Archive for the ‘National Battlefield’ Category

Another Cannon
Judging by Sunday’s NFL highlights, most of the east coast was pummeled by snow storms. Not us here in Harrisburg. We got ice. It really wasn’t as bad as it sounds. Nevertheless this week we are continuing with our weather themes and highlighting National Park sites that relate to Ang Lee’s film Ride With the Devil. Yes, that was his first film after The Ice Storm, it’s at the top of our netflix queue, and it’s about American history!

You see, long ago in our Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield review we lamented that in 1862 “Missouri became a void filled with guerrilla warfare, raiding vigilantes, marauding cavalry forces and years more of bushwhacking havoc. Somebody should really make a movie about this period of American history.” Turns out someone did: Ang Lee

Problem was no one went to see the film. Perhaps if he’d gotten Springfield, Missouri’s (home of Wilson’s Creek NB) most famous son to star things would have been different. That’s Brad Pitt if you’re wondering. We’re patiently waiting for his The Assassination of Jesse James…’ release on DVD. Why is that relevant? Because Ride With the Devil’s revolves around Missouri bushwhacker Paul Quantrill’s riders one of whom was Jesse James.

Quantrill was a Missourian and so were his riders. That’s where things get complicated. Missouri. Oh, Missouri. During the Civil War, from 1861-65, no state was more compelling, more vexing, more fascinating or more insane. Pro-Union (as in the Army), pro-Confederacy, pro-union (small u, as in the country’s unity), anti-union, pro-slavery and anti-slavery interests mixed and matched and varied from county to county, person to person.

Will the movie’s characters be tortured by these complex contradictions? How can a supposed summer blockbuster movie portray this angst? And how can a movie make heroes out of Quantrill’s band and their shocking and murderous 1863 raid of the men and boys of Lawrence, Kansas. An even better question is how did the University of Kansas get a BSC football bid over the University of Missouri when the Tigers beat the Jayhawks during the regular season! Just goes to show that history’s geographic grudges never subside, now we just settle our differences with less killing.

Click Here to Read More about Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield.


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Funny Meeting You HereLast Week we delved into the National Parks of Harry Potter, imagining the little magician as written by Park-honored America writers. This week we’re looking at another cultural phenomenon and another hit summer film: The Simpsons Movie. But which National Park Sites will we choose? Parks that honor Simpsons? Er, couldn’t come up with any? Does Ulysses S. Grant count? Parks in Homer, Alaska? Haven’t been there yet. No, this week we’re traveling to Park Sites located in our heroes’ home: Springfield. On Monday we experienced the Abe Lincoln extravaganza that is Springfield, Illinois. Today we move one state westward and into Springfield, Missouri.

Southwestern Missouri has no Abe Lincoln. Who needs him, we say, when you can claim Brad Pitt, Kathleen Turner, Don Johnson, and Bob Barker as natives? And the city is only getting bigger. During our visit, a front page Springfield News-Leader article warned of the out-of-control sprawl poised to overcome the town’s National Park site, Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield. Our subsequent trip to the Park proved this notion incorrect.

The Battlefield is ten miles from town and feels like the middle of nowhere. Our journey passed through anonymous fields, twisted along (signless) country roads all with curious and easily confused names. Missouri Route M, Missouri Route MM, Missouri Route FF, Missouri Route ZZ. It’s a wonder we even found the place!

But we did. Our reward was a terrific Ranger, a great Park Site, a interesting battle lesson and a window into the madness that was Civil War Missouri.

Click Here to Read More

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ReloadingIn the winter of 1775-76, both the Carolinas and the South, in general, were undecided in revolutionary spirit. A few were vehement American patriots and some were loyal to the Crown. Most were waiting to see which side would be successful first; the Carolinians were very pragmatic. Who would have guessed?

Eager unresolved eyes watched when, in February 1776, a regiment of 1,600 Loyalists marched across Carolina towards the port town of Wilmington and a rendezvous with British warships. The English knew the South’s ambivalence and believed if they conquered the Carolinas they would suppress the rebellion began in Massachusetts the previous April.

What happened next? Click here to read on.

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Sharpsburg, Md.
Visited: June 2, 2006
NPS Site Visited: 297 of 353
NPS Website; Local Website

Antietam Panorama

Site of a September 17, 1862 Civil War Battle; the bloodiest single day battle in United States history. The North referred to the battle as Antietam, the creek that runs through the grounds, while the South referred to the fight as Sharpsburg, the nearest town.

BEAUTY (3/10)
Gab insists that the hazy, anonymous, rolling farmland terrain of Maryland is her least favorite genre of American scenery. Amid the panoramic nothingness, Antietam NB does have it hidden charms.

The land sinks into unexpected gullies and rises to form deceptively steep hills. These shifts are unseen from the wide angle where everything looks flat. The terrain’s disguised whimsy defined the battle’s shape. The fight most famed locale’s name, the Sunken Road, attests to this mystery.

The Battle of Antietam is a tragic American story. Over 20,000 soldiers were killed, wounded or captured here in the course of a few hours. The slaughtering grounds of the Sunken Road, the Cornfield and the Burnside Bridge remain. Our Ranger talk told us that the Battle was a draw. No gains and no progress made towards the War’s end. Just tens of thousands of tortured souls.

