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.

Reading World War II Weekend

Followers of this blog will know that both Mr Pict and I have a keen interest in history.  Mr Pict, however, is really into military history which is not really my bag unless it intersects with family history or social history.  My husband is very much an American Civil War nerd but his next favourite period of military history is the Second World War.  He was, therefore, really keen to go along to an event in Reading that focused on that particular conflict and, since I like to go on jaunts and have new experiences, I decided to accompany him and our youngest son.


It’s a massive event.  It takes place over a whole weekend, though we only went for a day, and covers a huge area.  We were absolutely staggered by the number of people who were in attendance.  There were umpteen parking lots to accommodate all of the visitors’ cars and multiple school buses taxiing people from those lots to the actual airfield that was hosting the event.  That place absorbed a heck of a lot of people without it ever feeling ridiculously crowded – though there were exceedingly long lines for portaloos – and I was impressed with how organised the staff were at keeping people flowing.


Given it was being accommodated at an airfield, the event was especially focused on the airshow element and there were vintage planes galore.  I know nothing about planes and even less than that about vintage planes but Mr Pict was excited.  We had a gander at a lot of planes that were being exhibited at ground level, watched a reenactment of a dog fight, and watched planes doing aerial stunts.  The highlight of my husband’s day was seeing a Mitsubishi Zero, which apparently was the fastest propellor plane (if I was paying attention to what I was told).









The other thing there were a lot of were reenactors.  For obvious reasons, the majority of people chose to depict American military personnel but there were also some Brits, a smattering of Poles, some Japanese pilots, a smattering of Russians, and a surprising number of Germans.  I observed that the latter had by far the most immaculate uniforms and best posture.  The reenactors were really into the details too and I enjoyed looking at all of the vignettes they had created in their camps and the still lifes of vintage objects they had curated.  I guess I like those little human details and the creativity because, goodness knows, the vehicles, weapons, and military paraphernalia don’t do it for me.










There was a fun Home Front section housed in one of the hangars.  Part had been turned into a movie theatre that was showing old newsreels and cartoons.  We didn’t catch any of those but we did sit in some shade to take in one of the radio show performances which happened to be a couple of singers.  There was also the recreation of a 1940s American sitting room, a group who were putting women’s hair up into “victory rolls”, and a candy store.  From the latter, we bought a fresh lemon that had a lemon candy straw poked into it.  It was deliciously refreshing.






We watched a reenactment of a skirmish between the Germans and the Allies in a French village.  I was amused by the incongruity of a bunch of blokes in German military uniforms standing around and chatting in front of a fleet of yellow school buses.  When they got going, however, the action was very well choreographed and the volume of the artillery noise was pretty arresting.  I could feel the vibrations in my sternum.  The smoke and noise and crowds was a bit too much sensory overload for our ten year old so we skedaddled from there to the flea market section where a bit of retail therapy (even in the form of “window shopping”) got him recalibrated.



We somehow managed to spend four hours there despite the fact we were getting toasted by the blazing sunshine and the fact that 2/3 of us were not that engrossed by the subject.  I thought the whole event was very polished and there was clearly a lot to do and engage with if World War II history is your thing so it was definitely worth doing.  It was an enjoyable day out and I was glad I tagged along.  I don’t have a need to repeat the experience but I can definitely envisage my husband making a return visit.


Air Mobility Command Museum

We decided to use the time over Thanksgiving break for a spontaneous family trip.  We found a cheap as chips hotel room in Ocean City, Maryland – because really not many people are clamoring to hang out at the coast in late November – which determined our trajectory.  We, therefore, spent the Friday following Thanksgiving moseying down the Delaware Coast.

Our first stop of the trip was at the Air Mobility Command Museum in Dover, Delaware.  Located next to Dover Air Force Base, it proved to be a vast showroom (split between a hangar and an airfield) of military aircraft.  Now, I am not someone who is into military history or militaria and nor am I interested in vehicles so this blog post is not going to be replete with technical information.  I honestly don’t think I can recall what the majority of the aircraft were even called even though I asked Mr Pict to refresh my memory yesterday.  This will, therefore, be a more impressionistic account of the time we spent there.  I will state, however, that despite my lack of knowledge or enthusiasm for the subject, I thought the Museum itself was really excellent.  The variety of military aircraft was impressive, of course, but there was also ample information accompanying each exhibit, there was space to move around each plane, helicopter and glider, and they were not so reverential that they prevented visitors accessing all the planes.  This latter point was somewhat critical for the success of our visit since my kids tend to baulk at visiting plane and train museums that take a “look but don’t touch” attitude.  And I have not mentioned that access to the Museum is entirely free.  We gave a donation but there was no pressure to do so.


