Battlefield Visits, Revolutionary War Edition: The Battle of Brandywine

A couple of weeks ago, the boys and I went up to Brandywine Battlefield State Park because they were opening their season with a celebration of the 343rd birthday of Pennsylvania. There were going to be living history demonstrations, and free admission – can’t beat that!

We’ve been to Brandywine a few times before, but we’ve only just visited the park – which does hold the house that George Washington used as his headquarters during the battle – but I’ve never actually been out on the field where the fighting of the Battle of Brandywine actually happened. These days, most of it is either neighborhoods, or still privately-held farm land. That seems to be slowly changing with organizations like the American Battlefield Trust picking up more property there and setting up some interpretation.

It took us about an hour to drive up, and along the way I had John read a battle overview out loud from one of my books. We discussed what was going on with the war at the time, and I let the boys look at a few maps, too. I think it really helped with getting them engaged in what we were about to see.

We started our tour at Jefferis’ Ford where Gen. Sir William Howe’s British troops crossed the Brandywine and started the move to turn the American right flank. I had to explain to the boys what a ford was – maybe we need to play more Oregon Trail. Seeing the boys get a little spark as I explained that the British marched right along this road we were standing next to – that’s the reason I love doing things like this with them. There are a few cool markers down there – including two relatively new ones that I was able to add to the HMDB!

The view of Jefferis' Ford. - <i>Photo by the author</i>
The view of Jefferis’ Ford. – Photo by the author

Continuing on, we followed the route of the British and made our way to Osborne’s Hill where we got out to see the view and imagine the battle lines forming for the assault. Luckily for the Americans, Howe gave his men some time to rest after their all-day march, so there was some time for a defense to be put up. It wouldn’t be enough, though.

Our next stop was at the Birmingham Lafayette Cemetery where we saw some more monuments, as well as the Friends Meeting House. Across the street at the Birmingham Hill Preserve, we got to add another new marker.

The Lafayette Memorial near Sandy Hollow. - <i>Photo by the author</i>
The Lafayette Memorial near Sandy Hollow. – Photo by the author

My most exciting monument addition of the day came next: The Lafayette Memorial near the site of his wounding. This has been here since 1895 – how had it not been added to the database yet? Lafayette came back to visit the site after the battle and spoke fondly of his experiences there, despite the wound.

Around the corner from there, we came to the Sandy Hollow Heritage Park. This park preserves the American right flank, and I have to say – the position seems remarkably defensible. I’m going to have to do some deeper reading on the Battle of Brandywine, because I have no idea how this position could have fallen – especially with some artillery support.

My crew mans a very fake wooden 3-pounder at Sandy Hollow. - <i>Photo by the author</i>
My crew mans a very fake wooden 3-pounder at Sandy Hollow. – Photo by the author

It was a quick drive over to the crossroads of Dillworthtown and past the site of the British camp after the battle. Maj. Gen. Nathaniel Greene’s last line of defense was also in this area, allowing the American army to escape mostly intact. This was the second-largest battle of the Revolution and I don’t think it gets the attention it deserves – probably because the preservation of the field is so spotty. Maybe that will get better.

After our tour of the field, we stopped at the park visitors center and checked out the museum and their cool 20-minute film. Isaac in particular told me that the movie helped him understand things a bit better. We got a quick photo at the Benjamin Ring House to re-create one we had taken a few years ago (and we added another surprising historical marker in the process).

Then, it was living history time! Over at the Gilpin House, there were interpreters discussing surveying, cooking, and weapons, but we gravitated to the blacksmith demo. The boys even got to participate by working the bellows and stoking the fire up to around 2000 degrees so the blacksmith could show how nails were made in the 18th century. For their efforts, the boys got to keep two of the nails they helped make. They were both really proud of them.

The boys with the nails that they helped make. Very cool! - <i>Photo by the author</i>
The boys with the nails that they helped make. Very cool! – Photo by the author

It was a really great outing. With just a couple of hours, we got to see, experience, and learn so much. I’m glad that we went, and that we went a little off the beaten path as well. I’m hopeful that the boys will treasure these memories as much as I do.

Overnight Trip to Philadelphia

From my travels, January 13 & 14, 2024

One of the things we’ve done with the boys the last few years is give “experiences” rather than “big gifts” for various holidays. This year, we decided to go in with their grandparents on an overnight trip to Philadelphia. Neither the boys, nor Emily, nor “Nene” and “Baba” had ever seen the sights of Independence National Historical Park, so this would be a good opportunity for that.