History tells us that the Union won a slight tactical victory here, their first of the war. Nevertheless, Abraham Lincoln’s two sweeping Antietam inspired actions trumped any importance achieved by the quickly gained and quickly abandoned Maryland farmland.

Burnside BridgeThese two actions were: 1) the removal of the incompetent George McClellan from command of the Union Army and 2) movement towards issuing the Emancipation Proclamation. Antietam brought the Decision 1 because McClellan’s ridiculous insubordination to Lincoln and cowardly slow command reached an apex at Sharpsburg. Had McClellan been even the slightest bit aggressive, the War might have ended that September.

Decision 2’s relevance to Antietam is slightly more specious even though the Emancipation Proclamation was issued just five days after the battle. History will forever speculate on Lincoln’s motivations and reasoning. But Antietam revealed to Lincoln that he had to do something. His Army could not rout the enemy’s and end the War, even with more men and countless other advantages.

Sharpsburg’s stalemate had delayed a rumored British entry into the war on the Confederate side. But John Bull’s pro-South leanings were real. The only way to sway their leaders against the Southern cause would be to issue the Proclamation. Antietam was a major Civil War turning point, its importance more intangible and speculative than most battles despite the massive carnage.

CROWDS (6/10)
Not to say that the place wasn’t crowded, but we expected a lot more people – Gettysburg-type numbers. There were no reënactors and to our snooping ears, it sounded like the crowds were a lot less Civil War-savvy that the average battlefield visitors.

Perpendicular ThreeEASE OF USE/ACCESS (4/5)
Antietam NB is located about 80 miles west of Baltimore, Md. or 80 miles northwest of Washington, D.C. Interstate 70 and Hagerstown, Md. are located 10 miles north of the Park.

The easiest way to the Park is from the north via I-70, Exit 29A, and then south on Maryland Route 65. The Park entrance will be on your left, bordering Route 65. If you wish to weave your way from Frederick (the east) or Martinsburg, W.Va. (the west) to Antietam via backcountry roads just make sure you have a map.

The Battlefield itself is enclosed and separate from exterior traffic. You will only be driving with other Civil War enthusiasts. The one-ways could get confusing but no one is going to get mad at you for driving at a snail’s pace.

Antietam NB’s book selection was stellar but not up to par with most Civil War Battlefields. The souvenir selection ranged from the standard coffee mugs, T-shirts, maps and DVD’s to the downright macabre chintzy plastic toy soldier recreations of the Dunker Church and Burnside Bridge. Wave upon wave of Union soldiers died from sniper fire while trying to cross that fateful bridge. Let’s play again!

COSTS (3/5)
$4 per person, $6 per family, free with the National Parks Pass.

A good number of Rangers wandered the Visitor Center halls and were ready to answer questions.

Explosive SparrowTOURS/CLASSES (3/10)
We were lucky enough to arrive at the Park just as a Ranger was beginning her talk. Problem was, she was speeding through her discussion at an alarming rate, presumably so that she could finish before the intro film started. She should have slowed down, not just because slowness makes for better learning, but also because the film is not very good.

The tiny museum is big on artifacts, including George McClellan’s presentation sword (hardly unique) but small on information and historical explanations. We left the Visitor Center knowing less and feeling more confused than when we started. Regrettably, we failed to heed our on advice: Always bring a companion Civil War book when you travel to a battlefield. We really missed our Battle Cry of Freedom.

We skipped the newly opened Pry House Field Hospital Museum for fear that we would go queasy and pass out because that is what nearly happened at the Chimborazo Medical Museum in Richmond, Va. The Pry Field Hospital Museum is sponsored by and affiliated with the National Museum of Civil War Medicine located in nearby Frederick, Md.

FUN (3/10)
If we had to choose one word to describe our Antietam experience, it is Disappointing. All day, we had geared up for the big Park Experience we were expecting. We feared we wouldn’t have enough time to see and experience everything. We wondered if we should skip Antietam and dedicate an entire day just to this Site.

When it was all said and done, we spent a little more than an hour and a half here. That’s with the Ranger talk, the movie, a thorough review of the museum, the driving tour and a few short hikes, all less impressive than they should have been. We admit we left the movie early; there are only so many scenes of cannons firing, reënactors charging and dropping that we can take.

If you asked the average Joe to name at least two Civil War battles, Gettysburg and Antietam are probably the two that come to mind. The carnage that occurred at Antietam is legendary, its significance hard to dispute. Why then, did we walk away feeling none of that?

A trip to Gettysburg is almost overwhelming and that’s even before the additions of the renovated cyclorama and multi-million dollar Visitor Center. We were shocked when we realized Antietam’s museum extended no further than the four walls we were already viewing and had NO ELECTRIC MAP. Sad Michael.

What you do gain in your trip to Antietam is a better understanding of how the seemingly mundane terrain put the troops in such disarray. A few wrong turns gone right and the ending could have been different. We are not fans of speculation, but one can only imagine how moving Antietam could be if it were given the proper Park Service presentation.

TOTAL 42/80

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Frederick, Md.
Visited: May 6, 2006
NPS Site Visited: 294 of 353
NPS Website; Local Website

Flowing MonocacyWHAT IS IT?
Site of the July 9, 1864 Civil War fight which the Park claims to be the “Battle that Saved Washington”.

