Posts Tagged ‘Civil War’

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.


Read Full Post »

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

Read Full Post »

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

Read Full Post »

Sullivan’s Island, S.C.
Visited: October 20, 2005
NPS Site Visited: 264 of 353
NPS Website; Local Website

Coastal defense fort that saw continuous military use for nearly two centuries, including major battles in both the Revolutionary and Civil Wars.

BEAUTY (6/10)
Red bricks replaced the namesakes of Fort Moultrie’s Palmetto Fort in the early 1800s. Low walls encircle a grass courtyard and a large unattractive black battery. It is hard to focus your eyes on the Fort’s interior when the Charleston Harbor and Fort Sumter create your horizon. Fort Moultrie NM offers a wonderful vantage point to view the busy waterway and skyline of the grand old city. Its flags, cannons and planted palmettos help frame the competing blues of the Harbor and the bright Carolina sky.

Confederate cannons fired the first shots of the Civil War from Fort Moultrie onto Fort Sumter. Nevertheless, Moultrie remains shrouded in a cloak of historical anonymity while Sumter is etched indelibly in our American consciousness.

Fort Moultrie was also site of a vital June 28, 1776 Revolutionary War battle which less than a week before our nation declared its independence from Great Britain. British Naval forces led by Commodore Peter Parker attempted to take the key city of Charleston but were repelled by forces commanded by Colonel William Moultrie.

Morning CoffeeCROWDS (6/10)
We encountered a much larger crowd at Fort Moultrie than expected. Dozens moved in and out of the Fort’s quirky nooks and narrow passageways discovering the long history of a coastal fort.

You need a car to get to Fort Moultrie NM, so if you have come to Charleston on a cruise ship, you are out of luck. The Fort is located on the west end of Sullivan’s Island at the narrowest entry point into Charleston Harbor.

From both downtown Charleston and Interstate 26, take U.S. Route 17 North. You will cross the dramatic Arthur Ravenel, Jr. Bridge. Once you reach the mainland take Coleman Blvd. (S.C. Route 703). Three miles later, Coleman Blvd. will bend and become Ben Sawyer Blvd but remain S.C. 703. You will be crossing marshlands on your way to the Island. Once you reach Sullivan’s Island, turn right onto Middle Street and take it to its end. You are there! Do not worry; there are plenty of signs.

Fort Moultrie’s bookstore spreads itself thin across four wars and several ethnic and cultural topics. Books on the Gullah, Seminoles and the Underground Railroad sit next to stories, songbooks and cookbooks from the Civil and Revolutionary Wars, which share the shelves with a biography of the Swamp Fox, Secrets of a Civil War Submarine and a few paperbacks about the War of 1812 and the Spanish War.

While a few titles do stand out, like the Diary of a Common Soldier in the American Revolution, or Gardner’s Photographic Sketchbook of the Civil War, the store’s variety doesn’t allow for much depth in any of the subject areas. If Fort Moultrie’s bookstore were a basketball team, it would need a better sixth man.

Strength with MowingCOSTS (3/5)
The Fort costs $3 per adult or $5 per family. If you have the National Parks Pass, entry is free.

A charming septuagenarian South Carolinian examined our National Parks pass, shared some knowledge about Charleston’s unique architecture (“We were saved by our own poverty; people were too poor to knock down the old houses and build new.”) and alerted us to the next showing of the film. This was the most interaction we had with any Site staff. We vaguely recall a Ranger but this gentleman volunteer introduced us to the Site and directed us on our way.

It would have been nice to have a Ranger across the street at the actual Fort to answer questions as they arose.

Fort Moultrie’s Visitor Center houses a small set of exhibits, the bookstore and theatre where the Site’s introductory film plays every 30 minutes. What a film it is.

Filmed entirely on location, Fort Moultrie’s video is a one-man tour de force. An actor named Michael Longfield dons several period costumes, different facial hair variations and at least eight different accents to guide viewers through the history of the Palmetto Fort. The audience sees the Fort’s construction, two reconstructions and finally the closing of its gates as a military post through the eyes of a common soldier.

