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Virginia History: Old and way cool

Photo courtesy Mount Vernon Ladies Association

History’s mantle flows throughout the Commonwealth of Virginia to many sites associated with America’s Colonial and Civil War past. New and engaging interpretations bring visitors into the state’s heritage with contemporary hands-on experiences, from living and training like a Civil War soldier to helping with 17th-century farm chores.

Civil War experiences
Civil War-era sites, homes and museums occupy virtually every corner of Virginia, and several offer hands-on ways to experience history.

The USS Monitor Center inside Newport News’ Mariners Museum portrays life aboard the Union ironclad Monitor during its fight with the Confederate ship Virginia in the 1861 Battle of Hampton Roads, the historic first battle between two ironclad ships.

Groups may build their own ironclad, experience the action inside the “battle theater,” visit sailors’ living quarters and hear a sailor describe his life on board. They can also participate in the raising of the ship’s turret from the ocean floor by Navy crews in the Recovery Theater and see replicas of the famous turret as it was being built.

In Petersburg, Pamplin Historical Park offers several hands-on Civil War experiences that emphasize soldier lifestyles. Its 422-acre campus, which was the scene of one of the war’s final battles, has four museums, three antebellum homes, costumed living-history interpreters and original Civil War battlefield fortifications.

Kristy Fowler, Pamplin’s senior marketing and membership specialist, said groups of up to 55 people can experience soldier life in the Civil War Adventure Camp overnight program.

“This is an 18-hour immersion program beginning at 4 one day and going until 10 next morning,” said Fowler. “People dress like soldiers, march in drills and sleep in bunkhouses, re-created huts and tents.

“We can include a battle skirmish or something like a mock battlefield leg amputation. Meals consist of jerky, dried fruit, corn muffins, beef stew and hard tack.”

Pamplin visitors can gain more insight into solders’ lives by listening to MP3 downloads of actors reading from soldiers’ journal entries that are offered by the site’s museums.

Early settlers
Long before the Civil War consumed Virginia, settlers from Europe arrived in the Shenandoah Valley. Their stories are the focus at the Frontier Culture Museum in Staunton.

The museum presents living history at a collection of farm sites from England, Ireland, Germany and Colonial America that were moved from their countries of origin and reconstructed on site.
One of the newest components depicts West African life in the 16th and 17th century, an era in which many were taken from the region and brought to America as slaves.

Costumed interpreters explain bygone ways of breeding animals, harvesting crops and blacksmithing, and guests may try their hands at farm and house chores.

Themed tours are available about architecture, farm trades, food preparation and animal life.

George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate on the Potomac River near Washington  continues to add enjoyable group options to its visitor experiences. The new Through My Eyes character tours have people from Washington’s world lead visitors through the residents’ daily activities, thus providing firsthand narratives about life on the 18th-century estate. Among the tour leaders are a farm manager, a farm clerk and Mount Vernon’s landscape architect.

“The new character tours at Mount Vernon bring a unique perspective to the visitor experience at George Washington’s home,” said spokeswoman Melissa Wood. “I can’t think of a better way to learn about George Washington’s farm than from his own farm manager.”

Groups can combine Mount Vernon’s regular or after-hours private evening tours with Potomac River cruising and meals in the estate’s Mount Vernon Inn. Dine-arounds in nearby Alexandria — an ascending culinary destination with extensive Colonial and Civil War connections of its own — are also memorable.

Crime and espionage
Groups touring Northern Virginia near the nation’s capital region can have more interactive historical encounters at two of Washington’s newest museum additions: the National Museum of Crime and Punishment and the International Spy Museum.

Courtesy International Spy Museum

America’s criminal history is on display at the National Museum of Crime and Punishment. Exhibits include stories of pirates, Wild West outlaws, serial killers and gangsters, as well as more recent white-collar criminals hiding behind computer technology.

Simulators let visitors interact with a realistic forensics lab, create identification cards, use a lie detector test and engage in high-speed police chases and firearms training. They can collect fingerprints and shoeprints, then match them to suspects. Or they can learn how to make sense of blood spatter patterns and match DNA profiles.

The International Spy Museum chronicles the history of global espionage; scavenger hunts are among the hands-on options. Teams navigate the exhibits as they experience spy life and compete with each other and the clock to break codes, deceptive maneuvers and more.

Combine a museum visit with a Spy City Tour, a two-hour look at some of Washington’s most notorious spy cases over the past 65 years. During the tour, a training officer “briefs” recruits, who engage in a top-secret mission to complete an undercover operation.

And this fall, Madame Tussauds will debut its $2 million U.S. Presidential Gallery, which will feature wax figures of all 44 U.S. presidents.

Getting ready for Civil War Sesquicentennial

The American Civil War Sesquicentennial commences in 2011, and lead-up events and planning for the 150th anniversary have already begun. More battles occurred in Virginia than in any other state, so anniversary events and educational opportunities are taking shape in the hands of a state commission, local and regional committees, the Virginia Tourism Corporation and the Journey Through Hallowed Ground initiative, a 180-mile route from Charlottesville, Va., to Gettysburg, Pa.

The journey corridor encompasses a National Heritage Area that Congress mandated a couple of years ago. It has more than 10,000 documented historic sites, as well as contemporary towns, cities and attractions like antique shops, wineries and stunning pastoral scenery through Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania. The journey is partnering with Middle Atlantic Receptive Tours (MARS) to coordinate themed custom tours of the corridor’s sites and experiences.

“We customize all our tours,” said MARS president Kate Scopetti, “and we are working to blend contemporary components with the journey’s history — like a wine event, festival or [historic] character-led tours of historic homes and Civil War battlefields.”