefield preserved by the National Park Service is focused on a bloody scuffle called the Battle of Marye’s Heights.  This is an elevated area, a stone wall, and a sunken road.  I have the impression that every Civil War battle either involves a sunken road, a peach orchard, or a wheat field.  There were houses in this area so the civilian population had been forced to flee and leave their property to get hammered by weaponry.  While all that remains of most buildings is an outline of where they once stood, one building remained intact and in situ.  Peeking through the windows, we could see the pock-marks of bullets all over one wood panelled wall.





The park area contained a statue to a young soldier named Richard Rowland Kirkland.  He was a Confederate sergeant positioned at the stone wall.  He grew perturbed by the groans and anguish of the suffering Union soldiers and his compassion moved him to minister to the wounded.  There was not a ceasefire while he did so so he was very much risking his own life and limb to bring water to these injured men who were his enemy.  Poor Richard was to be killed at Chickamauga at age 20.  His is a touching story and one that is probably embellished but I prefer to remember the humanity people can be capable of when immersed in the history of hatred, division and bloodshed.




After a picnic lunch, we stopped off at Chancellorsville.  The visitor centre included a very good museum full of artefacts and information boards, lots packed into a small space.  For various reasons, I didn’t spend much time consuming the material but I did spend quite a bit of time in one room.  The centerpiece was a display case containing Confederate and Union uniforms and equipment but what really caught my attention was the surrounding walls.  They were covered in the names and, in some cases, photographic portraits of those who were killed in the battle – which, if memory serves, was the bloodiest except for Antietam.  Seeing all of those names was really quite arresting.  For my brain, numbers are a bit too abstract but to see those numbers as a visual was really evocative.  I was also struck by the mingling of names from both sides of the conflict. As someone with only a passing interest in the subject, I too often think of the Civil War in terms of the conflicting ideologies, the attitudes and decisions of the leadership of both sides, the dichotomy of “goodies and baddies”.  However, as soon as I am forced to remember the experiences of individuals, what I reflect on is that Confederate mothers keened and mourned for their sons as much as Union mothers did.

I had thought that Chancellorsville referred to a town of some description but learned at the visitor centre that it in fact refers to just a single dwelling house.  At the time of the battle, it was occupied by a woman surnamed Chancellor and her daughters.  They found themselves under siege in a burning house during the battle before being rescued and relocated out of harm’s way.  Again, we watched the video which was very informative and once again I almost instantly forgot much of the detail.  What I remember from the reenactment was a sense of complete chaos and scenes of fire raging through the woodland.  It was also the battle that inspired the novel ‘The Red Badge of Courage’.  It was also at Chancellorsville that Stonewall Jackson was shot by friendly fire, which led to the amputation of his left arm, and ultimately to his death from pneumonia a week later.


On the subject of Stonewall Jackson, he was the subject of our next quest.  As a fan of “Roadside America”, oddities, and the more obscure tourist attractions, this was the aspect of our day of battlefield touring that most interested me.  A short car journey deposited us at the end of the driveway that led to Ellwood Manor, a house dating from the late 18th Century that was requisitioned as a field hospital during the Civil War.  We were not there, however, to visit a historic building.  Nope.  Instead, we strolled right past the house and down a pretty little path that led to the family cemetery.  Buried in that cemetery was the subject of our quest: Stonewall Jackson’s left arm.  Jackson’s chaplain was the brother of the occupant of Ellwood Manor and, therefore, chose that spot as the final resting place of the General’s amputated limb.  It even has its own headstone, which is more than can be said of any of the entire people buried there.  We found ourselves at the grave of the majority of Stonewall Jackson in the summer of 2016 so it feels like some sort of achievement to have now visited his arm too.  I love all that peculiar and macabre stuff.



We concluded our battlefield tour with what, to my untrained eye, was just a field.  Mr Pict tried to explain its significance to me – something about the site of Jackson’s final flank attack – but by that point anything he was saying about military strategy and battle action just sounded like the brassy “wah wah” sounds the teachers make in ‘Peanuts’.  I guess some things my brain just was not designed to absorb.  Mr Pict was happy, however, and that was the important thing.


Then it was back to home base for a barbecue and s’mores for the boys, which is what they had been promised/bribed with, so they ended the day on a happy note too.