FUN (6/10)
We entered the Fort still smiling from Mr Longfield’s valiant linguistic efforts. Most of the Site is open for exploration. Several rooms within the battery are furnished as offices and radio control centers circa 1940, complete with pin-up calendars and board games to occupy bored privates.

There is a pathway circling the exterior of the Fort and leading down to a small beach. As appealing as this stroll sounds, do not exit the Fort without applying adequate amounts of bug spray. We were fine within the perimeter but mosquitoes swarmed as soon as we neared the water.

Coastal DefenseWOULD WE RECOMMEND? (4/10)
Fort Moultrie NM is one of the most military-focused units in the National Park System, a noteworthy distinction given the innumerable battlefields and war-related historic sites. Fort Moultrie spotlights the role of the soldier in every American conflict from the Revolutionary War to World War II as well as the soldier’s role in peacetime. We even recall a Park volunteer saluting paying customers.

The storied events of Fort Moultrie’s history are even downplayed in favor of highlighting the life of the average soldiers who fought there. Fort Moultrie soldier-centric learning experience contrasts sharply to the historic overview offered at its sister site Fort Sumter. In addition, the view offered at Moultrie is the closest you can get to Fort Sumter without taking the ferry. It worked for the Confederate cannons; it can work for you.

TOTAL 46/80

Read Full Post »

Charleston Harbor, S.C.
Visited: October 19, 2005
NPS Site Visited: 264 of 353
NPS Website; Local Website

Many FlagsWHAT IS IT?
Federal defense fort located in the middle of Charleston Harbor. On April 12, 1861, Confederate troops deluged the Fort with artillery fire, captured the Union soldiers and officially began the American Civil War.

BEAUTY (7/10)
Fort Sumter is a pentagon-shaped redbrick fortification located at the narrowest entry point into Charleston Harbor. The Fort has been largely rebuilt since its major role in American History because non-stop shelling from 1861-65 destroyed its walls and interiors. The Fort, itself, is not particularly attractive especially when compared to the views it affords of the Harbor and old town Charleston.

This is where the Civil War began. Well, at least symbolically. Shortly after Abraham Lincoln’s election, in December of 1860, South Carolina became the first Southern state to secede from the Union. By March 1861, six more states had followed suit. Because they believed themselves to be a new country, the Confederates ordered Federal troops off the Forts within their boundaries.

Even though the American government refused to acknowledge this new nation, they still moved their troops out of most of these Forts. Fort Sumter and Fort Pickens (near Pensacola, Fla.) were the two exceptions. By April 12, three things had happened: 1) Lincoln took office; 2) the Federal troops ran out of supplies and 3) the fiery South Carolinians publicly demanded Sumter’s surrender.

When the Union Major Robert Anderson formally refused to leave, the siege began. Cannon fire rained onto the Fort and less than twelve hours later, Anderson surrendered and the War Between the States had begun. The Confederates held Fort Sumter under General Sherman captured Charleston in 1865.

We asked a Ranger, “How could the Rebels successfully defend Fort Sumter from 1863 to 1865 when the Union made easy work of the similar Fort Pulaski near Savannah.” She sheepishly replied, “Good question: Because they did not have to. Their successful blockade of Charleston Harbor made seizure of Fort Sumter unnecessary.” We added, “So why do the exhibits and the Ranger talks speak about the Fort as the last Confederate stronghold and a symbol of Southern resolve.” Her response was a smile; a spoken answer would have been too complicated.

CROWDS (3/10)
Every day, hundreds of people pile into the ferries that travel to Fort Sumter. The Civil War’s flash point is a major attraction in a major tourist town. The effect is an amusement park experience where most participants are unsure of what they are going to see! We actually overheard this on the ferryboat: “Who knew that historic stuff happened in Charleston?” Fort Sumter feels like a checkmark on the tourists’ Things to Do While Your Cruise Ship is Docked list rather than a pilgrimage to a near-sacred American history destination.

Escaping the Ranger TalkEASE OF USE/ACCESS (3/5)
We were approached by a very sunburned English man while walking the genteel streets of old town Charlestown. “Could you please point me towards Fort Sumter,” he asked. “You see that island Fort about five miles away?” Michael said while pointing, “That’s Fort Sumter.” “Oh,” he responded, “I am not making it today then, am I?”

