The footprints of the American Revolution are still deep enough to follow. Grab the family and take a traveling history lesson.
Blame it on the powdered wigs. Or colonial America’s lack of a top-rate sex symbol. For whatever reason, the Revolutionary War, easily among the most decisive events in world history, has often failed to capture the modern imagination. When even Ken Burns finds a subject too slow-going for documentary treatment, you know you’re in need of a PR overhaul.
But it shouldn’t be this way. I know because I recently marched — OK, drove — the route of the Revolutionary War trail and found its flint-and-powder legacy alive and blazing. With all due respect to The History Channel — which, like most men between 25 and 100, I worship — history does not “come alive” either by means of television or bad clichés. Travel is the vehicle that fires the imagination for history. Sit a 10-year-old in front of a documentary about George Washington and see what happens. Now haul that same kid to Pennsylvania’s Valley Forge and you’ll see what a difference actually being there can make. Chances are, you and he will take home more than a souvenir plastic musket.
There is an endless list of Revolutionary War sites, but the following five form an essential tour that traces the origins of America’s fight for liberty in New England to its dramatic conclusion on the hallowed fields of Virginia.
BOSTON'S FREEDOM TRAIL
What You Should Know: The birthplace of American independence, Boston was the place colonial opposition to British rule boiled over in pubs and meeting halls, leading to the Boston Tea Party and other steps on the road to revolution. Founded by Puritans in 1630, and the stomping ground of John Hancock, Samuel Adams, and Paul Revere, Boston was the staging ground for Britain’s opening strikes against the colonists.
Where To Go: Following a continuous line of brick and/or red paint through streets and sidewalks, the two-and-a-half-mile Freedom Trail takes in 16 historic points of interest on its meandering course through Old Boston. Faneuil Hall is the meetinghouse where colonists spouted off against British oppression. It’s only slightly less impressive today for being a place where tourists gather to buy cheap plastic trinkets. The Green Dragon Tavern — called the “headquarters of the Revolution” — is still serving pints of ale, useful after lunching next door at the 1826-opened Ye Olde Union Oyster House (617-227-2750). In the steeple of the Old North Church, Robert Newman assisted Paul Revere’s midnight ride by hanging two lanterns, signaling the British crossing of the Charles River on their way to Lexington and Concord in 1775. A massive obelisk atop Bunker Hill marks the site of the first major battle of the Revolution. Even without connection to the war, the Freedom Trail might constitute the country’s best city walk, taking in a mix of neighborhoods, including the Italian North End and Irish community in Charlestown.
Fly Into: Boston
How To Get There: The Freedom Trail begins in Boston Common at the Visitor Information Center, near the corner of Tremont and West streets, about 400 feet south of the Park Street subway station.
Where To Stay: The Tremont Boston is an elegant Theater District hotel, a five-minute walk from the start of the Freedom Trail. From $150; (617) 426-1400
For More Information: Freedom Trail and Boston National Historical Park, (617) 242-5642
MINUTE MAN NATIONAL HISTORICAL PARK
What You Should Know: “The Shot Heard ’Round the World” was fired by American rebels at British soldiers at Concord on April 19, 1775, signaling the beginning of the American Revolution. The shot was the response to what British General Thomas Gage meant as a routine operation to seize rebel arms stashed at Concord. Marching inland from Boston, the redcoats ran into an ambush at Lexington, where they killed eight Americans. Word spread through the country-side, and when Gage’s troops reached the North Bridge at Concord, the Americans engaged their colonial masters in battle for the first time. The prolonged skirmish between approximately 3,500 colonial militiamen and 1,700 of His Majesty’s soldiers ended with the British retreating to Boston.
Where To Go: The 900-acre park includes approximately three miles of the 20-mile Battle Road Trail between Boston and Concord. Major points are accessible via pullouts along Route 2A, but the best way to experience these peaceful New England woods is on foot. The reconstructed North Bridge is the site of a Minute Man statue and markers commemorating the first British soldiers killed in the war. The absence of cheesed-up attractions helps the site retain an austere dignity. The same can be said of Paul Revere’s Capture Site and the Bloody Angle battle area, a bend in the road marked by a simple interpretive sign. The small towns of Lexington and Concord are a wonder, if only for their jaw-dropping neighborhoods. About $850,000 gets you into a bottom-of-the-barrel colonial in Concord; $7.25 million was the asking price for the most expensive house on the market when I wandered the streets this summer.
Fly Into: Boston
How To Get There: From Boston, follow I-90 West (aka MassPike) to I-95 North. Take Exit 30B onto Route 2A West. Follow signs one mile to the park. The drive takes about 30 minutes from Boston.
