Archive for the ‘National Military Park’ Category

What better way to spend it than reading about the site of an important Revolutionary War battle where, on October 7, 1780, a ragtag force of Scots-Irish Appalachian mountain men obliterated the Loyalist battalion led by flashy British Maj. Patrick Ferguson?

Who doesn’t love Scots-Irish Appalachian mountain men?


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Steadfast SoldierWhen we wrote about Gettysburg National Military Park in 2006, we admitted that it was indeed an “iconic American destination,” but warned you to wait until the new $100M Visitors Center opened in 2007-2008 to visit since the its “current infrastructure matches neither the area’s historical prominence nor its 2M people per year tourist influx.”

Since our review, a decision has been made on the proposed Gettysburg casino (no go), and the closed-for-much-needed renovations Battle of Gettysburg cyclorama is one step closer to opening.

Our local paper announced this week that “A grand opening celebration for the restored Gettysburg Cyclorama painting and the Gettysburg National Military Park visitor center/museum will take place in September.”

We also learned from the paper that a team of Polish experts were flown in from Gab’s former residence Wroclaw to head the cyclorama’s restoration. What do Poles know about cycloramas?

A lot.

Ryszard Wojtowicz, his wife, Danuta Drabik-Wojtowicz, sister, Wiktoria Wojtowicz-Janowska, and Wieslaw Kowalczyk worked on the preservation of Wroclaw’s own cyclorama, just as epic in size and relevance to its companion in Gettysburg, just as dilapidated before Wojtowicz’s team got to it. Wroclaw’s cyclorama, known to many simply as “The Panorama” depicts the Battle of Raclawice, “a famous episode of the Kosciuszko Insurrection, a heroic but in the end fallen attempt to defend Polish independence.”

(You already know how we feel about Kosciuszko.)

So, September’s grand openings will certainly necessitate a new visit and a new review to Gettysburg. In the meantime, click here to read what we wrote in 2006.

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U.S. Grant

We all have painfully derived instances of selective memory. Things in the past that we have chosen to forget for the sake of mental health, sanity and quality of life.

Most of Michael’s lost memories revolve around painful sports losses. (He’s lived a charmed life.) Super Bowl XXXVI Rams vs. Patriots. Georgetown in the 1982 and 1985 NCAA basketball championships. 1994 NBA Finals. John Starks. Whenever sports retrospectives mention or show these events the channel is quickly turned. No need to dwell on the past.

Mississippi residents do not have this luxury. Their most ignominious historic event, their most painful collective memory, the South’s most humiliating and debilitating Civil War defeat, the picture of ultimate degradation…it’s a National Park and one of their state’s most known tourist attractions.

The Vicksburg NMP was, of course, set aside as a federal Site by Northerners and most of the first wave of its countless monuments were placed on the land by Northern Civil War vets. A second (and more permanent) siege than Grant’s May-July 4, 1863 lockdown.

We heard more than a few times that Southerners en masse refused to celebrate the July 4 holiday for more than 80 years after Grant’s siege was lifted. The date was too powerful a reminder of their own unsuccessful independence.

Our visit was awkward. Our accent unmistakenly Northern. We were treading on unwelcome historical ground. To the local residents, our prescence in town and on the battlefield could only indicate victorious glee. We destroyed this town and its people in 1863. Shouldn’t we be moving on to more pleasant memories.

Click here to read more.

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Gettysburg, Pa.
Visited: April 9, 2006
NPS Site Visited: 283 of 353
NPS Website; Local Website

Steadfast SoldierSite of the most famous battle fought on United States soil. The dramatic Civil War fight occurred from July 1-3, 1863 and took more than 50,000 casualties.

BEAUTY (6/10)
Over the last fifteen years, groups like the Friends of the National Park at Gettysburg in accordance with the NPS have slowly but surely worked to bring the battlefield back to its 1863 appearance and feel. The most famous two removals were the Stuckey’s Restaurant that once sat in the middle of Pickett’s Charge’s route and the 307-foot monstrosity known as the Gettysburg National Tower that disturbed horizons in all directions.

Currently, there is nothing to upset the views of the beautiful Pennsylvania countryside other than 1,300 granite monuments and 400+ cannons. The biggest and the best Civil War memorials are here at Gettysburg. Do not let the Chickamauga or Vicksburg people tell you otherwise. The best of the best is, of course, the towering ivory white Pennsylvania Memorial, which sort of looks like the arc de triomphe topped with a dome upon which stands Nike, the winged goddess of victory.

Throughout his schooling, Michael never understood the oft-quoted metaphor of Gettysburg being the high tide of the Confederacy. His teachers would point to the ground where Pickett’s charge ended and say, “Look, right here is the high tide.” He gets it now, sees the powerful imagery but only grudgingly agrees with this eastern-theater-centric vision of the Civil War.

The historical strength of Gettysburg lies in metaphor and symbolic imagery. The ebbs and flows of the battle itself encapsulate the tidal patterns of the war as a whole. The battle was fought over three scorching hot days and saw the most casualties of any fight in American history. Once battle ended, the skies emptied and it rained a deluge. It was July 4th, the day of American Independence.

Four months later, on November 19, Abraham Lincoln came to the former battleground to dedicate the National Cemetery. His speech, the Gettysburg Address, is known to all Americans and memorized by most middle school students.

