The joys of visiting battlefields

A recent episode of TLC’s Little People, Big World inspired this post. The episode noted how Matt Roloff, the dad, brought two of his children to Paducah, Kentucky with him, as he was there for a speaking engagement. The kids visited Civil War related sites and met reenactors, who allowed them to handle their equipment. The episode mentioned the kids’ interest in the Civil War and history and it got me thinking about the many wonderful memories I have visiting battlefields and other Civil War sites both with my parents and while in college.

Over the years, I have visited the following battlefields (some more than once): Parker’s Crossroads, Shiloh, Corinth, Vicksburg, Stone’s River, Gettysburg, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, The Wilderness, Spotsylvania Courthouse, and Appomattox Courthouse. I visited the sites in the Western Theater on two occasions. The first time was about ten years ago, when my parents and I took a trip down south from Illinois to Nashville. While on the way to Nashville, we stopped at (actually, we stumbled across it) Parker’s Crossroads, which has a personal connection, as one of my ancestors (my relation to him is uncertain) died as a result of wounds suffered in the battle. We then went to Nashville and visited Opryland USA and the massive Opryland Hotel (Nashville is a great city by the way). We then headed towards Vicksburg, but stopped at Shiloh along the way.

While at Shiloh, my dad and I enjoyed ourselves, as this battle is one of our favorites because it cemented the career of that great, formerly drunken, general who took the fight to the South, as opposed to some of his Eastern counterparts, Ulysses S. Grant. My mom merely tolerates my dad and I’s fascination with history, but even my dad did something on this trip that surprised me. We stopped by the Sunken Road and my dad decided to walk down it, while mom and I ate (nowadays, I would probably join him on the walk, but I was much younger at the time). We ended up waiting around, wondering where he was only to find out that he walked to the Hornets’ Nest to “commune with the ghosts of the past”, as he put it.

After Shiloh, we spent a couple of days touring beautiful Vicksburg, Mississippi (if you ever have the chance, please visit this city, as it is quite beautiful in the spring and summer). Mom spent time either in the hotel or shopping, while dad and I visited the battlefield and the museum to the USS Cairo (pronounced kay-ro), a Union gunboat sunk by a Confederate mine (they used the term torpedo then), which was salvaged and now serves as a floating museum.

USS Cairo
This is the USS Cairo, which I photographed during my second visit to Vicksburg in 2004.

My second battlefield trip was during Spring Break 2004. While most college students go to the beach and party hard, several fellow history enthusiasts, Dr. Jim Davis (I will get you to write for this site sir), and I toured the South, visiting Vicksburg, Corinth, and Shiloh (we attempted to convince Dr. Davis to visit the Jack Daniel’s distillery, but that was not to be). We had a blast, as we enjoyed good conversations with Dr. Davis as well as interesting sites, including the gentleman in northern Mississippi who filled his gas tank next to our van with a lit cigarette in his mouth. A couple of the sites we visited were the courthouse in Vicksburg, as well as the monument to Illinois soldiers.

courthouse
The courthouse at Vicksburg, with some of my friends sitting on the steps.

Illinois monument
The monument to the Illinois soldiers that served at Vicksburg.

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What next General? Discussing the artillery piece with Dr. Davis.

After visiting Vicksburg, we headed northeast towards Corinth. Along the way, we stopped in beautiful Oxford, MS, home of Ole Miss. Oxford had a really cool square and was geared towards the university. We enjoyed visiting a local bookshop and dinner at one of the local restaurants. The next morning, we toured Corinth and visited the national cemetery located there and saw the construction of an interpretive center for the battle. We then headed to Shiloh and had a wonderful time visiting the site. Here are a couple of pictures of from Shiloh.

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Overlooking Pittsburg Landing on the Tennessee River at Shiloh.

Bloody pond
We are posing in front of “Bloody Pond”, where wounded soldiers drank and bathed their wounds after the first day of battle.

My last battlefield trip was while I was on a 15-day research trip to Washington, DC with Dr. Davis and several other history students in summer of 2004. We visited Gettysburg, Antietam, Fredericksburg, The Wilderness, Chancellorsville, Spotsylvania Courthouse, and Appomattox Courthouse both on the way to and returning from DC. Time and weather limited our visits to The Wilderness, Chancellorsville, Spotsylvania Courthouse, and Appomattox Courthouse, but we made the best of it.

