On Visiting Battlefields

I’ve been at Gettysburg for a week now, exploring the battlefield (as well as making a quick trip to visit sites at the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania NMP and Antietam),  There have been a few business meetings here and there as well, and wet weather conditions (as well as a trip to Baltimore to see the Yankees prevail over Baltimore in a 15-inning contest highlighted by meeting Boog Powell) have cut down on a few opportunities or made other ones a bit more challenging.  When I have been out on the field, however, I have made an effort each day to explore something I really haven’t looked at very carefully before, and I’ve found that has kept the visit fresh.

All of this leads to a simple question: why do you visit battlefields?  For me, they are texts, both in terms of helping me to understand the course and conduct of a battle as well as the way in which people have attempted to commemorate and relate what happened and why.  Yes, in some cases there’s an added awareness that I’m walking across areas where an ancestor once stood, but if that was the only reason (or even the primary reason) why I went, I’d ignore the rest; in other cases it’s a little odd revisiting some place you visited decades ago (I’ve rewalked areas I first walked as a nine year old boy back in 1967, including what remains of the old Cyclorama Center in Gettysburg).  But exploring these fields primarily helps me understand what happened and why.

So why do you visit battlefields?

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18 thoughts on “On Visiting Battlefields

  1. Certainly trying to understand the battle is a key reason. Also, it’s a way to recharge the batteries by getting out and walking around. Third, at Gettysburg I’ve taken on the task of trying to view every monument. I feel that we owe it to the men who saved our country to at least view the commemorations they placed. Fourth, there’s the bookstore and interpretive museum, which places the battle in the larger context of the war and its times. And fifth, if you’re there with someone it’s a great social experience.

  2. The best of the battlefields let you see the lay of the land: the hills providing the high-ground cover, the rivers and streams that must be forded, the narrow bridges that were crossed, the open meadows enabling wide-range, lethal cannonfire.

    Sometimes development, regrowth, and even the monuments themselves, have eroded these visual indicators. But there are a few parks (Antietam & Chickamawga to name two) still provide important visual lessons for students of history.

    • I have been to Chickamauga, and I found it too confusing to follow the events described in the battle accounts I had read when put into that space. But years later, I find myself reading history and knowing precisely what happened and where. Three guns of my great-grandfather’s light artillery battery were captured when Longstreet swept through the accidental hole in the Union position.

  3. Simply put, one visits a battlefield to remember and to honor.

    To remember the men who fought and fell on this field, what they did and why they did it and what they can teach us by having done so.

    To honor their suffering and their sacrifice and what their willingness to risk all for cause and comrade and country meant at the time, and might still mean today.

    There’s no better way to do these things than to walk the ground of a Civil War battlefield.

    It’s why battlefield preservation is so very important.

    Mike Stevens
    Central Virginia Battlefields Trust

  4. Battlefields are study aids to me. I was upset when the “hallowed grounders” got the National Tower destroyed because “Robert R Lee wouldn’t had seen it”, who cared, it gave an unparalleled view of the area and I could better follow the action in my mind.

    and visits bring into focus so much, an eye-opener were the RR cuts at Gettysburg and Mananas. neither was what I expected nor did they strike me as what was described in histories, the Gettysburg cut was rather small and I still find it hard to see how Heth’s men were surprised in such a puny cut {I live near a sizable RR cut that troops could easily get trapped in should they use it}

    and at Manassas the “Unfinished RR” in no way resembled what I read, they make it sound like a great trench to defend but a close inspection showed it was far from wonderful with it being a combination of cut,embankment and land fill. any troops in the cut would be in a hard way if union troops made it to the embankment portion and were able to fire along it and any troops in it trying to fall back would be slaughtered so it was clear upon see it that the Rebs weren’t actually in the cut section but behind it and that would severely restrict the field of fire to their front. no book can ever make that clear like a good look see can. And wading Beaver Dam Creek and then climbing the slope gave a tiny insight to what Hood’s men went through that day. the creek bottom was muddy and very slow going, it sucked enough on a nice sunny day, doing it under fire is mind boggling.

    and then there are the museums, Fred-burg has some grwat artifacts, the note from the Reb soldier to a Yankee to arrange a swap of tobacco for coffee and sugar connected me to the men in a small way and humanized them from mythical to real people. a piece of the a plank from the plank road was interesting to see.