Three ferries leave from Liberty Square/Aquarium throughout most of the year. Liberty Square borders the Cooper River, the Charleston peninsula’s eastern coast, and stands at the end of Calhoun Street. As for driving directions, look for signs to the Aquarium.

Charleston peninsula is all narrow one-way streets and few long-term non-parking garage options. We walked from our hotel. Most of the other visitors had walked from their cruise ship docked nearby.

A far more accessible ferry leaves from Patriot’s Point in Mount Pleasant. Patriot’s Point has ample free parking and only slightly less frequent service. Three boats leave during the summer, two during spring and fall and one during winter.

Civil War bookstores set a high standard because most overflow with hundreds of obscure tomes and kitschy knickknacks. Fort Sumter does not live up to this difficult scrutiny. You are not going to find a long lost Civil War text here. A few books, however, did catch our eye, including Dr. Seuss Goes to War, an eye-opening book that recounts the children’s book writer’s early career as an editorial cartoonist for The New Yorker magazine during World War II.

COSTS (1/5)
Fort Sumter stands in the middle of Charleston Harbor. You need to take a ferry. The boat’s 2005 rates were $13 per adult. If you take the Liberty Square ferry, you need to use a parking garage. Metered street parking is capped at two hours, the round trip to Fort Sumter lasts for two hours and 15 minutes. Coincidence?

The ferryboats dropped at least 100 fellow tourists and us off on the Island for one hour. During that period, one Ranger gave a 30-minute talk about the Fort. Once his talk finished, another Ranger appeared to answer questions and the lecturer disappeared.

For much of our visit, we fruitlessly tried to corner one of the Rangers. We had questions but so did countless other patrons. We were not able to isolate a Ranger until five minutes before departure. We left disappointed and wishing for more staffing at this highly visited marquee historic attraction.

Useless CannonsTOURS/CLASSES (4/10)
The Fort Sumter Ranger talk and ferry boat narration are an elementary-school level Civil War refresher course. The teaching is aimed at the lowest common denominator; understandable when you see thousands of tour boat travelers every day but disappointing for history nerds like us. The good news is that the Rangers really know their stuff. The bad news is that you might have trouble getting you questions answered given the large crowds.

We enjoyed the Park’s two Museums, especially the one located in Liberty Square. The Liberty Square Museum approaches the events leading up to the events of April 1861, the South Carolinian mess of human rights, property rights and states rights. In another word: slavery. Be sure to take the time to read its intelligent but carefully worded displays, especially the Ambiguities of the Constitution exhibit.

Most tourists seemed to skip the Museum altogether on their way from the ticket booth to the ferry queue. Do not be that person. The Museum provides a terrific and in-depth intro to the Civil War. Do not rely on the inane canned historical nuggets provided over the ferryboat’s antiquated audio system. The second Museum, located on Fort Sumter, examines the Fort’s role during the War.

FUN (5/10)
Island Park sites are difficult. Ferryboat rides are expensive and your time is always limited. We tend to spend multiple hours at forts and battlefields between the museums and Ranger talks. Fort Sumter does not allow you to learn at your own pace. Our visit felt very rushed. One hour was not enough. However, the one-hour Harbor cruise was nice; Charleston, S.C. is one of America’s most beautiful old cities and the views from the water are spectacular.

We loved our time in Charleston and Fort Sumter is its most essential tourist attraction. Oddly, though, it was the low point of our visit to the Holy City. The trip was more obligatory than fun. Sumter’s best learning opportunities are found at the landlocked Museum and experienced without the ferry ride. Time spent on the fort is time not spent on the old town streets, at the boutique shops and in the terrific restaurants. So should you go? Er, uh, ah, um, probably yes.

TOTAL 40/80

Read Full Post »

Appomattox, Va.
Visited: October 11, 2005
NPS Site Visited: 257 of 353
NPS Website; Local Website

Loungin’ in 1865WHAT IS IT?
Rural Virginia town where, on April 9, 1865 Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to Union commander Ulysses S. Grant, ending the American Civil War.

