There are two kinds of people that seek information about our nation’s history; die-hard enthusiasts and history buffs, and the common man or woman just curious about the events that brought him or her here to this place in time. The American Civil War is one of the most fascinating times of our nation’s history to research because of the many parallels.
In war, men could be ruthless, barbaric and cruel, but when they returned home they were gentleman, dressed in coats and top hats, remembering to show their best of manners. The battlefields of the Civil War are well documented and most are very well preserved. If you are a fan of this time period in our country’s history, try visiting some of the battlefields where men fought and died for the American ideal.
The war began in 1861. For the next five years, bloodshed and casualty lists grew to be a common part of the American experience. The Battle of Bull Run in August 1861 was one of the first major engagements. The Battle of Antietam (if you’re Northern) or Sharpsburg (if you’re Southern) was General Lee’s daring thrust into Northern soil in September 1862. The Battle of Fredericksburg followed in December, and some of 1863’s engagements included Chancellorsville (May) and Gettysburg (July). 1864 saw the battles of Cold Harbor, the Wilderness, and Spotsylvania, among many others.
Although this may seem to be a tiny place not worth the effort to visit (there is no lodging in the town itself) I strongly suggest that anyone visiting Civil War battlefields should make this one of their first stops. On September 17, 1862, Robert E. Lee’s daring raid into Maryland climaxed at Antietam. This engagement ended with thousands of casualties and showed the North they were no longer safe from the ravages of war. At “Bloody Lane” alone (a sunken path that is one of the battlefield’s major attractions) countless soldiers fell into the forgotten ditch. You can see still the sunken lane and marvel at the vast size of the fields stretching out in every direction.
Also not to miss at Antietam is the famous Burnside’s Bridge (once known as Rohrbach’s Bridge) which has been the subject of many Civil War photos and commentaries. Union General Burnside’s men, wading in the creek underneath the bridge, were fair targets for Confederates safely entrenched on the other side. This old stone bridge is a great place to stand and admire the courage of men of both sides who gave everything they had to their respective causes.
Pulling into the parking lot at Chancellorsville Visitor’s Center, it seems to be a barren, empty place. Once you are standing in this modern lot surrounded by endless woods and soaring trees, the silence almost pushes a sense of anxiety and dread on your shoulders. The battlefield here has a very subdued and reverent feel.
In the clearing behind the visitor’s center, you can find a big stone statue commemorating where General Stonewall Jackson fell. (This isn’t clearly marked, or wasn’t when I was there at least. I came across it quite by accident!) Take time and notice the tiny wooden marker behind this that says “Unknown Union soldier.” It’s a sad reminder that many of the men and boys killed here were never identified. Tour the woods and read the markers, wondering how so many thousands could actually fall in these woods that still look much as they did.
Perhaps the bloodiest of all Civil War battlefields, this field that became famous on the first three days of July in 1863 is beautifully preserved. Countless monuments of all shapes, sizes and styles dramatize the fields as you drive around on a quiet and peaceful tour.
Don’t miss Little Round Top, the rocky hill where the Union defended the high ground; Devil’s Den, a pile of gigantic boulders that have stood on this spot for millions of years; Pickett’s Charge, a large, open field where Confederate soldiers bravely marched without being allowed to return fire; and McPherson’s Ridge, beautiful sloping farmland where you can almost still feel the presence of those men from long ago.
When you’ve seen these major sites, check out Culp’s Hill, a secluded knoll where fighting never seemed to stop, or Confederate Avenue, filled with picturesque scenery and rows of cannons stretched out alongside the road.