Virginia MonumentCROWDS (3/10)
An early April Sunday morning, 9:30 a.m. to be exact. We thought we would elude the crowds. No siree Bob. Busload after busload of people were being dropped off and parking spaces around the Visitor Center were hard to find. What summer must bring!

The battlefield auto tour was thick with bumper-to-bumper traffic. We should have walked.

The current Gettysburg NMP Visitor Center is located just south of downtown Gettysburg along Pa. Route 134 (Taneytown Road), a few miles from U.S. Route 15. If you do not have a map, the easiest entry is from the south. The Pa. Route 134 exit will take you directly north for about 2 miles. The VC is on your left.

Gettysburg, Pa. is located along U.S. Route 15, a pleasant 90 minute drive north of our nation’s capital, Washington, D.C. The nearest beautiful metropolis is Harrisburg, a quick 40 mile jaunt to the northeast. So if your coming to Gettysburg, also make the trip to Harrisburg. Give us a call and we will show you the ins and outs of our fair city.

The Gettysburg Battlefield is comparatively easy to maneuver. The fighting took place over three days, but much of it was isolated within a three-mile radius. You will not be driving to the ends of the earth like at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania, Richmond and Petersburg.

What if they built a bookstore, stocked it with every imaginable Civil War book and frequently brought in authors to sign and discuss their works. Doesn’t that sound great? Now, what if they stuffed said bookstore with triple the room’s capacity making it impossible to walk around the store and browse the collection. Well, that is Gettysburg.

Existentially, do the books even exist if you can’t get to them?

Explosive BeautyCOSTS (2/5)
The website boasts that entry into the Gettysburg NMP is “free of charge”. True, but the electric map costs $4 per person. The Gettysburg NMP is the only battlefield in the NPS that charges for its electric map presentation, which is easily the worst electric map we have ever seen. Couldn’t they have replaced the burnt-out bulbs?

“Licensed Battlefield Guide” tours run anywhere from $45-$135 depending on the number of people in your party. We did not begin to research this option. There are no free guided Ranger tours at Gettysburg. Guided auto-tour cassette tapes cost between $10 and $15. If you intend to learn anything at the Park, it could get expensive.

The day after our visit, April 9, 2006, the local newspaper, the Gettysburg Times, wrote that federal budget cuts to the National Park Service would mean probable job losses for at least three Park Rangers. In the past ten years, federal budget cuts have forced Gettysburg NMP to fire 12 full-time staff members and 24 part-timers. In those same ten years, the Park has seen nearly 20 million visitors. The visitation rate has not declined. These stories regarding Gettysburg NMP has become so commonplace that the Harrisburg paper does not cover them any longer.

While federal NPS jobs are being cut, a much needed new $100M Museum and Visitor Center is being built less than a half-mile from the current location. “How could this be?” we wondered. Like Mount Rushmore N MEM’s new VC construction, the building is being built entirely through private funds. Private funding, private building initiatives and self-guided learning are the future of the National Park Service. Educational Park Rangers are a thing of the past.

Luckily, we did find one Ranger lurking among the help desk with dozens of volunteers. He answered a few of our questions about the new Museum before having to stop because of a barrage of other tourists’ questions. They all wanted to know where they could get something to eat.

Admittedly, one person per every group touring the Battlefield carries himself like an expert. Hands pointing, pompous posture and a know-it-all gleam. It is almost like being at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. So if you do have a Civil War question, just cozy on up to the tourists next to you and ask them. There is a high probability that one of them is dressed as a Civil War soldier. We are sure they would be pleased to answer your question.

The best part about the tours/classes at Gettysburg NMP is that a new Museum will be opening up in the near future.

In the mean time, buy one of the 18 million books written about July 1-3, 1863.

What Are You Looking At?FUN (6/10)

The great thing about Gettysburg NMP is that it is possible to walk much of the battlefield in one day’s time. About three years ago, we walked down the third day Union line, across the field where Pickett’s charge occurred, down the Confederate line, through the Peach Orchard, Devils Den and the Wheatfield, up Big Round Top and Little Round Top and back to the Visitor Center. That is everything right there.

This year we drove the same area; felt rushed, crowded and did not enjoy our trip nearly as much. If you have the time and the stamina, we suggest walking. You won’t shed the crowds physically but you may be able to separate yourself from them mentally. Your concentration can focus on the battle, the troop movements and the historical impact rather than worrying about finding a parking space and the slow driver in front of you.

The Gettysburg NMP is an iconic American destination and the crowds are commensurately large. Sadly, the current infrastructure matches neither the area’s historical prominence nor its 2M people per year tourist influx. The new $100M VC set to open in 2007-08 should fix the situation. We say wait until then to come.

Right now, the museum is bad, the cyclorama is closed for renovations, the crowds are thick and the Ranger help is small. And who knows, perhaps by 2008 there will have been a decision made regarding the proposed Gettysburg casino. Video poker, slot machines, old town Gettysburg, Abe Lincoln, brother fighting brother and the turning point in the Civil War = fun for all.

TOTAL 48/80

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Greensboro, N.C.
Visited: October 31, 2005
NPS Site Visited: 277 of 353
NPS Website

General GreeneWHAT IS IT?
Site of a bloody March 15, 1781 Revolutionary War battle won by the British forces commanded by General Cornwallis.

