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The Civil War in Missouri

Family adventure in Washington, D.C., instills greater sense of belonging amid historical and inspirational memorials, monuments and museums.
By Dennis R. Heinze

On a trip to Washington, D.C., last summer, our family visited the White House, the Capitol and a host of impressive museums and memorials that are symbols and storehouses of our nation’s history, but one of the most poignant sights stood less than a foot tall.

dome

Above: A massive fresco is painted on the inside of the dome of the Capitol building. Desination DC photo

Below: National Harbor, located on the Potomac River near Washington, D.C., virtually glows at night. National Harbor photo

harbor

As we made our way through the National Museum of American History, we happened upon a small glass case with the tattered top hat of Abraham Lincoln. Set amid literally thousands of objects and exhibits, the article was more than merely a careworn piece of cloth, a historical artifact to scan hastily. It was a tangible link to the moment that Lincoln died.

It was on the night of April 14, 1865, that Abraham and Mary Todd took a carriage ride to Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C., to see “Our American Cousin.” The long Civil War had ended less than a week earlier, and some states were already considering readmission to the Union. Lincoln would have preferred to stay at home, but he felt it was his duty as president to make a public appearance. So he took off his hat and settled in to watch the show.

Yet during the third act, Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth made his way to the presidential box, leveled his pistol at Lincoln’s head and pulled the trigger. The 16th president was carried unconscious to a nearby house where he died the following morning. Upon Lincoln’s last breath, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton uttered, “Now he belongs to the ages.”

At the time, Stanton couldn’t have known how accurate his statement was. Lincoln’s final hours and his entire life have been chronicled for generations hence. And as our family stood before that stovepipe hat exactly 146 years, three months and 18 days since Lincoln took it off his head for the last time, he belonged to us, if only for a few moments.

Indeed, history not only belonged to us that week but a greater sense of connection to the nation and its ongoing and fascinating political processes. We couldn’t help but be inspired and instilled with a sense of patriotism by the powerful landmarks–both large and small–that we experienced.

A National Treasure

We began our adventure at the very heart of the capital, the National Mall. With its array of monuments and memorials, there is no other place in the country that celebrates democracy, freedom of speech, leadership and heroism as thoroughly and richly. This splendid green park area extends approximately two miles from the U.S. Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial, and lining either side are 200-year-old American elm trees. It is our greatest civic stage and a tribute to American history and ideals.

With so many attractions surrounding the mall, it would take days to sufficiently experience them all, so we had to pick some of the highlights, starting with the Washington Monument. Built in 1884 in honor of George Washington, the monument rises 555 feet above the mall and offers spectacular views of the city. The nearby ticket office opens at 8:30 a.m. for distribution of free, same-day tickets on a first-come, first-served basis. To reserve tickets, visit the National Park Service ticket Web site at www.recreation.gov or call (877) 444-6777. There is a $1.50 service charge per reserved ticket.

Next we stopped at the National World War II Memorial, which honors the 16 million who served in the U.S. armed forces, the more than 400,000 who died, and all who supported the war effort from home. Two pavilions, 56 granite pillars connected by a bronze sculpted rope, four bronze eagles, a pool and more serve as a majestic tribute to the spirit, sacrifice and commitment of the American people during the war.

Located nearby, two other poignant places honor our military’s courage and sacrifice. The Korean War Veterans Memorial features 19 stainless steel sculptures of soldiers standing silently under the watchful eye of a sea of faces etched on a granite wall, reminders of the human cost of defending freedom. More of those reminders can be found at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, where more than 58,000 names are inscribed in chronological order of the date of casualty along two 246-foot black granite walls.

The two memorials flank the Lincoln Memorial, which commemorates the president who led the country through its greatest trial, the Civil War. The 19-foot marble statue of Lincoln depicts him in the midst of the war, wrestling with how to hold the Union together. It is housed in a building that resembles a temple with 36 columns, which represent the states in the Union at the time of Lincoln’s death. The memorial is open 24 hours a day.