*Feel absolutely free to correct me in the comments.

Road Trip 2018 #6 – Little Bighorn and Devils Tower

The sixth day of our road trip involved being in three states in one day and a whole lot of driving.

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Our day started in Montana, where the kids and I met an actual “cowboy” in the elevator who was in town to sell 25,000 cattle.  Our actual slice of Montana tourism, however, was our second National Park of the trip: the Little Bighorn Battlefield.  Long time readers of my blog will be aware that Mr Pict is a history nerd with a particular fondness for military history.  I share the love of history but am altogether meh about military history but I like a good stroll in open spaces so I happily tag along on his battlefield visits.  Mr Pict had recently read some books about the Little Bighorn so he was at peak geek for this visit.

The Little Bighorn is, of course, 9in)famously the site of the 1876 battle between the 7th Cavalry and the people of the Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho tribes.  It was a pivotal moment in the relationship between the US government and the indigenous peoples of America.  The Native Americans won the battle but ultimately lost the war.  Knowing what the aftermath of this battle, the retaliation, had meant for the Native American population lent the whole place a poignancy.  We started off at the Visitors Centre, which had an informative video and exhibits about and artefacts of both sides of the conflict.  Our youngest son was also inducted as a junior ranger having completed the programme by answering a series of questions.


Mr Pict was in charge of directing our wanderings so we started with a hike down to the ravine where General Custer had envisaged he would attack but instead found himself attacked by Lakota warriors.  Or maybe I am misremembering.  It gets confusing because apparently thoughts about what occurred have evolved among historians over the decades.  The Deep Ravine trail was, however, an easy walk and took us past markers for both US soldiers and indigenous warriors.  I also encountered a couple of snakes along the way, though they quickly got out of my way.



We were then led up to Last Stand Hill.  It is marked with a granite memorial and is where members of the 7th Cavalry were buried where they fell.  George Armstrong Custer’s marker is coloured black for easy identification and is adjacent to that of his brother.  From there we strolled to the memorial for the Native American warriors who were killed in the battle.  It was a beautiful and thoughtful memorial.  I really liked the way that the view of the landscape was incorporated into the imagery.  Back in the car, Mr Pict took us to the site of Reno and Benteen’s defense.  He and the two youngest kids walked the short trail to see specific sites.  The two older boys and I, meanwhile, enjoyed sitting in the breeze and taking in the view of the valley – including the Little Bighorn River below – and spotting wild horses and another one of those skinny pale snakes.




Montana was the first state of the day – and my 34th overall – and I entered my 35th state when we crossed into Wyoming in mid-afternoon.  We were only in Wyoming briefly but I managed to legitimately claim it under my own rules because I had a snack and used a restroom.  That might be TMI but those are the rules.  What we were in Wyoming to do was see Devils Tower, America’s first ever National Monument.  This was another one of my long-held travel bucket list items.  I have wanted to see Devils Tower for myself since I first saw the movie ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’ as a small child.  The movie made an impression on me but so did the unusual shape of the mountain.  Part of me was concerned that I would be underwhelmed, that seeing it in person would not be significantly different from seeing it in photographs or on film.  My fears were allayed as soon as it came into view.  It really is a striking mountain – or probably more accurately butte – and pretty breathtaking.  Super impressive.  Of course, I had to sing the tune that communicates with aliens while there, to the mortification of my offspring.





I fully intend to explore much more of Wyoming on a future vacation but that wee corner of the state was it for this trip.  By early evening we were in our third state of the day – and, of course, my 36th – when we entered South Dakota.  We had booked to stay in a log cabin for a few days as a respite from being trapped in the car and covering so many miles per day.  Finding the log cabin, however, proved to be a challenge.  It was that problem again of having no cell phone connectivity to make our GPS work and of our road maps not being detailed enough to cover the roads we needed.  Indeed, our log cabin was on the outskirts of a town (Lead – to rhyme with feed not fed) that only appeared as a dot in our mapbook.  There was no way we were going to stumble across a cabin in the woods by chance, simply by driving around and hoping for the best.  We, therefore, drove around Lead’s business district until I found an unsecured wifi connection I could piggy back on.  Thanks to a saloon, I managed to connect for long enough to access a map.  Finally we found the cabin.  I would have sucked as a pioneer.


