I’ve enjoyed visiting history places ever since I can remember. Whether Devil’s Den at the Gettysburg battlefield or the hallowed room of Independence Hall in Philadelphia or the sweeping lawn of Mount Vernon, places have captured my imagination and allowed me to time travel in my mind. In this brave new world we find ourselves in these days, with a pandemic raging, there is no doubt that human behavior will change, at least a little. We’re still in the tunnel, so it’s way to early to make predictions. But as one who sees great value in standing where history happened, I can hope. I’m hoping that as a result of COVID-19, more people will seek to explore new history places.
The United States is blessed with many organizations that interpret American history from its different perspectives. From the National Park Service to state and private sites, the custodians of our past work hard to preserve places. Cultural preferences for spending leisure time have changed over the years and visits to historic sites have mostly seen a downward trend. I’m hoping several factors might drive people to visit historic sites more in the coming months and year. 1) perception of the safety and therapeutic value of being outdoors (think battlefields, forts, farms), 2) predicted greater interest in staying closer to home, less international focus, 3) renewed emphasis on the real and a curiosity about how people in the past functioned and made decisions that impact us today.
“From the heights of these pyramids, forty centuries look down on us,” Napoleon Bonaparte once told his troops at Giza.
As an author and blogger, I try to convey this power of place in my writing and to encourage readers to visit both the pivotal and lesser known places in American history. I’m currently deep into writing my next book for ages 10-14 about Yorktown. Have you visited this important spot in US history? At this place in Virginia, on a peninsula between the James and York Rivers, at the edge of the Chesapeake Bay, mighty forces converged that essentially ended the American Revolution and allowed the birth of a new nation. The French and British navies clashed in the water and huge guns pounded Cornwallis and his troops dug in at Yorktown. George Washington, Comte de Rochambeau, General Lafayette, Lord Cornwallis, even Alexander Hamilton… they were all there on this ground, waiting with bated breath to see how history would play out. A lone drummer and a white surrender flag spoke volumes. Once you get into the story, it becomes so much more than the field of grass it is today.
My upcoming book Star-Spangled: The Story of a Flag, a Battle, and the American Anthem, will encourage readers to visit the sites in Baltimore where the Americans withstood an attack by a powerful Royal Navy to secure independence a second time. A lawyer, and poet, named Frank Key, was inspired by the sight of the stars and stripes still flying over Fort McHenry and penned the immortal words to the USA’s national anthem. Visit Fort McHenry, or the small shop owned by Mary Pickersgill, where officials from the fort went one summer day in 1813 to place an order for a flag – you can still see the original receipt.
Nineteenth-century author Sarah Orne Jewett wrote about visiting the home of the Brontë sisters in England: “Nothing you ever read about them can make you know them until you go there. Never mind people who tell you there is nothing to see in the place where people lived who interest you. You always find something of what made them the souls they were. And at any rate, you see their sky and their earth.”
No matter where we call home, whether one place our entire childhood, or many places, we are molded by the places we’ve lived. Presidential sites, as one example, offer unique perspective on those leaders who have shaped history. Lyndon Johnson’s simple boyhood home near Austin, the modest home Harry and Bess Truman inhabited after the presidency, Teddy Roosevelt’s beloved Sagamore Hill and its woodlands and beaches.
Whether places of personal memory or national memory, or something else, I hope the power of place will draw people to explore the preserved places of America’s past and to strive toward new understanding of how we got to where we are today.