Magnificent museums

Surrounding the National Mall also are a host of museums that celebrate our nation’s rich heritage. Most notably, the Smithsonian Institution–the world’s largest museum and research complex–includes 19 individual museums and galleries and the National Zoological Park. About two-thirds of them are located around the National Mall. In its collections are more than 137 million artifacts, works of art and specimens, and only an estimated 3 percent of those items are on display at any one time.

More than 3 million of those artifacts are in the collection of the National Museum of American History, which recently completed a two-year, $85 million renovation to better present its exhibits in the areas of science, technology, sociology and culture. The staggering collection includes a Samuel Morse telegraph, Dorothy’s ruby slippers, Muhammad Ali’s boxing gloves, an Alexander Graham Bell telephone, first ladies’ gowns, Julia Child’s kitchen and much more.

One of the most moving experiences was the Star-Spangled Banner gallery, which features the tattered 30-foot by 34-foot wool and cotton flag that inspired the national anthem. Presented in an enormous space with soft lighting, the exhibit dramatically evokes an atmosphere of the “dawn’s early light,” similar to what Francis Scott Key experienced Sept. 14, 1814, when he wrote his famous lyrics of the national anthem as the British attacked Fort McHenry in the Battle of Baltimore.

Next door is the National Museum of Natural History, which is the most-visited natural history museum in the world–and for good reason. The museum contains the world’s largest assemblage of natural history items–more than 126 million in its collection in all–including early human fossils, the Hope Diamond, dinosaur skeletons, an exact replica of a North Atlantic right whale and dozens of wildlife mounts.

We also spent some time in the National Air and Space Museum, where an array of planes, rockets and spacecraft are suspended from the ceiling and displayed in exhibits. Many icons of flight are housed there, including Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis, John Glenn’s Mercury spacecraft, the Apollo 11 command module and the 1903 Wright Brothers Flyer. From our first flights to our first steps on the moon, the museum commemorates America’s desire to break the bounds of Earth with more than 60,000 objects.

Other Smithsonian museums in the area are dedicated to African-Americans and Native Americans, and art aficionados could spend weeks exploring seven museums and galleries that contain everything from ancient art to contemporary offerings. For information about all the Smithsonian museums, which are free to visit, click on www.si.edu.

Take some time to visit the Library of Congress, the world’s largest repository of knowledge and creativity with more than 147 million items on approximately 838 miles of bookshelves, including books, sound recordings, photographs, manuscripts and more. Equally as impressive as the items on display, including a Gutenberg Bible, is the architecture of the library’s Thomas Jefferson Building with its marble columns and arches embellished by statuary and works of art.

Finally, don’t miss the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, which presents a comprehensive history of the dreadful epoch of history through artifacts, photographs, films and eyewitness testimonies. Divided into three sections and presented chronologically, it begins with life before the Holocaust in the early 1930s, continues through the Nazi rise to power and subsequent tyranny and genocide, and concludes with the post-1945 aftermath of the Holocaust. Among the excellent and powerful exhibits is an unforgettable display of thousands of worn and dirty shoes from victims of a Polish concentration camp, each one representing an innocent life taken. Admission to the museum is free, but from March through August, passes are required and issued for a specific time during the day, available on a first-come, first-served basis. Passes also are available in advance online for $1 per person. For more details, visit www.ushmm.org.

Government in action

With sons in the eighth and fifth grades, visiting the Capitol was an essential element of our capital adventure. Reading about the federal government in social studies text books is one thing, but walking the halls where legislators gather to debate issues and write laws provides a more intimate perspective on the nation’s seat of government.

Set amid nearly 60 acres of winding paths and memorial trees, the Capitol building is among the most architecturally impressive and symbolically important buildings in the world. Begun in 1793, the Capitol has been built, burnt, rebuilt, expanded and restored. A monument to the American people, the building welcomes visitors Monday through Saturday.