Last weekend was Memorial Weekend here in the United States.  Memorial Day commemorates members of the country’s armed forces who have died in service.  As such, it seemed apt that we spent Memorial Weekend touring Civil War sites.  Our first stop was Antietam, in Sharpsburg, Maryland.

Confederate General Robert E Lee moved his army from Virginia towards the north and into Union territory.  Around the same time, Union General George McClellan moved the Army of the Potomac into Frederick, Maryland.  On 17 September 1862, these two forces collided on the Antietam Creek in what would be the bloodiest single day battle of the Civil War – and indeed the bloodiest day in American military history.  Of the approximately 100,000 soldiers involved in the battle, there were 23,000 casualties.  Ultimately Lee was repulsed back into Virginia and the Union held the area.

We started our tour at the Visitor’s Center where we chanced upon a small reenactment group marching and firing guns.  The Visitor Center itself offered a useful synopsis of the battle as there was a short movie to watch and some exhibits.  I found both to be particularly handy since – as I have explained before – I am not all that keen on military history.  The documentary fixed the broad stroke events of the day in my head while the exhibits in the small museum helped me engage with the subject through seeing things like medical field kits, uniforms, and drums.  What I learned (or relearned since Mr Pict has told me this several times) is that Antietam was a pivotal battle in the Civil War and not just because of the Union victory.  It was also significant because it led to Lincoln issuing the Emancipation Proclamation and prevented Britain and France from getting involved in the conflict.


Mr Pict decided to lead us around the site according to the chronology of the battle.  We, therefore, started at what was once woods and cornfields.  I look at the landscape of a battlefield and really cannot engage with it.  It’s just landscape to me.  I need features and clear narratives.  I need the human side of things rather than tactics.  I, therefore, left Mr Pict and the kids to wander around the fields while I headed into the Dunker Church.  The Church, belonging to a pacifist German sect, had been on site for just ten years before it became a focal point of the bloody battle.  Being inside I was reminded of what I had read of the townspeople.  They hid in basements and caves during the battle and emerged to find their properties destroyed (one deliberately) and scenes of horrific slaughter.  While there was not a civilian casualty in the battle, the soldiers malingered in town long enough to spread disease to the civilian population.  Always finding the social history angle on the military history.





Our next stop was the dramatically named “Bloody Lane”.  This was a sunken road that cut through the farmland.  The Confederates were using the built up land around the road as a parapet and were able to fire down upon the Union soldiers who were moving across the farmland and were funneled into the narrow sunken road.  The result was absolute carnage as illustrated by the photographs of Alexander Gardner.  Knowing those photographs as I do, I found it quite haunting to be walking along Bloody Lane.  I could actually visualise the horror of the scene.  We emerged from the sunken road at an observation tower.  As much as I appreciate a good view, I took one look at the narrow and open iron staircase inside and decided against ascending.  Instead, I waved from the bottom at my husband and children at the top.






I would have loved to have moved on to the National Cemetery because I love cemeteries.  However, it started to rain hard.  We were wearing our raincoats so were largely protected from the rain but the grass was slippy under foot and it was muggy and sticky which feels gross when wearing waterproof layers.  And everyone was protesting about visiting a cemetery so there was that too.  We, therefore, hoofed it back to the car and drove to the next destination and battle point: the lower bridge, also known as Burnside Bridge.  Once there, 50% of our troops refused to trek down to the bridge so Mr Pict, the 10 year old and I plodded on with our reduced numbers.  On the day of the battle, the bridge was being held by Confederate troops (from Georgia if I am remembering the video accurately) who were able to pick off the approaching Union soldiers with ease from their position on the bluff overlooking the bridge and the road approaching it.  After being in the sunken road, it would appear that the theme of the day had been carnage in narrow spaces.



The highlight of my 10 year old’s trip to Antietam was “befriending” a millipede.  At least, unlike his brothers, he actually saw all three key sites.  I have decided that one day they will look back and appreciate that their father and I dragged them on all of these trips to historic places.



Road Trip #18 – Stonewall Jackson and Robert E Lee

It was “Unlucky 13” for the thirteenth day of our road trip.  All the plans we had for the day were dispensed with and we scrambled to make new plans for two reasons: the avoidance of any more car sickness and the weather.