We started in the hangar and I was able to hook the boys’ interest right away.  There was a glider on display, one side of which had been removed to reveal that it contained some sort of military road vehicle as its cargo.  The kids found this sort of aircraft autopsy interesting.  We also learned that these gliders became rather sought after following the Second World War not because of the gliders themselves but because of the crates they were shipped in.  People would build houses from the disassembled crates.


War II plane.  They knew about ball turret gunners and their perilous placement on war planes but seeing one up close actually drove home the vulnerability of the poor gunner.  They were even able to peer inside and see how terribly cramped the space was.  A separate replica demonstrated, through use of a dummy, how the gunner would have been positioned inside the ball turret, tucked up like a fetus in a mechanical womb.  It made me vividly recollect Randall Jarrell’s poem ‘The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner’ and I felt very squeamish just thinking about the intense claustrophobia let alone the imminent danger.


We saw simulators and training aircraft, mid-air refuelling vehicles, fighter jets, and helicopters – including a Huey which even I could identify – and a machine for making dog tags, which was somehow both fascinating and poignant.  The boys especially enjoyed the airfield exhibits, however, because they had space to roam and even run.  Best of all, however, was the fact that several of the aircraft were open to visitors meaning they could actually clamber aboard and experience the interior of the planes.  Having seen the troop seating with all the webbing on the interior walls in movies and documentaries, it was interesting to be able to experience something of its discomfort for ourselves.  It was also interesting to see how cargo would be stacked up inside planes and to learn about the incredible capacity of some planes, including one that could fit several fully assembled Hueys.  A tour guide demonstrated how strips in the floor could be flipped so that regular passenger seating could be clipped into place.  The boys also got to clamber around inside a Hercules (see: I know the name of that one) and sit in the cockpit.













Military museums always have to go a long way to win me over because, as stated above, I really have pretty much no interest in the subject of military history.  As I possess only very general knowledge of military transport, I admit to having had low expectations of this one.  But win me over it did.  It was accessible, provided information that worked as an “idiot’s guide” for the uninformed (me), spacious enough that we never remotely felt harassed or harried by the presence of others, offered variety, and allowed the kids to actually engage with what they were looking at.  It was a really good museum and was a great start to our trip.


World War 2 at Graeme Park

This past weekend we visited a World War 2 history festival at Graeme Park.  The park is a historic site in Horsham, to the north of Philadelphia and, therefore, not too far from where we live.  It was the summer residence of Sir William Keith, an 18th Century Governor of Pennsylvania and Delaware.  While the mansion is still called Keith House, the park is named for the next generation of residents to live there.  Our visit, however, was not about the eighteenth century but was all about the Second World War.  We will have to return some other time to learn the history of the property and park.


Mr Pict and I are history fanatics and we, therefore, grab every opportunity we can to engage the children in history.  Military history is not especially my thing but I accept that most history events and festivals will be dominated by major conflicts from across the centuries.  Indeed, the Chalke Valley History Festival that we attended last year on our trip back to the UK was themed around different periods of military history with some social history tacked on for good measure.

First up was a small aeroplane, minus its tail and wings, that the kids were permitted to climb inside.  They enjoyed taking turns pretending to be pilots.  Then we arrived at some stalls where genuine artifacts and memorabilia were being sold alongside replicas and war themed toys.  The kids always enjoy things like flea markets, boot fairs, and jumble sails so they had a great time rooting around.  Mr Pict and I were amused to see that toys from our childhoods, such as little plastic soldier figures and Action Men (GI Joes in the US) were being sold as “vintage”.  My oldest son and I also had a wee tour of some military vehicles and classic cars from the 1940s.  He chose a cream Chrysler as his favourite whereas I liked a sapphire blue Lincoln best.




Then it was time to watch a reenactment of American infantry troops moving across a field towards SS and Wehrmacht troops who were occupying a farm house and adjacent land.  It was interesting to watch the maneuvres and the strategic use of the limited land forms but I think the kids would have engaged more had there been an MC commentating and explaining what was happening.  They did like all the gunfire and explosions, however, and liked trying to predict which soldiers were going to “die” next.


