Monday, November 9, 2015

B is for Battlefields

Have you ever toured a battlefield, spending about fifteen minutes looking out over a big, open plain, got back in the car and thought, "Well, seen that!"?  Or maybe you went even farther, taking the driving tour along the paved park road, perhaps stopping at a few of the pullouts only to finish the tour thinking it was boring and you knew no more about the battle after finishing that long drive than before you arrived?  Well, that's a very common takeaway for folks visiting the hallowed grounds of our preserved battlefields.  In fact, I used to think the same thing.

But what if there was a way to bring those battles to life?  My friend, Andy Gudgeon, a huge Civil War scholar (and a Brit no less), taught me there is.  It just takes a little preparation beforehand and a little imagination while you're there.

The Dunker Church at Antietam
A few years ago, when we lived in the DC area, my then-9-year-old daughter was studying American History as a homeschooler.  I firmly believed that kids never really understood all the forces -- beyond slavery -- that massed on target, leading to the utter breakdown of reason and erupting into the Civil War, or how the South, ahem...the North, finally won the war, so we embarked on a unit study that included lots of background as well as a tour of all the battlefields in the Eastern Theater in order of occurrence.  My daughter absolutely loved the tours and still talks about them to this day!

Start the planning by reading the Wikipedia article for the battle you're interested in, say, this one for Antietam (yes, I realize Wikipedia brings some baggage with it, but I found the Civil War series of articles to be very good).  It's got great maps, showing the battle lines during the different parts of the battle, which is helpful to see how the battle unfolded in general.  Then, run the battle simulation from either the TravelBrains Expedition Guide (you can also get these from Amazon) or from the History Animated website.  These simulations literally play out the whole battle from start to finish, animating the battle lines on the map so you can easily see how the battle played out in cartoon fashion.  Whenever we planned a trip to a battlefield, I would play the simulation for the family, filling in any gaps with info I gleaned from the Wikipedia article.


TravelBrains Expedition Guide Samples
Take your Wikipedia article with the maps with you, along with the audio tour CD if you got the Expedition Guide.  If not, buy an audio tour CD at the Visitor Center.  As an additional tour aid, you could even take a laptop or your smartphone and replay the simulation at each point along the tour.  At each waypoint along the driving tour, get out and walk the ground.  Picture yourself being here on the day of the battle.  Use your maps and animations to determine where the lines of battle were.  What did they see and experience that fateful day?  This is where it takes some imagination, but the payoff is well worth it.  For instance, at Gettysburg, Gen Sickles moved his corps out of line and farther forward, creating a hole in the Union line.  You would never understand why he would do something so stupid until you see the ground his corps was assigned to defend.  He was completely blinded to any approach. (Unfortunately, the view was so poor, I apparently didn't think it worthy of taking a picture, because I can't find one.) Similarly, and much more famously, seeing the field of the famed Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg in the context of where the Union and Confederate lines started on Day 3 brings a much better appreciation to the preordained doom to Lee's plan.  Stand there and imagine waiting for the order to begin your charge toward the Union lines.  Then, go see it from the Union side. 
Field of Pickett's Charge, taken from where the charge started.  The Union position was located in a line where the "copse of trees" is in the very middle of the picture extending outward on both sides well past the single tree on the left and the monument on the right.
If you have kids, have some fun with it.  Do some minor re-creations along the way.  At Gettysburg, we walked the entire field of Pickett's Charge, pretending we were Rebel soldiers, marching shoulder-to-shoulder in line and climbing over the fences just as the Rebel soldiers would have done, all the while realizing that the Union line had only to fire straight ahead to take out the advancing soldiers.  At Antietam, we re-created a famous picture of dead soldiers along the Hagerstown Turnpike north of the Dunker Church, where some of the fiercest fighting of the day took place (below).



Granted, visiting a battlefield is not a great candidate for waking up on a Saturday morning and deciding to visit on the spur of the moment.  For those that love history, however, with a little preparation on the front end and a little imagination during execution, visiting a battlefield can be one of the most rewarding visits to a historic site.

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14 comments:

  1. Those are fantastic re-enactments! The best we did was march on the Sunken Road - to be surprised by little brothers yelling "Bang! Bang!" and stand facing both directions at Pickett's Charge and imagine that - right or wrong - men were so sure of their believes that they either stood firm with men charging at them, or they ran into cannon fire. Standing at the top of Lookout Mountain, we wondered how the Union soliders managed to climb up the rockface.

    Have you ever been to Vicksburg? I highly recommend it. It's a great park on its own, but it's a unique perspective to visit both Vicksburg and Gettysburg and understand how much was riding on Independence Day 1863.

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  2. A few years ago, I extended a TDY to DC to visit some historical sites. I got to see Jamestown, which was pretty awesome. But, my favorite thing was seeing Yorktown. I bought the CD and followed the guide, walking the battle fields. It was a humbling experience. I also visited Fredericksburg and did the tour around the city. Finally, I went to Chancellorsville and drove and walked that battlefield. What an eye-opening experience. Thanks for resurrecting the memories.

    Mark Bush

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  3. It sounds like both of you have really enjoyed your trips to the battlefield sites. I'm glad!

    Meg, I have been to Vicksburg. We did the audio driving tour with me narrating a little bit, but they either didn't have the Expedition Guide then, or we didn't plan the trip far enough in advance for me to get it -- I don't remember.

    Mark, when we lived in DC, Yorktown's driving audio tour was also one of those defining moments that helped me understand touring battlefields could be so much more meaningful. I'm glad you got to see several of them while you were in the DC area!

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  4. One of our favorite things to do is attend war re-enactments. They really bring the battles to life. I need to get these boys to Vicksburg, soon. There are great resources here, as well: http://www.nps.gov/civilwar/index.htm

    You can even look up any of your ancestors, to see if and where they were during the Civil War. :)

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    1. I wasn't aware of that particular NPS site. Thanks for sharing! What a cool feature that you can look up your ancestors and see if they fought!

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  5. What a great learning experience! Thanks for sharing.

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  6. I think you left out one other mandatory part of visiting Battlefields -- the stop at Cracker Barrel for dinner afterwards. ;) Seriously, though, are there any Civil War battlefields that didn't have a Cracker Barrel nearby?

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    1. Oh, yes! The Battlefield Kitchen! Nope, no battlefields without one. Even Appomattox that was out in the middle of nowhere had one in relative proximity, along with the "leftovers diner"!

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    2. See, I thought we were the only ones who scoped out the proximity to the Cracker Barrel. Maybe that's part of Miss Barton's legacy?

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    3. LOL! The healing power of bacon!

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  7. Last year when my husband I visited the DC area we did several battle fields. My favorite was at New Market and the story of the Virginia Military Institute boys and the Lost Shoes.

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    1. That is a great story about the VMI students fighting for their cause!

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  8. Your re-enactment picture is funny! :)

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    1. We had a lot of fun doing it! :-)

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