BEAUTY (6/10)
Battlefield endangerment purists probably won’t like it here because much of the Battleground lays outside the Park boundaries, victims of development. There are also lots and lots of monuments. Monuments and statues honoring everyone from War heroes like Nathanael Greene (hence Greensboro) to North Carolina’s Declaration of Independence signatories to a woman who lost her son in the battle to the countless people who made the Guilford Courthouse NMP possible.

But we liked it. The Park occupies a lovely narrow bit of public green space wedged between the suburban sprawl of Greensboro. Its humble acreage creates a cozy, well-trod feel. The Battlefield was manageably walked and easily completed in less than two hours.

“Another such victory would ruin the British Army,” was the response of Charles James Fox, head of Parliament’s opposition party, when informed of the results at Guilford Courthouse. He was, as they say over there, spot on.

In fact, the British Army never got a chance to win again. Their “victory” came at a high cost: the loss of the American colonies. General Cornwallis lost ¼ of his 1,900 men and was forced to retreat to Yorktown, Virginia where he would surrender his Army seven months later.

The Site claimed Guilford Courthouse as the most important Revolutionary War battle fought south of Philadelphia. We agree. We also agreed when the same thing was said at Kings Mountain, Cowpens, Fort Moultrie, Moore’s Creek and Yorktown… but we really agree this time.

A Pleasant WalkCROWDS (8/10)
We saw hundreds of Greensboro-ians enjoying the beautiful day at their National Park. No, they were not touring the battlefield, they were picnicking, running, walking and utilizing the grounds more as a pleasant City Park than a Battlefield. Seeing non-history-buff-type people was nice, especially after walking mile after lonely rural mile through the Carolina’s other Revolutionary War parks.

The sprawl of Greensboro, N.C. has completely engulfed the once separate village of Guilford Court House. The Park is located just off U.S. Route 220, about three miles northwest of downtown. An isolated 2¼-mile auto tour, populated with more joggers than cars, circles the battlefield. Numerous paved and unpaved trails weave around the battlefield meeting at unexpected angles.

The Guilford Courthouse NMP is so extensive and chock full o’ titles that we openly wondered, “are you sure this wasn’t a Civil War battle?” You know, because the Civil War-related bookstores are all great. OK, maybe this is only funny to us; we have been to a lot of battlefields.

COSTS (4/5)
Free. An in-depth Revolutionary War education is cheap.

Rangers are posted at the entrance desk armed with answers. The fully self-guided Museum is bound to generate questions.

When did “electric maps” become “fiber-optic battle presentations”? Guilford Courthouse’s fiber optic presentation is encased in a soundproof glass booth. We felt like we were on a quiz show.

The tremendous map is par for the Guilford Courthouse’s educational course. An excellent and new Museum examines the southern campaign of the Revolutionary War at great length with skilled panels and original artifacts. The Museum also included a tactile map of the Battlefield, combined in its display with a Braille recap of the different stages of the fight. Amazing stuff.

If the free NPS exhibits do not satiate your 18th-century appetite, the Tannebaum Historic Park is less than a ¼ mile away.

Charming BridgeFUN (7/10)
Guilford Courthouse NMP offers the best learning experience of the seven Carolina NPS Revolutionary War Parks. We came here last, which was not a bad choice. The Museum tied together everything we had learned over the course of our whirlwind tour.

March 18-19, 2006 marks the 225th Anniversary of the Battle that won the Revolutionary War. If you are in Greensboro on that date, you should definitely enjoy the festivities. Why would you be in Greensboro then, you ask? Well, that date coincides with Greensboro’s hosting of the 2006 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. The first round games are on the 16th, second round on the 18th. We say go to the second round games and enjoy history on the 19th. Go Hoyas!

TOTAL 61/80

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Fredericksburg, Va.
Visited: October 5, 2005
NPS Site Visited: 251 of 353
NPS Website; Local Website

Stonewall Jackson ShrineWHAT IS IT?
Perhaps the bloodiest locale on the North American continent. The four Civil War battles commemorated by the Park took over 100,000 casualties including the War’s most famous soldier, Stonewall Jackson.

The battles memorialized are the December 1862 Battle of Fredericksburg, the April-May 1863 Battle of Chancellorsville (which includes Second Fredericksburg and Salem Church), the May 5-6 1864 Battle of the Wilderness and the May 8-21 1864 Battle of Spotsylvania.

BEAUTY (6/10)
The rural wooded Virginia countryside and former farmlands that makes up much of Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park (F&S NMP) feels isolated, untouched and haunted. The Battlefields must look like they did just before the fighting began, from the charming old downtown of Fredericksburg, with its church spires and quaint brick buildings to the impenetrable forest of The Wilderness to the rolling fields nearby Spotsylvania Court House. The horrors of the fighting are tangible and one’s imagination easily sparked because the theaters of battle seem to be unchanged.

Fredericksburg, Virginia’s unfortunate geography placed it half way between Washington, D.C., the Union capital, and Richmond, Va., the head of the Confederacy. The area witnessed three major Union attacks between 1862 and 1864. Historians note none of these battles as “the War’s turning point” or “its most important fight”.

Individually, the battles claim no superlatives. But collectively the region feels bathed in near continuous bloodshed. Union slaughters abound. At First Fredericksburg, Union battalions charged uphill, losing nearly all of their men.

