Children heading for summer camp have lots of choice – from conventional outdoor adventures to computer programming, the science of space travel and sports of all kinds. Here in Virginia there’s a camp that allows kids to experience the American Civil War. It's located in Dinwiddie County near Petersburg.
The Pamplin Historical Park sits on 424 acres of rolling green fields and forests – much of it acquired by the Civil War Trust nearly 30 years ago to preserve the Breakthrough Battlefield where 2,800 soldiers of the Confederacy and two miles of defensive earthworks were unable to hold back 14,000 Union troops.
“That happened on April 2nd, 1865, and on April 9th – seven days later-- the surrender is signed, and that ends of the American Civil War,” says Colin Romanick, a spokesman for the park and the Museum of the American Civil War Soldier.
This year, he says, the three-day camps will focus on one intriguing aspect of the war.
“They’re going to learn spy techniques from the Civil War – some of them still in use today – things like decoding, and then the graduation aspect is going to be to go on a mission.”
They’ll also learn about plantation life – the crops that were grown, the animals raised and the slaves who tended the fields and houses. At the historic Hart Farm on the property, they’ll hear about the important role women played before and during the war. While her husband was conscripted to drive a wagon in Petersburg, Mrs. Hart was left to defend the homestead.
“When the Breakthrough Battle happens, she actually takes a slave woman and herself and they hide in the cellar during the battle," Romanick explains. "The house is struck by cannon fire. Twice the farm is almost burned down, so we’re fortunate that she talked them out of it.”
It probably helped that the Hart family had moved to Virginia from Pennsylvania and harbored Yankee sympathies, and it’s worth a mention that the museum, which features real soldiers from New England, the mid-Atlantic, Midwest and South takes no position on the war that still haunts some Virginians. Romanick says men on both sides of the battles had a similar experiences – missing their families and fearing for their lives.
As campers pass through the museum, they’ll enter a darkened space surrounded by screens on which Civil War re-enactors take aim and fire. The floor vibrates as the cannons are shot, and the wind whistles as phantom bullets narrowly miss their targets.
“There are actually tubes in the wall – PVC with an air compressor," Romanick says. " It’s timed so when the soldiers on the screens are firing, that air burst will come past you, and it kind of has the sound of a bullet whizzing by and you feel the rush of air.”
Next, the kids will see just how primitive medical care was for those who were wounded or afflicted by disease.
“They could do transfusions, but they didn’t understand diseases of the blood or even blood typing at this time, and they didn’t know much about sanitation either. Infection was the big enemy. They didn’t have penicillin yet,” says Romanick.
Then, campers will view oddities the war left behind: two bullets that met in midair and fused to form what looks like a daisy, the trunk of a tree that still holds a cannonball, and a Bible containing a bullet.
"That's not as uncommon as you might think," says Romanick. "Men often carried the Bible in their breast pocket, and this one was thick enough that it probably saved the person’s life.”
The program, which caters to kids 8-11 years of age, is set for June 26 and July17. For those adults or teens who feel a twinge of envy, Pamplin also offers adventure camps for older groups of Civil War enthusiasts throughout the year.