Tag Archives: historic sites

“…if they mean to have a war, let it begin here.”

I think I was even more psyched about visiting Lexington and Concord than doing the Freedom Trail.  It’s a must-see for anybody interested in the Revolution, and Paul Revere’s Ride was one of the first books I read after I switched my major to history in college.

Minute Man National Historical Park holds much of the important real estate involved in the Revolution’s first fight, although Lexington Common is town property and therefore outside the park’s bounds.

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The common is probably the most well-groomed battlefield I’ve ever visited, and for one of the most important pieces of turf in the world, it’s also relatively unadorned.  Just a few monuments, including the “Revolutionary Monument” set up in 1799…

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a rock inscribed with Capt. John Parker’s instructions to his men…

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…and the iconic statue of a militiaman.

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The Lexington Historical Society operates three historic buildings in the town as museums.  We took a tour of Buckman Tavern, which is right beside the green.  In the wee hours of the morning on April 19, 1775 the town’s minutemen awaited the arrival of the British here.  It’s one of the best historic building tours I’ve ever enjoyed; the tavern is beautifully restored, and our guide was outstanding.

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Heading west from Lexington brings you to Minute Man Visitor Center near the eastern entrance to MMNHP.  Here you’ll find a small exhibit on some of the battle’s participants and an innovative multimedia presentation that gives you a great overview of the Revolutionary War’s beginnings.  It’s similar to some of the shows at the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum in Springfield, and very engaging.

This is one of those parks you can see in a few hours or a lifetime, depending on how much time and interest you have.  I should note that MMNHP also boasts a couple of really important literary sites, including a home owned by both Louisa May Alcott’s family and Nathaniel Hawthorne as well as another home inhabited by Hawthorne and Ralph Waldo Emerson.  The NPS was renovating one of these buildings and the other closed before we arrived, but we hadn’t really planned on touring them, so no big deal.  (I wanted to maximize my time at the Rev War sites anyway, and I’ve always thought the Transcendentalists were a bunch of insufferably self-righteous navel-gazers.)

There’s a five-mile trail tracing part of the route of the running battle between the militia and the British regulars with stops at a few key points, like the Revere capture site.

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The park has another visitor center near Concord’s North Bridge.  Among the artifacts displayed here is “the Hancock,” one of the cannons stashed away in Concord that the British hoped to recover on their ill-fated mission.

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A short walk downhill from the visitor center is the most famous bridge in American military history this side of Antietam—or a replicated version, anyway.  (The town of Concord dismantled the original North Bridge in 1793.)

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There are three monuments worth noting near the bridge.  Emerson’s famous Concord Hymn was written for the dedication of the first one, an obelisk erected in 1836.

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Daniel Chester French’s impressive statue of a militiaman was cast from seven Civil War cannons.

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Finally—and the most impressive one to me—is the grave marker for two of the British soldiers killed at the bridge fight.

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Filed under American Revolution, Museums and Historic Sites

My Boston marathon

I’ve been back home long enough to recuperate from two weeks of sightseeing, so it’s time for that most venerable of all end-of-vacation traditions: forcing a captive audience to look at your photos.

We’ll start with some highlights from the Boston Freedom Trail.  As I said a few days ago, it’s a remarkable experience for any enthusiast of early American history.  I don’t think there’s any other place where you can see so many important American Revolution sites in such close proximity to each other, except maybe Independence National Historical Park in Philadelphia.  (I’ll be posting some stuff about INHP eventually, too; it was a long trip.)

My friend Ryan and I set out on the Freedom Trail about 2:00 in the afternoon.  Because there’s so much to see between the starting point on Boston Common and the end point at Bunker Hill, and because it was already so late in the day, I  had told Ryan that we’d never be able to do the whole thing that afternoon, and that we should plan on picking up where we left off the next day.  Thing is, Ryan played basketball and tennis in high school and has never lost his competitive streak.  Apparently in an effort to set some sort of record, he announced that we were going to stand on Bunker Hill that very day, come hell or high water.