Up the Bloody AngleAt Spotsylvania, Grant led his men through the dense fog and pouring rain and into the Bloody Angle. Thousands died during the unbearable 20-hour fight. During The Wilderness battle, horrific close-range fighting raged in dense forest underbrush and thick confines. Indiscriminate rifle fire felled trees alongside the many blue and gray soldiers.

Most of the War’s luminaries fought here. Lee and Grant first met at The Wilderness. Walt Whitman and Clara Barton nursed Union troops across the Rappahannock at the Chatham Mansion. Stonewall Jackson died here, a victim of friendly fire during the Battle of Chancellorsville.

CROWDS (6/10)
The further you get from Fredericksburg, the less people you will see, both tourists and residents. The downtown streets of Fredericksburg meet at odd angles and invariably run the one-way that you do not want to go. I-95 is a bear of a drive regardless of time. Virginia Route 3, a/k/a Plank Road, travels from Exit 130 west towards the Chancellorsville and Wilderness battlefields. The Road is a crowded commercial stretch from the Interstate until the Battlefields.

F&S NMP is a sprawling mess of a park. The Site has seven major disconnected sections that represent three distinct military campaigns and at least six separate battles. Luckily, all the sites are within a 15-mile radius of Fredericksburg, Va. and easily accessed from Interstate 95 via exits 118, 126 and 130.

Plan your visit. Stop first at the Fredericksburg Battlefield VC (east from Exit 130) if only to get a Park map. The tortuous and lengthy auto tour travels in chronological order. Just remember that the four-mile ride from the Battle of Chancellorsville to the Wilderness Battlefield represents a full year, different Union Generals and an entirely different context: Chancellorsville was pre-Gettysburg, Wilderness and Spotsylvania post.

The Park’s voluminous bookstore actually is its own building, located next door to the Fredericksburg Battlefield VC. The store lists its top 10 bestsellers for those who like to give in to peer pressure.

COSTS (2/5)
Park entry is free. Both the Fredericksburg Battlefield VC and the Chancellorsville Battlefield VC charge $2 per person to watch their respective introductory films.

We did not have the best luck with Rangers at the Park’s VC’s but did at the Site’s adjunct locations, the Stonewall Jackson Shrine and Chatham.

A Ghostly TrailTOURS/CLASSES (5/10)
An F&S NMP visit can be very confusing. You need to be able to separate the battles in your head, attach them to their proper historical setting and swiftly change that perspective once you move to the next battle location. Space and finances dictate that your initial foray into the non-Fredericksburg battles is at the Chancellorsville Battlefield VC. A separate VC for the May 1864 battles would be nice and proper and would alleviate the bewilderment.

We refused to pay for the introductory films on principle and wished we would have skipped both VC’s 40+ year-old museums, long on dioramas and short on historical analysis. In fact, the two VC’s were the only bad part of our visit.

Be sure to pick up as many of the Park’s walking tour pamphlets as you can carry. We have eight (and there might be more). Too much happened at F&S NMP to be covered adequately in the standard Park brochure. Use the pamphlets while you take walking trails around the Park’s sprawling environs. We enjoyed the free Ranger-led guided tours of Chatham (the Lacy House) and the Stonewall Jackson shrine and used this time to gain answers to the questions that the VC Museums evoked but could not answer.

FUN (6/10)
We had a fun and educational, if not solemn, time at F&S NMP. At The Wilderness Battlefield, we hiked through the still-dense forest while a morning mist enveloped our horizons. It felt as if we were walking with ghosts. The horrors of the battle flashed into our psyches, the trees still wailed and even the birds were silent.

As we walked around the Bloody Angle section of the Spotsylvania Battlefield, portions of the sky turned an ominous dark blue. Wind whistled through the now-peaceful tall grass field. The hike ends with the slight uphill incline where the Union troops clawed their way over their fallen comrades and towards the Rebel trenches. Our walk was as powerful and emotional as any trail we have taken on American soil.

Once we left Spotsylvania, we followed the route of Stonewall Jackson’s ambulance to the house where he died. We felt an urgency in our car even though we were traveling on a twisting rural two-lane road nearly devoid of traffic. A light rain began as we approached the two-story white building. Once inside we discussed Stonewall with a scholarly Ranger for over one-hour, learning more than we dared imagine about the legendary General.

Our Greatest GeneralWOULD WE RECOMMEND? (8/10)
A trip to F&S NMP is an intensive Civil War learning experience and an essential visit for anyone with an interest in American History. On Michael’s previous two trips to Fredericksburg, he had only visited the downtown Fredericksburg portions of the Park (Marye’s Hill, the National Cemetery and the VC). Big mistake. Not only is First Fredericksburg the least interesting battle of the four, but the best educational opportunities are found elsewhere.

It takes at least one full day to experience F&S NMP. Two days are recommended. Take the auto tour, hike the battlegrounds, read the exhibits and augment your learning with a Civil War book (like the Battle Cry of Freedom) or an auto tour CD. Visit the Stonewall Jackson shrine and Chatham, two highlights of our visit, and talk to the Rangers posted there. They know what they are talking about.

