Our homeschool co-op has been studying American history this year, and we ended the year with a Capstone History Field Trip like none other. We camped near Harpers Ferry, West Virginia in The Treehouse Camp at Maple Tree Campground, and from there, launched day trips to Civil War sights in Gettysburg, Antietam, and Harpers Ferry.
We biked our way on a guided tour through the Gettysburg National Military Park, where there were over 50,000 casualties in what the park’s website calls the Civil War’s “bloodiest battle.” We made numerous educational stops along the battlefield, including at the Pennsylvania Memorial, Devil’s Den, the Wheatfield, the Peach Orchard, and Little Round Top, all of historical significance. Later, in twilight, we visited the Virginia memorial and stood looking across the battlefield where Confederate and Union soldiers engaged 150 years ago. Our kids biked and played ball at the foot of the memorial, and we wondered how this land could have hosted such tragedy. One of the amazing things about Gettysburg is that it has been preserved and restored to be so nearly like it was at the time of the Battle; being there is a bit like being transported to the earlier century.
The next day, we paddled Antietam Creek at Antietam National Battlefield, after watching a short movie at the visitors center. We picnicked alongside Burnside’s Bridge, where a small but determined group of Georgians managed to hold off thousands of Union forces for about three critical hours, and over 500 Union soldiers were killed on the bridge. Ultimately, though, Northern troops were able to turn Southern troops back, and while they lost more soldiers, this was considered enough of a victory to provide President Lincoln the opportunity to make his Emancipation Proclamation. As we learned with our kids, this was a turning point in the American Civil War.
This day’s outing also included a biology and ecology component, as we looked for (and found) critters in a small creek flowing into the Antietam, suggesting (but not definitively) that the ecosystem in that spot was in pretty good shape – a turtle hatchling, two species of crayfish, tadpoles, midge larva, and other macroinvertebrates (well, let’s see, the turtle is a vertebrate, to be clear).
We had the tiniest bit of white water on this trip, and, before someone points out my omission, I’ll just go ahead and admit that just before we were to turn upstream on the the slightly high-watered Potomac for our put-out, the mom and I who shared a tandem kayak did crash into a small, uh, boulder, take on a bit of water, swamp the kayak, and need a wee bit of help getting sorted out. Surprisingly, no ankles were busted as feet navigated the rocky bottom and the current pushed the kayak into us, and her Very Good Binoculars were strapped down tight and not lost. I need a bit more practice.
Nick, of course, had no such problems, and would love the opportunity for more kayaking, preferably with a little more excitement.
That night, we made our first visit to Harpers Ferry, for the ghost stories tour. Following the hoop skirted story teller and her lantern through the narrow cobblestone streets, we learned a lot of history about Harpers Ferry, famous for John Brown’s raid, the federal arsenal of the day, and for changing hands so many times during the Civil War.
A particularly arresting setting for a story was St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church, a neo-Gothic structure that was both lovely and spooky against the darkening sky. (Hint: maybe one of the other homeschool moms got a night-time photo of the church I could substitute for this one!)
The next day, we toured Harpers Ferry in greater detail, calling on the grandfather of one of the co-op kids to share his considerable knowledge of military history. He joined us for the day, explaining, among other things, how the geography of Harpers Ferry shaped its significance.
The touchable terrain model of the area in the Harpers Ferry National Park Visitors Center was a great help in visualizing the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers and the high bluffs above the rivers. Then we got to experience the geography on foot – walking the pedestrian bridge across the river alongside the still-busy train trestle that leads to the mountain tunnel and hiking to Jefferson’s Rock on the Appalachian Trail.
The view from Jefferson Rock is stunning, and the kids learned that President Jefferson had called it “worth a voyage across the Atlantic to see.”
We finished with a long walk to the Canal House restaurant situated above the historic downtown area of old Harpers Ferry, where the patio was perfect for our abundance of teens and kids, and where Nick and I enjoyed seeing my mom, who drove over from my home town to eat lunch with us.
Our History Capstone Field Trip was the brainchild of Maureen Moslow-Benway, who taught history to the kids at co-op during the past year. She developed the itinerary and did all the research to find the best tours, camp grounds, and sights to see. Her feel for combining adventure with understanding is exquisite – no easy task with a group ranging from some fit teen athletes to at least one getting-older mom (I speak of myself!) and the littlest sister of the group, who is a petite eight year old.
Such a trip can be expensive. Several of us moms did extra work to earn money for the trip outside the family budget, and camping and eating at our campsite or packing food for more of our meals helped keep the cost more manageable. The two restaurant meals were planned ahead, with Maureen choosing just the right places to fit our group. Pizza at the right time is, as we all know, a major ingredient in keeping everyone on track.
As I wrote to the other moms who participated, this group puts the “co” in “co-op.” In addition to Maureen’s good planning and leadership, the other ingredient that made this trip a success was the flexibility and good sense of the kids and the adults. Touring Civil War sights could be a battle with the people you’re touring with, but instead, we pedaled, paddled, tramped and scrambled through history with everyone working and learning together.
I can’t wait to see what Maureen has planned for us next year, as the kids study Reconstruction through the Present.
No pressure, Maureen.