From Battlefield to Park
While I was in the east I visited Civil War battlefields near Richmond, Chancellorsville, The Wilderness and Antietam. I am drawn to these places in part because I was a soldier and in part by fascination with history. I first visited the battlefields around Richmond in the 70's when I wanted solitude and a short drive. I went for the for solitude but spent much of my time there reflecting on what happened on those battlefields and comparing my own combat experience. Despite the terrible violence those places endured, they are now at peace. I find comfort and hope in that transition.
On this trip I found history at all three battlefields, solitude at Richmond, commercial development around Chancellorsville and The Wilderness, and complete restoration at Antietam. And at each place I could not escape the scale of the fighting and was eternally thankful that my experience was nothing like the meat-grinder slaughter of the Civil War.
Greg Moser and I went out to Fort Harrison and Malvern Hill south of Richmond on a cloudy drizzly day. Originally part of the Confederate defenses around the capitol, Fort Harrison fell to Union forces in September 1864. Walking the interior of the fort amid the remains of earthen walls and artillery positions looking into the woods that have filled in their fields of fire in the past century-and-a-half seemed claustrophobic in the muted afternoon light. Malvern Hill was much more open--deadly open to the Confederate troops that charged into well-placed Union artillery on the high ground in what was the last of the the Seven Days Battles in 1862. Looking down the barrel of a Union cannon into an open field of charging Confederates was a stark reminder of war's grim efficiency.
My visit to Chancellorsville and The Wilderness was mostly a drive-thru on my way to Elizabeth Furnace. I stopped at the Chancellorsville visitor center on Virginia Route 3. Traffic all the way out from Fredericksburg was heavy through a sea of big box and strip mall development. I was happy to turn into the calm of the visitor center for a lunch break. Since I was short on time I palnned to get out and walk at The Wilderness but missed the turn-off and did not backtrack. What the visit demonstrated to me was the extent to which Virginia was contested land. Chancellorsville happened in 1863 and is regarded as Lee's greatest victory. The Wilderness was a year later and was the beginning of the end for the Confederacy. I saw the same cycle in Richmond where Confederate victories early in the war were matched with defeats in subsequent years.
Antietam National Battlefield in Maryland is not a place to find solitude. Lots of people were there on a Friday afternoon in June when I visited on my way north out of Virginia . Pat Doyle came over from Frederick, Maryland and joined me for the visit. While waiting for him I attended an orientation. The walls on three sides of the room were floor to ceiling windows that offered a view of virtually the entire battlefield. The view added to what was a well-informed and lively presentation by a young ranger. He knew the history of the battle and the larger campaign, what the commanders where thinking and trying to accomplish, and what happened when those plans collided. In that room, the ranger could walk from side to side, point and say this happened there, that occurred over there and explain the errors and plain good luck that happened throughout the battle. And we could see the places he was talking about. The orieintaion offered a good understanding of events that gave meaning to the detail we would later see throughout the battlefield.
Our tour was mostly by car but we were out and walking at various sites. The day was sunny and hot, unlike the day of the battle which is reported as cloudy and dreary. Our conversations varied, much of the time we spent visualizing a very different landscape than the one we were viewing. Instead of the few odd tourists at pull-outs, thousands of men contended here in desperate combat. The Antietam battlefield has been restored to its condition on September 17, 1862 so the landscape we viewed was as it appeared on the morning of the battle. All very peaceful, very neat. Not at all how it appeared that evening, strewn with the carnage of America's bloodiest day. These days the landscape is strewn with monuments and memorials to the units that fought here. I saw many for units from my family's native state, Pennsylvania. Often Confederate and Union memorials were on either side of a road marking what had been the epicenter of one part of the battle. One notable memorial is for Clara Barton who tended casualties here.
We finished up at Antietam National Cemetary. Union battle dead are buried here in honored glory along with a few interments from later wars. The centerpiece statue has what appears to be a correction or maybe repair: a white stone insert that adds the numbers 6 and 2 to the date of the battle. By the time we returned to the visitor center it was closed and most everyone was gone. The day's heat was beginning to break and the light had softened. Good news for me as I headed west to Cumberland, Maryland.
A visit to a battlefield park is a sobering experience for me. Sure it's a park--peaceful, orderly, usually interesting, often quiet, generations removed from the day of battle. But the place is infused with the presence of men who fought and died in that place. Their presence comes with every visualization and remembrance of the event. Lincoln's words at Gettysburg apply here, too: the soldiers have consecrated these places.