Daily Archives: July 8, 2008

July 8: A Forgotten Day in American History?

Today we were in the old nation’s capital. Tomorrow we will be in the new one.

Thankfully, Paw-Paw let me sleep in some this morning since I stayed up until two a.m. last night on a very important phone call. I got up and got ready around 9:30 while Madison and Paw-Paw looked at some of the tours available and tried to decide what we would do. We figured the easiest way to check everything out would be to go down to the visitor’s center right by Independence Hall and see what the historic area had to offer.

We got free tickets to tour the hall and also signed up for a hop on/hop off bus tour that ran all day. We had a couple of hours before our tour of Independence Hall started, so we walked across the street and looked at the Liberty Bell.

As important as these things are, I always feel kind of let down when I see them. The Liberty Bell is a symbol of this country, but really all it is is just an old broken bell. It’s famous because a couple of guys couldn’t repair it. I understand the symbolism, but I always expect these symbols to be much more impressive than they are.

We had just enough time before our Independence Hall tour to ride the full route of the bus tour and check out the city. It was one of those double-decker buses, so of course we climbed up on top. I heard Bus Guide Joe come up behind us and say something to a man about UNC. The man was wearing a UNC hat and I swear the tour guide said that he was going there, so I turned around and asked him. It turns out that he is moving down to Chapel Hill next semester to study at Playmakers for graduate school. He is actually living in the apartment complex that I almost did before one of my roommates dropped out. We spent a few minutes talking about the town and ridiculous basketball team we have coming back next year. He said he was in town for the UNC vs. dook game last year and loved the crazy Tar Heel fans running around.

He took us on a 90-minute tour around the city, seeing all the big sights: the Betsy Ross house, Ben Franklin Court, U.S. Mint, City Hall, the Art Museum (“Rocky” steps), the zoo, and the historical district. Joe knew his stuff about the town and was constantly giving little stories about the city and all the architecture, sculptures and history. It was a great overview and gave us a fill of what we wanted to come back to.

We made it back just in time to catch our Independence Hall tour (actually, we were late, but the guy was nice enough to let us in). Our ranger was the worst guide that we’ve had all trip. He has to be new, and very, very shy. It was pretty obvious that he’d memorized the guidebook in chunks. His pattern of speech was crazy: “On July — fourth seventeen — seventy six, the Declaration of — Independence was — not signed but — adopted.” This is not an exaggeration. When someone asked him a question he wouldn’t look them in the eye, but instead looked down at the floor. Insecurity isn’t a good trait in a tour guide.

Like the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall was less than impressive. It’s a fairly small two-story building and other than what happened there, there is nothing impressive about it. It was originally the Pennsylvania State House before it was used for the drafting of the declaration, Articles of Confederation and the Constitution. On the lower floor, there are two main rooms: the judicial room, where the Pennsylvania court met, and the legislative room, where the legislature met. The latter is where our important documents were born.

Most of the furniture pieces are replicas except for George Washington’s chair, with it’s half exposed sun. The guide talked a little bit about what happened there, but it wasn’t anything more than I learned in AP US History in high school. Upstairs was the governor’s area where he would entertain foreign dignitaries or other important people.

And that was it. The tour was over. Again, other than thinking about what happened there, it’s nothing exciting to see.

We walked outside and went to a little building that housed some of the original copies made of the declaration, AoC and Constitution. These are not the original and final documents, but they are copies that were made around the time that these were being drafted. We got our own complimentary copy of the Declaration. All the “s”s look like “f”s.

Next we got a short tour of the old congress building that was used when Philly was the national capital. Again, nothing too impressive and most everything around was a replica. At this point we were done with Independence Square. It was good to see, but not on my top list of great tourist spots in the country.

There is one thing that you have to do in Philly: get a Philly steak. I have been here twice before and went to Pat’s King of Steaks both times. Pat is supposed to have created the Philly Steak. Unfortunately that is in South Philly, pretty far from where we were. The bus tour guide mentioned that Rick’s in the Reading Market in downtown and recommended that instead of Pat’s. Rick is apparently the son or grandson of Pat.

We walked the few blocks over there and got in a pretty short line. We went in the mid-afternoon so I guess we missed the crazy lunch crowd. Madison and Paw-Paw had never had a steak before, so I had to give them a little talk on how to order. We got our order and had to fight for seats, which was awesome.

There is nothing healthy about a Philly steak. It’s the greasiest thing in the world.

That being said, they are so freakin’ good!! I’m glad that they both agreed with me, and I have to say it was better than Pat’s.

We had to walk off this heavy lunch, so we went a few blocks down to what’s called Love Park. It’s a nice little fountain with the famous “Love” sculpture sitting in front of it. (If you don’t know the sculpture, I’ll have a picture up soon. It’s the one where the letters are stacked in a square and the “o” is crooked.) We got a few pictures before we were bombarded by a wedding party that was singing and dancing and taking pictures around the sculpture. They were hilarious and having way too much fun!

We got back on our tour bus at this point and went to the “Rocky” steps in front of the Philadelphia Art Museum. I really wanted to go in and check out the museum, but by the time we got there it was close to closing and there was no reason to pay for 30 minutes. Instead, we took some pictures in front of the statue of Rocky and Madison and I raced up the steps. I won. And I’m no longer impressed by that scene in the movie. It’s only 72 steps, and supposedly Sylvester Stallone only ran eight and had his body double run the rest.