We spent more time at Antietam and Gettysburg, which was great. I could have spent days in Gettysburg, as there are all sorts of unique stores, including reenacting stores. We toured the battlefields extensively. At Gettysburg, we visited the town as well, taking in the shopping and other sites. Of course, what trip to Gettysburg would be complete without walking Pickett’s Charge. Though it was a hot day, I had a great time at Gettysburg and hope to go back someday. Here are a couple of pictures, one from Antietam and the other at Gettysburg.

Stone Bridge
The stone bridge across Antietam Creek.

group at Gettysburg
Our group at the “High Water Mark of the Confederacy” where rebel forces briefly broke through the Union line during Pickett’s Charge.

Overall, I have wonderful memories of visiting all these sites with friends and family and it is something I hope to pass on to my children someday. I encourage everyone to take a lesson from the Roloffs and I and take your kids on trips to historical places, as they are wonderful opportunities to bond and teach your kids about where we come from. I would also encourage families to check out or buy books on the subjects and places of family trips. For serious history buffs and scholars, I encourage you to purchase Staff Ride guides or battlefield guides published by historians, as they provide a more in-depth look at the sites. So get out there and travel, and most importantly, have fun.

Review of Shiloh: A Battlefield Guide

Shiloh coverThis review will appear in an upcoming issue of On Point: The Journal of Army History.

Grimsley, Mark and Steven E. Woodworth. Shiloh: A Battlefield Guide. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2006. 176 pp. Illus., maps. ISBN 10: 0-8032-7100-X $19.95

This book by two eminent Civil War historians is necessary for anyone that will travel to the Shiloh National Military Park in Tennessee in the future. The authors have created a work that gives the reader an in-depth account of the Battle of Shiloh that occurred in April 1862. Many wonderful aspects to this book make it valuable to tourists and historians alike.

Mark Grimsley and Steven Woodworth created this book to aid in understanding the battlefield tour stops. The book is thorough even though it is brief in pagination. The authors take the reader to each of the tour stops located at the park, covering both days of the battle, and examine key events pertaining to each stop. The guide is so thorough that the authors provide detailed directions to specific spots and tour stops on the battlefield, including distances via car in tenths of miles.

Most of the areas of the park covered are accessible by vehicle and Grimsley and Woodworth instruct readers to reset the trip odometers in their vehicles to follow the guide correctly. These instructions to readers in reaching stops are just one unique way that this guide is organized. There are small “vignettes” (authors’ term) that describe events relating to both the background of the battle and the battle itself that may be read in between the stops on the tour. Once at a particular stop, the reader is treated to descriptions of the action that occurred at the stop. In addition, many sections dealing with the tour stops contain small stories based off primary sources written by soldiers that participated in the battle.

The organization of this guide revolves around the stops on the battlefield tour, as well as chronologically with relation to the battle. The first stops and sections discussed in the guide are related to the events of the first day of the battle. The latter half of the guide deals with the events at the tour stops pertaining to the second day of battle. Within these broad sections dealing with each day of the battle, the authors provide the reader/tourist a couple of options. For instance, the authors list two route options for the battlefield tour, a western and eastern route, which allow the tourist to understand the battle on both sides of the park. In addition to the different route options, the guide provides an optional walking tour of the famous “Hornet’s Nest”.

This guide is packed with information on the battle and more information on each stop than can be placed on the various markers and memorials throughout the park. The guide is well researched and based on many good sources, including memoirs and scholarly works. It also includes several wonderful illustrations and helpful maps to compliment the written portions. The authors provide good lists of works for further reading as well. Overall, though not a typical work of scholarship, this guide is certainly a fine example of scholarship intended for a more general audience.

Both authors lend their experienced backgrounds to this guide. Mark Grimsley is a history professor at Ohio State University and author of And Keep Moving On, which deals with the Virginia campaign. Steven Woodworth is a professor at Texas Christian University and the author of Nothing but Victory, which covers the history of the Army of the Tennessee. Both authors are respected in their fields and their authorship of this guide gives tremendous credibility.

Overall, this guide is a wonderful resource for understanding the Battle of Shiloh and for touring the park. It provides a large amount of information in a small package and has the reputation of two respected scholars behind it. This book is a necessary tool for having a successful tour of the battlefield and a wonderful resource on the battle for all audiences, including professional historians, military officers, and general readers.

Daniel Sauerwein
Grand Forks, ND
AHF member