Next up was an Abbot and Costello tribute act.  I grew up watching Abbot and Costello movies so I introduced my boys to them a few years ago.  They love the movies that crossover with the Universal monsters.  The tribute duo were skilled impersonators and were great at the rat-a-tat-tat high speed repartee but, as you might expect, the jokes were a bit dated for the kids to always “get” the punch line.  They did enjoy the puns, however, and my oldest found an elaborate, extended pun about a baseball game amusing.


We then wandered around the encampment while the boys munched on pretzels (of course, because we cannot go on any outing without them consuming pretzels).  We saw reenacters depicting woodland defences and firing from foxholes, a few more military vehicles, and “soldiers” sitting outside their tents to eat their lunches.  We also did some dancing to Glen Miller music.







After all the formal activities, we let the boys spend some time climbing some large fallen trees.  They always love scrabbling around on trees and this one had some great long branches for them to balance on plus a little “cave” formed by its exposed root system.  We also found a Canadian Tiger Swallowtail.  I assume it was injured in some way as it did not fly off when we approached it and even allowed the kids to gently handle it.  We moved it to a more secluded spot so that it could hopefully recover and then fly off.  Then, on the walk back to the car, the kid and I encountered a few snakes.  Most slithered a speedy retreat but one large Eastern Gartersnake stayed on the spot which enabled us to get up close and study it.  It soon became apparent that it too had been injured, probably by a car, so I picked it up and moved it to a grassy spot, safely away from tires.  It thanked me with a farewell hiss.








Valley Forge

Given the area around Philadelphia is a veritable feast of Revolutionary era history and sites, we have done a feeble amount of exploring of this era of America’s past.  We had fun visiting the Constitution Center almost a year ago and not so much fun watching a reenactment of Washington’s crossing of the Delaware in December.  We could also argue that we had done some War of Independence learning at Fort Mifflin except that the theme of the day was not that conflict but was instead all about pirates.  Spring Break, therefore, presented us with an opportunity to get out and visit another Revolutionary era site.  Off we marched to Valley Forge.

Valley Forge was where the Continental Army wintered over 1777-78.  It was easy to see why the spot had been chosen.  Obviously it was close to Philadelphia so logistically it was a good choice.  Topographically, however, the spot provided great vantage points over the surrounding land which I am sure was useful tactically, making it easier to spot the British approach and easier to defend, and also gave the troops access to important natural resources such as water and timber.  Those advantages did not prevent thousands of soldiers dying from disease, exposure and malnutrition, however.


My kids were in one of their obtuse moods where they refuse to learn anything directly.  We, therefore, had a quick nip into the lovely visitors centre only long enough to get our National Parks passport stamped and for the adults to dash around some of the exhibits while the kids whinged.  Time to learn through the soles of our feet.

First up we visited a reconstructed redoubt (a temporary fortification) which the kids enjoyed running around on.  There was also a nearby canon for them to study and, yes, climb on.  Then we visited some nearby log huts.  These are on the site of where the troops of General Peter Muhlenberg set up camp and each hut appears to demonstrate a different stage of completion, to illustrate how the soliders would have constructed them.  The boys had a whale of a time playing make believe inside the huts, around the open fire pit, and the bake oven.








We then wound our way past a statue dedicated to General “Mad” Antony Wayne and arrived at the National Memorial Arch.  This imposing arch, echoing the Arch of Titus in Rome, dominates the surrounding landscape in its scale and design.  I went to have a closer look at it with my youngest two boys who especially loved the gargoylish faces carved into its columns.




We then headed town towards the train station and the Schuylkill River to see the collection of buildings that would have stood on the site at the time of the encampment.  While the boys played in and out of more log huts and paddled in a bubbling stream and Mr Pict took a phone call, I headed off to explore the buildings.  One outbuilding was used to explain the history of the forge that lends its name to the area but the most significant building on the site was the Isaac Potts house.  This house was rented by Washington during his winter stay and served as his headquarters.  It was open to visitors so I entered and had a wander.  The modest rooms had been recreated to resemble what they would have looked like in 1777.  It looked a bit cramped from my modern viewpoint but must have been a darn sight more comfortable than the living conditions of the poor soldiers, barefoot, starving, and diseased, crammed into the log huts.






Valley Forge is a vast site with lots of interesting areas to explore and trails to wander.  One such trail apparently leads past the remains of the original iron forge.  While we had to curtail our day trip, we will definitely return to Valley Forge again.



Pirate Day at Fort Mifflin

Knowing that the next few weeks are going to be a slog because of moving house and the kids returning to school, we decided to dedicate yesterday to being a fun family day out.  Fort Mifflin was a place a few people had recommended to us and they happened to be throwing a pirate day so that seemed like a good option to pursue.  Two of our kids even got into the spirit of things by dressing up as pirates for the day.


