What a difference $36 million can make to a battlefield.
The well-known National Park Service battlefields, always short of funds and heavily dependent on volunteers, operate at a bare-bones level. In contrast, the lesser-known Pamplin Historical Park and the National Museum of the Civil War Soldier, a private park near Petersburg, has a budget in the millions and looks as groomed as a golf course.
A full-time roster of 54 employees, assisted by 17 part-time workers, keeps visitor lines short and the grounds immaculate. "We all pick up litter and cigarette butts," said Andy Talkov, director of programs and cultural resources. "It's not like, 'That's not my job.' We like a clean place. The public likes a clean place."
Besides cleanliness, the park offers a lot for its entrance fees -- $13.50 for adults and $7.50 for ages 6 to 11, compared with nominal or no fees at the national park battlefields.
The day I was there, most visitors were families with children in strollers, perched on dads' shoulders or just running ahead of their parents. Adults and children gather for the tours of historic houses or earthen fortifications. Both generations can try on Civil War-era military jackets and hoop skirts or pick a "comrade" soldier to guide them, via an MP3 player and earphones, through realistic exhibits of ordinary camp life or simulated battles.
Outside on the grounds, demonstrations of how to fire a cannon or build a fortification are offered repeatedly during the day.
The park was established in 1991 by a father and son, both of them businessmen and philanthropists, when they purchased Tudor Hall, their ancestral home, which had been sold out of the family after the Civil War. Robert B. Pamplin Sr. retired in 1976 from Georgia-Pacific Corp., where he was president and chairman of the board. His son, Robert B. Pamplin Jr., is president and chief executive of R.B. Pamplin Corp. in Portland, Ore., a private company with a variety of businesses, including textiles, concrete and asphalt production, and a chain of Christian bookstores.
From the purchase of Tudor Hall grew a family commitment to preserve a piece of the nation's history. Although the park is in a former Confederate state, its exhibits do not favor the South over the North. Soldiers on both sides are seen as ordinary men who believed in their cause and suffered through the long war.
The park is the site of an attack known to historians as the Breakthrough, named for the successful Union effort April 2, 1865, to break through earthen fortifications manned for almost a year by the Confederates defending Petersburg and Richmond, the Confederate capital. After the battle, both cities were occupied by the Union, and on April 9, Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered his troops to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House.
About a mile of those earthworks has been preserved and is a major attraction for the park. When I was there, a guide walked a group of about 15 visitors through and along the fortifications, a deep ditch backed by a hard-packed mound. Openings in the earthworks were cut at an angle to make them less visible. Those passageways allowed the sentries to go out on duty and return without risking further exposure by climbing over the wall.
Guide Jeff Dean posed questions, often looking to the three children in our group for answers.
"How can a soldier make himself invisible?" he asked.
"By moving at night," a boy said, pushing oversize glasses up on his nose.
"That's right," Dean said, smiling, as the boy squirmed with delight at the attention.
"Battles used to be fought in the daytime, but in war you don't have to play by the rules." Dean said. "Grant often moved at night."
It was exactly that ploy that the Union forces used in their pre-dawn attack. As they moved quietly through the open fields and over the obstacles built by the Confederates, Dean said, "nothing was seen or heard, except something that sounded like the rustling of leaves."
He paused along a solid stretch of the earthworks.
"You are standing in the middle of the Union assault," he said as I looked over my shoulder expecting to see attacking soldiers. "You are under Confederate fire. The cannons are booming."
I looked up at the top of the fortification. My imagination took over.
As Civil War historians and preservationists have said for years, standing at the actual spot where something happened makes the war personal, far more so than just reading about it.
The sense of personal connection continues in the museum, where visitors are asked to choose a "comrade" from 13 photographs on the wall. Your comrade, either a Union or Confederate soldier, then becomes your guide as you walk with headphones through the museum's re-creations of the experiences of the common soldier, such as camp life, field hospitals, church services and an encounter with the enemy.
An actor, with proper accent, reads from letters and diaries written by your comrade.
Children tend to pick Delevan Miller, a 13-year-old drummer boy from the 2nd New York Artillery regiment. My comrade was Valerius Cincinnatus Giles, a Texan, who was 19 when he joined the "Tom Green Rifles" on July 11, 1861. That unit later became Company B, 4th Texas Infantry.
Giles was an entertaining observer. In his photo, he seems to have a slight smile and wears his hat at a jaunty angle.
After 12 days of marching, 11 of them in the rain, many of his colleagues had dumped any heavy item of clothing, including jackets and pants, to lighten the load, he said.
"It was a common spectacle on the road to see many species of human nature trudging along singing 'Dixie' as he went, minus everything in the shape of clothes except a shirt."
He noted that the enemy was often as close as 50 yards away when the shooting started.
"Everything was on the shoot. No favors asked and none offered," he told me.
Giles was shot and badly wounded. Left behind by his buddies, he was captured and held at a prisoner of war camp. Escaping, he made his way to Kentucky, where he joined another unit and fought until the end of the war.
I plan to go back to Pamplin and walk the exhibit with each of the other 12 soldiers.
For more information about the park, contact 804-861-2408 or www.pamplinpark.org.
Linda Wheeler can be reached at 540-465-8934 or email@example.com.