We went up on Saturday morning, and started with the new visitors center. This is jointly-run by the NPS and the city. We had lunch at the little cafe there (which was honestly, pretty disappointing) and then checked out the small museum exhibits, the orientation film, and got maps and Junior Ranger activity sheets.

John stands by as Isaac presides over the signing of the Constitution. - <i>Photo by the author</i>
John stands by as Isaac presides over the signing of the Constitution. – Photo by the author

They do Junior Rangers a little differently here. Instead of an activity book, they give out kind of a cartoon map of the park that has suggestions for activities and questions to ponder on it. I think the idea is that it gets the whole family involved. Once you’ve done your tour, I think you just need to convince a ranger that you’ve seen and learned a few new things and you’re all set.

With the introductory things out of the way, we walked across the street to the site of the old President’s House. The structure has been gone for a long time, but it has been partially re-created, and there are some cut-outs in the ground to show the archaeological work that was done at the site. It’s a pretty interesting presentation. From there, we got in line to go through security for the Liberty Bell.

The boys pose in front of the Liberty Bell. - <i>Photo by the author</i>
The boys pose in front of the Liberty Bell. – Photo by the author

The boys were excited for this, as it is a symbol of modern Philadelphia – it even plays a role at the baseball games – but I think it didn’t have quite as much historical significance at the time of the founding.

“Baba” didn’t feel up to doing much more walking, so he headed back to the visitors center while the rest of us went over to see Benjamin Franklin’s house a few blocks away. The house itself no longer stands, but there is a large frame outline of where it would have stood. His print shop is still there, and the NPS does a great job of running demonstrations of the techniques that Franklin and his associates would have used. They even sell items that have been printed there, but we didn’t buy any.

Next to his house, there is an underground museum that walks through the many accomplishments that Franklin had in his life. He was certainly a renaissance man with a huge variety of life experiences. I think he knack for invention really resonated with my guys.

We met back up with “Baba” and drove over to our hotel to get checked in. We got dinner at the Reading Terminal Market so that we had plenty of variety to choose from. “Nene”, John, and I ended up getting cheesesteaks from Spataros. After such a hearty dinner, we had an evening swim at the pool, and got to bed to rest up for the next day.

We got some pretty good cheesesteaks at Reading Terminal Market. - <i>Photo by the author</i>
We got some pretty good cheesesteaks at Reading Terminal Market. – Photo by the author

Keeping it simple, we got up in the morning and met up for the hotel breakfast. We got checked out, and then made our way back over to Independence Hall for a 10:30am tour.

It was really cool to stand in the room where both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were debated and – ultimately – adopted. It’s awe-inspiring to contemplate the weight of the decisions that were made here. The story of George Washington’s chair – it’s actually still there in that room, by the way – with sort of a half-sun motif near the top, and Franklin’s open rhetorical question as to whether the sun was rising or setting as they talked through the founding of our nation: that was a favorite moment for me.

Standing in the room where it actually happened. - <i>Photo by the author</i>
Standing in the room where it actually happened. – Photo by the author

We didn’t end up finishing the Junior Ranger program on this trip. But you can probably guess, that’s only an excuse to go back.

Honeymoon in Key West, Part 5: Sails to Rails Museum

November 22, 2023

We had one thing booked for our final full day in Key West, and it was going to be happening up by the old seaport. So we hopped on the bus and got up to that side of the island early.

I had wanted to check out the Sails to Rails Museum, as someone we ran into had good things to say about it. It is a small, but well put together museum that tells the story of life in Key West from the days of the turtle, sponge, and wrecking industries. There is also a good bit about Henry Flagler and how he made Florida what it is today with the railroads. The route of modern US-1 follows what was originally a long rail line through the Keys.

They even had a large model of Fort Jefferson, and an exhibit about Dr. Mudd. It was well worth the visit.

Snorkeling off Cottrell Key

Our one planned activity was a snorkeling excursion aboard a catamaran. Emily had booked this in advance, and since I now had some practice from snorkeling in the Dry Tortugas, we were looking forward to this.

Emily and I aboard the catamaran. - <i>Photo by the author</i>
Emily and I aboard the catamaran. – Photo by the author

The cruise out to the island of Cottrell Key and back was fun – the crew of the boat definitely had some personality. We got to snorkel for a while, but honestly, it wasn’t as nice as the snorkeling at Fort Jefferson was. Things seemed less lively at this spot – probably because it get so many tourists day in and day out.

Trivia Night

After grabbing some dinner, we went back to the hotel and played trivia. Neither of us had done this before, but we lucked out in that some of the questions were about football, and none of the other teams seemed to have much knowledge in that area. We ended up coming in second place!

