As a kid, it took me some time to realise that everyone in America didn’t grow up within minutes of important historical locations. I grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia, so I would always say I was from “outside Philly” but whenever I need to give more specificity to people familiar with the area but who didn’t know my small town, I described it as “near Washington Crossing… as in Washington crossing the Delaware.” In addition to being just a few minutes’ drive from this historic location, the towns around mine are full of houses and buildings that date back to the colonial era, I used to work at a school that was owned by a doctor during the Revolutionary War (and is allegedly haunted by a Hessian soldier he operated on there), and, of course, the city of Philadelphia is only 40 minutes away.
Yesterday I visited Philadelphia’s new Museum of the American Revolution. A few blocks away from Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell, the museum is the perfect addition to the area. Tracing the events leading up to, during, and through the aftermath of the Revolutionary War, this well-curated exhibit features artifacts from the time period and thorough explanations of significant happenings and people. Highlights include the excellent orientation video, the original tent Washington used as his personal office during the war, and one of the oldest preserved Revolutionary-era flags of the soon-to-be United States. Most of us are already familiar with the basic history due to years of primary education (is it just me, or did we learn about the Revolutionary War pretty much every year?) but the museum does a great job of providing a comprehensive overview while also delving deeper into lesser-known moments, people, and things.
One thing that especially impressed me about the museum is the way it incorporated and contextualized the role of women, Native Americans, and African Americans in the war. Too often, history museums relegate minorities to a single segment or panel of the exhibit and providing little information beyond the fact that yes, they existed and perhaps the story of one well-known figure. In contrast, this museum was inclusive throughout the exhibit, highlighting the importance of Oneida allies, the decision enslaved people made about whether fighting for Britain or America would be more likely to give them freedom, the hypocrisy of men fighting for their own freedom while accepting the enslavement of others, and the essential supportive movements created by women such as the boycott of British goods. Overall, it contributed greatly to offering a well-rounded and informative exhibit that goes beyond what’s in every schoolchild’s textbook.
If you’re visiting Philadelphia to experience the Museum of the American Revolution, of course you’re going to want to check out some other important locations relating to the area. Your first stop should be Independence Hall. Pick up a time ticket and then walk over to the Liberty Bell while you wait. The Liberty Bell, in my opinion, is one of those things that’s not that interesting except to say that you’ve seen it in person, but hopefully the line won’t be too long and you can get through while you’re waiting for your turn at Independence Hall. Then go inside the Hall and observe where the Revolution began—take note of the famous ‘rising sun’ chair that Ben Franklin looked at with optimism for the country. Afterward, make sure you walk down to Graff House, where Thomas Jefferson “rode into the countryside” (now only a few blocks away in the city) to write the Declaration of Independence.
There are endless other historic locations to be seen within the city itself, but I recommend you continue your journey just minutes away from my hometown, in Newtown Pennsylvania. This historic town is where Washington and his armies camped before making their trek across the Delaware to ambush the British in Trenton. Then make your way to Washington Crossing and visit the historic park, which features restored colonial-era buildings and signs that tell the story of the town’s namesake event. If you visit on Christmas Day you can see a reenactment of the crossing, but my pro tip is to go a few weeks earlier for the dress rehearsal. That way you’re not standing out in the cold on Christmas, most likely watching the reenactors anachronistically walk across the bridge because there’s too much ice in the river for them to safely cross in boats.
My final must-see Revolutionary War location in the area is to the west of Philadelphia, Valley Forge. The Continental Army’s winter encampment, this is one to visit in nice weather, wearing good walking shoes. I believe there is a trolly tour for those for whom it is necessary, but the best way to experience this National Historic Park is to walk the length of its many acres. After you check out the visit center, stroll through the park to see various monuments and memorials, as well as the artillery park and the area where the soldiers were stationed and lived through the winter. Most notably, you can also visit the historic house that served as Washington’s quarters during the winter, with authentic furnishings and period reproductions letting you see it as it would have been during the war.
Whether you’ve grown up here like I did but haven’t done anything history-related since a middle school field trip, or whether you’re on the side of the country (or not even American), the Philadelphia area is worth a look, and the new Museum of the American Revolution is an excellent complement to the long-standing historic sites.