One of the first things you see on the trail relates to the Civil War rather than the Revolutionary one.  It’s one of my favorite works of commemorative sculpture, the monument to Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts on Boston Common, right across from the State House.

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Boston seems to be embracing the history of abolitionism pretty enthusiastically.  I’m not familiar enough with abolitionism to know how widespread serious anti-slavery sentiment in the city actually was, but I suppose it’s a handy way to embrace the legacy of the Civil War when most of the actual fighting took place hundreds of miles away.

And speaking of the history of abolitionism, just a stone’s throw from the Shaw Monument is Park Street Church, where William Lloyd Garrison gave his first major anti-slavery speech in 1829.

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Step over to the other side of the church, and you’re also stepping back in time—two hundred years before the outbreak of the Civil War, in fact.  Granary Burying Ground dates all the way back to 1660.  Its age is apparent from the winged skulls carved on some of the tombstones, a very old motif that’s characteristic of early American grave markers.  Again, bear in mind that I’m used to touring regions where “old” means 1790-ish.

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There are more important figures from early American history buried here than you can shake a stick at: Benjamin Franklin’s parents…

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John Hancock…

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James Otis…

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Sam Adams…

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Paul Revere…

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…and the victims of the Boston Massacre.  All in the same graveyard!

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The Old South Meeting House is probably best known as the launching pad for the Boston Tea Party, but that was just one of many highlights in this building’s long history of playing host to protest and dissent.  An exhibit inside the sanctuary details this history, from the imperial controversy to abolitionism, female suffrage, and the Sacco and Vanzetti trial.

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British troops used the church as a riding stable during the occupation of Boston, but it doesn’t look any worse for wear.

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To me, a big highlight of the trail is the Old State House, seat of government in Massachusetts from 1713 to 1798 and now home to a museum that explores politics and public life in the Bay State from the colonial era through the nineteenth century.

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You can’t beat the Old State House exhibit for fantastic artifacts, including a coat and other items belonging to John Hancock…

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some Stamp Act material…

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…and the cane Preston Brooks used to wallop Charles Sumner on the Senate floor.

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You’ll also find Indian treaty belts, rare documents, and artifacts from Bunker Hill on display here.  Great stuff.  If you’re rushed for time on the Freedom Trail and you’ve only got time to tour one building interior, my personal opinion is that you should do this one.

Right outside the State House is a circle of bricks marking the site of the Boston Massacre.  This seems to be the popular spot for tourists to take their “Look-Ma-we’re-doing-the-Freedom-Trail” photos, with their arms spread wide and big grins on their faces.  I’m not sure how I feel about this; 1770 was a long time ago, but geez, five guys did die here.

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Next stop is Faneuil Hall, a most appropriate place for a statue of Sam Adams.  The marketplace in and around this site is a great place to pick up souvenirs.

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Paul Revere’s house would be a neat thing to see anyway, but it’s of significant architectural interest even without the celebrity name recognition.  Built around 1680 on the site of Increase Mather’s parsonage, it was already old by the time Revere bought it.  It’s pretty small, so the self-guided tour doesn’t take very long.

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Not far from the house is another structure inextricably linked to Revere: Old North Church.

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There are quite a few historic churches on the trail, and in fact I haven’t even included them all here, but I think Old North has the most beautiful interior of all of them.  (Sorry about the lousy picture focus; I was trying not to use a flash.)

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Among those buried in the crypt is Maj. John Pitcairn, who received a mortal wound at Bunker Hill.

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There’s an equestrian statue of Revere in a kind of courtyard outside the church.  I highly recommend making an effort to visit this spot at night, with the courtyard dark and the steeple illuminated behind it.

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The cemetery on Copp’s Hill doesn’t have as many notable residents as Old Granary, but it’s still worth a visit.  Increase and Cotton Mather are both buried here.