Trivia at the resort. - <i>Photo by the author</i>
Trivia at the resort. – Photo by the author

Flying Home

As we flew back to PHL, I took the window seat. I was really happy to pass right over Fort Macon – hopefully I’ll get to visit on the ground soon!

Fort Macon from ~30,000 feet. - <i>Photo by the author</i>
Fort Macon from ~30,000 feet. – Photo by the author

Honeymoon in Key West, Part 3: Truman’s Little White House

November 19, 2023

Truman’s Little White House

When we were planning our trip initially, this was one of those places that jumped right out at me. We made a reservation for one of the morning tours at Truman’s Little White House and made our way up to that side of the island.

Exterior view of the "Little White House" - <i>Photo by the author</i>
Exterior view of the “Little White House” – Photo by the author

Originally built as housing for officers on the Naval base in 1890, this house ended up being associated with President Truman because of a vacation ordered by his doctor. Truman had been feeling ill and was advised to go somewhere warm in November of 1946. FADM Chester Nimitz had recently visited Naval Station Key West and knew that this house was available. Truman felt so invigorated here, that he made it a regular part of his presidency – spending something like 10% of his time in office here.

One of the things that I found interesting about the house itself is that it was originally situated on waterfront property, but over the years the island has been expanded by depositing fill from dredging operations. The west side of the island changed a lot because of this.

Our tour guide, Chet, was awesome. He had a lot of really great stories, and made us feel welcome. Many of the furnishings in the house are original to the Trumans’ time here. The whole interior decorating scheme is very 1950s. Parts of it felt like it could have been my grandmother’s house.

I swear I have seen these very chairs at my grandparents' house! - <i>Photo by the author</i>
I swear I have seen these very chairs at my grandparents’ house! – Photo by the author

One of the highlights of the tour was this custom card table, built by some of the guys on the Naval Station for Truman to use. He apparently enjoyed playing cards with guests that would come down – in fact, it seemed like the whole atmosphere here was very relaxed – I can see why Truman loved it so much. The story is that it was seen as very uncouth for the President to be seen playing cards, so a top was made to be fitted over the card playing surface for when the press was around.

Chet talks about the card table. The top cover rests behind him. - <i>Photo by the author</i>
Chet talks about the card table. The top cover rests behind him. – Photo by the author

The other thing that was interesting was that a company in Miami (I believe) had heard about Truman’s frequent vacations here and send him some Hawaiian shirts they made. Truman decided that this was to be the “Key West Uniform” and all the staffers were encouraged to participate. They even have one of the original shirts that Truman wore still in their collection.

The case on the right holds a shirt that Truman actually wore in Key West. - <i>Photo by the author</i>
The case on the right holds a shirt that Truman actually wore in Key West. – Photo by the author

Truman’s personal office and bedroom upstairs were pretty cool. His wife and daughter slept in the next room over – the idea being that if there was some emergency in the middle of the night, his family would not be disturbed. Mrs. Truman didn’t travel down here very often though, as she thought this was more of a hangout spot for the “boys.”

Truman's bed in Key West. - <i>Photo by the author</i>
Truman’s bed in Key West. – Photo by the author

There were some notable historical events that took place here. In 1948, this is where the plan to consolidate the Department of the Navy and the Department of War into the Department of Defense was devised. Much later, in 2001, Secretary of State Colin Powell chose to host peace talks between Armenia and Azerbaijan here. When asked why, he said that it was because of his tremendous respect for Truman, who had made a very personal impact on his life by desegregating the US military.

Once our tour was finished, I was able to get a photo of Emily out front with Truman’s grill. He was known to use the fine silver as a tray for hot dogs. Now I feel like I need to take her to visit Eisenhower’s house!

Emily with Truman's grill. - <i>Photo by the author</i>
Emily with Truman’s grill. – Photo by the author

Lunch at DJ’s Clam Shack

My wife Emily is definitely a foodie, and the number of options for restaurants on Key West was nearly overwhelming. I think we need to make a return trip just to try out some other places.

One of the food stops that she really wanted to make on Duval Street was DJ’s Clam Shack. This place had been featured on Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives, so it had something of a famous reputation.

Emily inspects the menu at DJ's Clam Shack - <i>Photo by the author</i>
Emily inspects the menu at DJ’s Clam Shack – Photo by the author

In the end, Emily chose to go with their famous fried clams. I had some chicken fingers. We split an order of sweet potato fries. It was all delicious.