TOTAL 53/80

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Pea Ridge, Ark.
Visited: August 31, 2005
NPS Site Visited: 243 of 353
NPS Website; Local Website

Site of the March 1862 Civil War battle that “saved Missouri for the Union”.

Peace Returns Again BEAUTY (3/10)
The concepts of “well-preserved” and “endangered” battlefields appear attached to every Civil War Site we visit. Here are the questions we have developed to understand these elusive definitions:

1) Is the battleground land, in its entirety, a part of the battlefield Park?
2) Do statues and monuments honoring the soldiers litter the battleground?
3) Are any modern structures (houses, restaurants, souvenir stands, lookout towers) visible from the battleground?
4) Have all structures within the battleground boundaries been restored to the 1860’s appearance.
5) Are there cannons everywhere? (Not really a criterion, but what is a Civil War Site without cannons?)

A perfectly preserved Civil War park would answer Yes, No, No, Yes and Yes. An “endangered park” would answer No, Yes or No, Yes, No and No.

The wonderfully well-preserved Pea Ridge NMP answers Y, N, N, Y and Y to our questions. We especially enjoyed the lack of widespread white granite monuments. The Park’s only two monuments stand nearby the restored Elkhorn Tavern. Some local advocates even want those monuments torn down, presumably to attain a perfect preservation score.

Is the Park any more beautiful just because it looks almost identical to its March 1862 appearance when, we might add, people died here? Not to us. Pea Ridge remains a humid rural Arkansas expanse surrounded by dense forest and inhabited by many white-tailed deer.

Find the Leg
The statement that the Union’s victory at Pea Ridge “saved them Missouri” is a little bit misleading. Firstly, it is unclear if, during the War, either the North or South wanted Missouri. After Pea Ridge, both armies abandoned the land and marched eastward. Secondly, the Union victory hardly swayed the complicated interests and beliefs of Missourians during the War. Their incomprehensible mixing and matching of Pro-slavery, anti-Union, pro-Union, anti-slavery would continue until the War ended; both the Union and Confederacy saw many Missouri volunteers.

The Missouri/Northern Arkansas theater of battle was a distant third priority for both armies (after the Eastern and Western theaters). Pea Ridge is interesting in that it was one of the Union’s earliest victories of the War, despite their distinct numbers advantage in all fights. By the time Pea Ridge happened, both Lincoln and Jeff Davis deemed Missouri to be an afterthought and were more than willing to see it descend into its own personal guerilla war.

CROWDS (6/10)
A woman with a thick Arkansas accent pulled Gab aside at the Leetown Battlefield overlook. “Hi honey. So aah you intahrested in this stuuff or you just tagging along?” Gab sheepishly said, “No, I like…” Michael interrupted her with a big laugh. “You can tell us the truth.” “OK,” Gab replied, “I don’t much care for the Civil War.” “Me neithah,” the woman revealed, “you should see the books mah husband reads. I couldn’t keep up with ‘im if I trahed. I feel for ya honey but just remembuh: you’ll be out a hiyah in no time.”

It is difficult to say if you will ever be near Pea Ridge NMP, but its rural northwestern Arkansas locale is more accessible than you might think. The Park is located along U.S. Route 62, about 11 miles east of Interstate 540, Exit 86 and the town of Rogers, Ark. Rogers is three miles south of Bentonville, home of Wal-Mart, and less than 20 mile north of Fayetteville, home of the University of Arkansas Razorbacks.

The darling artsy town of Eureka Springs, home of the famous Great Passion Play, is 25 miles east along Route 62. Country music jamboree capital Branson, Mo. is 80 circuitous miles to the east-northeast.

We are sick of giving perfect scores to Civil War bookstores but even the most cynical grader cannot argue with 30+ books on the Missouri/northern Arkansas field of battle, including at least six on Pea Ridge alone. We find interesting new titles at each Civil War bookstore that we either have glanced over or are stocked only where we are. Pea Ridge NMP’s cool titles include Pulitzer Prize winner Mary Chestnut’s Civil War; Now the Wolf Has Come: the Creek Nation in the Civil War; A Plantation Mistress on the Eve of Civil War and Black Confederates. Civil War buffs and historians must have their fill of reading material.

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

Few other people in northern Arkansas chose to tour the Battlefield during our visit. It might have been the 100-degree midweek day coupled with high humidity or it could have been the Hurricane Katrina induced $0.50 a gallon gasoline price hike. Whichever it was, we had the Park, its two Visitor Center Rangers, a talkative but knowledgeable costumed volunteer posted at Elkhorn Tavern and his two friendly dogs all to ourselves.

 Elkhorn Inn
The only thing we remember about the Pea Ridge NMP learning experience is that Confederate General Van Dorn was such a poor leader that it is a wonder he was not commanding Union troops in the Eastern theater.

Too geeky an explanation? Prior to battle, Van Dorn hurriedly marched his men for three straight days through snow and sub freezing temperatures, openly questioning why his men couldn’t march as fast as he could ride. On the fourth day, he asked them to fight. The rest of our Battle of Pea Ridge learning, as well as a lesson on the Missouri/northern Arkansas theater came at the nearby Wilson’s Creek NB.

FUN (3/10)
If a Union Army General had won a game of checkers against a Confederate General, the federal government would have honored that location with a Civil War National Park Site. The outcome at Pea Ridge produced negligible, at best, historical impact. A visit here could be fun only to an obsessive completist. Heavens, we think we just described ourselves.