BEAUTY (6/10)
The quaint village of Appomattox Court House remains locked in 1865, its buildings, roads, fields and trees. You see the town as Lee and Grant did.

The vivid natural colors are the only ineffective part of your time travel back to 1865. Our solution: take all your pictures in black and white. Then, and only then, will the setting match the photos taken at the time of the surrender.

Appomattox is one of American history’s most resonant names. It is one we memorize in history class, attach mythic-level importance to and lodge into our imagination. We see Lee and Grant on horseback, we see their forlorn faces, we visualize defeat and triumph, we know that it was here that they ended our bloodiest war.

Appomattox remains our place of closure. We flock to the reconstructed rural Virginia Court House village, we follow Lee’s retreat route, we know that Fort Sumter is where the War began, and Appomattox is where it ended. If only Reconstruction could have been so simple.

CROWDS (7/10)
More than a few other people were meandering their way back into 1865 and through the charming old village of Appomattox Court House. We half expected the diminutive U.S. Grant to appear.

The town of Appomattox is located at the point in Virginia furthest from an Interstate. Only twisty country roads lead here. It is not that the Site is far from anything, it is just not that close. Charlottesville and I-64 are 75 miles to the north via Virginia Route 20. Richmond and I-95 are about 90 miles to the east via U.S. Route 60 and Roanoke is about 75 miles west and over the Blue Ridge Mountains via U.S. Route 460. The nearest large town is Lynchburg, some 25 miles westward.

The Park site consists of a reconstructed 1865 historic village, which must be traversed on foot. The VC and the village buildings are about a ¼-mile uphill stroll from the parking lot.

Appomattox’s stellar Civil War bookstore takes up two rooms in Clover Hill Tavern kitchen, an original building built in 1819. Lee and Grant probably never stepped into this kitchen but they surely must have seen it and would probably be amazed and oddly flattered at the innumerable books that have been written about them.

While Michael browsed the shelves, Gab was transfixed for over fifteen minutes with So You Want to Be a Soldier: How to Get Started in Civil War Re-enacting. Has Michael created a monster? Probably not. Gab was just amazed with the elaborate costumes and historical proclivities of the so-called vivandieres, female companions of the legendary Zuoaves brigade.

COSTS (3/5)
Entry is $4 per person or a maximum of $10 per car. The fee is waived if you have the National Parks Pass.

We always appreciate when the Park Service posts additional Ranger in or around important buildings. Here, a Ranger stood inside the McLean House, site of the surrender, eager to answer questions. We talked for a good bit about the terms agreed upon in the surrender. Human interaction is so important in the give and take of learning and the knowledgeable educational Rangers are undoubtedly the Park System’s most prized jewel.

In addition to the excellent Ranger talk, we enjoyed the Museum exhibit that examined the accuracy of the paintings of the surrender and how they shaped our understanding of Lee and Grant. We also appreciated Appomattox’s many vignette-worthy anecdotes and the spectacular electric map. Robert E. Lee was surely no General Cornwallis.

Desk of SurrenderFUN (6/10)
To get to the Park Site, you need to walk up a short distance on an uphill dirt road from your car. The effect is to transport you back into time, into 1865. It works, but mainly because of the ace combination of original buildings and reconstructions.

The McLean House would probably have survived the 150 years had it not been a victim of its own fame. In 1893, speculators dismantled the building with hopes of rebuilding it in Washington D.C. as a Civil War museum. Their plan failed and the dismantled bricks and wood planks never left Appomattox. Weather eroded the building parts before they could be put back in place. The current version was finished in the 1940’s using the original blueprint and dozens of the surrender’s commemorative photos and paintings.

Appomattox is a must-see destination for any Civil War buff. For those uninterested, Appomattox will not spark any new desires. History notes that Grant suffered from a post-partum like depression after the surrender. The Civil War traveler might also feel a sad sense of closure at Appomattox. So, save your visit until you have seen all the Civil War sites, even those tiny State Park sites in Tennessee and Missouri. It is always best to delay the physical conclusion even if you know how the War ends.