Where To Stay: See the Freedom Trail.
For More Information: Minute Man National Historical Park, (978) 369-6993
NEW YORK ROUTES 4 AND 22
What You Should Know: “The course of the [Hudson] river, so beneficial for conveying all the bulky necessaries of an army, is precisely the route that an army ought to take for the great purposes of cutting the communications between the Southern and Northern Provinces.” So reasoned British General John Burgoyne in planning the great offensive campaign of 1777 that promised the destruction of the rebellion. In taking Fort Ticonderoga, Burgoyne’s 9,000-man force easily achieved its first main objective. Moving south on Albany, however, his troops found some 17,000 Americans gathered around Saratoga. There, the British suffered crushing defeats in two battles in September and October, the decisive charge being led by Benedict Arnold. The Battles of Saratoga are now widely considered the turning point of the Revolutionary War.
Where To Go: State Routes 4 and 22 between Saratoga National Historical Park (40 miles north of Albany) and New York’s border with Canada neatly follow Burgoyne’s route. Innumerable highway signs commemorate events of the “Washington slept here” variety, but the highlights are Fort Ticonderoga, impressively rebuilt to its stone-and-timber glory, and the battlefields at Saratoga. This is Benedict Arnold country. One of the Revolution’s most intriguing characters, America’s most notorious traitor wasn’t simply an anonymous spy who attempted to hand West Point to the British on a silver platter. He became famous for being, before his descent into treason, a nationally celebrated hero in battles against the British. An early success came with the rebel siege of Fort Ticonderoga. From the many cannon mounts lining the walls of the huge star-shaped fortress, visitors get expansive views of Lake Ticonderoga, making it clear why this position was so stra-
tegic — and an example of how travel and history go together like chips and salsa.
Seven miles north, Crown Point State Historic Site (739 Bridge Rd.) contains the ghostly ruins of stone forts successively occupied by French, British, and American troops. About 75 miles south of Ticonderoga is Saratoga National Park. Unlike much of colonial America, the rolling terrain here remains undeveloped and thus more conducive to the kind of quiet reflection that perhaps makes it possible to edge closer in spirit to the events of the war — original artillery pieces and clouds of insects included. The lone monument to Arnold, a nameless stone marker, sits in the corner of an empty field, surrounded by iron bars. A stone boot symbolizes both his heroic charge at Saratoga and eventual ignominy. The inscription refers to Arnold only as “the most brilliant soldier of the Continental Army.”
Fly Into: Albany or New York’s LaGuardia or JFK airports
How To Get There: Saratoga National Historical Park is 40 miles north of Albany, off I-87 (Exit 12) or along Route 4. Fort Ticonderoga, just off Route 22 (follow the signs) is in the town of Ticonderoga.
Where To Stay: Twenty minutes from downtown, the Marriott Albany is a reliable base for excursions northward. $120-$180; (518) 458-8444. Among small Ticonderoga’s inexpensive motels, the Stone House Motor Lodge is clean and close to the fort. $52-$86; (518) 585-7394
For More Information: Fort Ticonderoga Association, (518) 585-2821; Crown Point State Historic Site, (518) 597-4666; Saratoga National Historical Park, (518) 664-9821
VALLEY FORGE PHILADELPHIA
What You Should Know: The trouble with history is that half of what you know turns out to be wrong. “There were no recorded medical cases of frostbite, amputation by frostbite, or death by starvation at Valley Forge during the winter of 1777-78,” a park ranger tells us as we wander through George Washington’s headquarters building. The mythic winter encampment that cemented Washington’s status as the nation’s greatest leader was, nevertheless, wracked by disease — at least 2,000 of the 12,000 soldiers died of typhus, dysentery, pneumonia, and other ills. Though no battles were fought at Valley Forge, it was here that the ragtag Continental Army was drilled into a legit fighting force, winning “a victory not of weapons but of will” through the long, difficult winter. Eighteen miles southeast, Philadelphia became the birthplace of the new nation with the adoption of the Declaration of Independence at Independence Hall in 1776, the framing of the Constitution in 1787, and with streets walked by just about every 18th-century American you can name.