BEAUTY (4/10)
The 1/2-mile loop Gambrill Mill Trail was the highlight of our visit. Variations of green shimmered in every direction. Purple wildflowers framed a rippling creek crossed by old stone bridges. Newborn Canada Geese streamlined through a murky pond eager to learn from their proud parents. We remained unclear as to this area’s historic relevance but we enjoyed this typical Eastern early springtime setting.

The remainder of the Battlefield sprawls around fields of private farmland and wooded fields. The land is bisected by both Interstate 270 and the increasingly busy Maryland Route 355 (The Georgetown Pike).

The Site repeats its stage name, the “Battle that Saved Washington”, so many times that all but the most skeptical visitors are liable to accept the Park’s claim that the fight was “one of the most important of the War” as fact.

That claim goes something like this:

1) 15,000 rabid Confederates led by the irascible Jubal Early make their way from the Shenendoahs poised to attack defenseless Washington, D.C.
2) By the grace of our founding fathers’ ghosts, Union General Lew Wallace trudges 5,800 tired troops to Frederick, Md. to intercept the irresistible Rebel force.
3) The Confederates rout the Bluecoats troops but are stalled long enough to allow Washington D.C. to reinforce its defenses
4) Early cannot attack D.C., the Union is preserved, and we all live happily ever after…until reconstruction.

We tend to get suspicious as the what if? qualifiers pile up. In Monocacy’s case, the Site accepts Early’s future victory as an incontrovertible fact. In addition, there is an underlying belief that the assumed sacking of Washington, D.C. would have mattered. At the time of the battle, the South was on their last legs. Sherman was closing in on Atlanta, Richmond had fallen and Lee’s Army had been backed into a siege in Petersburg, Va. The Rebels’ food, ammunition, land control, troop count and morale all had dwindled to alarmingly low rates.

At best, a last ditch seizing of the nearly deserted Washington D.C. would only have delayed the South’s inevitable defeat. Despite the Park’s assertion, the Battle of Monocacy ranks near the bottom in the importance scale of NPS Civil War sites.

Proud ParentsCROWDS (3/10)
The Confederate and Union forces met at this location primarily because it was a crossroads on the way to Washington D.C. 142 years has not altered the integral location. The speed and density of traffic, however, has increased considerably.

Two of the four stops on the Park’s Auto Tour are located along the Georgetown Pike. No one obeys the Pike’s 35-mph speed limit and everyone tailgates. A speeding car with an oblivious driver nearly rear-ended the proud Altima while we tried to make a difficult left-hand turn into an Auto Tour stop’s parking lot. The Pike is too crowded for an Auto Tour; we wonder how many Civil War tourists have been in accidents at Monocacy NB.

The Gambrill Mill Visitor Center is located on the Georgetown Pike about halfway between I-270 Exits 31 and 26. Frederick, Md.’s southeastern sprawl is threatening to overcome the Battlefield’s land. The Washington, D.C. Beltway is just 30 miles to the southeast via I-270; The Baltimore, Md. Beltway is 45 miles to the east via I-70.

Monocacy NB’s closeness to urban centers hinders its accessibility. The roads around the Battlefield are just too crowded, even during our midday Sunday visit. We saw the Battlefield and its monuments but never felt we could get close to them because of speeding cars, tiny parking lots, bumpy dirt/gravel roads and ambiguous trails.

The worst Civil War bookstore we have seen; and there is only two more to go!

COSTS (4/5)
Entry into Monocacy NB is unquestionably free.

The two Rangers at the Visitor Center were both isolated by two older gentlemen telling their personal World War II yarns. We had Civil War questions but the stories kept going. So we left.

On March 24, 2006, the NPS broke ground on a new Visitor Center. In the meantime, the Gambrill Mill Visitor Center has seen its share of neglect. The exhibits are outdated, there is no introductory film, a poor bookstore and no glossy explanatory Park brochure.

We left the Park confused, unsure of what we saw and doubtful of the Battle’s big picture worth. While we were there, we did not know where to go, we were frazzled by the traffic and nearly had our car totaled. A little bit of Park Service guidance would have helped.

Battle ReadyFUN (2/10)
Our only enjoyment came from our Gambrill Mill Trail stroll. We could not wait to leave.

Because Monocacy NB is close to Harrisburg, Pa. and on the road to D.C. we will probably stop back once the Visitor Center is finished. Until then, we suggest avoiding Monocacy NB like the plague found at the
Natural Bridges NM campground.

TOTAL 28/80

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near Chesnee, S.C.
Visited: October 24, 2005
NPS Site Visited: 269 of 353
NPS Website; Local Website

Super VaulterWHAT IS IT?
Site of a flat, frontier pasture where, on January 17, 1781, the Continental Army led by General Daniel Morgan soundly defeated the proud British Legion led by General Banastre “Bloody” Tarleton.

BEAUTY (4/10)
The historic dirt road remains of the Green River Road still bisect the wide swath of open land remembered as the Cowpens Battlefield. The long sightlines and sparse tree cover make imagining the Patriot’s famed doubles envelope maneuvers easy to imagine. That is once you figure out what exactly is a double envelope stratagem.