Dinner at Bo’s Fish Wagon

When we told people we were going to Key West, we got a ton of recommendations. One of the loudest was from my boss – herself a frequent visitor to the island – about a little joint that she thought Emily would really like. We had to check out Bo’s Fish Wagon.

Bo's Fish Wagon, on the northern side of the island. - <i>Photo by the author</i>
Bo’s Fish Wagon, on the northern side of the island. – Photo by the author

I’ll be honest, the look of the place from the outside was…interesting. I ended up getting a hotdog (because I’m boring) and some really great black beans and rice on the side. Emily got fish tacos with crispy fries, and said that the fish was some of the freshest she had ever had.

We walked around the seaport district for a while and then headed back to the hotel. The big adventure of our honeymoon was planned for the next day, and we needed to be well-rested.

Honeymoon in Key West, Part 1

November 17, 2023

One of the things that we decided in the run up to our wedding was that we weren’t going to take a honeymoon immediately after. We had wanted to go to Key West because it seemed like it was a good compromise location for us – it’s a tropical island, but it has a lot of interesting history. Since we knew that was where we were headed, Emily thought it would be good to avoid hurricane season, and have a time when we wouldn’t be with my boys for a fairly extended period. The week before Thanksgiving met all the criteria.

We flew out of PHL on November 16, and got settled in pretty easily to our resort. The next day, we would start doing some tourist things.

Our resort was lovely. - <i>Photo by the author</i>
Our resort was lovely. – Photo by the author

After getting a really lovely brunch at Bagatelle, we walked over to the “Mile Marker 0” sign for US-1, and got the requisite photos.

Emily and I at "Mile Marker 0" - <i>Photo by the author</i>
Emily and I at “Mile Marker 0” – Photo by a fellow tourist

Continuing to walk south along Whitehead Street, we came to the Hemingway Home and Museum. While it didn’t necessarily light either of us up on its face, several people we had talked to had recommended checking it out. We took the leap, and the tour was much cooler than we were expecting. There were lots of stories involving alcohol and various affairs. Hemingway certainly led a tortured life.

Once we reached the bottom of Whitehead Street, we were at the famous “Southernmost Point” marker, where we only had to wait in line for a few minutes to get our second tourist photo of the day. I’m very aware that this is nowhere near the actual southernmost point in the continental US, but it’s just one of those things you have to do on Key West. I found myself reading the historical marker for the underwater communications cable to Cuba while we waited in line. Apparently, this line carried the very first international phone call. Cool stuff.

Our ultra-touristy photo from the "Southernmost Point". - <i>Photo by the author</i>
Our ultra-touristy photo from the “Southernmost Point”. – Photo by a fellow tourist

Just from walking around the “downtown” area for a while, Cuba and the Navy really seem to dominate the history and culture here. Many of the buildings seem to have begun their lives as structures to support the Navy or some aspect of international trade. This was particularly evident as we had dinner that night just off Mallory Square in an old building that had been turned into a Cuban restaurant.

Cuban dinner near Mallory Square. - <i>Photo by the author</i>
Cuban dinner near Mallory Square. – Photo by the author

While we were at dinner, we would experience the only rough spot of the week. The power went out on the island as we were finishing and then a hard rain storm came through. After maybe 20-30 minutes, things came back to life, we were able to settle our bill, and we made our way back to the hotel.

Stone Harbor Museum

From my travels, July 26, 2023.

After our wedding, we spent a week as a family in Stone Harbor, NJ – mostly enjoying the beach and some great food. It is a favorite vacation spot for Emily, and the place has grown on all of us.

One of the things that I’ve wanted to do for a while is check out the local history museum. On this day, I was able to sneak down into town for an hour or so with the boys as a bit of a change of pace.

A cool old aerial photo of the town. It was not nearly as built-up as it is today. - <i>Photo by the author</i>
A cool old aerial photo of the town. It was not nearly as built-up as it is today. – Photo by the author

They have lots of maps, a timeline on the wall, and assorted artifacts. The docent there let the boys do a scavenger hunt activity. He said that much of the early history of the town involved “the mob” who had bought land there to make smuggling alcohol down from Canada by boat easier. A colorful story, for sure.

You can probably guess that I LOVE an old map! - <i>Photo by the author</i>
You can probably guess that I LOVE an old map! – Photo by the author

Railroads bringing tourists from Philadelphia also factored heavily early on. None of that infrastructure remains today, but the tracks were originally where the grass “islands” are in 2nd Ave. today. The station / yard for the railroad was between 2nd Ave. and Pennsylvania Ave.

