Trace the footsteps of Civil War soldiers

A re-enactment at Shiloh National Battlefield - File photo
A re-enactment at Shiloh National Battlefield - File photo

Everyone should experience the Civil War. No, not the one we endured with our families over the Christmas holidays! I’m talking about that four-year period in American history when the nation was ripped in two.

I must admit that as a youngster, history held little interest for me. I learned what I had to in school and quickly forgot it as soon as the test was over. But one day all that changed. It happened while I was spending my lunch hour walking through the Alabama Department of Archives and History in Montgomery, Alabama.

When I stumbled upon a 150-year-old Bible in a glass case, my curiosity got the better of me. The index card said that it was presented to a young Confederate officer named John Pelham by a woman named Belle Boyd. The gallant John Pelham, Lee’s Boy Artillerist and arguably the most noteworthy Alabamian to fight for the CSA, and Belle Boyd, who became a Confederate spy, were my gateway to Civil War discovery.

Years later, I became a re-enactor and spent many hot summer days lying in ant beds in scratchy wool pants pretending to be a war casualty. It didn’t take long for me to learn that I could be much more comfortable reenacting as a period musician with my guitar.

Lately though, I spend more time reading and writing about the period than anything else. And I have learned an important lesson. For those who have the history bug, there is nothing like touring an actual historic site to bring to life and firmly and forever entrench that period in the mind and heart. And I am not the only one who thinks that way.

“Whether you are making a serious study of history, or are simply a tourist with some time on your hands, walking a well-preserved battlefield can be a profound experience,” says well-known Civil War author and historian Jeff Shaara.

“In my own research on the characters in my stories, I have learned that you cannot gain a complete picture of who they were, or what they experienced unless you walk in their footsteps.”

With that thought in mind, here are ten battlefields selected for all those who want to get a real taste of the most turbulent period in our nation’s history by walking in the footsteps of northern and southern legends.

1 – Shiloh (southwestern Tennessee)

April 6-7, 1862, U.S. Major Generals Ulysses Grant and Don Carlos Buell squared off with their Army of the Ohio and Tennessee against CSA Generals Albert Sidney Johnston and P.G.T. Beauregard at a place called Shiloh.

Although inflicting more casualties, the Rebels were outnumbered by 20,000 troops and subsequently lost the battle. Johnston was mortally wounded. Brigadier General William Tecumseh Sherman chased the retreating rebels, but the CSA rearguard Col. Nathan Bedford Forrest forced them to call off the pursuit.

This was the bloodiest two days of the Civil War, oddly enough in a location that translates “Place of Peace.” More Americans fell here than in all the previous American wars combined.

Must see: Shiloh National Battlefield Visitors Center, the Hornets Nest, (battle line established by the Union Army at the sunken road to resist the Confederate advance).

2 – Antietam, MD (a.k.a. Sharpsburg)

September 16-18, 1862, US Major General George McClellan was pitted against CSA General Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia in Sharpsburg, Maryland. The total loss of life in the battle on the 17th was more than 20,000, the bloodiest single day in American military history.

General Lee used his entire fighting force, while McClellan sent only three quarters of his army to the confrontation. McClellan was unable to defeat the outmanned Lee, and though Lee withdrew across the Potomac into the Shenandoah Valley, the Union experienced a negligible victory. It is said that a bullet passed through the sleeve of famous caregiver Clara Barton, and killed a wounded man she was treating at this battle.

Famous photo of President Abraham Lincoln and Major General George McClellan at Antietam, Maryland, in October 1862 - File photo
Famous photo of President Abraham Lincoln and Major General George McClellan at Antietam, Maryland, in October 1862 - File photo

Must see: Antietam National Battlefield Visitors Center, National Cemetery, Monuments, eight mile auto tour beginning at the Dunker Church.

3 – Fredericksburg, VA (a.k.a. Marye’s Heights)

December 11-15, 1862, US Major General Ambrose Burnside with more than 100,000 troops in the Army of the Potomac took on CSA General Robert E. Lee with more than 70,000. At the end of the battle, 18,000 of those troops were dead.

The firmly entrenched Confederate Army decimated the Federal forces from Prospect Hill and Marye’s Heights. The Gallant John Pelham distinguished himself and his artillery unit in this, Lee’s earliest victory. On the 15th, the Union army retreated across the same river they had previously crossed by means of pontoons.