Your pictures from the Park won’t win any beauty contests but at least they won’t be cluttered by marble monuments and two-ton memorials. Although we would have enjoyed a frozen-in-time statue portraying an athletic Patriot’s pole vault hurdle across the Loyalist cannon line which, according the wayside exhibit’s account, brought the good guys great success.

The Battle of Cowpens has captured the imagination of generations. Its combatants were national heroes. Their portraits were hung prominently in the Peale Museum, the western hemisphere’s first museum, and can still be seen at the Portrait Gallery located at Independence NHP in Philadelphia.

More recently, Mel Gibson chose the Cowpens battle as the setting for the climax his film, The Patriot. Mel got a few of the details and participants wrong but he too understood the historical power of Cowpens: it was the battle where the Patriots kicked the most butt.

CROWDS (6/10)
We saw just one other person at Cowpens NB. He was a single-minded traveler who we had run into atop Kings Mountain and, according to our shared itineraries, just missed at Camden, Ninety Six and Charleston. It is either a small world or a world with few Revolutionary War-themed travelers and few places for them to go.

The Great BisectorEASE OF USE/ACCESS (3/5)
The Park’s Main Gate sits along South Carolina Route 11 a/k/a the Cherokee Foothills Scenic Highway, about two miles east of the small town of Chesnee, S.C. From the west, take I-85’s Cowpens exit and travel north on S.C. Route 110, the Cowpens Battlefield Scenic Highway. From the east, take I-85 Exit 92 and go north on S.C. 11. In 10 miles, you will be at the Park.

Unlike Kings Mountain NMP, Cowpens NB’s environs are completely flat. Easy loop trails allow you to traverse the battleground and enjoy the beautiful South Carolina backcountry.

The hardcore Revolutionary War traveler might want to traverse the Overmountain Victory Trail from Cowpens to Kings Mountain. Make sure you have a map; the auto trail is poorly marked.

We were drawn to the obsessive biographies of some of the battle’s lesser-known participants and the well-titled Devil of a Whipping, by Lawrence Babits which may be the historic standard recounting Cowpens. While the bookstore carries a fine set of Cowpens esoterica, its selection is not as good as the nearby Kings Mountain NMP. We know the history was wrong, but why not include the DVD of Mel Gibson’s The Patriot, if only to spark heated discussion between the hardcore and neophyte history buffs.

COSTS (4/5)
Entry is free! Rumors of a pay-per-view electronic map were false. The map was free too!

“Hello? Anyone here?” we asked after standing at the front desk for about five minutes. Eventually, a Ranger appeared; we just wanted him to start the electric map.

We encountered a disheveled, museum-less Cowpens NB Visitor Center. The film was even cordoned off. Sad Michael and Gabby. Not so for you. New exhibits and new carpeting were scheduled to appear in time for the Battle’s 225th Anniversary Celebration on January 17, 2006. If these exhibits are anything like those enjoyed by Kings Mountain NBP for their 225th, then we have reason to return and alter our rating.

In the mean time, we loved the 13-minute long fiber optic electric map presentation. Is there anything more helpful to a battlefield visit than an electric map? They are always clean, succinct, laden with information and full of answers.

FUN (4/10)
This Park has a great storyline and an even better result: Patriots defeat British Legion led by dastardly cavalry commander. The battlefield is flat and the self-guided walking tour a pleasant 1½ miles long.

Imaging?WOULD WE RECOMMEND? (4/10)
Pre renovation, this Site was for the die-hard Revolutionary War historian only. Post-renovation, well, we do not know yet. The Cowpens story could definitely become very compelling especially with a new film starring determined re-enactors.

We enjoyed Kings Mountain and Guilford Courthouse more, but there are plenty of reasons Cowpens could be your Carolina Revolutionary Battlefield of choice: 1) we actually won; 2) we faced British troops; 3) Asheville N.C., Spartanburg S.C. and Charlotte N.C. are all nearby; 4) the military tactics are easily imagined and very impressive (in an 18th-century warfare kind of way); 5) the self-guided walk is not taxing and 6) it is fun to fully realize Mel Gibson’s egregious historical errors.

TOTAL 41/80

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Currie, N.C.
Visited: October 18, 2005
NPS Site Visited: 263 of 353
NPS Website; Local Website

Grease is the WordWHAT IS IT?
Site of a February 27, 1776 Revolutionary War battle that preceded the signing of the Declaration of Independence by more than three months. The Patriot victory ended British authority in the North Carolina colony.

BEAUTY (4/10)
Two trails lead through Moores Creek NB’s 80+ acres. The Tar Heel Trail takes you amid soaring longleaf pine trees that are used in the creation of tar and turpentine, North Carolina’s primary economic source in Revolutionary times, hence the Tar Heel State.

The History Trail weaves through reconstructed Patriot Earthworks and to the infamous Moores Creek Bridge. The creek is mildly swampy and surprisingly narrow. Why exactly did the Loyalists have to cross here and here alone? The remainder of the History Trail passes Monuments that remember the Loyalists, Patriots and the first president of the Moores Creek Monument Association.

In the winter of 1775-76, both the Carolinas and the South, in general, were undecided in revolutionary spirit. A few were vehement American patriots and some were loyal to the Crown. Most were waiting to see which side would be successful first; the Carolinians were very pragmatic. Who would have guessed?