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Most of the sites on the trail are in pretty close proximity to each other, but getting to Bunker Hill (or Breed’s Hill, if you insist on geographical precision) requires a good bit of walking.  I hadn’t been to many urbanized battlefields before this one, and it was hard to orient myself with all the buildings around.  The monument is a lot more impressive in person than I’d expected; you can see it from quite a distance.

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Here’s one final recommendation.  If you’re going to do the Freedom Trail, you should grab something to eat at the Green Dragon Tavern in the North End, not far from Revere’s house.  Despite what their advertising implies, it’s not the same place where Joseph Warren, Paul Revere, and their buddies used to hang out, but the steak tips are still pretty darn good.

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Long story short, you can do the Freedom Trail in half a day, but you’d better be ready to do some serious huffing and puffing.  The Constitution was closed that day, too, so that helped us shave off some time.  There are a number of guidebooks and audio tours available; we used the Freedom Trail Foundation’s official guide, which was excellent.  A lot of the sites along the way are either free or accept donations, but you can get a combination ticket for Old South Meeting House, the Old State House, and Paul Revere’s house at the small visitor center on Boston Common.

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Filed under American Revolution, Colonial America, Museums and Historic Sites

A few thoughts from the end of the Freedom Trail

Walked the Freedom Trail yesterday, and got back to the hotel exhausted but euphoric. The density of Revolution-related sites in Boston is unlike anything I’ve experienced before.

Usually, when I take a Rev War road trip, I’ll have two or three things I really want to see, I’ll have to drive quite a few miles to get from one to the other, and I try to read every wayside marker and exhibit label I can find.

Doing Boston is different. Here you can walk a couple of miles and hit more than a dozen sites, and each one of them is a headliner. There’s no way you can thoroughly cover it all. It’s like visiting a buffet where you want to eat everything, so you just pile your plate with as much as it’ll hold and start cramming your face until you’re stuffed.

Another thing that strikes me is the antiquity of what you can see. In my neck of the woods, seeing a building from the early nineteenth century is a treat, and getting to see one from the late eighteenth is worth a two-hour drive. Here, though, running across a material remnant of the seventeenth century isn’t unheard of. Yesterday I saw tombstones that had been sitting there a century before Tennessee became a state.

It’s historic sightseeing of a totally different order. And that’ll have to do it for now; I’m off to Lexington and Concord.

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Filed under American Revolution, Colonial America, Museums and Historic Sites

The two Gettysburgs

Check out Jesse Smith’s piece on the two faces of Gettysburg (hat tip: John Fea).  One is the solemn and scholarly face of the park, the museums, and historic sites; the second is the kitschy face of the tourist attractions and amenities that have sprung up around the battlefield.

Like Smith, I’ve got to admit that I like some of the hokey tourism-driven aspects of Gettysburg, even though I’m in favor of returning things to their circa-1863 appearance to as practical an extent as is possible.  Hokey tourist traps have become an indelible part of the Gettysburg experience, just as the hokey roadside attractions devoted to gunfighters and lawmen are an indelible part of my memories of visiting the West with my parents.  (I draw the line at ghost tours, however.  I’m not sure why, but the very notion of ghost tours near a battlefield rubs me the wrong way.)

Of course, I’m not old enough to remember a time before all the tourist traps and gift shops, so they’ve always been a part of the only Gettysburg I know.  My affinity for .  If new ones started popping up near some relatively undeveloped historic site, I’d probably be up in arms.  I guess what I’m saying is that when we’re considering the maximum level of tolerable kitschification at historic places, our opinions will partly depend on subjective and personal factors and on our own personal memories of the places in question.

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The big one

Several years ago, when I was in the museum business, we decided to do a temporary exhibit on the Gettysburg Address. I e-mailed the NPS to see about borrowing a few artifacts, and they graciously obliged us with some fantastic material. Somebody had to drive up to Pennsylvania to pick it up.

