History comes to life in a corner of North Virginia where National Park Rangers and an excellent interpretive center illuminate the origins of the American Civil War.
A few years back, Disney unveiled plans to turn a chunk of northern Virginia land into an American history theme park. Although doomed from the start, the proposed project did manage to raise the profile of the adjacent Manassas National Battlefield Park, site of the Civil War’s first major battle, known as the Battle of Bull Run or First Manassas. Popular with school groups, locals and military buffs, a visit to the park is a good way to stoke some interest among kids in that fateful part of our nation’s history.
Nine-year-old Jamie recently studied the Civil War in fourth grade and frankly knows more about the topic than his parents. During our recent visit, as the Park Ranger led a group on the 30-minute tour of the battlefield, Jamie quietly provided me additional colorful commentary.
Jamie: “General Burnside had hair that came down on his face, and that’s where the word sideburns comes from.”
Me: “Oh. Thank you, Jamie.”
The Ranger presented an overview of the horrendous battle and explained how both the North and South came to understand that the war would not be won in a single battle. Kids then are free to climb onto the cannons and munitions wagons lined up in the field, and many families take walking tours of the battle sites.
To get another perspective on the battle and the battlefield, the Henry Hill Visitors Center has hourly shows of the 45-minute film, “The End of Innocence,” a reenactment of the death and mayhem that battle brings. Narrated by Richard Dreyfus, the film is not particularly gory, but it may be a bit frightening for younger kids. Seeing the film before heading out on the battlefield likely will help kids understand the Ranger’s talk about complicated troop movements and battles.
The visitors center’s small museum displays all sorts of battle paraphernalia that Jamie particularly enjoyed, from artillery shells to uniforms, as well as a three dimensional map that uses lights and narration to track the movements of the various armies. The adjoining gift shop is a treasure of Civil War books, maps, posters and other educational items, including a small section of fiction and non-fiction for kids. For a fee, the staff can look up ancestors to determine if they fought in the war and under which regiment.
The Park is renovating the Henry House, a residence that was destroyed in the battle, which by next year will offer interactive exhibits focused on engaging young visitors. Like other National Parks, kids can purchase the Junior Ranger booklet ($2) and receive a patch after completing a scavenger hunt-like series of activities.
Jamie spent more than two hours at the Park happily reviewing his history lessons before he became focused on food. Since we live close by, we can return at our leisure but depending on their interest, other families easily could spend much of the day touring the battlefields and exhibits.
The Park is located on Route 236 north of Interstate 66, 25 miles west of Washington, DC. The National Park site is open every day during daylight and the Visitors Center is open daily (except Thanksgiving and Christmas) from 8:30am-5pm. Check out www.nps.gov/mana for dates of special living history reenactments, such as artillery demonstrations, and general information.
Note that there is no food or drink service available at Manassas National Battlefield Park, although there are many picnic tables. The site is six miles from old town Manassas, a charming, redeveloped downtown with interesting restaurants, shops and grocery stores, and a choice of numerous chain restaurants and hotels is even closer.
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