Start your tour in the Capitol Visitor Center, which was constructed beneath the Capitol in 2008 so as not to detract from the appearance of the building. Grand skylights offer dramatic views of the Capitol Dome, which rises 287 feet above the East Plaza. The center features a large exhibition area that provides insight on the building itself and the nation’s government.

Tours begin with a 13-minute film, “Out of Many, One,” that examines how the country established its democratic form of government and highlights the role Congress plays. Then visitors are guided through the building to see many of its architectural elements and the important collection of American art on display, including dozens of statues. Each state has contributed two statues to the Capitol to honor citizens notable to their history.

The highlight of the tour was the rotunda, a circular hall located at the heart of the Capitol beneath its dome. Nearly 200 feet above the floor is a massive fresco painted by Italian artist Constantino Brumidi entitled “The Apotheosis of George Washington,” which consists of a portrait of the nation’s first president rising to the heavens surrounded by symbols of American democracy and technological progress.

Tours are free but passes are required. Tours may be booked in advance online at www.visitthecapitol.gov or through the Office of Visitor Services by calling (202) 226-8000. A limited number of same-day passes are available. The Senate and House Galleries are open to visitors whenever either body is in session. Passes to enter the galleries are required from the office of your senator or representative.

While the Capitol is the most widely recognized symbol of democratic government in the world, the nearby White House stands for the power and statesmanship of the chief executive. The two sites are the city’s two focal points envisioned by French engineer Pierre Charles L’Enfant who designed Washington, D.C.

Every president except George Washington has conducted the nation’s government from the White House, where the president signs legislation, welcomes dignitaries, holds meetings and lives with his family. Tours of portions of the building available through one’s member of Congress, but just standing outside the gates of the iconic structure is inspiring.

Learn more about the White House and its occupants throughout history at the White House Visitor Center, located about two blocks east on Pennsylvania Avenue. Six permanent exhibits featuring photographs, documents and artifacts examine many aspects of the White House, including its architecture, furnishings, first families and social events. From the Visitor Center, guests can follow two trails into President’s Park, which is composed of about 82 acres of park land surrounding the White House and is home to many statues, memorials and fountains.

Haven at National Harbor

When deciding on where to stay, there were plenty of choices in downtown Washington, D.C., but we opted for the less urban ambience at National Harbor. Located on the Potomac River only about 25 minutes south of downtown, the 300-acre development features six hotels, tree-lined promenades, scores of restaurants and shops, a marina and plenty of benches to enjoy the waterfront view.

We selected The Westin Washington National Harbor because it overlooked the river and it had a small indoor pool that we could retreat to after a long day of exploring the city’s sights. From the hotel, we could catch a bus to the nearest Metro station and ride the train into downtown so we didn’t have to deal with the high cost of parking or driving in an unfamiliar area. We purchased rechargeable cards from kiosks at the Metro station that we used to get back and forth all week.

While we were able to see many sights on those forays into the city, there are dozens of other museums and attractions in the area that we didn’t have time for, including: Arlington National Cemetery; Mount Vernon: George Washington’s Estate and Gardens; and the National Aquarium. And new developments are always being added, including the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial on the National Mall that is scheduled to be dedicated Aug. 28, 2011, on the 48th anniversary of King’s “I have a dream” speech.

History is always being made in Washington, D.C., and during one week last summer, our family could see the fabric of that history being woven and the long tapestry that already exists. And now, that vacation is a memorable part of our family’s own history.

Dennis R. Heinze is regional editor of the AAA Midwest Traveler and AAA Southern Traveler magazines.

Mar/Apr 2011 Issue

BEFORE YOU GO

For more information about Washington, D.C., contact Destination DC at (800) 422-8644 or (202) 789-7000, or click on www.washington.org.

To contact your Representative and Senators, call the U.S. Capitol Switchboard at (202) 224-3121.

Before your trip, visit or call your nearest AAA service office for maps, reservations, TripTiks® and TourBook® guides.



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