During the fighting, CSA Sergeant Richard Kirkland received permission to give water to Union wounded. He was cheered by both armies and later became known as the Angel of Marye’s Heights.

Must see: Fredericksburg National Battlefield Visitors Center, five mile driving tour, 30-minute walking tours along the Sunken Road and Stone Wall, Fredericksburg National Cemetery and Fredericksburg Confederate Cemetery, and the Pyramid (a monument erected along the railroad that marking Meade’s breakthrough).

4 – Gettysburg, PA

July 1-3, 1863, one of the costliest battles of the Civil War took place at Gettysburg. When it was all over, more than 50,000 men were dead; 23,000 Union soldiers and 28,000 Confederates.

Perhaps one of the most well known battles of the Civil War, the Battle of Gettysburg has been called the greatest land battle in the United States, with northern and southern forces totaling more than 150,000 men. Troop strengths were almost equal as US Major General George Meade and the Army of the Potomac faced CSA General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia in Lee’s attempt to take the war to his enemy.

On the last day of the battle, Lee attacked the Union center at Cemetery Ridge, experiencing a short-lived advantage. George Pickett’s famous charge momentarily broke through the Union line but was repelled with staggering casualties. The next day, on July 4th, Lee began the agonizing withdrawal of his remaining troops. His wounded soldiers formed a line fourteen miles long.

Friend to Friend Masonic Memorial in Gettysburg National Cemetery - File photo
Friend to Friend Masonic Memorial in Gettysburg National Cemetery - File photo

Later, in November, United States President Abraham Lincoln would be asked to say a few words over the Union Cemetery. His Gettysburg address contained only 269 words.

Must See: Gettysburg National Battlefield Visitors Center, National Cemetery, Peach Orchard, Wheatfield, Devil’s Den, Round Top, Little Round Top.

5 – Vicksburg, MS

May 18-July 4, 1863, US General Ulysses Grant and the Army of the Tennessee laid siege to the city of Vicksburg defended by CSA Lt. General John C. Pemberton. Casualties were almost 20,000.

Many previous attempts had failed to take the city by water. But once the city was sealed off and the citizens and military made virtual prisoners, it was just a matter of time before they were beaten. Repeated bombing and starvation were factors, which led to the surrender.

This and other successes ultimately led to Grant’s appointment as Commander over all the Northern Armies.

Abraham Lincoln once said whoever controlled Vicksburg would win the war since the Mississippi River was the supply line for both the Union and the Confederates.

Must see: Vicksburg National Battlefield Museum, U.S.S. Cairo Gunboat and Museum, more than 1,300 monuments, 16 mile tour road, National Cemetery. The Vicksburg National Cemetery, established in 1866 as a place of rest for Union soldiers killed in the Civil War, has the distinction of having the largest number of Civil War interments of any national cemetery in the United States. Of the approximately 17,000 Union veterans, only 5,000 are known. It also has veterans from the Mexican and Spanish-American Wars, World War I and II, and the Korean War.

6 – Chickamauga, GA

US Maj. Generals William S. Rosecrans and General George H. Thomas and their Army of the Cumberland stood opposite the field from CSA General Braxton Bragg and Lt. General James Longstreet and the Army of Tennessee on September 18-20, 1863. This battle was for control of Chattanooga.

Chickamauga was an Indian name meaning River of Death. Unlike Shiloh, it lived up to its name, claiming more than 30,000 US and CSA casualties. The Confederates prevailed, but Bragg and Longstreet allowed the fleeing Rosecrans to retreat to Chattanooga safely. This was the last major victory for the Confederates.

Must see: Chickamauga and Chattanooga Visitors Center, monuments, exhibits and trails, seven mile driving tour.

7 – Wilderness (Spotsylvania County)

The Wilderness was a six-week period known as the bloodiest campaign in American history. In this campaign, it was (then) US Lieutenant General Ulysses Grant and Major General George Meade versus CSA General Robert E. Lee.

May 5-7, 1864, Northern and Southern troops numbering 162,000 fought in the opening battle of this Overland Campaign. Fighting raged back and forth throughout the three-day battle. During the fighting, CSA Lieutenant Gen. James Longstreet was wounded by his own men.

