Gettysburg and the Mid-Atlantic

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Saratoga NHP

This past winter, we had time for a short road trip from New England back home to Asheville, so we were able to go to a few National Park Sites during our journey. The first was Saratoga National Historical Park, which we visited on a very cold day. The road to drive around the park was closed due to snow and ice, but we were able to spend time in the visitors center, getting our stamps, watching the informative film, and talking to the rangers. We could still view the battlefield to some extent from the porch and out the windows. Documenting one of the most decisive victories of the American army during the Revolutionary War, Saratoga details the battle maneuvers and shares relics in its museum.

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Hopewell Furnace NHS

On our way south, we next stopped at Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site in rural Pennsylvania. Hopewell Furnace was a really engaging site. We learned a lot of really interesting facts about just how important ironworks were in the development of the new United States. At the beginning of the Revolutionary War, America was creating one-seventh of the iron goods in the world – most of it in and around Hopewell Furnace. When we visited, we could walk into the building that housed the furnace, and see how the iron bars were poured, as well as examine the various farm buildings and the home still standing. Iron workers had risky, hot, tough jobs, but the skilled workers did pretty well for themselves. Idyllic farmland now surrounds the quiet furnace, and animals were basking in the last glow of sunset as we made our way back to our car.

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Gettysburg National Military Park

We next spent a full day at Gettysburg National Military Park. Gettysburg is an iconic battlefield, and made a popular tourist spot due to the strength of Abraham Lincoln’s infamous Gettysburg Address. As an English teacher, I have taught this speech for years, and written essays myself on its rhetoric, but I was less familiar with the particulars of the actual battle. We began our visit in the Cyclorama, which I always thought was one of a kind. But I learned that there were actually many similar displays before film was popularized. If you’ve never experienced a cyclorama, it is a 3D experience, during which you stand in the middle of a painting that surrounds you on circular walls. As the story of the battle is narrated, different parts of the canvas light up. We also drove the battlefield, seeing famous spots like Little Round Top and where Pickett’s Charge happened. Gettysburg was a horrifically bloody and violent battle – more men fell here than in any other battle on American soil. Seeing the peaceful fields, with grass waving in the wind, it is hard to imagine the carnage that was laid over these fields after the battle ended, but it must have been terrible.

While at Gettysburg, we visited Eisenhower National Historic Site, which preserves Eisenhower’s retirement home. The Eisenhowers also used the house for diplomatic meetings while Eisenhower was still in the White House. After leaving the presidency, Ike and Mamie used the land for cattle farming, and Ike took up painting. An interesting family, the Eisenhower home is full of character. There is a very small museum at the visitors center, but they have a great film and lots of relics, especially from Ike’s campaign.

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Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park

Our final stop on our mini vacation was Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. Included in this park site are four different battlegrounds – Fredericksburg, Spotsylvania, Chancellorsville, and the Wilderness. We went to each of these battlegrounds and drove by all of the famous locations – including the bloody angle and Chatham. Chatham was especially exciting for me because it is intimately tied to one of my favorite authors, Walt Whitman. Whitman spent time at Chatham after rushing to the side of his wounded brother. While there, he penned these lines about the catalpa trees outside the front door, “At the foot of a tree, immediately in front, a heap of feet, legs, arms, and human fragments, cut, bloody, black and blue, swelled and sickening–in the garden near, a row of graves.” Referred to as “witness trees”, since they witnessed the atrocities of the temporary Civil War hospital, they were young when Whitman saw them. Now they are leaning, and the NPS has been working to support them so that visitors can still visit an iconic landmark. A horrible history, and humbling to stand in this same spot.

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