    I wonder how the USS Cairo has made out in the recent floods. I first learned of the Cairo in 1965 when Treasure Chest Magazine a comic book style mag put out by the Catholic Church for sale in schools had an article on Bearss hunting for finding and recovering it. it took me 25 years but eventually I got there and saw her.

    Also visiting them take one to places one might never visit. Being in Vicksburg it was no problem to head up into the Mississippi Delta and seek out some old juke joints and hear some great blues played by originals, players who’ll never be famous but who can put it out there with the best because they are the best.

    I’ve been to Bear Grass and Tick Bite NC,at least I think I was in Tick Bite, I saw a sign pointing that dsaid Tick Bite 1 mile and took the road, after a bit of a drive there was a sign pointing the opposite direction saying Tick Bite 1 mile, so I figure I passed through it. and seeing lived in shanties along the road and being informed they were old slave cabins still in use as homes was something that made me think.

    and if nothing else they are fun and inexpensive trips. you can keep Disney, I like real places populated by real people.

    and let me give a shout out to the ladies who man the little roadside museums, they are wonderful folk who make every visit a pleasure.

  5. I must admit that to be “on the spot where such & such happened X years ago” is a factor to me.

    Of course, Perryville is the only battlefield I have visited recently (I saw Gettysburg & Antietem in the early 90s, but for no other reason than they were famous battlefields and I, just out of high school, liked the Civil War), but being on the land does create a better understanding of the battle and the people who fought it. Reading about the fight going from hill to hill is one thing; to walk up and down those hills in the hot sun, even with casual clothes on, gives a much deeper view of what those soldiers – in full uniform, carrying pounds and pounds of equipment, bullets flying at them – did. No books, letter (even first-hand accounts0 or pictures/videos can do it the justice that seeing the “rolling hills” (visit Perryvile and you will understand what that phrase means) and walking up and down and up and down them does.

    Maybe Perryville is unique in that specific a topographic setting, but I doubt it. I expect that each battlefield has its unique features that can explain parts of the battle better than any book can.
    I hope one day to visit more battlefields now that I’m an adult.

  6. I’ll echo what others have said: you can’t really grasp the way in which battles were fought without an understanding of the terrain. I’ve spent several years riding and walking the Little Bighorn battlefield. I’m only now beginning to grasp what happened.

  7. I like to visit the battlefields becauase as a teenager I still have a little bit of my imigination left and it makes what I read in books like “battle Cry of Freedom” by James McPherson real. It brings the war to a new light.

  8. I have rarely visited any of the major battlefields. Live too far away. If I was where my parents are at today, I’d visit Vicksburg and that campaign’s battlegrounds more often (I still haven’t been there even though it’s only like a 2 and a half hour drive or so).

    I did grow up, however, driving past Port Hudson everyday I went to school (as well as the Battle of Baton Rouge – that battleground is all city now, but for Magnolia cemetery). I’ve also often driven through the small crossroads where the small Battle of Plains Store happened as well. Other than that, not a whole lot of battlefield traipsing.

    While living and working in Germany for a summer I was located in der Eifel which is the German side of the Ardennes along the German-Belgian border. Never made it to Bastogne. However, I knew while I was there that the town I was living in was part of the staging ground for the German offensive that became the Battle of the Bulge. And just a few years ago I found out a town I had biked to (12 km away) was the actual jumping off point for the infamous Piper panzer unit. And where that group massacred U.S. soldiers was not that much farther inside of Belgium. Didn’t know that at the time though.

    And as an exchange student in Germany I lived just upriver of the Remagen bridge. Did see it while on a Rhine River tour, but never visited the town. Military history interests just weren’t a priority at the time.

    Today I’d mostly be interested in figuring out who was where and why. Why that location, etc… Learning that an ancestor was there would motivate me to get to the place as well.

  9. What puzzles me is the people who write battlefield histories *without* walking the ground. If you print out the first-hand accounts of what happened and walk the ground with them in hand, where a certain unit was standing often becomes obvious. I love Grabau’s “98 Days” to death, and I love the topograhpical detail of his maps, but the unit placements are approximated so badly sometimes it just blows my mind.

