Pamplin Historical Park in Dinwiddie County, Virginia, is by far the finest Civil War site I've ever visited (I've been to Gettysburg four times, as well as to locations throughout Kentucky, Virginia, Alabama and Tennessee).
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The park, located six miles from the battlefield at Petersburg, Virginia, has received the valued "Gem" rating from the American Automobile Association (AAA) given to sites of "exceptional interest and quality."
The National Museum Of The Civil War Soldier is located at the park, featuring a wonderful, interactive audio tour which I'll describe later in this review.
My brother and I had never taken a vacation together, so when we finally did so together in June, 2001, we undertook a "military campaign" from Kentucky through Ohio to Pennsylvania and then to Virginia.
The Petersburg battlefield:
One of our stops was the Petersburg National Battlefield, another "Gem" site in the AAA Mid-Atlantic Tourbook. The battlefield is where Confederate General Robert E. Lee
attempted to halt the Union Army's advance on the city of Petersburg and on the Confederate States' capital in Richmond, Virginia.
A lovely, well-maintained battlefield, featuring a huge (170- by 60-foot wide, 30-foot deep) crater created by Union soldiers who planted explosives under the Confederate positions after constructing a 511-foot long mine shaft beneath the rebels and then detonated those explosives) is great for history buffs to visit, but somewhat lacking in family exhibits.
Visitor brochures obtained at the visitor center in town weren't much help (they don't mention Pamplin Historical Park at all).
Curious to find a better understanding of the fighting here, we noticed Pamplin Historical Park in the AAA Tourbook and drove the six miles to Dinwiddie County, Virginia.
Pamplin Historical Park:
It was worth the effort. Pamplin Historical Park, which includes The National Museum Of The Civil War Soldier, is a wonderful place, something with educational appeal for the entire family.
Unlike the National Battlefield area in Petersburg, this site is a state-of-the-art facility that is privately run and lovingly maintained. Pamplin Historical Park is near the site of the Union breakthrough of Lee's defensive line.
After a year of fighting in and around Petersburg (with some 42,000 Union (United States) and some 28,000 Confederate casualties in this campaign alone), the Confederate lines fell apart on April 3, 1865, and their supply lines collapsed. Less than a week later, Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to Union forces under General U. S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia.
Exhibits and demonstrations:
The battle is told via exhibits along the 1.1 miles of battle trails in Pamplin Historical Park. There are paved areas for large crowds, or you can journey along traditional, grass-covered trails through the surrounding woods.
Along these trails there are reconstructed soldier tents, earthworks, artillery emplacements and reenactors. The reenactors live and dress the life of the Civil War soldier --- they are serious about their subject, very intelligent and more than willing to answer any question.
Various programs occur during the day at different times (each allowing you time to get to the next program; there is a lot of walking, but if that's not a problem, it's worth the effort).
One program involved a friendly young man dressed as a Union soldier demonstrating the complicated loading of a Civil War musket --- slowly demonstrating how the musket ball (bullet) and gunpowder were loaded and rammed down the rifle barrel in preparation for firing.
Time is taken to show each step and explain it --- on this occasion adults and children of all ages were present, and the man took the time to be sure all questions were answered before proceeding.
The man then repeated the demonstration, but this time with the amazing speed soldiers used during that war to load, fire and reload their weapons to fire again, all the while often standing only yards from their enemies. The bravery and presence of mind of the Civil War soldier is apparent from these demonstrations.
Live cannon firing demonstration:
Another demonstration is done in an area that features stadium style seating outdoors (essentially long wooden benches tiered up a small hill). This demonstration involves a Confederate artillery unit shown loading and firing their weapon (no real ammo is fired, but the explosive sound is the same, so be prepared to cover your ears if you feel it necessary).
For me, that was an important demonstration since I had relatives, the Gans brothers fresh from Germany, who were sergeants (barely speaking English) in artillery units (Fred was a Confederate who survived the war, while his brother, John, was a Union soldier killed in action at Franklin, Tennessee).
It's truly something inspiring to see the speed and care taken by a handful of men to fire a Civil War cannon. This demonstration was also done slowly to explain each soldier's task in getting the cannon ready to fire, then the demonstration was done at normal speed. Fascinating.
These modern cannoneers were very receptive to questions (many have college degrees and/or are professional reenactors who have traveled to Civil War reenactments across the country, so their knowledgeable answers were very helpful).
Near the artillery display is the Pamplin Battlefield Center, a very unique design based on the actual battlefield earthworks. Inside, the story of the Union breakthrough of the Confederate defenses is told in detail via displays, artifacts and a very good film.
The National Musueum Of the Civil War Soldier:
The Park's pride and joy, to me at least, was The National Museum Of The Civil War Soldier. It's a $10.5 million, 25,000 square foot building, which both adults and children will enjoy.
The Musuem features a truly wonderful idea via an interactive audio experience.
Each visitor is asked to choose a real Civil War soldier from a group of actual men's profiles and photos (including their home states and ranks). Then they are given a programmed CD player that is worn about the neck and hangs like a purse (very comfortable to wear).
Headphones allow each visitor to hear their own unique program, so no two tourists experience the museum exactly the same way (much like the experience of every Civil War soldier was different).
You then travel through this wonderful musuem, past various recreated entrenchments, Civil War camps, displays and artifacts, with your Civil War companion. At each stop there is a broadcast triggered by entering the room describing the scene before you.
Each exhibit has a number that you key (like a CD track number) into your CD player to get specific information on that display. At various points, you also can input a number to bring up information on the soldier you selected as your "companion," with a narrator telling you the soldier's experience at that moment in time, usually through letters and diaries left by the soldier.
This is fascinating, with a sense of mystery as well. You don't find out the fate of your Civil War companion, whether he lived or died, until the end of the tour.
The story of 620,000 lives lost:
The tour ending tells the tale of many men's fates. Of the 3 million men who served in the Union and Confederate Armies during the Civil War, more than 620,000 were killed in action between 1861-65.
That's more deaths of American soldiers than in any other war fought by United States forces. In fact, a figure (not counting casualties from The Gulf War or the current War Against Terror) that is greater than ALL the combined deaths of U. S. forces in all wars fought by U. S. troops in our nation's history.
Features of the museum also include a Trial By Fire Gallery where you travel amid sounds and sights (some via film) a soldier would have experienced in battle.
There are also interactive exhibits such as one where a soldier on video, responding to data you input, asks you what equipment you would choose to carry from a list provided.
After keying in your choices, the soldier then tells you if you were wise in your choices or not --- every choice adds weight to the equipment you're already carrying (napsack, rifle, ammunition, uniform, etc.), so do you want to lug around food, coffee, frying pans, cups, extra socks, or any of several choices in addition to the weight of the equipment you're already carrying on a long march on foot?
The visitor basics and the website:
Admission in 2002 for all this is only $12 for an adult (with discounts for AAA members, for senior citizens and for children). Annual passes are also sold. All major credit cards are accepted.
Snacks and drinks are available at the site. Picnicking is permitted, so pack the cooler.
AAA recommends three hours minimum for a visit, but I spent the entire day from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.
The Park is located via I-85 at exit 63A at 6125 Boydton Plank Road in Dinwiddie County, about six miles from Petersburg National Battlefield and the city the battlefield is named after. There are plenty of signs along the way to guide you there.
For the person planning to spend the night, accommodations such as Best Inn & Suites, Comfort Inn, Hampton Inn, Holiday Inn, Mayfield Inn and Quality Inn are located in Petersburg.
Complete current information can be found at their website at: http://www.pamplinpark.org
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Best Suited For: Families
Best Time to Travel Here: Mar - May