The museum also has binders full of newspaper clippings and old photos, organized by street. It would be fun to get lost in that research library for a while.

Binders full of materials make for a cool research library. - <i>Photo by the author</i>
Binders full of materials make for a cool research library. – Photo by the author

Isaac enjoyed getting a photo with the Taylor Swift cut-out they had. She is something of a local celebrity as she spent summers here as a kid. Both boys were able to talk the docent into giving them old 2010 beach tags (he didn’t put up much of a fight) as rewards for their scavenger hunt. These were prized by the boys because the design incorporates a plane on it.

Isaac hanging out with local celebrity, Taylor Swift. - <i>Photo by the author</i>
Isaac hanging out with local celebrity, Taylor Swift. – Photo by the author

Not bad at all for a free museum. I plan to be back!

Battlefield Visits, Epic Man Trip Edition – Part 6: Colonial National Historical Park

From my travels, June 29, 2023.

Battle of Big Bethel – Civil War Battlefield #174

Since it occurred on June 10, 1861, some people consider the Battle of Big Bethel to be the first “real” land battle of the Civil War; that all the actions that came before were merely “skirmishes.” I don’t fall into this camp. For me, the Battle of Philippi (which I visited as battlefield #84 for me, all the way back in April of 2019) holds that title.

One of the monuments at the Big Bethel Park. - <i>Photo by the author</i>
One of the monuments at the Big Bethel Park. – Photo by the author

Either way, this was an early foray up the peninsula by a small Union force from Fort Monroe that was halted by some well-placed Confederate defenses. The rebels repelled multiple attacks and put up some counterattacks of their own, causing the Federal troops to retreat back to the safety of the fort. Union losses were 76 men in total – including some who were caught in an incident of friendly fire. As this was still early in the war, the Union 3rd NY infantry was still wearing their original gray militia uniforms. Men of the 7th NY mistook them for flanking rebels and opened fire, wounding dozens of their compatriots.

Today, almost none of the battlefield is still left. It is now neighborhoods – including housing for nearby Joint Base Langley/Eustis – and a large chunk has been covered by the modern Big Bethel Reservoir. There is a small park on the south side of the reservoir – maybe an acre or two – that has *14* monuments and markers on it! One of the most densely marked fields I’ve ever seen.

Colonial National Historical Park – Yorktown

Yorktown. There’s obviously Revolutionary War history here, but also some Civil War (which I’ll touch on in a minute).

We saw the film here, went through their nice museum (that included original tents used by George Washington!) and toured the field. Between this and Saratoga, we’ve now seen two British surrender sites. We also did the Junior Ranger program here.

Siege of Yorktown – Civil War Battlefield #175

Maj. Gen. George McClellan wanted to capture Richmond, and rather than assaulting “overland” (as Grant would successfully do 2 years later), he opted for a mostly naval approach. He landed his army at Fort Monroe and marched north along the peninsula.

The Confederates had converted some of the old British earthworks from the Revolutionary War and extended them to cover the ground from the York to the James River. When McClellan arrived, he became concerned about the fortifications here (and also paranoid that he was somehow outnumbered) so he spent weeks amassing the largest collection of siege artillery that had ever been assembled in America up to that point. The Siege of Yorktown was on. By the time he was ready to attack though, the few Confederates that were here had fallen back to a new line near Williamsburg. McClellan had given them plenty of time to prepare.

Some of the fortifications at Yorktown were re-used by the Confederates. - <i>Photo by the author</i>
Some of the fortifications at Yorktown were re-used by the Confederates. – Photo by the author

The NPS doesn’t do much to interpret the Civil War actions here – they focus on the Revolutionary War. If you ask at the front desk, they can give you an additional pamphlet that discusses the Civil War actions at various stops along their normal tour route.

Colonial National Historical Park – Jamestowne

Jamestowne. Very cool to see the actual spot of the first permanent English colony in America. The museum here had a lot of relics that were found during archaeological digs in the past few decades. They have learned enough through that process that they’ve begun reconstructing the site as it would have originally appeared, though some of the original site has been eroded away by the James River.

In addition to the usual Junior Ranger program, the boys got to get their hands dirty making some pottery with a ranger. The decking across the wetlands also made for some good nature exposure. John spotted a baby turtle down in the marsh.

Battle of Williamsburg – Civil War Battlefield #176

Moving forward from Yorktown, the Union army attacked the Confederate defenses here at Williamsburg on May 5, 1862. In back-and-forth fighting, no conclusive advantage was gained. The Confederates pulled back toward Richmond overnight.

