Favorite RevWar site (battlefield, home, museum, etc.) to visit today? Why?
My favorite site is Yorktown. There’s enough still there to give you a sense of stepping back in time. You can see the French ships in the bay. Second is Bunker Hill. That takes more imagination but it’s still worth a visit.
I want to say Kettle Creek, Georgia, because I have published so much on it from 1974 to the present but the truth is that I like Ninety Six, South Carolina better. It is perfectly laid out as to give you the feeling that the fighting there ended last month not more than two centuries ago. It is one of the rare places where history and legend occupy the same ground.
Kettle Creek is like that too but has nothing from the war that lets you feel the past. I get the same “Ninety Six” type feeling at the Revolutionary War church and earthworks at Ebenezer, Georgia and at Fort Ticonderoga.
Fields Point Boat Ramp, Colleton County, S.C., at the end of a dirt road off County Road 161, about a half-mile south of Wiggins, on the Combahee River. This is the closest the public can get by car to Tar Bluff. There, on Aug. 27, 1782, Col. John Laurens and 50 men either charged into or were ambushed by a larger British force. Many thought Laurens had a death wish, and his wish was fulfilled. He was Hamilton’s closest friend, son of a ex-president of Congress, and a former Washington aide. His death shook both rebels and loyalists, the loyalists because of his moderation toward them. Washington put it this way: “In a word, he had not a fault that I ever could discover, unless intrepidity bordering upon rashness could come under that denomination…”
This is a split between Brandywine Battlefield and Princeton Battlefield. Both are extremely well kept and, except for a few streets and buildings, the battlefields remain relatively pristine. They aren’t huge forts either, basically they’re just large swaths of high grass. If you didn’t know about its significance you might drive right by them. But that is partly what makes them so special. It demonstrates to us that the most extraordinary events can happen basically anywhere.
This is a tough choice since there are so many outstanding sites. I’m going to go with Valley Forge based on the experience of my first visit there. When I arrived it was near dusk and in December. The park was empty because it was late in the day and very cold and windy. Walking around the recreated soldiers’ huts in those conditions really gave me a feel for the bleak conditions the Continentals experienced that winter.
Valley Forge. Not only is it a beautiful and historic site, it has some great museums. And other important and interesting historic sites are little more than a stones throw away.
My favorite RevWar site to visit is Fraunces Tavern. Just approaching the building, I can’t help but sense the presence of the officers that gathered there in December, 1783, to bid farewell to General Washington. Their feelings must have been electric, triumphantly entering New York City after 7 years, the war over, and American independence finally sealed. Their farewell to Washington was a powerfull, emotional event. The images help remind me of the ultimate humanity of all of the participants of the Revolution.
There can be only one real contender – Yorktown, Virginia. Its importance to the War of Independence is unquestionable. Indeed, without Yorktown, most other Revolutionary war sites, including Independence Hall, would long have passed into obscurity. The preservation at Yorktown ensures that nobody can visit the site without being able to picture the siege as it unfolded. Yorktown is also an exemplary instance of good combined-arms operations and a vital reminder of the importance of the French army and navy to American independence. Finally, Yorktown is situated at a spectacularly beautiful location a few miles upriver from the Chesapeake Bay – what more do you need?
Exciting things are happening at Valley Forge National Historical Park, often called the “Birthplace of the American Army.” The 1777-78 Valley Forge encampment is well known for General Washington, hungry soldiers in tattered clothing, and demonstrated fortitude and determination. But this summer there are also storytelling benches in the park, an archaeological dig, daily ranger led walks, talks each day about General Washington’s leadership, and costumed interpreters and park rangers at Washington’s headquarters and the reconstructed soldiers’ huts. There are special activities just for kids, too: the Junior Ranger program, “Secrets and Spies,” military drills, and discovery stations. Explore the park’s 3,600 acres on foot, in your car, by rented bike (or bring your own), or trolley. Carillon concerts, an art gallery, bird walks, and an outstanding book store are also yours to enjoy. Most activities are free. Click on the park website for more information: www.nps.gov/vafo
The Saratoga Battlefield, about 30 miles north of Albany, NY has to rank as a favorite to anyone who has visited. The highly informative visitor center affords a three dimensional map of the two principal battles showing animation as to how the battles developed, were fought and resolved. The so-called “battlefield” is really a large piece of land with forests, creeks, ravines and meadows, left basically intact since 1777. Redoubts, fortifications and other points of interest are well-posted and opposing lines are shown by colored stakes. The road system, together with a self-guided tour via a CD bought at the visitor center, provides an informative and scenic route that helps the visitor understand the conflict. At each site, a small parking lot enables the visitor to get out and explore the locations. At certain spots, the high ground affords spectacular views. What makes this site so extraordinary is that a visitor is experiencing the same topography, woodland and vegetation that the Americans and British did. While modern roads pass over the several ravines, a visitor can experience how difficult it must have been to move the artillery. One can easily see how and why the commanders selected their encampments and defensive grounds and how the area contributed to tactical decisions. The surrounding areas also afford opportunities to follow Burgoyne’s march to Saratoga and visit the ancillary battlefields of Hubbardton and Bennington and the scene of surrender.
I choose the Powder House in Somerville, Massachusetts, because it’s right across the street from Tufts University and therefore a great place for an outdoor lecture. On September 1, 1774, General Thomas Gage sent 260 men to seize the province’s gunpowder from this place of storage. Although the redcoats encountered no resistance, a rumor began that the soldiers had killed some colonists. The next day, thousands gathered at Cambridge Common, leaving their firearms outside of town but pointedly carrying sticks. They chased a customs officer back to Boston, and another rumor spread: Gage had sent another expedition into the countryside. As T. H. Breen illustrates, thousands of armed men now began mobilizing all over New England and marching toward Boston, before the truth turned them back around. I like using this site to demonstrate that a small incident exploded into the dress rehearsal for Lexington and Concord. Read more.