We had planned to drive the Skyline Drive through the Shenandoah Valley.  However, all of the winding roads of the previous day had used up all the children’s reserves for tolerance for anything other than straight roads.  I had driven the Skyline Drive back in 1995 so I accepted that I was not getting to do it this time.  Our first replacement event plan was to drive to Foamhenge.  This is a replica of Stonehenge built out of foam.  Since we visited the actual Stonehenge with the kids last summer, we thought it would be funny to visit Foamhenge.  However, when we arrived at the spot there were no foam stones to be seen.  It transpired that, in anticipation of Natural Bridge being bestowed with National Park status, they had evicted hokey Foamhenge from the site and it had yet to find a new home.  Frustratingly, this had all happened in the last couple of months – after I had done all my research and planning for the trip.  This time doing my homework so far in advance had not paid off.

After that annoying waste of time, Mr Pict proposed a plan: we should visit the graves of Stonewall Jackson and Robert E Lee in Lexington, Virginia.  That way he got his Civil War fix, I got my cemetery fix, and – as it transpired – the kids got an opportunity to moan and rebel.

It all started well.  We found the Stonewall Jackson Memorial Cemetery with ease and it was impossible to miss Jackson’s grave as it dominated the cemetery.  Despite him being a Confederate, Stonewall Jackson is our 9 year old’s favourite Civil War general.  I think this has rather more to do with his horse Little Sorrel than anything else.  Indeed, we almost went to visit the stuffed corpse of Little Sorrel but ran out of time.  Famously, Stonewall Jackson died as the result of “friendly fire” during the battle of Chancellorsville (and we plan to visit the grave of his amputated arm there some time) and his last words were the beautifully poetic, “Let us cross over the river and rest under the shade of the trees”.  This was quite fitting since Jackson was notorious for sleeping during battles.  Jackson objected to fighting on Sundays but ironically ended up fighting more often on Sundays than any other day of the week.  Another interesting story about Jackson – probably exaggerated over the years – was that he ate lemons before battles.  As we approached the grave, we could see that people had deposited lemons around its base.



The cemetery itself was rather pleasant, quiet, calm and green and set on a lovely street.  We had a bit of a wander and looked at several other graves, including many other Confederate graves, some of notable military men and others of ordinary soldiers.  These included two brothers killed in their teens.  We may not agree with their politics or the side they chose to fight on but the graves of so many young men were still evocative and poignant.


A very short drive later brought us to Washington and Lee University.  This was a beautiful spot and I could imagine that the students there find it a very pleasant place to study.  We were there for the Lee Chapel which houses the remains of Robert E Lee and his family members.  The Chapel was built under the auspices of Lee when he was President of the University following the Civil War.

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The building itself was rather pleasant with a red brick exterior and a fresh white interior with a large organ.  Where one would normally find a pulpit was a stone effigy of Lee, lying on his back in his uniform as if sleeping through a battle.  This is not his tomb, however.  To see that we had to descend into the crypt where Lee and his family members are interred.




The crypt level also housed a small museum.  The museum had recreated the study of Robert E Lee exactly as it looked on the day of his death in 1870.  In another, larger room there was one of those rotating planetarium thingummys and beneath it was a plaque indicating the spot where Lee’s remains had originally been buried.  All around this central feature were items that had belonged to Lee, from weapons to embroidered slippers to a watch “chain” made out of hair from Traveller’s mane.  The basement museum was the precise point at which the boys bottomed out of tolerance.  As so often happens when in a place that requires a degree of stillness and a solemn demeanour, they all kicked off, one by one, toppling like dominoes.  We, therefore, did not manage to view all the artifacts as we had to hurry them out into the open air again.




At the exact spot where we exited, however, we stopped to pay our respects to Traveller, Lee’s beloved horse.  Our 9 year old is obsessed with horses and for him the Civil War is as much about Old Bob, Little Sorrel, Cincinnati and Traveller as it is about Lincoln, Jackson, Grant and Lee.  Traveller had died the year after Lee, at the age of 14, having contracted tetanus from standing on a nail.  Poor Traveller’s body was not well treated.  At first he was buried in a ravine but then he was dug back up and his skeleton underwent a preservation process that apparently was not very effective.  His skeleton went on display but was vandalised by students writing or carving their names into his bones for good luck in their exams.  It was not until the 1970s that his poor old bones were placed in their current position.


