"You mean they had a real war here? With guns?"
It's hard for children to believe that the Civil War raged even within the Beltway, on the streets of Washington and in the subuurbs. After all, how could you have a cavalry charge down a freeway, or a battle next to a shopping center? Here's a mini tour to show kids some of the local Civil War ladnmarks.
To set the scene, you may want to start even before Fort Sumter. Go to the ARLINGTON HOUSE , the Custis-Lee Mansion, whose white marble pillars and elegant but comfortable interior speak volumes about the life style of the antebellum south. Here lived Robert E. Lee and Mary Anne Randolph Custis Lee, descendant of Martha Washington.(To get to Arlington House, walk uphill from the Arlington Cemetary parking lot or take the Tourmobile.) But even from the Greek Revival portico of Arlington House, described by house guest Lafayette as having "the finest view in the world," war clouds were seen on the horizon. In 1859, Colonel Robert E. Lee was dispatched by train to HARPERS FERRY to recapture the arsenal from a band of 21 anti-slavery fanatics led by John Brown. The arsenal is still there, and you can tour the Master Armorer's restored home and get a sense of Brown and his raid from the audio-visual exhibits in the Visitors' Center run by the National Park Service. (To get there, take the train as Lee did, or follow I-270 to U.S. 340 to Harpers Ferry.) The action reached the Washington area in July 1861, and when it did, Washingtonians expected war to be a cross between a picnic and a theatrical spectacle. Picnic hampers in tow, hundreds of Washingtonians drove their carriages down the Warrenton Turnpike to watch the first battle of MANASSAS. (You can reach Manassas Battlefield Park by the same route, now called U.S. 29-211, or take I-66 to Route 234, the Manassas Battlefield Park exit. At a picnic area within the park, you can stage a cross between a picnic and a theatrical spectacle.) The point of contention was a junction that controlled the sole railroad approach to Richmond and the leading antagonists were General Irvin McDowell, leading hastily trained Union troops who stopped continually along the march from Washington to pick blackberries, and General Pierre Beauregard, whose equally unseasoned southern troops nevertheless won the battle. Beauregard was aided by a group of Virginians led by brigade commander Thomas Jackson, christened "Stonewall" during the fight. "There stands Jackson like a stone wall!" shouted Confederate Brigadier General Barnard Bee, urging his men on. "Rally on the Virginians!" Bee died in the battle, and his grave is in the park, at the end of a mile- long, self-guided walking tour that begins at the National Park Service Visitors' Center. The trail leads to the rebuilt Henry house, destroyed during the battle, which Julia Henry, then in her 80s, refused to leave. She died in the house and is buried in the small family plot in the yard. At most of the stops on the tour there is a recorded narration activated by a button -- which even kids who know nothing about military strategy love to push. The recordings tell the story of the battle in the soldiers' words. In the Visitors' Center, an electric map illustrates the overall strategy. A second battle, equally disastrous for the north, took place at Manassas a year later, and you can follow the fight on a self-guided driving tour, which includes an old stone house used as a makeshift hospital. What did they do for a whole year in between battles? The answer to this inevitable question should not surprise a Washington child: There was a shakeup. McDowell, blamed for the Union fiasco, lost his command and General George B. McClellan tried to whip the recruits into shape. In the interim, a lot of battles took place away from the Washington area and another Yankee defeat was inflicted at BALL'S BLUFF, near Leesburg, in October 1861. Of all the ways to Leesburg, only one includes a house haunted by the ghost of the loser of the Battle of Ball's Bluff: Colonel Edward D. Baker. Baker, the story goes, dined the night before the battle at Annington, a private brick mansion on a hill plainly marked and visible from White's Ferry Road, reached via Route 28 and I-270. Annington is too well-kept to look really haunted but a ghost provides a nice break from the battlefields. Baker, a Senator from Oregon and confidant of Lincoln, died in