If you like Civil War Battlefields, this could be the best preserved of them all.

TOTAL 36/80

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Vicksburg, Miss.
Visited: February 17, 2005
NPS Site Visited: 157 of 353

NPS Website; Local Website

Monument WayWHAT IS IT?
Site of Union Army’s May 18, 1863 to July 4, 1863 siege. The South’s surrender of Vicksburg gave the Union forces complete control of the Mississippi River.

BEAUTY (4/10)
Vicksburg NMP is shaped like the number 7 and contains over 1,700 acres. This shape follows the city’s high ground, contains miles of Confederate and Union earthworks and is generally narrow. The Park’s svelte character accentuates the innumerable Civil War Monuments. The remembrances are everywhere ranging from the grandiose neo-classical excess of the Illinois Memorial, replete with an open sunroof and a gold-plated eagle, to the subtle wrought iron intertwined circles of the Kansas Monument.

The most impressive monument to the Battle is actual U.S.S. Cairo ironclad gunboat, sunk in one of Grant’s preemptive raids in December of 1862 and dredged up from the bottom of the Mississippi River in the 1960’s. The boat sits under a huge white canopy fully intact, looking much as it did just prior to its demise. Displays in the nearby museum showcase items found during the salvage.

The Confederate forces surrendered Vicksburg on July 4, 1863, just a day after the Southern defeat over 1,000 miles to the northeast at Gettysburg. These are often considered the two most important battles of the Civil War.

While the Northern victory at Gettysburg was a turning point in the eastern theater of battle, their triumph in the west at Vicksburg was a fait accompli. The War’s western turning point had occurred a year and a half prior at Fort Donelson. Since then Grant had methodically pushed down the rivers into the South scoring many decisive victories.

U.S. GrantVicksburg was the last Southern stronghold in the west. Perched along a narrow stretch of the Mississippi, it was dubbed the “Gibraltar of the Confederacy”. After a few failed amphibious assaults, Grant bypassed Vicksburg, landing south of the town and defeating the Rebels at Port Gibson on May 1.

The Federals marched eastward to Jackson, Miss. taking the town on May 14, and then proceeded back to Vicksburg where they would besiege the town four days later. For 46 days, Grant bombarded the city with constant cannon fire. Town residents and Confederate soldiers built underground shelters and were reduced to eating rodents; neither food nor artillery could break the Northern lines.

Without any means of retaliation and further survival, the South’s capitulation occurred on the 4th of July, Independence Day; a holiday that many Mississippians had refused to celebrate until World War II because it coincided with Vicksburg.

CROWDS (6/10)
The Park is viewed primarily via a 16-mile auto tour route. The road is winding and isolated from Vicksburg proper. Parking might get tight along the route during the Park’s busier seasons, but we had no problem viewing whichever monuments we desired; there are enough for everyone.

The Vicksburg NMP entrance is located just off Exit 4 of Interstate 20. From every direction the route to the Battlefield is well marked. Vicksburg is a modestly sized located 45 minutes west from the State Capitol, Jackson, along Interstate 20.

The bookstore carries at least four books titled Vicksburg that ALSO have “siege” in the title. They are Vicksburg: Southern Stories of the Siege; Vicksburg: 47 Days of Siege; Vicksburg: Southern City Under Siege and Vicksburg: A City Under Siege. There are plenty more books regarding the battle itself including the Confederate Roll of Honor which is just a listing of every Southern soldier who died here and the intriguingly titled My Cave Life in Vicksburg.

U.S.S. CairoThere is a section of books about Civil War Generals, many of whom did not even fight here and a section about Women and the Civil War. It is all here. If you have been desiring a frosted and embossed Vicksburg NMP Christmas tree ornament, you know where to come.

COSTS (3/5)
Entry is $5 per car or free with your National Parks Pass.

They were there but many of our questions were left either unanswered or accompanied with a reference to where we could find a response. We probably would have been better off asking one of the many Civil War buffs touring the grounds.

The introductory film is old, long and not so good. Since the Battle was not a traditional battle, the film tells the story with many abstract conceits. The camera zooms in and out of a man painting watercolors of the Mississippi while the viewer is asked to become the steadfast old river meandering its way into the Gulf. We wished we had meandered our way out of the theater. The film taught us nothing.

The auto tour is nice and the short explanations on the Park pamphlet help to fill in what exactly happened during the fight. The Museum holds original objects and does a much better job than the film in explaining Vicksburg especially in its detailing of the horrors endured by the besieged Southerners.

The U.S.S. Cairo Museum, located halfway through the driving tour near the National Cemetery, is a must-see. The personal objects, the ship itself and the salvaging method are fascinating.

Echo Ensues Inside Illinois MemorialFUN (5/10)

Your amount of fun at Vicksburg NMP is directly proportional to your interest in the Civil War. Kids might have fun at the U.S.S. Cairo but the rest of the auto tour is bound to be a snoozer. There are not any hiking trails through the Park, but we did see a few people walking along the auto tour road. We enjoyed Vicksburg NMP mostly because of Vicksburg’s charming downtown. Before, during and after the auto tour we sipped excellent, strong black coffee laced with a tad of Southern Pecan flavoring at the Chocolate Derby on Washington Street.