Although the Rebels were out manned by more than 40,000, the battle was technically a draw, with Grant advancing toward Spotsylvania Courthouse. At battle’s end, 18,000 Union troops and 11,000 Confederates were dead.

Must see: Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania County Battlefields Memorial, Bloody Angle, Todd’s Tavern.

8 – Cold Harbor, VA

This was the final battle of Grant’s Overland Campaign, fought from May 31-June 12, 1864. Grant and Meade again tackled Lee’s army. Lee fought with an army half the size of his counterpart. Total troop strength was 108,000 for the Union and 62,000 for the Rebels.

Union cavalry occupied a strategic crossroads at Cold Harbor where the fighting began. By June 2, the armies formed a seven-mile front from Bethesda Church to the Chickahominy River.

Casualties mounted quickly with 7,000 men perishing in the 20 minutes of fighting. Another 8-9,000 would be dead before the battle was over. The armies confronted each other on these lines until the night of June 12, when Grant advanced to the James River. Grant later stated in his writing that he regretted ordering this attack.

Must see: Cold Harbor National Battlefield Visitors Center, walking trails, Garthwright house.

9 – Petersburg, VA

This battle occurred June 15-18, 1864, and was also called the Richmond-Petersburg Campaign. Like the Wilderness and Cold Harbor, the combatants were the same with the exception of CSA General P.G.T. Beauregard.

Grant realized that taking Petersburg would decimate Lee’s supply lines from Richmond. But Confederate forces were standing fast. Though it looked as it the Union army would prevail, the southerners under Beauregard were reinforced by Lee and fell back to protect the city of Petersburg.

There were heavy casualties to the Union and the opportunity to take the city without a siege was lost. This time, troop strength showed a natural reduction due to fatalities of 62,000 for the US and 42,000 for the CSA. On June 18, there would be 11,000 fewer men still.

Must see: Petersburg National Battlefield Visitors Center.

10 – Mobile, AL (Forts Morgan and Gaines)

August 2-23, 1864, Admiral David Farragut and Major General Gordon Granger of the US engaged in a maritime battle with Admiral Franklin Buchanan and Brigadier General Richard Page of the Confederate States. The objective was to close Mobile Bay to blockade runners, thereby cutting off another supply route to the CSA.

Ft. Morgan State Historic site in Gulf Shores, Alabama - File photo
Ft. Morgan State Historic site in Gulf Shores, Alabama - File photo

Farragut’s fleet consisted of 14 wooden vessels and four monitors near Mobile and Buchanan’s Flotilla was equipped with three gunboats and the ironclad CSS Tennessee. On the 5th, Farragut’s fleet entered Mobile Bay in the face of heavy fire by the rebel navy and from Forts Gaines and Morgan. The USS Tecumseh sank after hitting a sunken mine.

In spite of the incoming fire and the minefield across the bay, Farragut chose to press ahead, uttering the words, “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.” After making it past the forts, Farragut forced the Confederate naval forces to surrender. Buchanan surrendered aboard the USS Hartford. By August 23, Fort Morgan fell, and the port was captured.

Must see: Fort Morgan State Historic Site, Historic Fort Gaines.

There are so many sites that are worthy to be in anyone’s Top 10. These are some of the most memorable. For me, the little known Battle of Kelly’s Ford, which preceded Chancellorsburg, was the most memorable. It was here that The gallant Pelham fell mortally wounded on March 17, 1863 after cheating death for more than 60 engagements. His close friend and cavalry officer J.E.B. Stewart wept bitterly over his fallen comrade.

In the song called “Big Yellow Taxi.” by Joni Mitchell, there is a line, which goes, ‘They pave Paradise and put up a parking lot.’ Much of our Civil War history has fallen prey to asphalt and fast food eateries. But many of these sites have been protected and preserved for future generations.

“We are extremely fortunate that in this country, we have some amazingly well-preserved battlefield sites, that, fortunately, have been and will continue to be protected against destruction,” said Shaara.

“If we lose that kind of connection to our history, if we are unable to walk in those footsteps, we lose something irreplaceable. We lose the connection from where we came from.”

To truly experience the past, one may have to feel the dirt beneath his feet, to stand on the field of battle, to charge the hill or to feign death in wool pants on top of an ant bed. Battlefields provide this essential connection to the past. And a thorough study of the past may ensure that we are not doomed to repeat it.

Article by Cameron Reeder

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