A Confederate monument at Fort Magruder. - <i>Photo by the author</i>
A Confederate monument at Fort Magruder. – Photo by the author

The site of Fort Magruder at the Battle of Williamsburg – including what look like some of the earthworks – is preserved, but the fenced-in area has plenty of “No Trespassing” signs. We were able to get some photos from the fence line.

Battle of Eltham’s Landing – Civil War Battlefield #177

While half of McClellan’s army attacked the Confederate fortifications at Williamsburg, Brig. Gen. William B. Franklin’s division was sent by boat up the York River to Eltham’s Landing in an attempt to get in behind the rebel lines. Confederate Gen. Joseph E. Johnston had troops in place to watch for such a move and was able to attack with John Bell Hood’s brigade the day after the Union troops landed. The Federals fell back toward the landing, and the gunboats that had escorted their landing fleet were able to provide covering fire. The rebels disengaged, and the Federals didn’t follow them. The Battle of Eltham’s Landing was another inconclusive fight.

Today, there is a wayside and a small parking area near the heart of the battlefield.

The Confederates approached the Battle of Eltham's Landing along this road. - <i>Photo by the author</i>
The Confederates approached the Battle of Eltham’s Landing along this road. – Photo by the author

Battle of Walkerton – Civil War Battlefield #178

In the spring of 1864, Union horsemen under Brig. Gen. H. Judson “Kill-Cavalry” Kilpatrick attempted a raid into Richmond with the hopes of freeing several Union prisoners held at the Belle Isle prison. The attempt failed because Col. Ulric Dahlgren’s men were unable to swing around Richmond and attack from the rear.

The marker at the site of Col. Dahlgren's death. - <i>Photo by the author</i>
The marker at the site of Col. Dahlgren’s death. – Photo by the author

As his men tried to find their way north again, they were attacked by elements of the 9th VA cavalry here at the Battle of Walkerton. Several of them were captured, and Col. Dahlgren (son of the Father of American Naval Ordnance, RADM John A. Dahlgren) was killed. Confederates alleged that they found papers on the young Dahlgren’s corpse that ordered him to burn Richmond and assassinate Confederate President Jefferson Davis. The Lincoln administration denied the authenticity of these orders, but the entire “Dahlgren Affair” remains a point of some controversy to this day.

There is a single, lonely marker at the site where Col. Dahlgren was killed to commemorate this small, but quite consequential fight.

After 6 days visiting dozens of battlefields and historic sites across 3 states, that’s a wrap for our “Epic Man Trip”!

We stopped at my brother’s new house in Aquia Harbor, VA and had dinner with his family, before we made our way back home to Delaware later that night. It was an awesome trip.

Battlefield Visits, Epic Man Trip Edition – Part 5: Norfolk

From my travels, June 28, 2023.

Air Power Park

The museum at the Air Power Park. - <i>Photo by the author</i>
The museum at the Air Power Park. – Photo by the author

This is a very cool city park in Hampton. Sadly, the outdoor aircraft display was closed because of construction, but the totally free museum here had HUNDREDS of model aircraft that people have built and donated. They also have an aviation-focused library, and some informational signs. The curator talked to us for a while, and you could tell that he really loved the subject matter.

Just a few of the hundreds of aircraft models that have been donated to the museum. The boys LOVED these! - <i>Photo by the author</i>
Just a few of the hundreds of aircraft models that have been donated to the museum. The boys LOVED these! – Photo by the author

As a bonus for me, the entrance to the museum is flanked by two Nike Ajax missles – like the ones that were stationed at my office when it was first built.

Fort Monroe

Fort Monroe. Lots of history here. While there were no Civil War battles fought here, this is one of the first places that was used as a “contraband” camp during the war. Confederate President Jefferson Davis was also held here after he was captured. The museums at the visitors center, as well as the Casemate Museum, were all awesome.

This is another site that is operated through some kind of joint partnership with a local group and the NPS doing different things. They have a Junior Ranger program here that the boys participated in, so that was good. And it was cool to be able to drive around such a large Third System fort.

Norfolk Naval Base Cruise

After grabbing some lunch, we took a tour of Norfolk / Hampton Roads by boat about the Victory Rover. Norfolk has the largest naval base in the world. It’s impressive to see not only the fleet, but all the other infrastructure that goes into supporting it.

The captain / narrator was very good about explaining what we were seeing as we went past – including the sites of some old forts and all the modern facilities. We got to see some LHDs in dry dock, some Arleigh Burke-class destroyers (including the USS Porter, named in part for Civil War Admiral David Dixon Porter), and some Ticonderoga-class cruisers (including the USS Gettysburg). None of the aircraft carriers were in port, though – they’re quite busy these days. As we were turning around to head back, we did get to see a Los Angeles-class submarine heading out to sea.

