Above Image: The Thompson-Neely House at Washington's Crossing Park on the Pennsylvania side. House served as a regimental field hospital during the war.
American Revolution Historic Sites and the Next 50 Years
There's an opportunity coming, folks, and it's one that many who love american history have been looking forward to. First, a new museum in the center of the Philadelphia historic district about the entire American Revolution has been constructed and opened in April 2017 to tell the story that spans the public reading of the Declaration of Independence through the battles of Brandywine, Saratoga, Princeton, and Yorktown. And the other recent news that the Civil War Trust, which has done such a spectacular job of preserving Civil War land across the entire breadth of the United States is going to lend its grand hand to preserving American Revolutionary War sites, too, through a new campaign announced in November, i.e. Campaign 1776. And there should be even more, taking this opportunity to piggyback on those two initiatives to expand and provide focus to the historic sites already there through additional interpretation and, at times, upgrades from local and state historic sites to national park status. Just this year, nine new national parks have been announced on important topics, from the nuclear bomb (Manhattan Project) to Harriet Tubman, but none on the topic of how our nation began, the American Revolution. While over one million tourists visit some of our Civil War national parks, nowhere near that number visit the sites of the battles of the American Revolution. It's time they did!
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- American Revolution Museum
- Campaign 1776
- More Am Rev History
Museum of the American Revolution
Open April 2017, the Museum of the American Revolution holds 32,000 square feet of exhibits, all within walking distance of Independence Hall. Located on the site of the former visitor center to Independence National Historic Park, this museum ties together the battles and struggle for independence that George Washington and his troops fought so valiantly for over the lands of the colonies from 1776 (or 1770 if you want to reach back to the Boston Massacre) to the surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown in 1781 and the subsequent Treaty of Paris in 1783. That's a lot of years and history, including battles that unfortunately, are less known than they should be. How versed are we on the Battles of Monmouth, Cowpens, Princeton, or Saratoga? How much visitation do the sites where those battles occurred get? The museum will help coordinate our knowledge and context of the war in a variety of galleries, one including the actual tent that George Washington used as his headquarters during the war, and hopefully spur visitors to take up a tour of the various sites. It will do so in modern theatrical performances as well as items such as muskets and canteens used by British and American soldiers.
(Photo above, Museum of the American Revolution, rendering courtesy Museum of American Revolution).
When the Civil War Trust, which has saved over 40,000 acres of Civil War Battlefield, announced in November that it was broadening its mission to the American Revolution (and the War of 1812), a sea change spread across the historic preservation community. What Jim Lighthizer and his minions at the Trust have done has been breathtaking, expanding the acreage of the parks devoted to telling the story of 1861-5, preserving their vistas, and allowing interpretation of the battles that saved the Union from disintegration. With Campaign 1776 and the first undertaking at the Princeton Battlefield, that mission expands to the battles that allowed a Union to take root in the first place. Although that first preservation salvo is small, at 4.6 acres to the rear of the graves and column across Mercer Road at that site (photo above to the right rear), it is significant. Why significant? Because most of the battles of the American Revolution have been relegated to smaller local or state historic sites with relatively few in the hands of the National Park Service and their conservation arm, the National Park Conservation Association. With the Civil War Trust onboard, which works so well either independently, with local partners, or with the NPCA and Park Service, the opportunities to finally coordinate the smaller sites into the larger landscape of historic preservation and interpretation is nigh.
More American Revolution History
When you say more American Revolution history, what do you mean?
We think of history in a broad sense, in not only knowing that the history existed (which unfortunately seems to be waning in public and private education as other goals push history to a second class discipline), but that it provides the girth, the underpinning of why democracy and freedom have endured. And it can be a whole lot more fun that it seems in the dry classroom. We've always thought that just one day at a well interpreted historic sites equals many days with a book or in a lecture hall. But in the American Revolution, those sites have not been as coordinated as they should be, and not interpreted as well, either.
For example, the story of Washington crossing the Delaware to surprise the British over ten days at the end of 1776 and beginning of 1777 should be a primary resource for education on the topic, visited by millions each year. In actuality, five years ago the site of the crossing on the west side (photo above and below), Washington's Crossing Historic Park, a Pennsylvania state park, was on the verge of closing. With the help of a vibrant Friends group, that closure was staved off, the park and interpretation expanded, and with a new visitor center, starting to thrive. But visitation is still not high. Across the Delaware River, the Washington's Crossing State Park, continues to tell the story with a museum, the Continental Way path where the soldiers walked, historic homes and more. They also provide the visitor center for Princeton Battlefield State Park, which is ten miles away and does not have a visitor center or contact station on its own. (There is renovation going on at the Clarke house, which may provide that in the future).
But here begs the question, why is there no national park, a Continental Way Revolution National Historic Park, that puts those three units, plus other historic sites in Trenton, where two battles occurred during those ten days? A national park would enhance the status of this story, provide an impetus for visitors to Independence Hall National Historic Park to travel thirty minutes north and see the sites of the first victories by the Continental Army and the first real hope that an American democracy could win its independence.