Fort Mifflin is sited on an area of land named Mud Island.  Originally called Fort Island Battery, it was built in the 1770s on the Delaware River.  Nowadays that places it right next door to Philadelphia Airport so that large aircraft skim over the top of the Fort and there is a constant thundering, rumbling noise from all the take-offs and landings.  During the War of Independence, the British had bombarded Fort Mifflin following their conquest of Philadelphia – which was then the nation’s capital.  Following Independence, the American Army took over the fort and rebuilt it and it remained a military possession until the middle of the twentieth century when it was handed over to be a historic site.  Something that appealed to Mr Pict about the site was that it had housed prisoners during the Civil War.  However, the only time the Fort was ever involved in any sort of conflict was when it was besieged in 1777.  The American troops, far outnumbered by the British, managed to hold the fort for long enough for the Continental Army to reposition themselves.  I am not confident enough in my knowledge of military history to declare whether that was significant to the ultimate victory of the Americans over the British but clearly that was the most important episode in Fort Mifflin’s own history.

Another famous episode in Fort Mifflin’s history concerns the imprisonment of William Howe.  He was a Union soldier accused of desertion and murder during the Civil War.  While incarcerated at Fort Mifflin, Howe organised the escape of over 200 fellow prisoners.  He failed.  After spells in solitary confinement and at Eastern State Penitentiary, Howe was transferred back to the Fort in order be executed.  People actually paid for tickets to watch him be hanged.

But where are the pirates in this history of the Fort?  Hmmmm.  Well I suppose very vaguely it can be argued that the Fort was built at the confluence of the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers because it was an important trade route that needed to be protected and that, therefore, it might well have had to defend against pirate attacks.  Really though I think it is just a fun event for kids because really what kid (or adult) doesn’t love pirates?

We arrived just in time to watch some reenactors dressed as redcoats and militia men have a battle with some pirates.  The boys enjoyed watching all the skirmishes complete with loud explosions from smoking muskets.  Afterwards we chatted with some of the people portraying the soldiers and it turned out that two of the young men were from Nottingham in England.  One now lives locally and the other was on a two week vacation to visit his friend so had been enlisted to fight for the British and defend the fort.  Their kit was pretty serious and many of them were very immersed in the history, rattling off facts about American military history in great detail.  Mr Pict was in his element.  I rather suspect that if he ever has the time to do so, he might get involved in either a reenactment group or as a docent at some historical site.

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The kids loved exploring all of the tunnels that run into and under the Fort’s incredibly thick stone walls.  Some of the tunnels were fairly large and opened up into rooms that functioned as either stores or casemates.  Other tunnels were narrow and shallow and were for storing explosives.  The boys especially enjoyed the really dark tunnels, especially if we didn’t switch the torches on and were immersed in complete pitch darkness.  We also walked the fort’s walls to get better views of the layout of the various buildings within the walls and also views of the river, which was very busy with cargo ships, and across to New Jersey.  The kids were also able to participate in a lesson on throwing mortars by chucking water balloons at a plastic box representing a defensive position, thus learning that it was more effective to throw over the wall than at it.  We also spent some time in the pirate’s lair listening to them performing sea shanties, one of which was set to the same tune as the traditional Scottish folk song ‘Ye Jacobites by name’.

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The kids had been given a Scavenger hunt sheet to complete.  It listed items that could be found either on soldiers or on pirates and, once identified, the person who possessed each item had to sign the sheet.  All very official for pirates!  This was a great idea as it not only got the kids involved in looking at the detail of the costumes and equipment but also led us into chats with the knowledgeable people portraying the historical characters.  The pirates proved to be very hospitable, inviting us into their den and giving us a tour of their weapons and equipment.  The pirate captain even tried to recruit our youngest son as a crew member.  We also discovered that one of the pirates was originally from Glasgow and he was delighted to have a conversation with a fellow Scot.  Once the list was completed, we popped into the site shop where the kids were each rewarded with a miniature Fort Mifflin flag, which had originally been the flag of the Continental Navy, its thirteen red, white and blue stripes representing the original American colonies.  The kids were delighted with their prizes.

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Therefore, despite the fact that pirates only have a very tangential relationship to the history of the fort, just a sliver of relevance, the kids actually absorbed a lot of learning and new vocabulary without even realising they were doing anything but have fun.  And they always rooted for the pirates.