Monday, September 5, 2011

What is Your Favorite Civil War Battlefield?

[caption id="attachment_1553" align="alignleft" width="300" caption="The Union line on Cemetery Ridge"][/caption]

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

I will never miss a chance to go to Gettysburg. I love it there...I really do. And here's why. For a historian who focuses on Civil War memory, Gettysburg is sort of like the remembrance epicenter. Veterans of the war certainly saw it that way - in the decades following the war, they flocked there to walk in their 1863 footsteps, hold reunions, and dedicate monuments.

Former soldiers from both sides emphasized the "turning point" theme - a problematic issue to be sure, but one that they seemed eager to employ in speeches and monument dedications. The overwhelming number of monuments on the field today were dedicated by Union veterans. Reading through the thousands of monument inscriptions leaves one with little doubt that the preservation of Union was paramount. For those who wish to peel back a few layers of Civil War memory, there are many speech transcriptions available in the Gettysburg archives (and elsewhere) that accent emancipation - a cause veterans celebrated with often equal importance.

If you are lucky, you can make the time here to walk out on the battlefield when all the tourists have gone back to their hotels for the evening. I did this very thing back in late June. I managed to find myself all alone on the Union line (at the Pennsylvania monument) shortly after the sun went down. With no other human in sight, I heard a group of visitors off in the distance shouting a few huzzahs. It was a Civil War moment like none other.

The town of Gettysburg is worth the visit as well. Pretty much everything is built around the tourist industry, and it is likely that you will run across a number of people in period dress just walking around. I like to strike up conversations with these folks just to see what they are up to - and to find out what they find most compelling about the Civil War era. You will discover that most are very happy to tell you.

A close second on my list of must-see battlefields is Shiloh. Now this is a completely different experience. The field is much more isolated from civilization, as it were, and there will generally be fewer visitors stomping around...especially if you choose to visit on

[caption id="attachment_1566" align="alignright" width="144" caption="The Alabama monument at Shiloh"][/caption]

a weekday in mid August or something. My advice is to brave the oppressive heat and humidity and have the battlefield pretty much to yourself. At Shiloh I can walk in the footsteps of my own Civil War ancestors who fought with the 16th Alabama infantry (Hardee's Corps). I know of one who was wounded there - Andrew Jackson Holbert. As the family legend goes, having enough of fighting, he walked home to Lawrence Country, Alabama after the battle to nurse his wound. Later he reenlisted (read: conscription caught up to the intrepid private Holbert) and wound up fighting with the 27th Alabama until the end of the war.

[caption id="attachment_1570" align="alignleft" width="150" caption="The Stonewall Jackson monument at Manassas"][/caption]

Of course, I enjoy myself whenever I visit any Civil War battlefield. Antietam and ColdHarbor rank high in my book. Manassas makes the short list too (two battles for the price of one!). Maybe it's because I like getting hopelessly lost for several hours in the Virginia heat with a limited water supply. Or maybe it's because I like the Stonewall equestrian monument - where both Jackson and his horse look like comic book super heroes (this is my wife, Coni's favorite).

I imagine you will have your own reasons for visiting a Civil War battlefield. I just say go whenever you get the chance.



  1. Hi Keith, I agree that there's nothing like walking the Hallowed Ground of a Civil War battlefield. It's a great experience on several levels ... and this includes gaining an understanding of the ground and its bearing on the tactical situation. A two-dimensional map just doesn't get the job done! My favorite battlefield is the Breakthrough Battlefield at Pamplin Historical Park near Petersburg, the site of the successful Sixth Corps assault that directly caused the collapse of the Confederate lines defending Petersburg and Richmond. Until a decade ago, the significant of this battle was not widely recognized. Gettysburg is also another favorite. We'll be there on October 8th for another book signing at the Visitor Center and Museum, but will also spend a day on the battlefield. Culp's Hill doesn't get the attention it deserves from most visitors, but Dian and I like to walk from the 2nd Maryland monument (the only part of the Union line captured and held by the Confederates) down the hill along the stone wall straddled by the Maryland Battalion during it's ill-fated charge. You can easily see why George Hume Steuart's Brigade suffered 40% casualties in a matter of minutes. Cordially, David H. Jones

  2. Gettysburg is my all-time favorite, followed by Antietam and then Vicksburg. It's been a very long time since I visited Shiloh, so I'm probably due for another visit sometime.