I had never been to Gettysburg, and I was always looking for an excuse to get out of the office anyway, so I booked a rental van to haul the artifacts and got a good friend of mine to tag along, and off we went.  Both of us had been on a Civil War quiz bowl team in high school, and everybody on the team had talked vaguely about making a collective trip to Gettysburg over the years, but it had never worked out so that all of us could go at the same time.

Some history road trips get added value from the landscape along the way, and this was one of them.  It was a beautiful drive northward through the Shenandoah Valley along I-81.  The background music, unfortunately, was ill-suited to the occasion.  This was the year that Nelly Furtado’s song “Promiscuous” was released, and for some reason it seemed to be playing incessantly on every single radio station during the drive up.  To this day, I associate that song with Gettysburg.  (Weird, I know, but your brain is gonna do what your brain is gonna do.)

We got there just after sunset, with just enough daylight left to make out some monuments and wayside markers.  There are football towns and college towns and music towns; Gettysburg was a history town.  The restaurants were named after generals, the stores sold Confederate t-shirts, and our hotel had Troiani prints in the lobby.  It seemed like there was a museum or attraction on every corner.  The place had this irresistible mixture of historic architecture and landscape alongside examples of tourist kitsch, a combination I’ve never encountered in the same way anywhere else.  It sounds jarring, but it worked; it had an appeal all its own.

The old visitor center was still open then, but many of the artifacts had been moved out in preparation for the opening of the new building. We watched the electric map show and checked out the exhibits, case after case after case full of rifles, swords, and bullet-riddled doors.  Then it was out onto the battlefield itself.

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We did the “must-see” highlights, the high-water mark and Little Round Top and all the rest of them.  All those places mentioned in books and labeled on maps were really there, not as ink on paper but as soil and rock and vegetation.  It was like meeting a celebrity and realizing that behind the magazine covers, movie posters, and TV appearances is a real live human being who is standing right in front of you.  Right there was the stone wall, and over there was the copse of trees, and there was that hill, all of them instantly recognizable and looking like they hadn’t aged a day since Gardner had taken his photographs.

Like a lot of historic sites, this one had a personality all its own, with its open fields framed by hills and mountains.  It looked the way Gettysburg should look, an appropriate arena for a great contest, as if the landscape had known that two armies would be meeting there and had been arranging itself for the occasion.  Maybe not for the war’s most decisive battle, but certainly its definitive one.

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Housekeeping with John Sevier

Well, as of today, I’ve been given the honor and privilege of being associated with one of the coolest historic sites in East Tennessee.  I’m now on the Board of Directors for the Governor John Sevier Memorial Association, which oversees Marble Springs State Historic Site in Knoxville.  Sevier spent the last fifteen years of his remarkably eventful life there.

Needless to say, this is pretty exciting for an early Tennessee/King’s Mountain enthusiast like me.  Marble Springs has an extremely dedicated and talented staff, and I’m looking forward to being involved.

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Filed under Appalachian History, Museums and Historic Sites, Tennessee History

Historic sites and sequestration

CBS News talked to NPS Director Jon Jarvis about how sequestration will affect services and operations at the national parks:

“Running a national park is like running a small city,” Jarvis said. “We do everything from utilities to law enforcement to search and rescue to firefighting to proving public information when the visitor shows up. And when you take 5 percent out of that, you have a direct impact on all of those services.”

Looks like we’re in for closed facilities, reduced hours, cancelled programs, and less maintenance (which means uncollected trash, uncleared paths, uncut grass). And it’s not just the parks themselves that will take a hit.

As many agencies have argued, blindly cutting the parks budget, Jarvis said, has a domino effect on local economies across the country. A newly released 2011 NPS report on benefits to local communities from national park visitation shows that park visitors spent $12.95 billion in local gateway regions, meaning within roughly 60 miles of the park. Nationally, that contribution created 251,600 jobs, $9.34 billion in labor income and $16.50 in value added.

To see how the cuts might affect specific parks, check out these articles on Guilford Courthouse, Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania, and MLK.

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