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Battle sites: Fields of freedom

Courtesy National Park Service

Today they are wide expanses of green fields, silent but for the hollow roar of the breezes blowing through them. Linger long enough, though, and you’ll hear the whizzing of bullets, the thundering of cannons and the echoes of bravery.

It’s been so long since a war was fought on American soil that many of us would have trouble imagining a battle raging around our hometowns. But there are towns and countrysides from Massachusetts to Hawaii where hard-fought battles forever changed the landscape.

Many of these places have been preserved as national monuments and historic sites, not to glorify war but to honor the people who sacrificed so much in their struggle for the greater good. Now in the 21st century, many of these sites are more than just fields. Visitors will find tours, interpretive programs, museums and visitors centers showcasing both historical artifacts and immersive multimedia.

For visiting groups, they can be powerful reminders of the price paid for freedom.

Minute Man National Historical Park
Lexington and Concord, Mass.
Not far from Boston, Minute Man National Historical Park is 1,000-acres that preserves the sites of the battles of Lexington and Concord, where the “shot heard ’round the world” jump-started the Revolutionary War.

The park features a number of special stations and visitors centers where groups can learn about the events surrounding the beginnings of the revolution. Many groups begin at the main Minute Man visitors center, where they see a 25-minute multimedia show that introduces the context of the events that took place in Lexington and Concord.

At the park’s Hartwell Tavern, costumed interpreters help to fill in details about life and warfare during the Colonial period.

“Every day from May to October, we do living-history programs and musket demonstrations,” said Lou Sideris, the park’s chief of planning and communications. “We talk about who the Minute Men were and how the people lived.”

From the tavern, groups proceed to the North Bridge, where the fighting first broke out, and see the famous Minute Man statue erected there. There is another visitors center near the bridge, along with a formal garden and one of the brass cannons that British troops came to the area to confiscate.

Interested visitors can also walk the Battle Road Trail, which follows the route of British movements where fighting took place.

Jean Lafitte National Historical Park
Chalmette, La.
The War of 1812 isn’t often remembered like other more famous conflicts are, but its Battle of New Orleans made the strangest of bedfellows of then Gen. Andrew Jackson and pirate Jean Lafitte.

“No one will ever know why, but Lafitte offered Jackson his men, his supplies, his cannon and his knowledge of the bayous,” said Kristy Wallisch of Jean Lafitte National Historical Park. “Jackson wasn’t enthused about throwing in his lot with a bunch of pirates, but he was desperate.”

Together with the Army, Navy and local volunteers, Jackson and Lafitte held off a British invasion of New Orleans that may have changed the course of the war. The event made Jackson a national hero, and the battlefield is now preserved as a national historical park.

“It looks fairly similar to what it might have looked like in 1815,” Wallisch said. “There’s a reconstruction of the rampart, and there’s actually a house that was built in the 1830s. There’s also a national cemetery that was established in the Civil War.”

This fall, a new visitors center at the park will replace the one destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Interactive exhibits, multimedia presentations and scale models of cannons and ramparts will give groups an overview of the military events and their effects on the lives of nearby residents.

The Alamo
San Antonio
Every year, more than 2.5 million people visit San Antonio to “remember the Alamo,” where Davy Crockett and a small band of Texas freedom fighters held out for 13 days against Mexican Gen. Antonio Lopez de Santa Ana in 1836. Although the Alamo fell to the Mexicans in the end, it became one of the most legendary battle sites in American history.

Built on its current site in 1724 as Misión San Antonio de Valero, the Alamo was one of the mission churches established by Franciscan friars from Spain in the early 18th century. During the Texas revolution, soldiers holed up inside the structure in their heroic stand against Santa Ana.

To many visitors, the Alamo looks much smaller than it seems in pictures. Still, the details are impressive: Romanesque columns and arches on the facade give way to domed ceilings inside that resemble Renaissance, Gothic and baroque churches throughout Europe.

Since 1905, the Alamo has been managed by the Daughters of the Republic of Texas. Today, three buildings — the Shrine, the Long Barrack Museum and the Gift Museum — make up the historic site and include a variety of exhibits about the Texas revolution and other aspects of the state’s history. Visitors can also walk through the adjacent Alamo Gardens.

Gettysburg National Military Park
Gettysburg, Pa.
One of the most famous battles of the Civil War took place in Gettysburg during July of 1863, spreading out over thousands of acres of forest and farmland and spilling into the streets of the small town itself.

“It’s the largest battle that was ever fought on the continent,” said Dru Anne Neil, director of marketing and communications for the Gettysburg Foundation. “The town had about 2,400 residents, but over a three-day battle, about 165,000 soldiers fought here. Every public building became a hospital, including all of the churches.”

Groups can take walking tours of historic downtown Gettysburg and see buildings that housed convalescing soldiers, or go out walking or driving on the historic battlefield at Gettysburg National Military Park.

“We say that the biggest artifact here at Gettysburg is the battlefield itself,” Neil said. “There’s nothing like being able to stand on the fields of Pickett’s Charge and walk across the field if you so choose. You get a sense that happens in very few places.”

Visitors to the battlefield should also stop at the visitors center, which opened two years ago to replace an aging previous facility. The museum houses thousands of Civil War artifacts, such as Robert E. Lee’s camping accoutrements, as well as a historical film narrated by Morgan Freeman.
A highlight of the visitors center is the Gettysburg Cyclorama.

“The massive Cyclorama is bigger than a football field,” Neil said. “It’s the original painting from the mid to late 19th century that depicts Pickett’s Charge. There’s also a sound and light show with it.”

World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument

Although we may not call it a “battle,” the Dec. 7, 1941, surprise attack on Pearl Harbor was the only World War II fighting to take place on American soil. World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument, a park site in Honolulu, commemorates all of the men and women stationed at Pearl Harbor on the “day that will live in infamy.”

Most groups begin their tours at the visitors center, which shows a 23-minute documentary film on the attack. A museum at the monument has personal memorabilia, photographs, artifacts from the battle and other exhibits related to the events at Pearl Harbor.

The main component of this national monument is the USS Arizona Memorial, a floating building commemorating the 1,177 crewmen who lost their lives on the ship. Visitors ride ferries out to the memorial, which sits in the harbor over the middle portion of the sunken battle ship.

In the memorial’s Entry Room, flags from the nine states for which the Pearl Harbor battleships were named hang on display. In the Assembly Room, visitors can look down to see the remains of the USS Arizona on the ocean floor. The Shrine Room holds a large marble plaque inscribed with the names of the sailors and marines who were killed on the ship.

Brian Jewell

Brian Jewell is the executive editor of The Group Travel Leader. In more than a decade of travel journalism he has visited 48 states and 25 foreign countries.