Battle of Sewell’s Point – Civil War Battlefield #173

The earliest naval fight of the war, the Battle of Sewell’s Point was between the gunboat USS Monticello and Confederate shore batteries that had been constructed on Sewell’s Point (now part of the Norfolk Naval Base). Over a few days, shots were fired by both sides, with very little effect. Combined casualties were less than 10 men.

Confederate batteries were here on Sewell's Point. - <i>Photo by the author</i>
Confederate batteries were here on Sewell’s Point. – Photo by the author

I was able to get a photo of the area that the batteries were in while we were on our harbor cruise.

Norfolk Tides

Being native Baltimoreans, my boys and I are Orioles fans. So I couldn’t pass up the chance to see their Triple-A affiliate, the Norfolk Tides, while we were in town.

It was a beautiful night for baseball! We got tickets to the 6:35pm game against the Charlotte Knights. In the end, the Tides crushed them 12-5 and just check out that lineup for our baby birds: Mountcastle, Kjerstad, and Grayson Rodriguez pitching!

Also, it was $0.50 hotdog, popcorn, and soda night. That’s already a win and a dinner solution! Toward the end of the game they announced the attendance: 10,213, with 24,697 hot dogs sold.

Battlefield Visits, Epic Man Trip Edition – Part 2: Sites Around Charleston

From my travels, June 25, 2023.

We were all set to spend a few days in Charleston, so we spent the first day going around town to a few different historical sites.

Fort Moultrie

We started our morning at Fort Moultrie. This is a very cool NPS site that covers the history of coastal fortification from the Revolutionary War through WWII. Each face of the fort is interpreted as a different era. It’s a pretty cool idea.

I think my crew most enjoyed the WWII-era Harbor Control Station, with it’s control tower and underground radio room. There were awesome views from the top of the tower of the entrance to the harbor – including over to Fort Sumter and Morris Island (not to get too ahead of myself).

The boys were also able to earn their first Junior Ranger badges of the “Man Trip” here. The ranger who helped us with that also gave us the packets and badges for our next stop, as it was not staffed on the day we visited.

Charles Pinckney National Historic Site

There isn’t a lot of historical interpretation going on at Charles Pinckney National Historic Site without the visitors center open, nor any NPS personnel of any kind, which is a shame.

The house that is here now is also not the original structure, and the story of the enslaved people who actually worked the fields is fairly weakly presented. Most of the property that was at one time a plantation is now neighborhoods.

Still, they have some nice nature paths (though the boys were a little freaked-out by warnings of venomous snakes, ticks, and fire ants). We saw rice and indigo growing – two crops that Pinckney had raised on the plantation.

The boys were able to get their Junior Ranger badges by filling in some blanks with our own research.

Battle of Simmon’s Bluff – Civil War Battlefield #162

Strap in, folks. The Battle of Simmon’s Bluff is a weird one.

Disrupting supply lines was a major theme of many Civil War operations. Perhaps cutting some of the rail lines into Charleston would cause the city to fall. That was the thinking from the US commanders in the summer of 1862.

Here at Simmon’s Bluff, a single Union regiment, the 55th PA, boarded a transport ship and – escorted by a single US Navy gunboat – steamed up the Wadmalaw River, landing at Yonges Island. Their objective was to attempt to wreck the Charleston & Savannah Railroad. During their march toward that objective, they came upon a Confederate camp that was not well guarded. The surprised rebels fled in panic and the Federal troops raided and burned the now-empty camp site. Apparently satisfied with their handiwork, they turned around, returned to their boat, and left.

There were NO casualties here at all. The attackers’ objective was not achieved even though there doesn’t appear to have been ANY defense mounted. It’s a…Union victory? There are no monuments. No markers. No road-side signs. You’d never know that anything ever happened here. I can’t find any maps of the “action” or the Confederate camp in the Official Records – the only way that I found out the location was to look at the CWSAC maps and poke around the general area they described.

The closest thing to a marker at Simmon's Bluff is a road sign. - <i>Photo by my son, John</i>
The closest thing to a marker at Simmon’s Bluff is a road sign. – Photo by my son, John

I’m really scratching my head and struggling to figure out how this was ever labelled as an “official” “battle” of the Civil War.

Battle of Grimball’s Landing – Civil War Battlefield #163

A small Union force was landed here as a distraction during the main attack on Fort Wagner at the mouth of Charleston Harbor. This “demonstration” attack was the Battle of Grimball’s Landing. Both failed. The Confederates were well-entrenched around Charleston.

