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Virginia’s Civil War Sites: Pamplin

Pamplin Historical Park & National Museum of the Civil War Soldier surprised us. The privately owned facility, located on 422 acres in Petersburg, about 30 miles south of Richmond, proved to be one of the most engaging Civil War sites we’ve ever experienced.

First, we admit that a tour of battlefields with markers and detailed explanations of military strategy tends to get us yawning after about 30-minutes, despite our respect for the warriors. Instead of skirmish diagrams we prefer insights into the soldiers and daily war-time life. This is what Pamplin delivers so well.

Through a combination of high-tech gadgetry, recreated earthworks and good old-fashioned storytelling, Pamplin kept our interest. This park is an especially good first stop for families wanting to inform their school-age children about the Civil War.

An important part in General Grant’s nearly 10-month siege of Petersburg, Pamplin is where Union troops commanded by General Ulysses S. Grant broke through the defenses of General Robert E. Lee. The “breakthrough battle” that took place at Pamplin on April 2, 1865, led to Petersburg’s and Richmond’s fall from Confederate control. A week later, Lee surrendered to Grant and the Civil War ended.

Pamplin Historical Park consists of several sites. Begin at the National Museum of the Civil War Soldier. Before entering the exhibits, select one of 13 soldiers as a ”comrade,” a real man who fought in the war, some for the Confederates and some for the Union. On the MP3 player you receive, along with information about camp life and battles, you hear the words of your comrade taken from his diaries and letters.

We chose William C. H. Reeder, a 24-year-old cabinetmaker from Peru, Indiana who enlisted in July 1861 in the 20th Indiana Regiment of the Army of the Potomac. It was his words that made the museum experience most meaningful to us. That and the 3-D battlefield experience. The general exhibits—dioramas of camp life, cases of playing cards and weapons—were more of the same old stuff; interesting if you have never seen items like this before.

Following Reeder was what pulled us through the museum. At the end, you find out what happened to your comrade. Reeder, hit in the right hip and left-knee was taken from Petersburg to Washington, D.C., to recuperate. He wrote home “I am in good spirits and my wound is not painful…grieve not for me.” In 1864, when released from the army, he declined to reenlist, saying “the service is very hard on men and beasts.”

The other museum exhibit not-to-miss is the 3-D battlefield immersion. While watching a battle, you feel the ground tremble from cannon fire and hear the whistle of bullets whizzing by your head. You can’t help wondering how you would react in such circumstances.

When you go outside, take the headset with you. At certain points you can hear more about Pamplin and its history as a tobacco plantation. Tudor Hall, a modest wooden building by plantation standards, is restored to its 19th century use as the military headquarters for South Carolina General Samuel McGowan.

Seeing the recreated earthworks on the site, we finally understood why these Civil War-era formations were so important. The site’s Battlefield Center museum has an interesting exhibit of Civil War photos as well as films about the war. Afterwards, head to Richmond for more Civil War sites and southern hospitality.

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