    If you go up on top of Champion Hill, you can see the exact spot where the Confederate charge was stopped. It’s described perfectly by Col. Elijah Gates’ entry in the O.R. … but if I remember correctly, Grabau’s maps show the Confederates driving Holmes completely off the hill.

  10. For what it’s worth, I have never been tempted to go visit the ground my ancestor strode, but if I ever get the urge can anyone tell me if the Fort Pillow State Park is a scale replica of the original? I suppose I am the same age my GGGG-grandfather was when he leapt the walls, I’m curious if I could pull off the same feat.
    :D

  11. I visited the battlefields of Resaca in Georgia and Chickamauga first because I was studying the life of my great-grandfather, who was a mystery to me until a distant relative gave me a copy of his civil war muster record and an old photograph of him in uniform. My study of genealogy, mixed with history, recently allowed me to understand a personal detail: my grandfather’s name was Thaddeus Alanson Hassinger. These names did not occur in my family. Where did they come from? My great-grandfather’s Independent Battery B was at Chickamauga, and its commander was Alanson Stevens. When Longstreet drove through a hole in the Union line, three guns from the battery went to the Confederates. Captain Stevens got two back, and in charging the third gun, was killed. The commander’s sacrifice meant that they could support Gen. Thomas in making the Union rout a retreat (“The Rock of Chickamauga”, he was called). Captain Stevens was the nephew and ward of the Hon. Thaddeus Stevens, Mr. Radical Republican himself. So my grandfather was named first for the Father of the 14th Amendment and the Reconstruction Act, and then for great-grandfather’s beloved commander. This was, ironically, in 1876, when the family had moved to Oakland, California, during the year when Reconstruction was to end. Time and again, studying the way that war and my family’s life has intersected, I can say that the influence is profound.

    • I like the name, It’s one you should consider if you have a son. Of course you have to be a Senator or something with a name like that.

      • OOOPS, I was called away before finishing and didn’t mean to send yet.

        anyway, I like the name and it comes with a great story. Looking and finding all that must have been fun and it does bring things to a modern personal level.

        so, that is a name to keep going in the family.

  12. I walk battlefields for 2 different reasons.

    1. You have to really know the topography in order to understand why a battles occured in a certain way. Terrain is critical in it seffect on the movement of 117th – 19th Century armies. This past weekend I toured Brandywine Battlefield. I had read all about it but until I followed the path of the Guards Brigade on th eground I could not understand how they got to be so lost early in the fight. I also understand better Weedon’s Brigades position near Dilworth. You can not get this appreciation from just a terrain analysis with a topo map.

    2. As a former Infantry officer, I also like to walk the battlefield and try to figure out how I would have fought the battle and employed my forces. The aspects of OCOKA (Observation, Cover and Concealment, Obstacles, Key Terrain, Avenues of Approach) are important to how you decide to fight regarding a certain battle.

  13. I wish i had became interested in the civil war while i was in high school. by now i could have seen a lot more battlefields, than I have. all it took was my first time to go to shiloh. it was so moving ,that i have been back there 3 more times. i take my time and not rush through them. you have to visualize what you see, with what you know about the battle. it can seem so real at times, like the time our family went to gettysburg in 1990. we had already spent 3 days there, when the morning came that we were to leave, i got up right before dawn and decided to take one last walk to where picketts charge took place. my wife & son wanted to sleep in, so i went by myself. i walked to the stone wall and sat down. i thought about what i had read about the battle and just let my mind wander. It was just barely daylight. just as i pictured general lewis armistead coming over the wall, someone shot a gun in the woods ahead of me. they must have been hunting, but i thought i had gone back in time. It was my most moving experience of all my trips to battlefields. we have been to gettysburg, wilsons creek, antietam ,vicksburg ,tupelo, appomattox,new market,chicamauga,kennesaw mountain,colombus_ belmont, and 4 times to shiloh, pea ridge,manassas,fort donelson,harpers ferry,stones river,franklin,and chattanooga. i am going to try to go to 2 or 3 more ,each year of the sesquicentennial. if you are at all interested in the civil war, don t wait until you are too old to travel. you will not be sorry. honor those who died in these battles, who knows, they might have been related to you!

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