After the fall of Ft. Ticonderoga in 1777, the American rear guard and assorted wounded and stragglers fought a battle with the advance elements of British invasion forces on a grassy knoll beneath the Green Mountains in Hubbarton, Vermont. The undeveloped, compact battlefield site appears how it did in the Revolution and consists of series of locations of small unit engagements. Visitors easily envision how the topography impacted the battle outcome by funneling combatants into compact open spaces among the hills leading to heavy casualties on both sides.
The State of Vermont maintains an easy to follow interpretive trail that provides a realistic sense of how the battle unfolded and what it was like to be a soldier in this short, but intensively bloody battle. There is also a small, well-managed visitors center to aid in understanding the battle site and the costly British victory.
If limited to choosing only one site, it would be Mount Vernon. For one thing, George Washington seemed to have a hand in almost everything that occurred in America from 1753 until his death in 1799. In addition, he was a farmer, a pursuit that is alien to most of us today. Mount Vernon includes an informative museum, a functioning distillery and mill, farm land, animals, gardens, and of course the mansion, which opens a window onto the life of a wealthy Virginia planter. Those who lived there as slaves are not overlooked and slavery at Mount Vernon is not whitewashed. Nearly a full day is required to take in everything and at day’s end a visitor who comes without much understanding of the man and his time will leave having received a decent and illuminating introduction to Washington and eighteenth century life and culture.
Valley Forge National Historic Park. There’s something for everyone there. The museum is great. The soldiers’ huts and Washington’s headquarters are neat to see, too. The park is big but walkable, and you can even tour by trolley. A day at Valley Forge not only brings to life the most critical period for the Continental Army. It also puts on display the sacrifices and struggles of a diverse group of common soldiers. The site gives you a real appreciation for what the Revolution was about.
The marker commemorating Christopher Seider’s tomb in Boston’s Old Granary Burying-Ground misstates his name and age. It dates from the early 1900s, and the tomb where that boy’s body was laid is probably long gone. I wouldn’t even call that site my “favorite” to visit. But whenever I pass, I feel compelled to look over with respect. Young Christopher Seider was the first person to die in violence arising from the political disputes that led to the Revolutionary War, and his death was also my entry point into Revolutionary research.
There are so many rich RevWar sites scattered throughout the East Coast and in the Midwest. My personal favorite, however, would have to be the largely-preserved Battle Road northwest of Boston, Massachusetts. For anyone who wanted to really get the flavor of the Lexington and Concord conflicts, one cannot do much better than to trek this trail. From Lexington Green to Concord’s Old North Bridge, its like a time travel trip back to the days of the opening shots of the Revolutionary War.
While it is hard to beat the Lexington green on an April morning, I believe an underrated site is the Jacob Ford Mansion, in Morristown, New Jersey, where Washington and his staff kept their headquarters during the brutal winter of 1779-1780. The spacious building has been restored as it was when it served as the headquarters building, complete with hammocks for Hamilton and other young aides. And there are good tours, with a variety of quality reenactments as part of the tours.
Tucked away in the Midwest, I haven’t visited most of the sites on my bucket list yet. I loved my Rev War sightseeing in Boston and Charleston with my favorite stops being the Old State House (Boston), Buckman Tavern and the Hancock-Clarke House (Lexington, MA). The Corps of Discovery group tours by Southern Campaigns of the America Revolution helped me experience many Rev War sites around Charleston, South Carolina, in one weekend. Outside of Boston and Charleston, Mount Vernon, Fraunces Tavern, the Hale Byrnes House and Colonial Williamsburg have been highlights. And I’m looking forward to a September trip to Fort Ticonderoga.
Saratoga Battlefield in New York. It’s large, and gives you a good feel of the battle.
Boston’s Freedom Trail. The Freedom Trail spans 2.5 miles and contains 16 historic sites, nearly all of which played a role in revolutionary events between 1765 and 1776. I credit the Freedom Trail with igniting my passion for the American Revolution and its War for Independence. My parents made the Trail a part of my life at a young age. Although there are many great sites on the trail, my favorite is the Bunker Hill Monument. I spent five summers giving Bunker Hill battle talks for the National Park Service. I also learned to shoot my first musket at the site. My second favorite site is the Granary Burying Ground. This powerful site contains the remains of Paul Revere, Robert Treat Paine, Samuel Adams, John Hancock, and James Otis, among others.
This was the most difficult of this set of questions. Whom could deny the importance of the Old South Meeting House, Lexington Green, or St. John’s Church in Richmond? I’d cast a vote for any of them. But my favorite site is the small monument in Saratoga National Historic Park that honors the leg of Benedict Arnold. It reminds us all that the American Revolution was a messy, complicated affair, one in which our greatest hero–the man without whom Burgoyne would not have been defeated, certainly according to no less than Burgoyne himself–would become a byword for enemy and traitor. That very small site makes us all ask a very big question: why? Why would arguably patriots’ best field commander choose to forsake his country? Money? Principle? The questions themselves deserves to be regularly asked for us to better understand the moment, the conflict, and ourselves. That’s my kind of place.
[FEATURED IMAGE AT TOP: Old Powder House, Somerville, MA, stored explosive gunpowder. Source: Wikimedia Commons]