the Battle of Ball's Bluff, which is commemorated by a marker on U.S. 15 north of Leesburg and reached via White's Ferry. He never got to Leesburg, or anywhere else for that matter, as his galloping horse with his ghost astride is supposed to be heard at night around Annington. Going back across WHITE'S FERRY -- which is guaranteed to revive a youngster's flagging interest in the war -- you can introduce Confederate General Jubal Early, for whom the cable-guided ferry boat is named. Early swept through the Shenandoah Valley and forded the Potomac somewhere near the present ferry-crossing, and headed for Washington. Marching down Georgia Avenue, he reached FORT STEVENS at Piney Branch Road and Quackenbos Street NW in July 1864. Grant had rushed thousands of Union troops to Fort Stevens to thwart the raid; the fight that ensued is known as the Battle of the Suburbs. Washingtonians again thronged to see the action -- even President Lincoln whose head towering above the ramparts prompted Colonel Oliver Wendell Holmes to shout: "Get down, you fool!" After two days of skirmishing, Early, who realized he was outnumbered, retreated. The Battle of the Suburbs is re-fought every summer, not at Fort Stevens -- which was the only fort to see action of the 68 built to protect the capital from Confederate attack -- but at FORT WARD in Alexandria. Here there is a map showing the location of all of the forts -- as well as a partially restored fort. Restored in 1966, the northwest bastion, one of five bastions with a total of 36 guns, has replicas of the original guns, plus bunkers, a magazine and a trench that originally connected Fort Ward to the other forts around the city. There is also an officers' hut, copied from a Matthew Brady photograph of the real thing, and a small museum of artifacts. My girls, age 5 and 8, and their friends were impressed by the bullet shells and wanted to buy some facsimiles from the museum shop (at 40 cents each). They staged a mock battle in the earthworks, with "Gone With the Wind" accents. This led to a free- style rehash of the movie, with all of them wanting to be Bonnie or Scarlet or Melanie. The Cinderella coach in the playground near the bastion became the carriage Scarlet, Melanie and the baby used to flee to Tara and the rocking horse became Bonnie's pony. Like Scarlet, women did their share, even if they weren't drafted into the armies. Julia Ward Howe wrote the inspiring Battle Hymn of the Republic at the WILLARD, when the hotel was housed in an earlier building at the same 14th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW site. Less illustrious women and girls worked in arsenals, one of which stood on Fourth Street SW. At noon on June 18, 1864, some rocket shells were accidentally ignited and the Washington Arsenal, a hundred-foot-long wooden shed with a tin roof, blew up, killing 21 female employees. The women were buried in a mass grave at CONGRESSIONAL CEMETERY, 18th and E Streets SE, and are memorialized by a tall marble monument. Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton led the funeral procession and the explo confident of victory and the Patent Office was turned into an elegant ballroom for Lincoln's Second Inaugural festivities. Lee surrendered at Appomattox Courthouse the next month, on April 9. Five days later, while the city was still celebrating with bonfires and speeches, Lincoln was shot in the Presidential Box at FORD'S THEATER at 511 10th Street NW, barely three blocks from the site of the gala inaugural. Children love seeing the elegant box where the dirty deed took place and older kids especially can learn a lot about the event and the conspirators from the museum in the basement. Lincoln died the next morning at the PETERSON HOUSE, right across the street, a good place to end your tour.
READING UP ON THE WAR
Before you take the kids on tour, you may want to give them soGoing bacme books to read. Here are some possibilities. Civil War Day by Day: An Almanac 1861-1865, by E.B. Long and Barbara Long. Doubleday, 1971. Indexed descriptions of battles, details on uniforms.
Three Days, by Paxton Davis. Atheneum, 1980. The Battle of Gettysburg from Lee's point of view. For young adults.
The First Book of the Civil War, by Dorothy Levenson. Franklin Watts, 1977. For fifth grade up.
Billy Yank and Johnny Reb, by Earl S. Miers. Rand McNally, 1959. Battle stories for fifth grade and up.