Saturday, July 10, 2010

Vacation 2010: DC - History on Foot tour and Arlington Cemetery.

When we booked a hotel just a block and a half away from Ford's Theater, I started checking the theater's website to see if it offered any special programs. With a little investigation, I signed us up for some investigating: Detective James McDevitt's History on Foot tour. What better way to begin our first full day in DC than to walk from Ford's Theater to the White House, getting a pretty good lay of the land? What could go wrong?

Well, it could rain!

So that's why we bought a huge umbrella from our hotel's gift shop, thinking all four of us could stay dry under its enormous shelter. After getting soaked in our block-and-a-half walk to Ford's Theater, I invested in a second umbrella at another souvenir store.

It was a small but hardy bunch that embarked on this History on Foot tour. We were all given affidavits to keep safe until the detective needed them.

Det. McDevitt started our tour across the street from the theater at the house where Lincoln died. He described how word had spread quickly from that place and reached him at the police station. Then he retraced his steps, showing us where the assassination investigation led him.

First we headed to the alley behind the theater.

Then we saw the theater's back door. We learned about the stagehand who was holding a horse for the actor and assassin, John Wilkes Booth.

From there we retraced the detective's steps through Civil War-era Washington. As we passed giant buildings, the detective described the boarding houses and stables of 1865.

At one point we walked by another theater. We found out that Tad Lincoln had been watching a play there when the word came that the president had been shot.



As we made our way from stop to stop, the detective requested certain affidavits. As he read each one, he assumed the personas of those witnesses. Through their accounts and the detective's description of his investigation, we were able to piece together the assassination conspiracy.

We ended up walking past the Treasury and to the White House. As a postscript to our tour, Detective McDevitt told us who had been convicted and who had gone free.

The whole walking tour was fascinating. Our guide did a great job staying in character and dealing with the rain. We all came away with a better understanding of the events leading to and following President Lincoln's death. I don't think I'd ever really, truly considered how vulnerable our postwar country really was and how scary it must've been for Americans to lose their commander-in-chief.

With that tour behind us, we found a Metro station and made our way to Arlington National Cemetery. (Quick aside: We hadn't planned on visiting the cemetery until later in our trip, but we were afraid the rain would send the masses indoors and make the Smithsonian museums extra-crowded. Our vacation strategy is to go where other tourists are less likely to go, so we opted for another outdoor activity in the rain.)

After arriving at the cemetery Metro stop, we realized how appropriate the dreary weather was.


It's hard to imagine a more humbling or sobering place to be. Row after row, headstone after headstone reminded us of the enormous price of freedom.

The Tourmobile transported us to several areas in the cemetery, including President Kennedy's grave.
Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis is buried by his side.


Two other Kennedys are nearby. Robert Kennedy has a simple cross and marker,

as does "the lion of the Senate," Ted.


Not far from the Maine memorial, we saw tributes to those who died in the two space shuttle disasters and between them, a memorial for the ones killed when attempting to rescue the hostages in Iran.

The Challenger explosion in 1986 had a profound impact on me as a high school senior. I still have a poster of the Challenger seven in my classroom, including Christa McAuliffe, the first teacher in space. The caption: "They were all teachers."

This marker honors the crew of Columbia, who died on Feb. 1, 2003.


The Tomb of the Unknowns is another reminder of sacrifice. It was mesmerizing to watch the guard take his 21 steps, turn, wait 21 seconds, take another 21 steps, and on and on until it was time for the changing of the guard.
The pomp and circumstance inspired Katie, who stood at attention with her weapon (umbrella) at her side!

This amphitheater dates back to 1920. It is best known for the Memorial Day ceremonies held there.

Among the graves is that of Abner Doubleday, the man credited with inventing baseball.

The view from the highest points of the cemetery is sweeping. Even though the weather made visibility low, we could still see much of the District.


The view of the Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument.

Arlington House is the last stop on the Tourmobile route, and it has an interesting history.
Originally the home of George Washington Parke Custis, the first president's stepgrandson, Arlington House was eventually the home of Mary Anna Randolph Custis Lee and her husband, Robert E. Lee.

The home is currently going through a major renovation, so all of the furnishings have been removed, but it was still interesting to see this place that the Lees left behind when the general took command of the Confederate army. The land surrounding the house became a village for freed slaves during the war, and the remains of more than 2,000 Union soldiers killed in the battle of Bull Run are entombed in this memorial:
Other Civil War casualties were buried within close proximity of Arlington House to ensure the mansion was uninhabitable, just in case Lee or his family tried to reclaim it as their homestead. Some thought it especially fitting to have Union soldiers buried on Lee's old stomping grounds.

And as our tour guide told us as we ended the cemetery tour, with this part of our DC visit complete, we had completed our most important mission by paying tribute to the many who had paid the ultimate price for our great nation.

But that was just the first part of Day 6.

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