  3. Perryville, as it is the closest to my home and the only one I've visited more than once. I did visit Gettysburg and Antietam in the early 1990s, but Perryville is so pristine, so clean, so beautiful and peaceful. The town itself is rather quaint too, but the actual battlefield is well-preserved, and only has a few interpretative signs, not tons and tons of monuments on it.

    I've heard many good things about Shiloh and Chickamauga and would like to visit them, among others, but Perryville is wonderful and I certainly recommend it to anyone who happens to be near it, in the middle (somewhat to the west) of Kentucky.

  4. I recently visited Antietam for the first time and was not disappointed. Our tour guide was Mannie Gentile of "My Year of Living Rangerously" fame. Visiting the Cornfield, Bloody Lane, and the Burnside Bridge in a single afternoon was a truly memorable experience. Gettysburg is unforgetable. I have only been there twice and have not even scratched the surface of this epic battlefield. On a much smaller scale, I truly enjoyed visiting the New Market battlefield. The story of the VMI cadets, the Bushong Farm and the great Visitor Center made my trip there one to remember.

  5. Thanks Greg - I love Antietam. I toured there with Gary Gallagher when I was in grad school. It was indeed an experience! My favorite monument is the McKinley coffee serving monument - only because it is just so odd! I used to live about 30 minutes from New Market - so I went there all the time. I wish they had not built the 81 right through the battlefield - but I suppose people need to get places. Drat.

  6. Richard - Perryville is a lot of fun. I went there once in the summer (it was about a million degrees and really humid) and I was the only one on the field. Suffice to say I had a great time, despite the heat. Later on, I found a little junk store in the area and bought a couple of Civil War era bayonets. I forgot the name of the store - but they had a bunch of relics on display.

  7. I am with you, Al - Gettysburg is my all-time favorite...hands down. I will go there anytime I get the chance. Next for sure scheduled trip - June 2012. I hope I can get there sooner!

  8. Thanks David - I have been meaning to get to Pamplin Park next time I am in the Old Dominion. In all the years I lived in Virginia I never fit in a trip. I hear it is very well done. And I agree. I never really understood the battles until I started exploring the actual places where they took place. Being there adds a whole new dimension and really completes the picture.

  9. Shiloh is #1, followed by Gettysburg. Chickimauga is a nice park, if it didn't have the busy highway running down the center of it. However, perhaps the most moving Civil War site, not battle, I have been to would be Andersonville. It is difficult to appreciate the horrific conditions of that place until you stand on the grounds and imagine the tight confines, the hillside, and the water source between the palisades.

  10. Lori (InStitches70)October 28, 2012 at 2:37 AM

    I have only spent a significant amount of time at Gettysburg but have briefly visited Shiloh and Franklin (with plans to go back). I too enjoyed a quiet Gettysburg sunset at the same monument and felt so fortunate to be able to just sit there and "be". I'm obviously not ready to pick a favorite yet, but I am anxious to head back to Franklin where my great, great grandpa fought with the 96th Illinois. I'd like to figure out where he might have been on the battlefield and perhaps spend some quiet time there as well.

  11. Though I love Gettysburg (and it's where I became obsessed with the CW story), it was Antietam in a pouring July rain that broke my heart. My husband I had spent the night before in Winchester and had driven the slow, twisted roads to the battlefield. On our way in, we stopped for ice cream in Sharpsburg --how bleak!--before driving out to the site. It was midweek and barely a soul about. As we approached the gorgeous farmlands and vistas that are Antietam, I started crying. Perhaps it was the rain and gray skies, the lonely fields, the solitude we felt--I don't know--but I was overcome by an emotion I'd never before felt. Had I for a fleeting moment touched the past? We stopped in the visitor center first, and then took off in the rain to walk the land and run our hands across the cannons. I stood for a long time, looking at the rolling hills in the distance, the cornfield before me, the foggy skies, and just wept. What else could I have done?

  12. Cindy - that was a very touching story. Clearly a "civil war moment" - we all them them from time to time. Thanks for the comment!