The Benefits of Battlefields by David Whelan We have just returned from a very enjoyable ten day driving tour of Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, West Virginia and Pennsylvania. We had a need to be in Nashville – not a favorite destination although it has a great (and free) state museum right downtown – and decided to wrap the visit with side trips and detours to interesting places on the way. I’m a U.S. civil war buff and this trip took in 4 interesting sites. As my wife expressed, battlefields are perfect for any trip involving driving and younger children.
The more I thought about it, I would probably broaden that to include almost any type of fort or earthwork. It’s not that I am terribly militaristic. But all of these sites have historical interest and many have the additional benefit of lots of space: to run, to hide, to stretch legs without having to worry about bumping into anything or being told not to touch something.
My favorite sites are those run by the U.S. National Park Service, probably because I have more experience with those than with any others. We visited Fort Donelson, Stones River National Battlefield, Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park, and Lookout Mountain on this last trip. Not only were they all free, staffed by well-informed and helpful rangers, but, once at the parks, they were enjoyable to visit. We often brought a picnic and ate at the tidy picnic areas, and then wandered to different points on the battle grounds. It helps to have some sense of why the battle is important but, frankly, it’s enough just to get out of the car and run around a bit. Little boys’ apparently natural affinity to turn almost anything into a weapon is supplemented by ample cannons to be fired and fences or earthworks to hide behind. There are some limitations, like not walking on the Confederate earthworks at Fort Donelson due to erosion issues, but they’re easily avoidable.
The drawback with some of the more solid forts – like Old Fort Henry and Fort Ticonderoga – is that, while they are fascinating to see and far better staffed with reenactors, their structure can be limiting to youngsters who want to just run around. There are stairs to fall down, or, for the noise averse, cannon and musket firing that are discomforting.
Unfortunately, this seems to be a resource most commonly available in the U.S. We looked for a number of battlefields in England only to find them already covered by buildings and other “development”. We have not gone up the Canadian border towards Quebec to visit Seven Years War sites, but I expect it is the cross border battlefields that have the best scope for burning energy.
So if you’re traveling through the middle South of the US, or in many places in the northeast, be sure to see if there are federal or state battle sites on your route. They are a great alternative to rest areas, and can offer history while still being diverting to kids.