Chances are, when you tell the family that you want to take a trip to learn about the Civil War, you’re not going to get the reaction they show in the Disney commercials when the family gets the big announcement. And, that’s OK. It’s important to learn not to pre-judge. Even if “civil war” does sound pretty boring.
I admit I thought it was pretty boring myself. I planned a recent trip to Vicksburg, Mississippi because I thought it was the right thing to do. I wanted to be interested, but I didn’t expect to have a fantastic time. I went because I know we have a lot of readers that will be doing Civil War trips and I want them to have information — but I didn’t expect to become a Civil War fanatic.
Family vacations are precious and rare. You only have so much time with your kids, and that’s driven parents to make vacations grander and grander. We find whatever glorious locales we’re told our kids will most enjoy, but we forget about cultural tourism. That’s the fancy name for spending time in a place instead of reading a sales brochure and booking a trip where your decisions are limited to where to eat chicken strips tonight. Cultural tourism means you learn about a place by spending time there. It doesn’t mean it’s boring. It can mean the best family vacation in years, and it might just become a habit.
There are stories and destinations your kids need to explore with you. Places that need to be talked about, family history shared and values passed on. Some themes never grow old or become less important. The Civil War is one of those topics. Our country literally fought brother against brother, and if you look hard enough, your own family probably has some connection.
The problem? It sounds boring and evokes memories of fighting in the backseat on a never-ending road trip (dad usually took pictures and told war stories) and wanting to go home. Badly.
But a road trip to a place like Vicksburg, Mississippi can change all that. Vicksburg is the site of arguably the most important battle in the entire war, and the area remains almost untouched because the Federal army moved so quickly. You can walk roads traveled by boys fighting for their country and imagine how they might have felt. These kids were sometimes 14 years old. Think about that.
You can talk about what your family would have decided (this was no clear cut decision in many parts of the country, especially here) about slavery and you can make history relevant to your kids. Have you ever explained the situation and asked if they’d fight for the North or South? You might have a divided family too.
Can You Get Hooked on History?
Most people who are “Civil War Nuts” warn we’re all just one story or experience away from being addicted to knowing more. If you really give yourself a chance, it’s hard to stop learning about it. Maybe it’s the humanity, the stories of individual triumph and defeat or the American versus American subtext, but give yourself a few days to just let it happen and you’ll want more. Your kids too.
As parents, our challenge is to make history relevant to our kids. You can’t take them to battlefields or history museums and point to a host of exhibits and expect they’ll rush to read all the signs and learn dates and statistics. It just isn’t how kids are wired. You have to let them explore on their own terms. That’s what makes a destination like Vicksburg the perfect place to have a lot of fun and learn a little bit at the same time. We’ll have an itinerary for exploring Vicksburg soon, but I thought it was important to give some ideas on how to get excited first.
Tips for Teaching Kids to Love History
- We all have a different threshold for time in a museum. I’m an adult and some days I’m just not into it. Respect that about kids. Plan trips with breaks and lots of options. Do some research ahead of time and start off with a Junior Ranger badge or scavenger hunt. If the museum doesn’t offer something make it up yourself. It’s OK to rush from exhibit to exhibit. What’s important is that kids enjoy museums and see why they are important.
- Get outside. Take a picnic or do our family’s “picnic on the go” (walking around eating everywhere that looks good). Don’t try to be a tourist, just hang out. After a long time in the car everyone needs to relax. Don’t push the schedule with inside activities.
- Go to a local swimming pool or recreation center and let your kids make some friends. Ask the parents what their kids enjoy most about the area. Set up a play date later in the vacation.
- Go geocaching. Research ahead of time and you’ll probably find lots of Civil War themed geocaches. The brief history of why the cache was placed in the area will be more interesting to kids looking for treasure than anything you read from a guidebook. Maybe your kids would enjoy taking pictures and making a scrapbook to show grandparents or their teacher.
- Research some stories that your kids can relate to. When you visit the cemetery, talk about what it would be like to have your cousins and uncles and brothers and father there. The Civil War is particularly moving because kids can relate to the stories. Skip the long tours with blow-by-blow accounts of the battle and ask one of the park rangers or other staff to tell your family a story.
- Don’t try to see it all. Visit as much culture as you actually, really truly enjoy. And then stop. Go shopping or see a movie. Hang out with a local family or talk to random people you meet. Ask them their stories. This isn’t one roller coaster after another, it’s whatever you let it become.
- Lastly, be prepared to talk about difficult topics. Slavery, how you die, what happens when you die, where you go to the bathroom when you’re fighting, and who was right and who was wrong are all likely subjects. This is why you take your kids and don’t just send them on a school trip or let them figure it out in college. This is your opportunity to tell them what you think and hopefully teach tolerance and the ability to resolve differences. Laying the foundation for your family values and history is what family vacations are for. There’s nothing wrong with giant mice and roller coasters, but sometimes you need to spend quality time. And get addicted to Civil War battlefield trips at the same time.