Eager unresolved eyes watched when, in February 1776, a regiment of 1,600 Loyalists marched across Carolina towards the port town of Wilmington and a rendezvous with British warships. The English knew the South’s ambivalence and believed if they conquered the Carolinas they would suppress the rebellion began in Massachusetts the previous April.

The Loyalist’s march necessitated a bridge crossing at Moores Creek, 20 miles to the north of Wilmington. 1,000 Patriots understood the Redcoats’ route and raced to be the first to Moores Creek. The Patriots got there first.

Monument Valley
With the Loyalists camped just a few miles away, the Patriots dismantled the bridge and greased the girders. Nature smiled on the Patriots. That morning, a thick fog masked the trap. Loyalist after Loyalist fell into the water ambushed by rifle fire. 70 Loyalists were killed or wounded while the Patriots lost only one man.

Their decisive victory brought a wave of patriotism to the Carolinas. Loyalist property was seized en masse and the British sympathizers were banished to Canada. The British invasion was stopped before it even began. Just three months later, the North Carolina delegation at the Continental Congress became the first colony to vote for Independence from Britain.

CROWDS (6/10)
We were the only people there.

We are still unclear why all 1770’s roads to Wilmington passed through this part of the turpentine woods. If you visit this remote Tar Heel hamlet, you will be confused too. The Port of Wilmington has not moved but its sprawl is inching closer to Moores Creek every day. If you are coming from Port City, take U.S. Route 421 north for about 20 miles until you reach North Carolina Route 210. Turn left (west) onto 210 and the Battlefield should appear on your left in about three miles.

From Interstate 40, take Exit 408 (Rocky Point). You should be on NC 210. Take 210 west for about 15 miles and you should see the NPS facility. You could probably reach the Park Site in a quicker fashion using unmarked back roads. We tried this option, however, and got lost.

The Visitor Center is currently under construction so a teaching trailer currently houses the bookstore. The good if not overwhelming selection of Revolutionary texts contains more books about other Carolina battles than Moores Creek. But really, how much can you say about such a short fight?

COSTS (4/5)
It is free.

The Ranger on duty in the trailer seemed startled by us. Is visitor traffic at Moores Creek that slow? Another Ranger mulled around in a side office poised to help. We think. Neither helped us understand the pre-Declaration of Independence fight that well but heck, there were two of them and two of us.

Tar Heel ZoneTOURS/CLASSES (3/10)
We two Pennsylvania travelers had no idea a Revolutionary War battle occurred in North Carolina months before the colonies formally seceded. We had only a vague idea that the Southern colonies experienced any of the War. Everything we learned at Moores Creek was new and a shock to our historical reference points.

The 30-year old cartoon film and the confusing Ranger were a poor introduction. We began to sort things out via the Park brochure and the History Trail’s wayside exhibits but achieved a better understanding only after visiting Carolina’s other Revolutionary War sites. In the meantime, our chronology and perspective were a bit off.

FUN (4/10)
The story of Moores Creek reads more like fraternity prank than a War. The Patriot men greased a bridge, wore kilts and saw only one casualty. The story also presents a villainous opposition, the Loyalists, true to the Crown and downright un-American.

After spending the previous week trolling Virginia Civil War battlefields where deaths numbered in the hundreds of thousands, a fight where only 40 died (Loyalists, even) feels almost light-hearted and fun. The good guys won, too.

Before our trip, the Wilmington, N.C. area elicited thoughts of the venerable WB Network show Dawson’s Creek and the twice-made horror film Cape Fear, not a decisive Revolutionary War battle. We assumed Moores Creek (and four other Carolina sites) honored Civil War battles. We were off by almost 100 years.

Nonetheless, Moores Creek NB was the least remarkable of the Revolutionary War sites and recommended only to the most hardcore Patriot historian. The knowledge that the battle happened is good enough for us; we did not need to see the famous bridge, now reconstructed and crossable.

TOTAL 38/80

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Petersburg, Va.
Visited: October 11, 2005
NPS Site Visited: 256 of 353
NPS Website; Local Website

Pistol Petersburg
Site of the prolonged 9½-month long, 1864-65 U.S. Grant-led campaign and siege against Robert E. Lee and the War’s last Confederate stronghold, Petersburg, Va. The April ’65 fall of Petersburg resulted in Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House and the Civil War’s end.

BEAUTY (3/10)
Richmond’s sleek New South veneer did not travel the 25 miles down I-95 to Petersburg. At the Park’s most beautiful part, City Point, you can see bald eagles soaring over the confluence of the James and Appomattox Rivers and above heavy-duty industrial ships. This part of Virginia is not going to win any beauty contests.

Grant’s long-drawn-out siege of Petersburg won the Civil War for the Union. Whether or not the War’s outcome had already been decided in late 1864 is, ostensibly, the topic for historical debate.

The Petersburg NB contains sites vital to the siege like City Point, whose deep water aided in its transformation from plantation manor to the Union Army’s headquarters and the site of a massive makeshift port. The supplies that allowed the lengthy siege to continue came through City Point.

The Crater is one of the Civil War’s most infamous battles. Halfway through the siege, a regiment of former Pennsylvania miners felt they could build a tunnel directly underneath a Confederate fort. From beneath the fort, they would detonate explosives and then charge and take the Rebel base. African American troops were trained to lead the initial charge but at the last moment, Union General Meade replaced the black regiment with untrained men. The detonation worked, but the untrained men failed to defeat the Rebels.

