In my last article, I talked about cities that have U.S. history lessons around every corner. Now let’s look at some of the great parks, homes, and museums that can teach your kids about three great periods in America’s history.
1. Colonial America and the War for Independence
You must take your kids to Jamestown, Williamsburg, and Yorktown on the east coast of Virginia. Jamestown is where America began in 1607. The National Park Service runs this site as well as that of Yorktown, and it does a remarkable job. At Jamestown, you can see replicas of the ships that brought the colonists to Virginia, and learn how they lived in their fort.
Re-enactors stage demonstrations of everyday life, and soldiers in armor and helmets fire antique muskets (far different from the firearms Americans later used in the Revolutionary or Civil Wars).
Further down the road is Williamsburg (not part of the National Park Service). I have taken groups of junior high students here as well as my own family, and each time it was wonderful. You can just wander the streets without buying tickets, but if you really want to experience life in the 1700s, you really should buy tickets to enter the governor’s mansion, the capitol building, and the armory (where all the muskets are kept). You can also enter several stores where re-enactors show you how blacksmiths worked, or how apothecary shops used homemade drugs to cure whatever ails you. (My kids were fascinated with all this!) Bruton Parish church, where Thomas Jefferson and George Washington worshiped, is amazing also.
And then there is Yorktown. The National Park Service does a wonderful job in preserving this field where George Washington’s Continental Army and his French allies forced the surrender of the British army, thus effectively ending our War for Independence in 1781. This is another place where re-enactors demonstrate how to load and fire the cannons and muskets of that day, and also explain military tactics (“why did they all stand up in straight lines?”).
Another terrific place that teaches everyone about life in colonial America is “Plimoth Plantation.” Yes I know that the modern spelling is “Plymouth.” However, at the time of the Pilgrims, they spelled it this “odd” way. Anyway, if you go to this living history community in Massachusetts, you will be greeted by the townsfolk of a real Pilgrim town in the 1620s! The actors are serious — they do NOT break character. Everything they tell you, whether about religion, art, craftsmanship, the opinions about the Indians, is exactly how the people of that time period would have talked to you. It’s quite an experience, and kids will love it.
Mount Vernon is not part of the National Park Service, and it’s really not a “park.” It was the home of George Washington, of course. It’s just a short drive south of D.C. — you can’t visit our nation’s capital without going here. It is serene and respectful. You can’t help but feel the incredible presence of one of our greatest patriots and the father of our country as you walk the grounds and tour his home. George and Martha Washington are buried in a crypt on the grounds not far from the home.
2. The American Civil War
In my opinion, the best-preserved battlefield park is, without a doubt, Gettysburg.
Located in southern Pennsylvania, just over the border from Maryland, this is where the bloodiest single battle was ever fought on the North American Continent. In three days of fighting between General Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia (CSA) versus General Meade’s Army of the Potomac (USA), America lost some 53,000 young men.
It is a beautiful scene of serene farmland, dotted with memorials and monuments to both sides (thankfully the National Park Service has stated that the Confederate monuments will remain). When you walk around Devil’s Den or Little Round Top or Culp’s Hill … or the Angle where Pickett’s charge ended … you are walking across acres of land that were littered with thousands of bodies of young Americans in July of 1863. It almost makes me weep every time I go.
Kids need to be here and listen to the story of courage. I encourage parents to get the movie “Gettysburg” (1993) starring Jeff Daniels and show it to the kids.
The Visitor’s Center is really something to see. It houses a terrific museum with some fascinating and rare artifacts that are really well displayed (like the actual stretcher that bore Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson off the battlefield as well as Lee’s complete camping equipment). The museum shows the horrors of slavery and the major impact of that issue in stoking the Civil War. (Looking at the iron chains, collars, and handcuffs of people who were bought and sold is very sobering. Kids really need to see this.)
Fortunately the museum is not “politically correct” since it still shows actual Confederate flags from the war and the gift shop sells lots of memorabilia with pictures of Confederate generals and flags on them. (Armed guards stand watch in the Visitors Center to keep protesting thugs like Antifa or Klansmen out.) The main attraction, however, is the Cyclorama — an enormous oil painting in the round, painted by French artist Paul Phillippoteaux, of Pickett’s Charge. It is breathtaking.
3. World War II and the Cold War.
Fortunately, no World War II battles took place in the United States. However, we sure do have some mighty amazing museums that show everything from tanks and airplanes to ships and all kinds of stories by the heroes who were involved.
Of course the Smithsonian has the Air and Space Museum and the Museum of American History with all its great exhibits. But have you been to Savannah Georgia to see the Mighty Eighth Air Force Museum? Holy cow, it is amazing!! I took my boys there many years ago, and real World War II vets who actually flew the bombers were there to talk to my kids and tell them what it was like! (Sadly, I doubt many of those men are still around to give the talks.)
And in Fort Knox there is the General George Patton Museum. WOW! My boys got to climb on REAL Russian T-34s and a REAL German Tiger tank! German Panther tanks and U.S. Sherman tanks were parked right outside. It also housed some of General Patton’s personal effects (his uniforms, the Cadillac he was in when he had his accident, and one of his ivory-handled revolvers).
I have not been to this museum yet, but it looks pretty great: The National World War 2 Museum in New Orleans, La. It looks pretty interactive with lots of unique displays. I’ll have to check it out soon (maybe some of my adult kids would like to tag along?).
Both the U.S. Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio (right next to Wright Patterson Air Force Base) will simply blow your mind. The USAF Museum houses every conceivable aircraft, from wooden propeller planes to the F-22 Raptor and intercontinental ballistic missiles (all unarmed of course). You can also go on the Air Force One that took President Kennedy to Dallas, Texas on November 22, 1963 … and also tragically flew his body home later that day.
Museum of the Marine Corps (right off I-95 about 45 minutes south of Washington DC) is my favorite, though. My son was a Marine, so it has to be my favorite, right? It’s all wonderful, but the best part of it all is when you round the corner and there in front of you is THE flag that they raised on Iwo Jima in the famous Joe Rosenthal picture, bullet holes and all. I just stood there with my family and stared at it for a long time.
The last stop in this article is the hardest place to go see. It’s easy to get to, but emotionally it will tear you up one side and down the other. But you must go. It is the United States Holocaust Memorial and Museum. It is four floors of horror and brutality and perseverance and hope.
You really seriously have to prepare yourself to walk through this, but I am convinced every single teenager and adult in this land needs to see what is on display here. An actual cattle car that transported Jews is there. You walk past piles of shoes that were discarded before the victims were murdered in the gas chambers.
I can hardly go on. But you must go. My wife and kids and I were numb for hours after we left, but we’re glad we went.
The best history is not what you read about in a book. It’s what you experience, and our parks, historic homes, and museums are some of the finest in the world to help you and your kids learn great lessons about our great country and our role in this world.