It was obvious that part of the the kids’ grumpy attitudes were caused by them being “hangry” so we stopped off for a good, filling lunch.  The plan was to proceed from Lexington to Harpers Ferry.  Mr Pict and I are always finding ways to sneakily educate our kids and get them to philosophise and interrogate facts by stealth.  The kids had noted that it seemed a little peculiar that two Confederate leaders were so revered given that they had been not just on the losing side of the War but arguably on the wrong side of history morally and ethically.  We tried to explain that, yes, peculiar though it was, history is not always so black and white and people are far more complex than being “goodies” and “baddies”.  For instance, the Lee Chapel museum was clearly presenting an argument that Lee’s pragmatism in fighting for the Confederacy plus his good deeds after the War mitigated against his commanding the Confederate Army.  We, therefore, wanted to extend this learning to thinking about the Union side and their supporters so were keen to teach them all about John Brown and his raid at Harpers Ferry so they could contemplate the moral complexity from the other side of the War.  It was not meant to be, however, as the rain was absolutely lashing down as we set off on the next leg of our day’s activities.  We could barely see out of the windscreen in order to take in the view and, in fact, having to drive slowly for the conditions meant that we arrived at Harpers Ferry just as the National Park was closing.  Despite being Scottish and familiar with rain soaked summers, the kids point blank refused to get out of the car and do some walking in the rain.  Harpers Ferry was abandoned.

Mr Pict, however, did manage to find another Civil War site to visit.  He (suspiciously) always seems to have a Civil War plan up his sleeve.  Not too far away was Cedar Creek Battlefield.  This is a spot – and another National Park – set in the area around the Belle Grove Plantation and the site of a battle in 1864.  It was the culmination of several battles and, when the Union under Sheridan managed to repel the Confederates under Early, it effectively ended the Confederacy’s attempts to take the North and secured Washington DC against attack.  As thoroughly interesting as all of that was to Mr Pict, I could see nothing of interest in the site.  As he was busily reading me information from his phone’s Civil War app, all I could see was rain pelting against the windscreen.  We were also about to experience our own rebellion from the kids sitting behind us in the car so it was a case of quickly dashing out to grab Mr Pict his “I was here” Civil War site photograph and then back into the car and off again.


After a brief nostalgic tour of two of Mr Pict’s childhood homes, in Chevy Chase, we arrived at our Washington DC hotel in early evening.  It was in the North East area of the city, an area that we used to avoid visiting as much as possible.  We could see that the area was slowly gentrifying but the hotel was right on the border of nice and, shall we say, not so nice.  The hotel itself was very swish and we found ourselves thinking that even a year from now, when the area has completed its renovation, we probably would not be able to afford to stay there.  For now, however, it was a bargain for a Washington DC hotel room.  The boys loved that our room had one whole wall that was just a window overlooking the city, including a view of the Capitol’s white dome.  Looking downwards, we could also see people swimming in the hotel a dozen floors pool below.  That was where the younger Picts headed, the rain having finally stopped.  It was a restful and relaxing end to what had been another frustrating day of wasted time and thwarted opportunities.  After two bum days on the trot, we needed to get our acts together for Washington DC so we could end our road trip with a bang rather than a damp fizzle.




Gettysburg – Again

On the second day of our trip to the Harrisburg area, we took a jaunt to Gettysburg.  It seemed apt given the previous day’s visit to the National Civil War Museum but in all honesty we largely went because Mr Pict is a Civil War nerd and because the boys love galloping around the landscape of the battlefield.  This was our third family visit to Gettysburg since we arrived in America almost two years ago – Mr Pict’s fourth.  I would like each trip to be a little different so in addition to returning to some favourite areas we try to visit at least one new area each time.

On this particular trip the new area we added was the location where the battle actually began, around McPherson Ridge, not far from the Lutheran Seminary.  Mr Pict explained the lay of the land, the rationale behind the defensive positions and how the battle began.  He pointed out Chambersburg Pike was the place where the first shots of the battle were fired by a Union soldier named Marcellus Jones.  The boys were not much captivated by this chatter about strategy and topography and instead were far more interested in studying some ants who were covering a dried up earthworm.  Meanwhile, I went to look at the statuary in the area.  One was a statue of General Buford who had been the chap to recognise the importance of holding the high ground on that spot until reinforcements arrived; the other statue was of General Reynolds on horseback in the spot where he was shot and killed on the first day of the battle.


