Tourists surprised to learn that Revolutionary War soldiers did not fight in Civil War

No, seriously.

Perhaps nothing illustrates a declining awareness of American history than often-asked queries from young and old posed to Revolutionary War reenactors at flintlock target shoots, battle reenactments and educational living history presentations.

The questions: Were you at Gettysburg? Do you go to Gettysburg?

They weren’t. And they don’t.

They politely note they are highlighting the 18th-century American Revolution and not the 19th-century American Civil War.

“We see a lot of people who are not aware of this basic part of American history,” said Donald F. Yost, 53, of Robeson Township, joining three friends in period clothing of the First Pennsylvania Regiment of the Continental Line one cold December Sunday morning as they practiced drills and hiked at French Creek State Park in Union Township.

This is probably as good an occasion as any to relate a war story from my first stint of museum employment.  I’m often asked to tell it in small gatherings; indeed, it’s acquired something of a mythic status among my acquaintances.  I swear this actually happened, although if it hadn’t happened to me personally I probably wouldn’t believe it myself.

Like most small museums, this one had a tiny staff.  Instead of hiring somebody to man the front counter on a full-time basis we all used to rotate weekends, with each staff member minding the store every fifth or sixth Saturday and Sunday.  On one of my weekends an upbeat, somewhat heavyset man—he was probably in his sixties—walked in, folded his hands on the counter, and asked, “Can you tell me how to get to the beach?”

I should note that this museum is located near the juncture of Tennessee, Kentucky, and Virginia, some 350 miles from the nearest coastline.  I naturally assumed that this was a lame attempt at humor and managed a polite chuckle.

Dead silence.  The guy stood there with an expectant look on his face.

“Um, you’re serious,” I said.

“Yeah.  About how far is it?”

I said that it depended on which beach he intended to visit.  He said, “Virginia.  The beach in Virginia.”

“You mean Virginia Beach?”

“Yeah, that’s the one.  We’re from Virginia, and we’re trying to get to the beach.”

This man lived in Virginia, and in an attempt to get to Virginia Beach, he had driven southwestward into Tennessee, away from the coast.

I informed him that I couldn’t give him street-by-street directions from Harrogate, TN to Virginia Beach, since that wasn’t the sort of information I carried around in my head.  But I told him that the first thing he needed to do was go back the way he came, since if he continued on his present course he’d cross the Mississippi, the Great Plains, and the Rockies before arriving at a beach, and when he got there it would be the wrong one.  At that point he thanked me and walked back out the door.

I don’t know if he ever made it to the beach.  For that matter, I don’t know how he managed to reach retirement age without winnowing himself out of the gene pool.


Filed under American Revolution, History and Memory

11 responses to “Tourists surprised to learn that Revolutionary War soldiers did not fight in Civil War

  1. I believe that.

    I’ll have to think to see if I can recall a similarly-bizarre exchange, but I did read once about a woman who called her travel agent from her hotel room in Orlando, furious that her room didn’t have a view of the ocean as she’d expected. The travel agent was somewhat confused, but pointed out to her that Orlando, was, in fact, in the center of state, not on the coast.

    “I know that,” the angry client replied, “I’m looking at a map right now. And I can tell you that Florida is a very narrow state!”

    • Michael Lynch

      I read an interview with a ranger who said a lot of people ask why so many battles took place at national parks, and whether the bullets damaged the monuments. There’s no hope for America.


  2. The one about why they fought battles in national parks sounds made up, but I’m sure it’s true. Of course, in the telling, the park ranger is supposed to matter-of-factly reply, “because that’s where all the cannon were.”

  3. Bob Beatty

    Michael, thanks for the chuckle yesterday on my first day back at work in a few weeks. Great, great story. I’m going to share your two latest posts on our Twitter feed right now.

    Working in the history/museum business, it’s a sad fact that what we take for granted as basic knowledge about subject matter is unknown to a large percentage of our visitors. In some ways I guess it makes our work that much more important, but frustrating all at the same time.

  4. As an historian, I have on occasion visited national parks. And indeed I have heard the following questions asked by tourists:

    At Gettysburg: Did they hide behind the monuments during the battle?
    At Valley Forge: How could the Continental Army have a supply problem if the King of Prussia Mall is nearby?

    Both times, I politely walked away before bursting out in laughter.

  5. Susie Kocher

    Did you not actually worry about that poor lost man? Maybe calling adult protective services would have been the right strategy – older people getting lost on deserted highways and dying does happen with fair frequency. Maybe some sympathy instead of scorn might be in order?

    • Michael Lynch

      He said “we’re trying to get to the beach,” so I assume he had someone with him. I’ve spent quite a bit of time around older people suffering from dementia, and I’m about 99.9% sure that wasn’t the case here.


  6. Chris Evans

    At Shiloh on a guided tour that I was on the person asked the Park Ranger (actually the now published author Timothy Smith) were the recreated worm fences at the Hornet’s nest the original ones from the battle.


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