The Union success at the April 1st Battle of Five Forks precipitated the fall of Petersburg and the fall of the Confederacy. The only supply rail line into Petersburg came through Five Forks. When Lee lost Five Forks, he lost Petersburg and the War. Lee’s surrender would come eight days later at Appomattox.

Infamous Crater Mine EntryCROWDS (6/10)
We saw few other travelers at any of our Petersburg NB stops. One couple, clearly tuned in, made both vital stops along the auto tour: hiking to the intriguingly named Dictator Cannon and taking the Battle of the Crater self-guided walking tour. The Petersburg NB travels directly through the much-larger-than-we-thought city of Petersburg. Traffic tends to inch along her crowded streets. Budget twice as much travel time as your innocent map seems to indicate.

Over 30 miles separates Petersburg NB’s furthest points, City Point in the northeast and Five Forks Battlefield to the southwest. The Park’s Main VC lies about 8-miles southwest of City Point. It takes about 25 minutes to drive this traffic light infested road.

You can only enter the auto tour portion of the Park (includes The Crater) from North. Approach from Virginia Route 36 a/k/a Washington Street. You should see signs. From I-95 take Exit 52 and go east. From I-295 take Exit 9 and go west.

For your own sanity, pick up a Park map before you get here. If you are visiting Petersburg NB, chances are you are a Civil War buff. Not too many casual visitors come to this part of Virginia. Depending on the direction you are traveling, there are good odds that you’ve come from another Civil War site. Appomattox in the west, Richmond to the north, Yorktown to the east and, well, you are on your own from the South. Pick up the Petersburg brochure at one of these sites. You will be thankful.

We did not have time to peruse the Petersburg NB Main VC bookstore because we arrived just before closing. The volunteer on duty would not even start up the electric map for us. It pays to be on time. A cursory glance revealed an entire shelf of the Pulitzer Prize winning fiction book turned Renee Zellweger movie, Cold Mountain. The book’s setting is a fictional Civil War battlefield, however, the movie moves the location to The Battle of the Crater, Petersburg, Va.

Grant’s Siege Headquarters

What Knee Deep in Hell: Trench Warfare in World War I is doing at a Civil War bookstore is anyone’s guess. Michael actually owns two copies of this book; an accidental double purchase during his freshman year at college.

We were impressed by the shimmery pages of the NPS publication, Battle of Five Forks. The large laminated papers show the intricate movements of troops on subsequent full color pages. The military strategy is so detailed that if you flip the book really fast it might resemble a animated cartoon. Cool stuff.

COSTS (3/5)
Three of the Park’s four attractions are free: Five Forks, City Point and the Poplar Grove National Cemetery. Entry into the Park’s four-mile Battlefield driving tour costs $5 per car, free with the National Parks Pass.

We got into wonderful history conversations with Rangers at both City Point and Five Forks. Our Five Forks talk revolved around what constitutes history, what matters for historical remembrance, Union cavalry General Sheridan, the Mexican War and the Indian Wars. Did we mention that Ranger discussions are infinitely better than any graduate level history seminar with which we have ever been involved?

Sadly, there were no Rangers at the Battlefield’s primary sector, the fee-based auto tour. We found the best educational rewards at Petersburg NB, like Richmond NBP and Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania NMP before it, off the beaten path and not at the main visitor centers.

Great Ranger discussions but we did have electric map difficulties. The Five Forks Battlefield electric map is a hand-me-down from Appomattox and tells the same story as the updated version at the more visited Park Site. And we were too late to see the siege recap electric map found at the Visitor Center. Petersburg NB feels almost forgotten by the Park Service despite the excellent stopgap support offered by Rangers, mimeographed handouts and waysides.

Petersburg Cannon

FUN (5/10)
The more you dive into Civil War sites, the more fun they get. Petersburg NB is a logical stop for the Civil War vacationer. First Fredericksburg, then south to Richmond, south to Petersburg and finally, west to Appomattox. The route even follows the chronological order of Grant’s 1864-65 campaign. Petersburg NB is a crucial piece in the Civil War puzzle and is much more fascinating when viewed as part of a whole rather than individually.

For casual travelers, Petersburg, while vital historically, does not make for the best Civil War introduction. Stop at Richmond or Fredericksburg instead. Petersburg NB is an upper level graduate class; important but esoteric and boring to all but the most interested.

Everyone and their mother suggested that we go to the privately-owned Pamplin Historical Park, entry fee $13.50. We didn’t but that doesn’t mean we can’t pass everyone’s suggestion onto you.

TOTAL 44/80

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Springfield, Mo.
Visited: September 1, 2005
NPS Site Visited: 244 of 353
NPS Website; Local Website

Funny Meeting You HereWHAT IS IT?

Site of an August 10, 1861 battle, the first major Civil War fight west of the Mississippi River.

BEAUTY (3/10)
The Battlefield is located on an anonymous southwestern Missouri field, about 10 miles from downtown Springfield. A shallow, slow-moving creek meanders its way though the overgrown fields, hillsides and orchards. The Park’s 5-mile auto tour-loop road is self-contained and inaccessible to through traffic. There are no stone monuments marking fallen officers and fierce fighting. The Battlefield has changed little since 1861. The grounds are preserved and protected, but are they beautiful? Not one bit.