I like memorial statuary so, back in the car, I kept having my husband stop the car so that I could leap out and take a photo of one I had not seen before and wanted to go and study.  One such statue was of a man named John Burns, not a soldier but a citizen from the town of Gettysburg.  This 69 year old man decided to fight alongside a Pennsylvanian regiment, functioning as a sharpshooter.  When he was wounded for a third time, the retreating Union troops had to leave him behind on the field.  He cleverly got rid of his weapon and ammunition so that when he was discovered by Confederate soldiers he could convince them he was a noncombatant, a lie that saved his life.


Among my other new statues for the day were the North Carolina monument and the Longstreet statue.  The North Carolina monument was sculpted by Gutzon Borglum who was also responsible for the presidential heads of Mount Rushmore.  As might be expected, therefore, the faces were particularly skilfully rendered, expressive and evocative.  The figures are shown advancing as part of Pickett’s Charge.  According to an inscription nearby, a quarter of all of the casualties of the Battle of Gettysburg hailed from North Carolina.  The statue of James Longstreet is set among a grove of trees and depicts him on his horse Hero.  I love the movement of the horse.  It’s a really dynamic sculpture.  It is notable also for being a statue of a General placed at ground level rather than on a plinth.



I had driven past the State of Virginia Monument before but had never stopped to look at it.  This time I hopped out and had a good look.  It is a very tall and imposing monument at 41 feet.  It is topped by an equestrian statue of Robert E Lee.  Apparently the sculptor, Frederick Sievers, was so intent on getting Traveler the horse right that he studied horses who were the same height and build as Lee’s horse and even Traveler’s skeleton.  Virginia contributed more soldiers to the Confederate army at Gettysburg than any other state and these soldiers are represented at the base of the statue, different types of men and boys who constituted the army.


We happened upon a reenactment group as we were flitting around between monumental statues.  While one chap explained about the equipment the soldiers used and the things they had to carry, a troop – complete with drummers – marched around the field and then demonstrated firing their weapons.  Our 6 year old really enjoyed watching the reenactors but we did not stay for their entire performance because we were slowly melting in the midday sun.


Then it was time to go and visit the boys’ favourite spots: Little Round Top and Devil’s Den.  The great thing about both locations is that it is possible to visually comprehend how that stage of the battle unfolded, the strategies and logistics involved.  The best thing about both locations is that we can permit the boys to become free range.  They enjoyed roaming around, scurrying over the rocky terrain, leaping from boulder to boulder.  They gave three older men dressed in Union uniforms palpitations with their antics.  They particularly enjoyed Devil’s Den because of all of its little nooks and crannies, little caves they could hide in.  They also developed a kind of parkour, bounding and jumping and leaping between rocks, getting higher and higher.  It made me anxious to watch them.















After a visit to the spot where Alexander Gardner had staged his famous and controversial photograph of the Rebel Sharpshooter, we completed our tour of Gettysburg for the day.  I think next time we return – because a return is inevitable – we should spend some time in the actual town of Gettysburg.



*Note* You can see my previous blog posts about Gettysburg here and here.


Gettysburg with Grandparents

Yesterday we decided to take the Pict grandparents on a trip to Gettysburg.  This represented the second trip the kids and I have taken there since we emigrated to America in October and it was the third trip Mr Pict has taken there since September and at least the sixth trip he has taken there in total.  I think it is fair to say that Mr Pict is obsessed with Gettysburg.  He’s a Civil War geek generally but Gettysburg looms large in his geekiness in particular.  He was, therefore, keen to act as a guide to my parents and share with them the highlights of the battlefield site.