We rode around the last part of the tour again (with a tour guide that wasn’t anywhere near as good as the first) and ended up back at the visitor’s center at around six p.m. We were pretty exhausted at this point, so we got the hotel shuttle to pick us up and crashed back at the hotel. They Philly held us all over (except Madison, of course) so we decided not to grab dinner.

Tomorrow we will be getting up early to head to Washington, D.C. We hope to go ahead and tour Arlington tomorrow when we get there. Right now it looks like we will be staying two nights and then heading home some time on the third day.

We’ve actually reached the end, and the time seems like it has flown by!

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July 7: Gettysburg

One hundred and forty-five years ago this week, Union and Confederate forces essentially accidentally ran into each other right outside of a little town called Gettysburg. It turned out to be one of the most important battles in the War Between the States.

This morning we drove down to the historic battlefield and looked into hiring a tour guide to take us around the 6,000 acre area. At Gettysburg, you can hire a guide to drive in your car with you and give you a personal tour. The first one available was at 11 a.m. (we were there at 9 a.m.), so we decided to waste some time by going around the free museum that they have in the visitor’s center. This is a new visitor’s center and is very well done. We spent two hours in the museum and didn’t even get to finish it before our tour.

According to Paw-Paw, in the old museum they had a battlefield display that used lights to show how the battle progressed over the three days. In this new museum, they use three separate videos in separate rooms to show each day of the battle and what happened. In addition to that, they have relics and artifacts from each day and even interactive games you can play to learn about what the soldiers packed, bugle calls and signal flags.

The museum doesn’t just focus on the battle, but also has sections about the events leading up to the war and what happened after Gettysburg and the war. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to the last part before we had to meet up with our guide.

Right at 11 a.m., Battlefield Guide Joe met us in the lobby of the visitor’s center. He was a tall, goofy looking guy with a distinguished gray mustache, distinguished glasses and a distinguished Gettysburg Battlefield Guide short-sleeve dress shirt.

As we walked out to the car, he asked us where we were from and how much we really knew about the battle and the war. I’m sure he tailors the tour based on these two factors. He was a wealth of knowledge and could go very in depth if he was with people who had studied the war a lot, or could do more of an overview with the not so learned. He also could focus on a certain state if it was involved with the battle.

We were definitely in the not so learned group, and he found that out very quickly. If it wasn’t for that museum, I would have been completely in the dark about the battle and felt like an idiot. Luckily I pick up on things quickly and was able to follow what he was talking about and ask some semi-intelligent questions.

Since we were from North Carolina, he focused largely on what the N.C. brigades did during the war, which was actually quite a lot. They were a large part of the first battle on the first day, and got the farthest on Pickett’s Charge, the South’s last ditch attempt to defeat the Union. This is where the name “Tar Heels” is supposed to have come from, owing to the fact that North Carolinians would stand their ground and refuse to fall, like they had tar on their heels.

He based the tour around each day, driving us to different parts of the battlefield and showing us where the armies were and how the battle progressed. Once I got my bearings, it really started to make a lot of sense and was interesting to see. I tried to visualize the thousands of troops that were running around this tiny town.

According to our guide, very soon after the battle ended, a local man started buying the battlegrounds to preserve them and historians came up and started interviewing injured or captured soldiers that were left behind to find out exactly where all the different brigades were at different parts of the battle. Because of this, they have more than 1,000 memorials littering the battlefield, showing where the different brigades were. They even have little flank markers that show exactly where each army line was. Our guide said that there are no other battlefields that are this preserved and documented around now.

Each of the southern states involved in the battle put up a monument on the main southern front of the battlefield. He took us to the North Carolina monument, which was by far the most artistic. It was a sculpture of four soldiers that were running in Pickett’s charge. Each soldier represented a different state that the soldiers were going through: one was injured, one was grim-faced and determined, one was obviously nervous, and the other was a grizzled veteran trying to calm the nervous soldier.

We found out that the sculpture was done by Gutzon Borglum. That name should sound familiar because of an earlier post: it’s the same man that sculpted Mt. Rushmore. Pretty cool.

I won’t bore you with all the history of Gettysburg that I learned today, but I’ll suffice it to say that if the southern generals had listened to Lee and thought a little more, they probably would have won the war. Lee’s ideas and plans for attack should have worked in theory, but the execution was awful. I’m not saying I wanted the South to win because it would have ruined this country, but it’s amazing how close they were to dealing a harsh blow to the Union and possibly forcing an end to the war.

“It was like a mirage. They could see it right in front of them, but every time they reached out for it it went away,” said Battlefield Guide Joe.

The North had their share of blunders, too, but they got lucky by just barely beating the Southern forces to Little Round Top — a high hill that gave great attacking position around the town — and knew the area better so that they could position themselves accordingly.

I’ve never studied the Civil War much, but seeing this battlefield and how everything worked got me really interested. And Joe was full of great anecdotes about the war and people that were involved with it. He said that the guides basically do a lot of research into people and stories during the off season (winter), so he gets a lot of information then. He also hears many stories from guests and takes the time to look them up.

At the end I asked him how he got involved with the park and how he got the job. He said he had been studying the war and the Southern generals since the ninth grade. He’s a self-proclaimed huge Civil War buff. I guess he has a dream job.

After driving around for about two hours with Joe, we dropped him off at his car and thanked him for the tour. We were done with Gettysburg then and decided to grab a quick lunch at the Kickin’ Kitchen in downtown before heading over to Philly.

We had to fight some traffic, but got to Philadelphia around 6 p.m. and got checked into our room. We will be here for two nights and will take the time to explore the city — mainly the old downtown portion — tomorrow.

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