Missouri. Oh, Missouri. During the Civil War, from 1861-65, no state was more compelling, more vexing, more fascinating or more insane. To historians and Civil War buffs, Missouri was almost like the United States in miniature, except it does not have that helpful Mason-Dixon Line. Pro-Union (as in the Army), pro-Confederacy, pro-union (small u, as in the country’s unity), anti-union, pro-slavery and anti-slavery interests mixed and matched and varied from county to county, person to person. Missouri is always the exception rather than the rule.

Missouri’s proximity to our country’s largest river system, the Mississippi-Missouri, gave it strategic importance. Lincoln needed the State, which had legal slavery, to join the Union. Luckily for Abe, the most strategic and populous city, St. Louis, was largely pro-Union. The governor, Claiborne Jackson, however was pro-Confederacy and defiant to Lincoln. In April 1861 he seized the Kansas City arsenal, took control of the St. Louis police and sent a Missouri State Guard to seize the St. Louis arsenal.

Secretly, wily U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Nathaniel Lyon had moved the arsenal to Illinois. Lyon was not satisfied despite his logistical victory (he had protected the muskets). On May 9, he surrounded the State Guard’s encampment and captured 700 men. Not the subtle type, Lyon marched the prisoners through the St. Louis streets. Mobs threw rocks at Lyon’s men, they shot back, 28 civilians died, riots started and panic enveloped Missouri.

Lyon declared Civil War within Missouri’s boundaries. Interestingly, Lyon and Jackson attempted to close the borders to Federal and Confederacy troops; they wanted the fight to themselves. Within four days, Lyon captured the capital, Jefferson City, and forced the governor to retreat to Springfield with his State Guard, now led by Maj. Gen. Sterling Price an experienced soldier whose allegiances changed after the St. Louis mayhem.

By the time of Wilson’s Creek in August, Price received 5,000 Confederate soldiers but lost control of his Army to a Confederate general. Lyon’s marauding army too was made an adjunct of larger forces, when Lincoln named famed pioneer John C. Fremont head of the western Federal forces.

Price’s forces won a decisive victory at Wilson’s Creek and Lyon died in battle. Nevertheless, Price could not follow the retreating Federal force and finish the job because the Confederate hierarchy did not care much about Missouri. For that matter, neither did the Federals. The last major battle of the Missouri theater came in March 1862 at Pea Ridge, Ark. After that fight, all soldiers were sent eastward.

Missouri became a void filled with guerrilla warfare, raiding vigilantes, marauding cavalry forces and years more of bushwhacking havoc. Somebody should really make a movie about this period of American history.

Another Cannon
CROWDS (6/10)
A North Carolina Civil War buff joined in on our hour-long Wilson’s Creek discussion with a Ranger and then retreated with his wife into the Park’s excellent on-site Civil War library. We did not see many other people during our visit.

In the Springfield News-Leader, the day of our visit, we read that friends of the Park recently purchased a few tracts of surrounding land in order to prevent a planned housing development from bordering the Battlefield. The News-Leader suggested that Wilson’s Creek was an “endangered battlefield” soon to be caught in Springfield’s unending sprawl. Our journey, later that day, to the Park proved this notion incorrect.

The Battlefield is ten miles from town and feels like the middle of nowhere. The quickest path towards it follows country roads without signs pointing towards Wilson’s Creek NB; it is a wonder we even found the place. From Interstate 44, take Exit 70. Go South down Missouri Route MM. Soon after you cross U.S. Route 60, the road becomes Missouri Route ZZ. The VC is at the corner of ZZ and Elm Street.

If you are coming from Branson, Mo. and U.S. Route 65, take the James River Expressway Exit and go west. Continue west along Missouri Route M. Turn south (left) onto Missouri Route FF. FF become Elm Street a/k/a Missouri Route 182. The VC is at the corner of ZZ and Elm Street.

Wilson’s Creek NB’s book collection is slight compared to most Civil War Site bookstores. The Site focuses on local Civil War history books instead of the normal overwhelming barrage of titles. There are ten books about the Wilson’s Creek battle alone.

The Site’s narrow selection is buoyed by the adjacent Hulston Library, which boasts 5,500 Civil War books, microfilmed soldier lists and maps galore. If you are looking for any fact related the War’s western fighting, you will find it here. You must do all your research in house, meaning you cannot check out books, many of which are rare and/or signed volumes. You can search the library at www.coolcat.org.

COSTS (3/5)
Entry is $3 per person, $5 per vehicle or free with the National Parks Pass.

It took a wonderful hour-long give and take discussion with a super Park Ranger for us to achieve just a slight grip on the Missouri hornet’s nest. Our Ranger talk was equivalent to a full semester’s graduate course due to the sheer amount of information parlayed and understanding achieved. It was a lot cheaper, too.

Aforementioned CreekTOURS/CLASSES (8/10)
Michael loves electric maps and gets really excited whenever we get to see one. Wilson’s Creek’s map is very good. The intro film is so old that the Ranger lamented that we should have skipped it. He was right; it added confusion to an already confusing topic.

There is a fascinating display of battle artifacts located near the Library that includes: a rifle used in battle and unearthed during an archaeological dig; an original tattered Union flag and Sterling Price’s personal engraved pistol!