TOTAL 52/80

Read Full Post »

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

Read Full Post »

Summersville, W.Va.
Visited: October 10, 2005
NPS Site Visited: 255 of 353
NPS Website

One of the world’s top ten most challenging white-water rivers.

Early Morning FearBEAUTY (8/10)
Uh, scenery? We barely had the time or the notion to look around and appreciate the gorgeous fall colors, the shimmering water surface, the churning rapids, steep waterfalls and school bus-sized rocks we were about to attack. Most of our Gauley River memories involve steely glares into the coming rapids, determined rowing and raging waters engulfing our persons. We had to wait until watching the video of our trip to see the beauty of our surroundings.

The Gauley NRA exists solely for a month’s worth of early fall whitewater rafting, or at least that is what we gathered. The Gauley River’s borders do not teem with remnants of coal mines, ghost towns and notions of the past. Heck, all those things are under the lake created by the Summersville Dam. Oddly, the Gauley was not a navigable whitewater river until AFTER the dam was built in 1966.

Unlike our trip on the nearby New River, our guide spared us history lessons and geography stories; we had more important things (Class V-VI rapids) to worry about. Maps show that the Gauley River borders the Carnifex Ferry Battlefield State Park, a Civil War fight. Who knew?

CROWDS (9/10)
The fall Gauley run brought a more practiced, younger crowd than most Appalachian whitewater runs. Our boat included a family of four and the eldest son’s two friends from Appalachian State. The parents and the App. State students had all run the Gauley, one by himself on a kayak! The family’s fourth member was a 17-year old girl. She had never been rafting before and was really scared; almost as scared as us.

The other boats consisted mostly of 20-35 year-olds hailing from all the surrounding states. The Gauley season also draws River guides from the entire United States. We overheard a few say that they would not miss this River for the world; it is just too fun. The amount of collective adrenalin among the Gauley boaters is astounding.

The Gauley River is located in south-central West Virginia, about an hour and a half drive southeast from Charleston. It is not the Gauley’s location that makes it inaccessible; in fact, it is a 4-7 hour drive from a host of major cities (Washington, D.C.; Pittsburgh, Pa.; Columbus and Cincinnati, Ohio; Lexington, Ky.; Asheville and Winston-Salem, N.C. and Richmond, Va.).

No, the Gauley’s diffidence comes from its short season and its eight Class V+ whitewater rapids. The rapids run because of a dam release. The Corps of Engineers release the water on a very limited basis: Sat.-Mon. from Labor Day through the third Saturday in October. The Class V+ rapids are especially prohibitive and should be attempted only by highly experienced kayakers or on a hired raft trip.

The NPS has no official Gauley NRA facilities. There is not even a Park brochure. The Corps of Engineers runs a VC at the Summersville Dam. We were too tired to drive there. The New River Gorge NR operates the excellent Sandstone VC and Museum, located where I-64 crosses the New, about 10 miles east of Beckley, W.Va. You can also get Gauley related info and books at the New River’s Canyon Rim VC.

The outfitter we chose, Appalachian Whitewater, has a terrific bookstore filled with T-shirts, souvenirs and myriad trip mementos. They also operate a base camp from where your trip departs. The camp includes a campground, overnight cabins, an on-site bar where you can watch the video of your trip, a pool, a free breakfast room, a hot tub for relaxation and a nice outdoor patio. In addition, their mid-trip lunch barbeque is terrific.

COSTS (1/5)
Running the Upper Gauley River ain’t cheap, generally costing about $140 per person. Check around for the best rate. We got lucky and found a 2-for-1 Monday special through the superb Appalachian Whitewater outfitter. There is a range of Gauley River rafting packages. Do your research.

If there are no NPS facilities, then there cannot be any NPS Rangers although the Sandstone VC Ranger was very nice. “You running the Gauley tomorrow? Ho, ho, ho that should be one heck of a ride.”

The whitewater outfitters standard boat carries eight. You can pay additional monies for a smaller boat and the resulting crazier ride.

We are alive and owe great thanks to our guide, Kevin. Before our trip started, he asked the boat what kind of run we wanted. We conferred and agreed that we wanted to go all out. Kevin obliged. Our boat flipped twice. The first time was the scariest. Kevin warned us that if we capsized in this Class V rapid, we might be underwater for 10 seconds or more. He was right.