As well as being of particular significance to the way in which the battle unfolded, Little Round Top was an area the boys had especially enjoyed when we visited in April so it was to there that we headed first.   While Mr Pict explained the importance of Little Round Top to the Union’s victory to my parents, the boys scampered off and began leaping from rock to rock.  I have vertigo and also don’t like the thought of my kids smashing their little bodies off rocks so they were making me wig out quite a bit.  The youngest one, for all that his legs are short, was making daring leaps from boulder to boulder.  Meanwhile the middle two were standing on the edge of a precipice and leaning forward to see the slope below.  And all the while the oldest was balancing clumsily on one leg at a time.  Every last nerve in my body was being shredded.  Like Achilles safeguarding my heel, however, I do try to avoid letting my kids know that they are freaking me out lest they take that modicum of success and run with it in order to defeat me entirely.  I don’t need them challenging their strength, balance and even gravity just to determine my breaking point.  I, therefore, avoided even looking at them as much as possible when they were doing anything especially precarious, even turning my back at times, and any time my neurotic dam was in danger of being breached I would just herd them on to the next location where they could seek out new hazards.  Nevertheless they had a lot of fun while  – between Mr Pict and some docents in authentic costume – my parents were crammed full of knowledge about the defence of Little Round Top.

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Having done Little Round Top, it was only natural that we should proceed to Devil’s Den.  This time, however, my husband and children did not scramble through thorny thickets to get from A to B.  Instead we all took the car.  The large rock formations of Devil’s Den – which had provided such excellent cover for snipers – obviously enticed my mountain goat children to leap and bound and scale and scramble once more.  And once more I had to turn my back as they stood on the edge of sheer drops and crawled up steep slopes of rock.  Ironically the only injury happened when my 5 year old – who had just ascended a boulder with a pretty challenging gradient and had then leapt across a gulley between boulders – tripped over nothing on a flat-as-a-pancake footpath.  Among other things, we found the scene of Alexander Gardner’s now controversial photograph known as ‘Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter’.  Since I have an interest in the history of photography and my own interest in the Civil War is mainly to do with photography, that was one of the major highlights of the trip for me.

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After a quick nip around the Visitors’ Centre to use the bathroom facilities and absorb the air conditioning, we headed out to walk to the National Cemetery.  On my previous two excursions to Gettysburg, I had never made it to the Cemetery so I was determined to go this third time.  This was partly because I just happen to like cemeteries but mostly because it was at the dedication of the cemetery that Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address.  All eight of us started off on the trek to the Cemetery but my Mum decided to pause and rest up near the memorial to Maryland’s soldiers.  Mr Pict and the boys made it as far as the Cemetery but then decided to pootle around on the grass.  Therefore, only my Dad and I actually ventured far enough into the cemetery to see the monument that was the site for Lincoln’s profoundly moving and eloquent speech.


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The final leg of our Gettysburg tour was a quick stop off at the Pennsylvania Monument.  Mr Pict, Grandpa Pict and the 5 year old did ascend to the top.  I not only don’t like heights but I don’t like confined spaces either so the narrow, enclosed staircase wigged me out enough that I could not compel myself to go to the top even to capture some great views on camera.  Maybe next time.  Because being married to a Gettysburg geek means that it is inevitable that there will be a next time.

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Spring Break Day 8 – Gettysburg

We packed up the holiday house in a jiffy in order to head off as early as possible and squeeze another fun day out of our holiday.  My in-laws had arranged to have lunch with friends in Aberdeen so we Picts went on an adventure to Gettysburg.  This was entirely apt because it was last year’s 150th anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg that ultimately led to our relocation from Scotland to America.  Mr Pict is a total Civil War geek and had this idea two summers ago that we could vacation in the US so that he could be at Gettysburg on the 150th anniversary of the battle.  We were just mulling that over when, two weeks later, he casually mentioned late at night that instead of just going on holiday there maybe we could investigate moving to America.  So that was how the seed was sewn: the history of a bloody battle.

My husband decided to take us on tour of the highlights.  He had come by himself before we arrived in the US so that he could indulge in several hours of touring around the vast site using a phone app as his guide.  The only time I have been before was in 1995 and it is very different now with an impressive visitors’ centre and locations much more clearly demarcated.  We went to the visitors’ centre first to use the conveniences after our journey from Virginia.  Mr Pict bought pretzels as K rations for the kids and the boys also bought some things in the shop: the 8 year old bought a cuddly Lincoln and the 7 year old bought a poster showing Union Generals on one side and Confederate Generals on the other.  We also grabbed a photo opportunity with a bronze statue of Lincoln before heading back to the car to start the tour of Mr Pict’s highlights.