History places Vicksburg alongside Gettysburg as seminal American moments. Does visiting the Site add anything more to your understanding of the siege? Of course. Even though the Mississippi River has completely changed its course, the high ground remains as it was in 1863, complete with lines of cannons. Even though old town center has been rebuilt, one can only imagine the streets lined with antebellum mansions.

TOTAL 49/80

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part of Shiloh National Military Park
near Corinth, Miss.
Visited: February 13, 2005
NPS Site Visited: 153 of 353
NPS Website; Local Website

Fountain SculptureWHAT IS IT?
A newly opened Museum dedicated to explaining both the April 1862 Battle of Shiloh and the April and May Union siege and capture of Corinth, Mississippi, an important railroad center.

BEAUTY (6/10)
The Interpretive Center’s ads, found in all the tourist publication promote the “$9.5 million facility” that has “5,000 square feet of exhibit space” and an “open courtyard with a water feature”. The ads’ spartan word choice does not do to the Museum justice.

The Site’s is located across from a school and near the train tracks on the outskirts of town. We openly wondered why they would put a tourist attraction such an unappealing area. Closer inspection revealed that the red brick Museum is built on and around Battery Robinett, one of the Union’s primary defense positions. The Building incorporates the slope of the earthwork and mimics its shape.

The path from the parking lot to the entrance travels up switchbacks that are littered with bronzed Civil War-related items that have been paved into the walkway. The exhibit space is fantastic, incorporating large amounts of wood, colorful easy to read displays and lots of open space.

The “water feature” is actually an interpretive sculpture. The design is a minimalist representation of American history from the Revolution until 1870. It begins with a marble slab inscribed with the Preamble to the Constitution. The water flows steadily from the words and down a short staircase until it reaches a line marked 1861.

There it meets stacked bricks that represent over 50 Civil War battles. The bricks vary in size given the number of casualties suffered in the respective battle. At first, they appear to be haphazardly placed until you realize that they are in chronological order and curve to demonstrate Union or Confederate success.

The bricks alter and separate the water’s path until a year marked 1865. When the battles end, the water flows back into the same pool. It is simple, moving and inspired. If only it were that easy.

Why are both the Battle of Shiloh and the Siege of Corinth important to American history and the outcome of the Civil War? An exhibit posits this exact question and answers it in convincing detail. They were the first battles with large casualties. The War was not going to be short and easy. Corinth was a major southern railroad hub. The Union siege and capture further isolated the Confederate west from supplies and material help.

Corinth was the site of the Civil War’s largest Contraband Camp, a self-contained community populated by former slaves who had escaped their masters and found their way on to Union controlled soil. The federal government dealt with the issue by calling the escaped slaves contraband of war and allowing them to remain in the hands of the Union army.

Smaller contraband camps existed throughout the South. Corinth’s was the only one to move beyond temporary tent dwellings. Small cabins were constructed. A school and church were built. Years before the Emancipation Proclamation, black Americans received their first glimpse of life as a free individual. The original Contraband Camp has been unearthed and plans for an on-site memorial are underway.

Seven Screen Film
CROWDS (6/10)
We were the only people in the Museum on a lazy, rainy Sunday afternoon. There was plenty of space and exhibits to accommodate and entertain entire regiments of Civil War re-enactors.

Corinth is no longer the railway and commercial center that it was in 1862. It is 46 miles north of Tupelo and the four-lane Interstate-esque U.S. Route 78. The closest major city is Memphis, located 100 miles to the west. For tourism purposes, the most important nearby destination is Shiloh NMP, located a winding 20 miles to the north.

Incredible Civil War bookstore. What else is new?

COSTS (4/5)
The Corinth Interpretive Center, unlike its parent Site the Shiloh NMP, is absolutely free.

Even though the Interpretive Center is designed to be completely self-guided, there were two Rangers on duty to help.

The film about the Battle of Shiloh is indicative of Corinth’s stellar educational power. The film is shown in a small amphitheater with only one short bench for seats. Seven monitors tall and thin monitors are placed equidistant horizontally and stretch the limits of your peripheral vision. The middle screen primarily shows a map highlighting troop positions at specific times of the battle. The six other televisions rotate between re-enactors, drawings and Civil-War era photography.

Somehow, the multimedia presentation avoids the bug-eyed madness of CNN Headline News or the Bloomberg Channel. The videos are placed far enough apart that you can focus on only one the entire length of the film and go back to the map when necessary. The grounding force of the map is helpful. You always know where the Battle is talking place, where the fight is occurring.

FUN (8/10)
We claim not to be Civil War buffs, but nine separate Park Sites in ten days probably proves otherwise. Still, we left Shiloh NMP confused and ornery. Shiloh’s horrible film and long driving tour through monumented woods did not help us figure either out what had actually happened or why the Battle holds such an indelible historical presence.

We had a collective bad attitude and did not want to go to yet another Civil War Museum. The Corinth Interpretive Center was so well done that we left with our Shiloh questions answered, a greater understanding of Grant’s War in the West and smiles on our faces.