FUN (7/10)
Tombstone-like historical markers have been sunk in the pathway to the Visitor Center. They remind the visitor of the topsy-turvy history of compromises and elections that led to the Civil War and the Missouri skirmishes that led to Wilson’s Creek. It is always nice to have your visit contextualized before you step into a new period of history.

These markers are clear evidence of Wilson’s Creek NB’s stellar attention to detail and its dedication to thorough education. We had a great time learning about Missouri and are eager to know more.

If you got through our entire seven-paragraph HISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE section than the rating shoots up to about a 7. If you just skimmed the brief 1860’s Missouri history lesson than you should probably just breeze through Springfield, Mo. along Old Route 66 without stopping here.

TOTAL 50/80

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Dover, Tenn.
Visited: February 11, 2005
NPS Site Visited: 150 of 353
NPS Website; Local Website

Mother Bickerdyke and AssistantWHAT IS IT?
The first major Union victory of the Civil War, one that saw the emergence of two of the War’s greatest heroes, U.S. Grant from the North and Confederate cavalry hero, Nathan Bedford Forrest.

BEAUTY (5/10)
The Park is located along a pleasant bend in Lake Barkley p/k/a the Cumberland River. Two looped hiking trails weave their way along the former river and through the now peaceful woodland forest. Fort Donelson has its share of monuments but is not nearly as cluttered as the more famous Civil War battlefields. There are not thousands of cannons and not every troop movement has been marked with a placard.

The Land Between the Lakes in northwestern Tennessee was a vital strategic location. In February of 1862 they were not yet man-made lakes, they were the Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers; two of the three rivers that allowed easy access into the entire western potion of the South, the other river being the Mississippi. Control of the rivers meant control of the War.

On February 8, U.S. Grant captured Fort Henry, along the Tennessee, and proceeded to march 12 miles east to Fort Donelson, which protected the Cumberland. Vicious fighting ensued but by February 16, Grant’s army emerged victorious and the Federals had control of both rivers. Through tough negotiations, the Brigadier General earned his nickname “Unconditional Surrender Grant” here.

Union control of the rivers marked the beginning of the end of Confederate hopes in the War’s western theater. It is not a preposterous leap to say that the South lost the War at Fort Donelson. In fact, we just did.

Every Civil War site we have visited claims to be the turning point and the most important Battle ever and at every place we buy the line until we travel on. So until the Shiloh, Corinth and Vicksburg reviews, Fort Donelson was the War’s preeminent fight.

CROWDS (6/10)
We arrived on the Battle’s 143-year anniversary to few other tourists, just a handful of re-enactors preparing tents for a mock encampment.

Confederate CannonEASE OF USE/ACCESS (2/5)

Fort Donelson NB is located approximately 35 miles west of Interstate 24 and the charming town of Clarksville, Tennessee. Take U.S. Route 79 the entire way from Clarksville to Dover where there will be signs leading you to the Battlefield. We ventured into town before going to the Site, lost track of Route 79 and found ourselves driving the wrong way. So be alert, Route 79 is not that easy to find.

Smaller than most Civil War stores, but still well-stocked. Most books are dedicated to Fort Donelson and its relevance to the war. The usual regimental histories are here. Those new to Tennessee can pick up guide books and state-specific resources. Copies of personal effects, such as flutes, metal pipes, and toothbrushes made of bone are all for sale.

We spent more at least ten minutes staring at a huge U.S. topographical map, complete with raised mountain ranges, behind the Ranger’s Desk. It’s a good thing it wasn’t for sale in the bookstore; we’d never be able to get it home.

COSTS (4/5)
The Site is free.

Two rangers were stationed at the Visitor Center. Two costumed interpreters inhabited the Dover Hotel. Several other staff could be heard via the Ranger’s walkie talkies, assisting the re-enactors and preparing for the big weekend.

Fort Donelson NB was the sixth Civil War we visited and the first not to have a newly remodeled Visitor Center and film. Nonetheless, we enjoyed the old displays and film. There are no regularly scheduled Ranger talks or tours.

We were lucky enough to be at Fort Donelson during anniversary weekend and enjoyed a talk with some living history re-enactors dressed as nurse Mary “Mother” Bickerdyke and her assistant who were holding court in the Dover Hotel. Once we got over the fact that these ladies were speaking in the first person about events which occurred over 100 years ago, it was a pretty nice conversation, even though Gab stumped Mother with one of her first questions, forcing the older woman out of character to consult with her assistant. Sorry!

FUN (6/10)
Our plan was to sneak into the Dover Hotel, get a few snapshots of the site where Grant accepted the Confederate surrender, then leave. We were glad that Mother Bickerdyke’s assistant engaged us in conversation. Our reluctant one word responses turned into a ten-minute discussion on the role of women, particularly nurses, on the battlefield and in post-War society. This was a refreshing change of pace.

Anniversary EncampmentWOULD WE RECOMMEND? (4/10)
Only under two circumstances: if you are vacationing at the Tennessee Valley Authority-created Land Between the Lakes or if you are a Civil War buff. An understanding of Fort Donelson as perhaps the most important strategic battle of the War Between the States is sufficient; you do not need to venture into rural northwestern Tennessee.

TOTAL 48/80

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