Where To Go: Half an hour outside of sprawling Philadelphia, Valley Forge offers surprising tracts of unspoiled nature and peaceful avenues. The National Park is dominated by the massive National Memorial Arch, which commemorates the “patience and fidelity” of the troops who braved the winter. A 10-mile-loop road and excellent bike/footpath take in the arch, as well as replicas of soldiers’ primitive huts, Washington’s headquarters, and Artillery Park, where 18 field cannons remain at the ready. One could spend weeks exploring Philadelphia. Alas, I had but an afternoon. This was plenty of time, however, to walk the compact streets past the Betsy Ross house, Independence Hall, and Ben Franklin’s grave. At the rebuilt City Tavern (138 S. 2nd St.; 215-413-1443), a meeting place for members of the first Continental Congress, the Thomas Jefferson 1774 Ale and George Washington Porter are reputedly brewed from recipes used by their namesakes. My only low moment came at the Liberty Bell. In the post 9-11 world, the universal symbol of freedom is treated like a hostage, enclosed in a small, sterile pavilion and guarded by a phalanx of park rangers.
Fly Into: Philadelphia
How To Get There: Philadelphia’s Independence National Historical Park Visitor Center is located at the corner of Third and Chestnut streets. From Philadelphia, Valley Forge is reached by following Route 76 West to 202 South to the Valley Forge Exit (follow the signs from there).
Where To Stay: Across from Independ-ence Hall, the Omni Hotel at Independ-ence Park is unmatched for service and location. From $147; (215) 925-0000
For More Information: Valley Forge National Historical Park, (610) 783-1077; Independence National Historical Park, (215) 597-8974
What You Should Know: The Battle of Yorktown was the dramatic military finale of the Revolutionary War, a massive American-French march that surrounded British General Charles Cornwallis’ encampment along Virginia’s York River. Cut off from escape routes and mindful of the French naval blockade of Chesapeake Bay that checked the arrival of reinforcements, Cornwallis surrendered 7,247 men on October 19, 1781. It was a shocking defeat that led to the resignation of the British prime minister and the 1782 Treaty of Paris, in which Britain recognized the sovereignty of the United States.
Where To Go: The nine-mile road through Yorktown’s Colonial National Historical Park includes the restored Moore House (site of capitulation negotiations), Surrender Field (where British soldiers laid down their arms for the last time), and towering Victory Monument, erected to commemorate the American-French alliance, without which the infant nation might well have been stillborn. The park lies at the eastern end of the 23-mile Colonial Parkway, a pastoral boulevard that connects three of the most significant sites in American colonial history.
At the western end of the parkway are the re-created frontier structures of Jamestown, America’s first permanent English settlement. Between it and Yorktown is Williamsburg, the miraculously preserved colonial capital of Virginia. Attracting four million visitors a year, it’s been called “the largest living museum in the world.” With period-dressed interpreters and original colonial-era buildings to walk through, this is as important a once-in-a-childhood visit as anything Walt Disney ever invented.
Fly Into: Norfolk or Richmond
How To Get There: The Colonial National Historical Park Visitor Center is located along the York River at the eastern end of the Colonial Parkway in Yorktown, Virginia. Williamsburg is 13 miles west on the Parkway, and Jamestown is an additional 11 miles west beyond Williamsburg.
Where To Stay: The centrally located Williamsburg Hospitality House is a resort furnished in colonial style, just two blocks from the historic Williamsburg area. From $118; (757) 229-4020
For More Information: Colonial
National Historical Park, (757) 898-3400; Colonial Williamsburg Visitors Center, (757) 229-1000, ext. 2473 AW
consider packing two or three of the books from this list to complement your revolutionary war travels.
angel in the whirlwind: the triumph of the american revolution, by benson bobrick. from backroom intrigue to thrilling accounts of major battles, it’s hard to find a more engaging, single-volume account of the revolution.
setting the world ablaze: washington, adams, jefferson and the american revolution, by john e. ferling. of the endless books that cover the founding fathers, this one manages, in less than 400 pages, to connect the stories of the revolution’s (arguably) three most important figures.
thomas paine: collected writings: common sense/the crisis/rights of man/the age of reason/pamphlets, articles, and letters, by thomas paine, eric foner (editor). still proving the pen is mightier than the sword, paine’s passionate essays helped forge the new nation. they remain vibrant and relevant.
battles of the revolutionary war, 1775-1781, by w. j. wood. a straightforward but readable guide to military tactics and maneuvers. out of print, but better on the subject if you can find it, is christopher ward’s groundbreaking, two-volume battle history, the war of the revolution.
the ideological origins of the american revolution, by bernard bailyn. when published in the 1960s, this landmark work revolutionized the way americans regarded the “ideals” for which the founding fathers went to battle. ignore the dry title. it remains one of the most insightful accounts of the period.
george washington’s war: the saga of the american revolution, by robert leckie. compelling and detailed describe this fast-paced narrative from an overlooked master of popular history.