After our untimely boat ejection, Kevin somehow mustered the strength to pull all eight of us out of the battering rapids and into the boat in record time. He then had the steadiness of mind to get us quickly back into active rowing position before the boat flipped again. We had faith in our guide to both save our lives and give us a ride so fun that our lives might need to be saved. A perilous but perfect combination.

FUN (9/10)
We could not help comparing our Gauley run to our New River whitewater trip. The Rivers are just a few miles apart, we used the same outfitter and they are our only two rafting experiences. Our conclusion:

Just because the Gauley was bigger, faster, scarier, more death defying, more insane, more non-stop with better food, better weather and done in cool wet suits does not necessarily make it more fun. We had an unbelievably spectacular time but we were also very sore and completely drained. Drained from adrenalin loss, intense concentration, life-sustaining paddling, fear and the absolute battering inflicted by the water. Was the New River more exciting? No, but it was more fun.

The Gauley is the ultimate eastern whitewater trip. Ultimate as in the last, as in the nth degree of anything you can do east of the Mississippi. It is not going to get any (insert superlative) than here. We can see how the Gauley is the most fun a skilled, serious whitewater enthusiast could ever have. However, for the neophyte here is definitely not the place to start. The Gauley is the extremest of the extremes. “What’s it like?” we asked our New River guide months ago. His response: “All I can say is gollllllly!”

TOTAL 50/80

Read Full Post »

Richmond, Va.
Visited: October 7, 2005
NPS Site Visited: 253 of 353
NPS Website; Local Website

Iron Works EntryWHAT IS IT?
Richmond served as the capital of the Confederate States of America during the Civil War. Battlefield sites scattered throughout the city’s outskirts commemorate the Union’s attempts to take the city in both 1862 and 1864. The Park also includes the Rebels’ primary armory and foundry, the Tredegar Iron Works and Chimborazo, a major Confederate military hospital.

BEAUTY (7/10)
Richmond’s indelible Civil War image is of charred and gutted brick buildings; a veritable ghost town destroyed by the flame. Amazingly, the Site plays on this imagery, utilizing the remains of the burned Iron Works to house the Richmond Civil War VC. The building’s brick walls, scarred from the 1865 blaze, still hold cannon balls and shells. The Iron Works’ forge lies in an eternal stage of destruction. Vaulted entrances to an outdoor park are, in fact, the remnants of the Iron Works’ interior. The use of a vital Civil War ruin as a working educational building is a stunning architectural triumph.

That being said, we can think of no fathomable reason as to why a statue of Abraham Lincoln stands nearby the VC’s entrance. Then again, the former Confederate states, from Virginia to Mississippi to Texas, now vote predominantly for Republicans, the political party of their conqueror, Mr. Lincoln. My, my, my how things have changed.

Richmond NBP’s numerous battlefield sites are wedged in between the sprawl of Virginia’s growing capital city. Some units (Malvern Hill) are more isolated than others (Beaver Creek Dam). The stately Chimborazo Medical Museum stands perched atop what must be Richmond’s highest point.

Richmond, Virginia is easily the most important city of the Civil War. It was the Confederates’ capital and the Federals’ primary military target. Not only was it the South’s brain, but also its power and muscle, producing its weapons and ammunition.

The casualties totaled in the area’s two major military campaigns, the 1862 Seven Days Battles and the 1864 Cold Harbor Battle, outnumber those lost at either Gettysburg or Antietam. Only the Fredericksburg area saw more bloodshed.

Gab and Abe – Both Out of PlaceCROWDS (6/10)
It is not that we had the Park site to ourselves, but Richmond NBP is so spread out. Traffic can be problematic because of vexing downtown one-way streets, meandering country roads that lead to nowhere, the screaming speeds of I-95 and people’s general tendency to tailgate.

