More than 30 recruits stand at attention, arms at the ready.
"They may be young but they are brave," observes the sergeant training them.
Very young -- some not even in kindergarten yet; some who don't know their right from their left when the sergeant commands them to turn.
"Hip, hip huzzah!" the crowd cheers as the group is inducted into the Continental Army.
That's right. The Continental Army. Here in the heart of historic Philadelphia on a steamy summer day, we've time-traveled back to the heady days of the American Revolution, the drafting of the Declaration of Independence and the making of Betsy Ross' famous flag sewn at the request of Gen. George Washington. All right where it happened -- thanks to 30 terrific costumed "History Makers," as well as 40 first-rate storytellers from the nonprofit Historic Philadelphia organization (www.historicphiladelphia.org) stationed at 13 "Once Upon a Nation" benches throughout what's called America's Most Historic Square Mile, all working hard to make American history much more than a bunch of dates to visitors -- whatever their ages.
"Who is brave enough to join our fight," "Maj. David Salisbury Franks" bellows at the growing crowd in Signer's Garden -- much as we imagine he really did when Washington was badly in need of more recruits -- before they are marched to a nearby grassy area to "train" with wooden muskets.
"This does make history fun," offered 10-year-old Caitlan Tsarouh, visiting from Oregon with her grandparents and cousin, also an eager recruit.
That's the idea, of course. And it's all free all summer long.
This summer, as the nation commemorates the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War, there are also Civil War-era stories (hear the tale of Henry "Box" Brown who escaped to freedom in 1849 by mailing himself to Philadelphia in a crate), Civil War-era History Makers (among them 19th century civil rights leader Octavius Catto, killed the day he cast his first ballot) and special exhibits like "Rally 'Round the Flag" about the Civil War color bearers and the flags they carried at the Betsy Ross House (www.betsyrosshouse.org).
You will also find free programs outside the city at Valley Forge, the site of George Washington's brutal winter encampment, as well as in Philadelphia's historic area, where you may have the chance to meet and greet History Makers Ben Franklin, Betsy Ross, Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, George and Martha Washington and other luminaries from their era who might not be as well remembered, including John Dunlap, who printed the first broadside of the Declaration of Independence, which was used when it was first read aloud to the public, and Rebecca Franks, a loyalist (a third of Philadelphians were loyalists) who later married a British officer and moved to England.
Independence National Historical Park (www.nps.gov/inde), where you'll find some of the storytellers and History Makers, is, of course, where you'll see the Liberty Bell, the President's House Site, where George Washington and John Adams lived and worked, Declaration House, where Thomas Jefferson crafted the Declaration of Independence, and more. (Get advance online tickets for $1.50 for Independence Hall, www.independencevisitorcenter.com.)
Stop in at the Visitor Center and pick up a Junior Ranger Activity Book for the kids to use as you tour the sites. You might meet a colonist who can show you how to make rope or play an 18th century instrument. Get a flag from one of the storytellers and add a star to the circle of 13 stars for each site you visit. (Kids get a free ice cream when they've gotten all 13 stars on their flag.)
Don't try to see everything in one day either -- not when Philadelphia hotels are offering a new Overnight Hotel Package (www.visitphilly.com) at $198 for two nights, including parking, which otherwise could cost up to $75, and a special teddy bear.