First stop was the Longstreet Observation Tower.  This involved ascending seven flights of metal stairs.  I suffer from vertigo but I also have a recurring nightmare about a child falling – usually one of my own – and I always wake up at the point of impact.  My other recurring dream – which I have had since I was 4 – is about a T Rex stalking me.  That dinosaur turns up in all sorts of dreams.  He was once scary but now he is just a pest.  Anyway, as my boys charged up the pretty open staircase, my anxiety levels spiked.  I felt quite wobbly.  It was all probably just about maybe worth it, however, as the Tower afforded us a good view over the terrain which helped what Mr Pict was saying about tactics and strategy make sense.  We could see and appreciate the significance of Little Round Top in that geographical context.  And in the other direction we could see Eisenhower’s farm which was a little history bonus.





We then drove over Big Round Top to get to Little Round Top.  We saw monuments to the Maine, New York and Pennsylvania regiments.  The boys loved clambering over the boulders between bouts of actually listening to their Dad explaining how the battle unfolded.  I meanwhile pottered around taking photos (of course!) of such things as the statue of Gouverneur K Warren, who had prompted the defence of Little Round Top, overlooking the landscape and reading poignant stories on the interpretive boards.  It was not actually very difficult to imagine the terrible noise and bloody carnage of the battle.







Mr Pict and three of the boys then walked from Little Round Top, descending through the scrub, to meet the 8 year old and me (who brought the car around) at Devil’s Den, doing a reverse of confederate troop movements.  The boys thoroughly enjoyed playing on the large rocks and among the crevices at Devil’s Den.







There are monuments galore all over the place at Gettysburg – well over a thousand of them.  Some are plain with a focus just on the words but others are more elaborate and some are quite intriguing.  Scattered across site as they are, they also serve to emphasise the scale of the battlefield and the huge number of casualties, the largest of any Civil War battle.  I must explore them more some time when we return and I also want to go to the Cemetery as it was at its dedication that Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address which I think is the most perfect speech ever written.

Spring Break Day 7 – Manassas

After brunch at the Silver Diner, Mr Pict and I, along with my Father-In-Law, took our two youngest sons to the battlefield at Manassas.  Amazingly the kids managed to sit through the 45 minute introductory film which told the story of the two battles that took place at Manassas.  The stylistics were very much borrowed from Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary and the production values were certainly better than the film we watched at the Shiloh battlefield in 2002.  Mr Pict was absorbed in all the military history elements, watching the tactics unfold on screen, whereas my only way of engaging in the Civil War is through the social history or the human elements so for me the key parts of the story were the poignant death of Judith Henry and the African-American driver of the gloriously named Fannie Ricketts being taken as contraband and probably sold into slavery.

We walked the battlefield according to the tour along the sites of the first battle of Manassas.  It took us past the building rebuilt on the site of the Henry House and the grave of Judith Henry.  The family of the elderly Mrs Henry had tried to remove her to a safer position during the battle but she ordered them to return her to her home.  Caught in the crossfire, a shell crashed into the house and mortally injured the 85 year old woman. 





There were cannon scattered across the field to mark the positions of artillery during the battle.  We saw the foundations of the Robinson house which had somehow managed to survive both battles unscathed. Manassas was where Stonewall Jackson earned that sobriquet.  The nickname was coined by Barnard Bee whose place of death is marked by a commemorative stone on the battlefield.  Adjacent to it is a modern statue of Stonewall Jackson on horseback.  The statue is comical in its absurdity as it is of a muscular horse and a disconcertingly curvaceous Jackson who is sitting astride the body-building beast in what my 7 year old astutely described as a “Superman pose”.  He is now obsessed with Stonewall Jackson.










 Mr Pict enjoyed being a Civil War nerd in the shop with all the old male docents who are Civil War buffs.  We bought a National Parks passport for the kids to get stamped as we travel around the US and received the first two stamps at the main visitor centre.  We knew we could not pick up the stamp at the Stone House as it is only open at weekends but we then trekked to Brawner’s Farm to get another stamp only to find it too was closed.  Despite their tender ages, our two small Picts really got absorbed in the Civil War while wandering around the battlefield.  My husband may have found his acolyte in our 7 year old who has decided he is Daddy’s “Battlefield Buddy”.