The Richmond NBP is even more sprawling than the nearby Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania NMP. The Park’s northern-most display (Totopotomy Creek) is over 25 miles north of its southern-most exhibit (Parker’s Battery). A circuit traveling only to the Park’s five official Visitor Centers would encompass at least one full day and over 50 twisting miles. In addition, the Malvern Hill and Fort Harrison VC’s are only open seasonally.

Nonetheless, these sites are all within an accessible urban area, close to Interstates 64, 95 and 295 as well as a plethora of hotels. The two downtown VC’s, the Chimborazo Medical Museum and the Tredegar Iron Works both contain ample free public parking despite published reports to the contrary.

Although there are many signs leading you to the Park’s innumerable units and display, separate paths often cross. It would be a good idea to start your Richmond NBP with a Park Map, a AAA map of the Richmond vicinity, and a plan for where you want to go.

Who buys all these Civil War books? The Richmond NBP is indubitably the best Civil War bookstore… until we get to the next one.

Check out these obscure titles found at the Tredegar Iron Works bookstore: The Religious World of Civil War Soldiers; Civil War Acoustic Shadows; The Sacred Remains: American Attitudes Towards Death 1799-1883; Military Ballooning During the Early Civil War; Counterfeit Currency of the Confederate States of America; The Telegraph Goes to War and War of the Aeronauts. Now get this, those seven books stand next to each other, in a row, on the same shelf! Just imagine what is on the bookstore’s 50+ other shelves.

COSTS (5/5)
Entry to all Richmond NBP sites is free.

Gaines Mill BattlefiedRANGER/GUIDE TO TOURIST RATIO (5/5)
Sure, two of the Park’s five VC’s were closed for the season but enough Rangers and knowledgeable volunteers staffed the other three. We especially enjoyed the long military strategy discussion we had at the Cold Harbor Visitor Center. The Ranger was a Virginia Military Institute alum. Strangely, the Ranger the day before at the Stonewall Jackson Shrine graduated from Washington & Lee. What is it with Lexington, Va. and Park Rangers?

We love electric maps and Richmond NBP has a lot of them. The Cold Harbor VC runs two standard maps in its tiny Museum space, one covering the 1862 Seven Days’ Battle, the other discussing the events of 1864 and Cold Harbor. The Tredegar Iron Works takes it a step further with its table top, flat screen TV display electric maps that recount the specific battles of the Seven Days and lesser-known 1864 fights. So many maps, so little time.

Did we say that everything at the Tredegar Iron Works VC is really cool? The Museum is innovatively interactive and built within the Confederacy industrial heart. Two facing timeline displays follow Richmond and the United States as a whole throughout the war. We never would have guessed that the fleeing Confederates, not the Union troops, burned this fair city. All the Museum’s exhibits are fascinating and simple enough for the Civil War neophyte as well as probing and esoteric enough for the history buff.

The Chimborazo Museum focuses on the War’s medical history and is not for the squeamish. The flat screen TV’s make the grisly realities of war a little too intense. We never thought we would pine for a lower quality television and a poor sound system.

FUN (8/10)
Why does the Civil War still hold such a grasp on the American psyche. For one, it is a great story with great characters and great settings. Richmond was the center of it all. The Richmond NBP, especially the Tredegar Iron Works VC, does a good job of bringing these characters to life: incompetent McLellan, gallant Lee, irascible Early, vicious Grant, prideful Davis and complex Lincoln. That is just scratching the surface. You can flesh out any Civil War story you want in the Richmond area. It is your choice.

Barrel ViewWOULD WE RECOMMEND? (8/10)
All Americans should be interested in the Civil War. This history should not be forgotten or left as the dominion of battle reënactors and military strategists. A trip down the Virginia I-95 corridor, to Fredericksburg, Richmond and Petersburg is an essential American learning experience.

The Civil War attractions afforded by the Richmond NBP and found in the Richmond area (the Confederate White House, the Museum of the Confederacy, Monument Avenue) are among some of the most defining places in our United States. If your automobile vacation brings you past Richmond on I-95, stop into the Civil War Visitor Center at the Tredegar Iron Works. Did we mention it is free? The Museum provides a terrific introduction to the War and the area’s attractions. From there you can decide how much more you want to learn and see.

TOTAL 66/80

Read Full Post »

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

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »