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Formerly Bloody Battlefields Now Fun for the Whole Family

These six national parks tell the history of the War of Independence, Texas' break with Mexico, and two pivotal points in the Civil War.

500 Places to Take Your Kids Before They Grow Up highlights eleven battlegrounds throughout the world that you can plan a trip around. The six picks below -- all of them located within the continental United States -- tell the history of the War of Independence, Texas' break with Mexico, and two pivotal points in the Civil War.

What: The Shot Heard 'Round the World
Who: Ages 6 & up
Where: Concord, Lexington & Lincoln, Massachusetts, USA

The opening salvos of the American Revolution -- the so-called Shot Heard 'Round the World -- were fired in the villages of Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts, on April 19, 1775. No need to memorize the date; you'll hear it everywhere when you visit Minute Man National Historical Park. After I read my favorite childhood book, Johnny Tremain, to my kids, we just had to come here to see where the climactic battle really happened -- and they loved it.

To take things in chronological order, begin in Lexington, where two messengers from Boston, Paul Revere and William Dawes, raised the alarm late on the night of April 18. The visitor center on the town common -- or Battle Green, as they call it -- has a diorama of the early-morning skirmish between local militia, known as "Minutemen" for their ability to assemble quickly, and a large force of British troops. The statue on the green depicts Capt. John Parker, who commanded the militia. You can visit the Hancock-Clarke House, 36 Hancock St. (tel. 781/861-0928), where patriot leaders John Hancock and Samuel Adams were awakened by Revere and Dawes, and Buckman Tavern, 1 Bedford St. (tel. 781/862-5598), on the green, where the Minutemen assembled at dawn. Ordered to disperse, the ragtag (and no doubt sleepy) band of colonists stood their ground -- fewer than 100 poorly armed colonists versus some 700 red-coated British soldiers. Nobody knows who started the shooting, but when it was over, 8 militia members lay dead, including a drummer boy, and 10 were wounded.

Next move on to Concord, where the British proceeded in search of stockpiled arms (which militia members had already moved). Begin at the North Bridge Visitor Center, 174 Liberty St., with its diorama and video program, then proceed down Monument Street to the Minute Man National Historical Park (tel. 978/369-6993; A path leads from the parking lot to the one don't-miss sight, North Bridge, where a much larger force of Minutemen massed to attack British regulars and set off the war's first full-fledged battle. Narrative plaques and audio presentations along the path describe the onset of the battle; Daniel Chester French's famous Minuteman statue stands nobly poised by the bridge.

Drive east on Lexington Road to the next park section, where you can follow the Battle Road Trail, a 5.5-mile interpretive path (wheelchair, stroller, and bicycle accessible) tracing the route of the defeated British troops straggling back toward Boston. (In summer, ask at the visitor centers about ranger-led guided tours along Battle Rd.) At the Lexington end of the park, the Minute Man Visitor Center off Route 2A has a fascinating multimedia program about the Revolution and a 40-foot mural illustrating the battle.

Location: Lexington Visitor Center, 1875 Massachusetts Ave., Lexington (; Concord Visitor Center, 58 Main St., Concord (
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What: New England's Pivotal Outpost
Who: Ages 6 & up
Where: Ticonderoga, New York, USA

Military history buffs will be in heaven at this 18th-century fort set on a bluff overlooking Lake Champlain at the eastern edge of New York State's Adirondack Mountains. There was a tug of war over this strategic location during not one but two wars -- the French and Indian War and its sequel, the American Revolution -- and it was occupied at different times by a shifting cast of French, English, or American troops (along with their various Native American allies). Few sites give a better sense of the turbulence of those 20 or so years when the American nation was forged.

Everybody, it seems, wanted a piece of this lonely little outpost. Built by the French in 1755, Fort Carillon (as it was then named) protected a key strategic point -- the portage connecting Lake Champlain and Lake George. During the French and Indian War, French forces lost the fort to British attackers in 1758, and British general Lord Jeffrey Amherst renamed it Fort Ticonderoga. Sixteen years later, at the outset of the American Revolution, Ethan Allen made a daring raid with his Green Mountain Boys from Vermont, capturing the fort from the British (communications being what they were in those days, they hadn't yet heard that war had broken out at Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts). The British recaptured it from commander Benedict Arnold in early 1777 but set it on fire and fled after the Battle of Saratoga later that year. Tourists began to visit the ruins in the 1790s, and it's been a tourist attraction ever since.

Your guided tour of the fort is led by a costumed reenactor, who could be French or British or American or Native American, depending on who's working that day. The collection is anything but dry, with nearly 1,000 muskets, bayonets, pistols, and swords on display, as well as a unique collection of uniforms. You'll see everything from Ethan Allen's blunderbuss to the handwritten note an American private left in his backpack to tell his ancestors why he fought in the American Revolution. There are musketry and cannon-firing demonstrations, and a fife-and-drum corps plays throughout the day. But what really got through to my kids -- and what I most remembered from visiting as a kid myself -- was the sense of how lonely life must have been for the small garrison stationed here, valiantly hanging onto their foothold in the wilderness.

Location: On Rte. 74, Lake Champlain (tel. 518/585-2821;

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What: The Winter That Saved America
Who: Ages 6 & up
Where: Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, USA

Battlefields tell one kind of war story; Valley Forge tells another -- a victory not of weapons but of perseverance and will. Here, in the bitter-cold winter of 1777-78, George Washington really earned the nickname Father of His Country. It's the essential sequel to visiting Independence Square , and an easy day trip from Philadelphia, only 30 miles by today's highways, though quite a march away in those pre-automobile days. When the ragtag Continental Army straggled into winter camp 18 miles up the Schuykill River from Philadelphia, they had just lost two major battles, at Brandywine and Germantown. With Philadelphia captured by the British -- the Liberty Bell smuggled out of town, the Continental Congress on the run -- the battle of American independence was on the verge of being lost. Come to this patch of Pennsylvania farmland to find out how George Washington saved the day.

Arriving at Valley Forge, the Continental Army -- some 12,000 hungry, homesick men and boys -- found the British had already destroyed the gristmill and sawmill they'd hoped would provide food and shelter. There were 6 inches of snow on the ground, the rivers had iced up, and things looked bleak indeed. Privately, Washington despaired "that unless some great and capital change suddenly takes place Â? this Army must inevitably ... starve, dissolve, or disperse." Almost 2,000 troops died that winter, and many others deserted.

Yet with his almost-mystical leadership quality, Washington somehow kept the army going. He challenged the soldiers to build 12-man log huts, offering cash to those who finished first. Others dug earthworks to defend the camp, hoping to keep the British bottled up in Philly. On the one hand, Washington invigorated the troops' spirits; on the other, he browbeat Congress into sending supplies. On the hard-packed parade ground, Washington's training master, Prussian veteran Baron von Steuben, drilled this rabble of farmers and backwoodsmen in military skills. By springtime, the revamped Continental Army had against all odds become a force to fear, and the tide of the war soon turned.

Walking around the rolling fields today, you can see replicas of the soldiers' huts (with costumed interpreters in high season), the grassy mounds of their old defenses, farmhouses the officers used as lodgings, the parade ground, and a sprinkling of memorials. An excellent 15-minute film at the visitor center explains the encampment in detail; the center also displays Washington's own tent and cases of artifacts -- cooking utensils, blankets, chamber pots, bullets. For an extra admission fee, you can tour the Isaac Potts House, a fieldstone farmhouse that Washington used as his headquarters. With most historic sites, summer is the best time to visit, but we came here during winter break and it was perfect weather for grasping the true drama of Valley Forge.

Location: PA 23 and N. Gulph Rd. (tel. 610/783-1077;
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What: Blood & Sorrow in the Civil War
Who: Ages 6 & up
Where: Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, USA

"Awesome" doesn't begin to do justice to this vast battleground, where thousands of Union and Confederate soldiers clashed for three sultry July days in 1863. As Abraham Lincoln himself said in his famous 1864 speech here, this land has been consecrated by blood -- over 50,000 deaths -- and an almost-eerie atmosphere hangs over this tranquil patch of rolling farmland, now peppered with war monuments.

The park visitor center has an excellent light-and-sound presentation with a scale-model map of the battlefield, which is quite helpful -- after all, the battle raged over a large patch of country in the course of 4 days, and there's a lot to keep straight. Audiotapes are available for self-guided driving tours around the 250-acre battle site, but we found that this was one place where it paid to invest in a personal guide, who drove us in our station wagon around the battlefield for 2 hours. Gettysburg's guides are gold mines of Civil War information, tailoring the tour to your particular interests; there wasn't a question we lobbed at him that he couldn't handle, whether biographies of the commanders or the physics of cannon fusillades.

We were completely engrossed by Seminary Ridge, where the main Confederate forces were camped; we could look down the hillside where the heroes of Pickett's Last Charge plunged to their gallant end. But we were most moved by Little Round Top, where a plucky band of Northern soldiers held the high ground against a furious Confederate onslaught surging up out of the boulder-strewn hollow called Devil's Den. Observation towers near Seminary Ridge give you a great aerial overview, but walking around the landscape is the only way to appreciate how hard-won every inch of ground was.

The Cyclorama Center, next to the visitor center, a 360-degree depiction of Pickett's Charge painted in 1883, is just the sort of pre-video-era special effect I love. In the town of Gettysburg itself, we enjoyed the American Civil War Museum, 297 Steinwehr Ave. (tel. 717/334-6245), which tells the full Civil War history in waxwork dioramas; normally I find wax figures hokey or creepy but this was actually tasteful and informative. The most special part of our visit, though, was seeing the costumed reenactors -- many of them amateur Civil War buffs here for the fun of it -- socializing around campfires or demonstrating their rifle skills. For a flicker of a moment we traveled through time, feeling the Gettysburg tragedy in our bones.

Location: Visitor Center, 97 Taneytown Rd. (tel. 717/334-1124;
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What: Dixie's Darkest Day
Who: All ages
Where: Vicksburg, Mississippi, USA

My family still watches grainy home movies of my childhood trip to Vicksburg, Mississippi. I remember the sweltering Delta heat, abated by lazy breezes off the Mississippi River; I remember the hilly green landscape; I remember clambering over fat black cannons. I've just realized that this must have planted in me a lifelong love of visiting battlefields -- vast outdoor spaces where kids can run off steam while adults somberly ponder the nature of war.

In war, topography is destiny. Vicksburg -- known as the Gibraltar of the Confederacy -- protected a strategic strait along the Mississippi River. The Union needed to gain control of the Mississippi, not only to reclaim this vital shipping route but also to sever the South in two. Union commander Ulysses S. Grant waged a bitter campaign across central Mississippi in the spring of 1863. He headed relentlessly toward Vicksburg, but realized when he neared the city that its hilly landscape made it nearly impossible to assault. The wily general then switched tactics, laying siege to the city instead. His troops starving, reinforcements cut off, Confederate commander John C. Pemberton finally surrendered to Grant on July 3, 1863, after 47 brutal days.

A 16-mile driving trail winds through the park, past cannon emplacements, grassy foundations of old forts, and the trenches Grant ordered dug to set mines beneath Confederate redoubts. Every state that fought in the campaign has its own memorial; our favorite was the Illinois monument, a domed neoclassical structure set on a hill up two long rippling flights of steps where we hopped around for a full half-hour.

The first half of the tour follows the Union siege lines. You'll pass the simple white house where the Shirley family huddled fearfully throughout the Union advance; near Grant's headquarters, a circle of bronze tablets details the other battles in Grant's long Mississippi campaign. The USS Cairo, a 13-gun ironclad gunboat, is on display, the first ship in history to be sunk by an electronically deployed torpedo. Halfway through the drive, you'll visit the Vicksburg cemetery, containing the graves of 17,000 Union soldiers (the 5,000 Confederate graves are at the Vicksburg City Cemetery). Then you begin to trace the Confederate lines, starting with the grassy site of Fort Hill, on a riverside bluff where gunners could strafe the Union ships down on the river below. Eventually you reach the site where Pemberton surrendered to Grant on July 3 -- in a grim coincidence, the very same day another arm of the Confederate army lost the Battle of Gettysburg .

Location: 3201 Clay St. (tel. 601/636-0583;
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What: Remembering the Alamo
Who: Ages 4 & up
Where: San Antonio, Texas, USA

Visiting San Antonio without going to the Alamo is like visiting London and not seeing Big Ben: You can do it, but it would be wrong.

Expect the kids to be let down at first. The Alamo looks downright dinky, set smack in the heart of downtown San Antonio, surrounded by skyscrapers and traffic. But the whole point of the Alamo is that it was such a tiny fort, and the valiant Texan volunteers never had a ghost of a chance of escaping the siege -- and still they fought, they fought to the death. That's heroism, Texas style.

There were only 188 Texans defending the Alamo in February 1836, facing the 4,000-strong army of General Santa Anna, who was bent on squashing the Texas territory's bid for independence from the new Mexican Republic. The Texans held out doggedly for 13 days, waiting for reinforcements that never arrived, until all the men -- every last one of them, including pioneer heroes Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie -- were killed in a crushing dawn attack on March 6. But a month later, when Sam Houston was leading another troop of Texans into the battle of San Jacinto, he fired them up with the cry, "Remember the Alamo!" With that heroic example to live up to, the Texans fought like demons, and this time they won, becoming the independent Republic of Texas. (It didn't join the U.S. until 1846.)

What you see today isn't much of a fort -- in 1836 the fortified compound was a bit larger, its outer walls ringing much of what is today Alamo Plaza (look for foundation stones near the steps down to River Walk). After the defeat at San Jacinto, the retreating Mexican forces pulled down much of the Alamo fort so that the Texans couldn't easily refortify it. Only two original buildings remain. First is the gabled stone mission church -- now officially a Shrine, so show respect by removing hats and taking no photos -- which was built in 1756 for the Mission San Antonio de Valero, founded in 1718 to convert local Native American tribes. By the end of the 18th century, the mission had been secularized and turned over to a Spanish cavalry unit, which renamed it the Alamo (Spanish for "cottonwood") after their Mexican hometown. Besides the church, you can visit the Long Barracks, originally the missionaries' living quarters, or convento, and later a barracks for the cavalry troops. A museum of Texas history, with in-depth exhibits on the battle, is in the barracks, but the children will be more affected by artifacts displayed in the church: things like a Bowie knife, Crockett's buckskin jacket, and one of the antiquated flintlock rifles the Texans used to defend the fort. Several cannons from the battle are set around the courtyard, mute witnesses to that day of incredible valor.

Location: 300 Alamo Plaza (tel. 210/225-1391;

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This article is an excerpt from 500 Places to Take Your Kids Before They Grow Up, available in our Online Bookstore now. Author Holly Hughes has traveled the globe as an editor and writer -- she's the former executive editor of Fodor's Travel Publications, the series editor of Frommer's Irreverent Guides, and author of Frommer's New York City with Kids. She's also written fiction for middle graders and edits the annual Best Food Writing anthology. New York City makes a convenient jumping-off place for her travels with her three children and husband.

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