The marker for the Battle of Grimball's Landing. - <i>Photo by the author</i>
The marker for the Battle of Grimball’s Landing. – Photo by the author

One bright spot is that the rebels were not able to get around behind the Union forces to cut them off from an escape route because of the brave defense mounted by the 54th Massachusetts Infantry (of “Glory” fame). This was their first battle action and they performed very well.

There is a small monument here – mostly to the 54th MA – in front of the Seashore Farmers Lodge Museum. Not much else to see.

Battle of Secessionville – Civil War Battlefield #164

Believe it or not, the name of the town here pre-dates the Civil War. I believe it had something to do with a familial split of some sort.

One of the markers at the Fort Lamar site. - <i>Photo by the author</i>
One of the markers at the Fort Lamar site. – Photo by the author

Regardless, the Battle of Secessionville was one of the first attempts by the Union army to re-take Charleston by land. A set of clumsy, ill-planned, and uncoordinated attacks were easily repulsed by the strong Confederate fortifications – most notably Fort Lamar – here amongst the swamp land. The Union commander, Brig. Gen. Henry Benham, attempted to deflect criticism of the blunder by trying to claim that he didn’t “attack” but merely conducted a “reconnaissance in force.” I don’t think anyone believes that.

Finding the earthworks of Fort Lamar requires a little bit more imagination than usual. - <i>Photo by the author</i>
Finding the earthworks of Fort Lamar requires a little bit more imagination than usual. – Photo by the author

There is a small park here, and a friends group of some kind who seems to care for the fort, but the interpretation requires A LOT of imagination. There’s only one section of earthworks left that looks anything like earthworks. One thing that’s easy to see is how impossible this position was to attack because of the narrow approach through the wetlands.

Angel Oak

Since we were on the southwest side of town anyway, we might as well stop by and see the Angel Oak – a massive oak tree that is estimated to be as many as 400 years old. It’s pretty incredible to be in the presence of a living thing that has stood that long.

A wide angle view of the Angel Oak. - <i>Photo by the author</i>
A wide angle view of the Angel Oak. – Photo by the author

After a busy day running around to different sites on the outskirts of Charleston, it was nice to get some pizza near our hotel and hang out by the pool. The next day would bring some really awesome activities.

Chilling out in the hotel pool. - <i>Photo by the author</i>
Chilling out in the hotel pool. – Photo by the author

John Dickinson Plantation

From my travels, February 4, 2023.

Several months back, a good friend of mine who had grown up in Delaware, suggested that I check out the John Dickinson Plantation. We had a free afternoon, so it seemed like a good time to explore a bit.

Dickinson was an interesting guy. He is one of the rare founding fathers to have participated in all three of the important early documents: the Declaration of Independence (though he refused to sign it), the Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution (which he signed as a representative from Delaware. A native Marylander, he was among the wealthiest men in the colonies, with holdings in Pennsylvania as well. He was a prolific writer, but seemed to hold a more moderate view than some of the others – perhaps because of his Quaker beliefs. He preferred the idea of a negotiated settlement of the grievances that existed with the British crown. Toward the end of his life, he expressed limited abolitionist sentiments, eventually freeing all his slaves.

Checking out the orientation film at the visitors center. - <i>Photo by the author</i>
Checking out the orientation film at the visitors center. – Photo by the author

The historical site here consists mainly of the mansion on the property. There is a small visitors center with a very sparse museum, though the introductory film was good. One of the more bizarre aspects of the site is how it is affiliated. Up until the 1990s, Delaware had no NPS sites. There was a push to create what became First State National Historical Park by involving the NPS in a few of the state historic sites. There were no NPS employees here – it’s primarily run by Delaware, but they offer a limited Junior Ranger program. There was no book – simply participating in a tour earns the badge. They did have a few activity books about sounds in nature, so we took those, but that part of the park experience seems a little disjointed.

Moving on to the main house, the tour was interesting, but not as impressive as some of the other founders’ homes. For one thing, this was not Dickinson’s main residence, but I also think this was due to his Quaker lifestyle. Despite his wealth, he attempted to maintain a plain, modest lifestyle. One of the more interesting things that the tour guide pointed out is that his wealth was displayed in subtle ways in the home. They had extremely high ceilings, and portraits of the family members included their hands – notoriously hard to paint, and thus much more expensive.

In the end, we learned quite a bit about this founding father, and the boys got their First State Junior Ranger badges. It was a good use of a few hours.