History Lesson With A Bang!

This unique Civil War Adventure Camp program gives a new meaning to the phrase “living history.”

Raising the heavy muzzle-loader to my shoulder, I sight down the long barrel and take aim at an imaginary enemy lurking just inside the tree line.  With a firm squeeze of the trigger, I unleash a king-size Ka-BOOM! that puts a loud exclamation point on my time at Pamplin Historical Park’s Civil War Adventure Camp.

While there are lots of Civil War reenactments held around the country each year—most of which welcome spectators interested in seeing this remarkable period in U.S. history brought to life—this 18-hour “adventure camp” program is an entirely different deal.  That’s because it’s the only place I know where ordinary folks can actually step into the past and live the life of a Confederate or Union soldier instead of just watching passively from the sidelines.

Set on the site of the Siege of Petersburg, this privately-run  422-acre historical park preserves the extensive network of trenches and earthworks that were an integral part of what was one of the most significant battles in the War Between the States.  From mid-June 1864 to late-March of 1865, Union troops staged multiple attacks in this area in an effort to cut off supply lines to the Confederate army and the South’s capital city of Richmond 25 miles to the north.

Like the original soldiers that walked these fields, however, the grand strategies of those generals weren’t the first thing on our minds.  Instead, we were more interested in surviving our upcoming enlistment amid the heat and humidity of a southern Virginia summer.

The officers in charge of our group began our induction process in the camp’s barn-like headquarters by getting each of us new recruits fitted out with caps and uniform jackets, belts with cartridge boxes,  haversacks, metal cups, and the wooden rifles we’d use for drills and field exercises.  So as not to destroy the illusion, we were also ordered to leave all modern technology—including cell phones, iPods, and wristwatches—in our lockers.

Following the swearing-in ceremony, it was time to march down the gravel path to the camp itself.  After being assigned to our bunkhouse or walled-tent accommodations, we spent the afternoon being schooled in the finer points of Civil War-era soldiering and battlefield medicine.

Dinner was a hearty—and more-or-less period-correct—plate of beef stew and corn bread. Everyone also got a saltine-sized chunk of the Civil War soldier’s staple known as hard tack which, aside from some polite nibbling for novelty’s sake, went largely uneaten.

The next morning the officers led us to the large open field behind the camp where we could put what we’d learned the previous day into practice in a skirmish between the blue- and gray-clad members of our group.  The firing of the camp’s 150-pound “portable” mortar produced an even bigger ka-BOOM that signaled it was time to return to the present day.

As we walked back to rejoin our modern lives already in progress, I couldn’t help marveling at this program’s ability to turn what might otherwise be a dry, abstract history lesson into an extraordinary first-hand experience.  With the sound of mortar fire ringing in my ears, it also occurred to me that it literally delivers, ahem, a great big BANG for the buck.

Xtrordinary Xtra
The series of fortifications and trenches around Petersburg once stretched for more than 30 miles.

Xtrordinary Xtra
Historians agree that it was the Union’s eventual victory here that lead directly to General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Courthouse several weeks later.

Xtrordinary Xtra
In one of the more unusual episodes of the Petersburg campaign, former Pennsylvania coal miners dug a 511-foot-long tunnel under the Confederate defenses and set off 8,000 pounds of explosives that created a crater 135 feet in diameter.

The Facts
Name: Pamplin Historical Park’s Civil War Adventure Camp
Location: Petersburg, VA (2 hours south of Washington DC)
Phone: 877-726-7546
Website: www.civilwaradventurecamp.org

My Advice

  • There are actually three different versions of the Civil War Adventure Camp experience.  Individuals, families, and small groups can sign up for overnight Rally Camps that run from spring through the fall.  Overnight Platoon Camps and five-hour daytime Troop Camps are designed for pre-formed groups of 20 or more participants
  • Be certain to leave enough time in your schedule to explore the rest of the park, including the outstanding National Museum of The Civil War Soldier.  Among this state-of-the-art facility’s most engaging features is a unique multi-gallery exhibit where you can choose an actual “soldier comrade” and listen on a provided MP3 player as they describe their experiences in The War Between The States.
  • While the camp is designed to give you a reasonably authentic experience of what life was like for the soldiers that squared off here in 1864-65, the camp does make some concessions to modern-day comforts.  The headquarters building contains restroom and shower facilities, and the period-correct bunkhouses and walled tents include bunks with foam mattresses and wood stoves for heat.  And while the food may not be gourmet-quality, I can tell you it tasted pretty darn good after a hard day of soldiering.
  • Don’t over-pack for this experience, as all your belongings need to fit into a locker provided in the headquarters building.  You’ll find a complete list of what to bring (and what not to) on the FAQs page of the program’s website.
  • You’ll also want to bring your camera, though camp rules require you to keep it stowed in your pocket or haversack except during designated break times.