Michael at a DisplayWOULD WE RECOMMEND? (8/10)
Should the in-depth educational part of Shiloh NMP be on the Battlefield’s grounds instead of 20 long miles south, in an urban setting and across the Tennessee state line? Probably not. The hard feeling between the two Sites is palpable. The Shiloh NMP Visitor Center does not advertise the Corinth Site. Corinth is not on the Park Brochure. Our request for directions was only grudgingly obliged with a small mimeographed sheet of paper that the Rangers kept behind their desk.

We know that everyone wants a piece of the lucrative Civil War tourist trade. Just ask Stephen Reed, the mayor of our fine hometown. Harrisburg, Pennsylvania just opened our own Civil War Museum. Sleepy Corinth, Mississippi projects that its Museum will bring in 250,000 people per year. Last year Shiloh NMP had 350,000 guests; Corinth’s projection is reasonable.

The Corinth Interpretive Center is a must see on any western Civil War itinerary. It is the best educational Civil War Site we have visited to date and is an essential stop before you travel to the Shiloh Battlefield. There is a good mix of esoteric paraphernalia and analysis (for the hardcore buff) and easy to understand explanations, charts and videos (for his loyal companion).

TOTAL 59/80

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near Savannah, Tenn.
Visited: February 13, 2005
NPS Site Visited: 153 of 353

NPS Website; Local Website

Artillery LineWHAT IS IT?
An exceptionally bloody April 1862 battle that finally convinced Americans that the Civil War was going to be long, difficult and increasingly horrifying.

BEAUTY (4/10)
The pleasant woodland, the wide Tennessee River and the Battlefield’s many open fields have changed little in the past 140 years. The setting is not much different from any rural landscape in this part of the country.

The Battle at Shiloh has taken on mythic importance in American history, partly because it was the first battle with major casualties, over 24,000, and somewhat because of its profoundly tragic name. Shiloh was a biblical place of refuge for the Israelites.

Tactically, Shiloh was the next fight after Fort Donelson in U.S. Grant’s aggressive push for control of the western theater of battle. Grant’s eventual success at Vicksburg would split the Confederacy in half.

CROWDS (6/10)
The driving tour of the Battlefield follows a circuitous route through monuments and tributes to those who fought. The path is long and isolated; crowds are evenly disbursed and should not affect your visit. We ran into the normal plethora of Civil War diehards dragging along their less than happy wives. We still not sure what connection the excited Scandinavian family of four had with Shiloh, perhaps the most out-of-place tourists we have seen.

Shiloh NMP is located in southwestern Tennessee near Savannah, Tenn. NOT Savannah, Georgia. The Park is smack dab in the middle of nowhere. No Interstates run this way but many roads run into town.

Florence, Alabama is about 80 miles to the southeast; Jackson, Tenn. is about 60 miles to the northwest. Tupelo, Mississippi is 70 miles to the south; Columbia, Tenn. is 100 miles to the east. Those are the closest towns to Shiloh. Can anyone place any of those cities on a map? You really have to want to come here.

The Shiloh NMP bookstore is so big that it gets its own building. Included among its many categories of books are Regimental History, Local Native American History, African American History and a slew of books just about Shiloh, including four different ones whose title is Shiloh.

You can look it up. The authors are Shelby Foote, Larry Daniel, Wiley Sword (that can’t be his real name) and James Lee McDonough. Not included is the Phyllis Reynolds Naylor children’s book, Shiloh, which is about a West Virginia dog and has nothing to do with the Battle.

COSTS (3/5)
Entry is $3 per person or $5 per family.

There was one Ranger on duty at the Visitor Center.

The Shiloh NMP introductory film, Shiloh: Portrait of a Battle was done in 1956. It is abysmal. The footage is primarily re-enactors adorned with pasted on beards. It looks like U.S. Grant might even be portrayed by a woman but it is difficult to tell because of the grainy footage. According to a Ranger we met elsewhere, the film’s Battle saga is completely wrong. Historical research has disproven most of the film’s conclusions. The film is a mess and lacks the charm of other outdated Park films. Skip it.

The exhibits are dated as well, but at least they deliver some interesting trivia and short bios on the future celebrities that fought at Shiloh. Here are a few: John Wesley Powell (lost an arm at Shiloh but was the first man to raft the Colorado River); Lew Wallace (author of Ben Hur); James Garfield (Republican hero and future U.S. president); journalist Henry Stanley (the man who found Dr. Livingston in the Congo) and William LeBaron Jenney (the “father of the skyscraper”).

Gab also enjoyed the period costumes that allowed you to dress up like a Civil War soldier. She picked the Billy Yank uniform. We then worried about knee jerk militancy from our fellow tourists, all Southerners.

Mourning StatueFUN (4/10)
We did not have much fun; battlefields are difficult places to tour. Shiloh is an anonymous piece of land that for a few days in April of 1862 became a killing field. It is impossible to separate Shiloh from its bloody past. All hikes lead down roads that played a prominent role in the fight. Many of them lead to mass Confederate graves. The Southern soldiers were never given the dignity of a proper burial.

Shiloh holds an important place in the hearts of many Americans. It was a place of great tragedy and loss. It is not tops on our list of tourist destinations but we may be in the minority; millions have read the many fictionalized accounts of the Battle.

If you do go, make sure you go to the new Corinth Interpretive Center located 22 miles south of Shiloh first (our review tomorrow). The Corinth Center explains Shiloh well and makes up for the lack of educational opportunities at the Battlefield itself.

TOTAL 41/80

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