BATTLEFIELDS OF VIRGINIA
I became interested in the civil war during my many working trips to the USA. I then joined the local 4th Texans as an interested member but not a re-enactor and with them to ACWS, my particular heroes being General Beauregard, Jeff Davis and General Hood. In the past I have visited other sites associated with the Civil War but none in Virginia. This is a record of my thought on each site during the visit. Most sites are open, dawn to dusk, with good information centres staffed by real enthusiasts who have their own views on each battle and/or the personalities involved. For hire there are audio tour tapes for most major battles. The tour was taken in the order which allowed me to spend the maximum time on the sites.
I started where it all began in Manassas. The first battle was confined to a small area that can easily be walked, centred on Henry Hill (1-mile trip), but for the second battle you need to use the car. There is a fine statue of General Jackson. Whilst reflecting on the Stone bridge I noticed in the water many rather huge snakes.
On now to Fredericksburg. The first stop was to Jackson's shrine and what a bit of luck as it was 138 years to the day that Jackson died, people were bringing lemons to the shrine all day and a special ceremony organised by the local enthusiasts. The clock in the shrine is not right being set to 1863 time. I visited the five main sites, Wilderness, Chancellorsville, Spotsylvania, Chatham House (General Burnside's headquarters) and Fredericksburg itself. At Spotsylvania I found visiting the Bloody Angle very informative. The town of Fredericksburg, on both sides of the river, is in very nice surroundings. It is obvious when standing on Marye's Heights how easy it must have been to slaughter the Union troops attacking up the slope. it was also moving to be where our great General Jackson fell at Chancellorsville. I found myself thinking back a few years to when I stood on the spot where our other great General Johnson died in the battle at Shiloh. I wondered what would have happened if only these two had not fallen. No visit would be complete without a visit to Elwood where in the very small cemetery General Jackson's arm is buried.
Next north to Gettysburg. There are well over 1000 monuments here but by far the most impressive is that of General Lee which faces across the Pickets charge battlefield to that of General Meade. I met two people trying to find the exact spot where a close relative had been killed. One was during Pickets charge, the other during Chamberlain's defence at Little round Top. The detail that he had of the Little Round Top right down to the smallest boulder amazed me. I myself stood where General Lee addressed his retreating troops and tried to retrace the movements of General Hood during Pickets charge and General Armistead at the angle. You could easily spend a week in Gettysburg. Finally I had to visit the spot in the cemetery where President Lincoln gave his famous address.
The next stop Harpers Ferry I reached early in the morning and what a beautiful location it is on the junction of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers. I tried to imagine what it was like during John Grown's epic visit to the town. I did not have time to go to Maryland Heights but did walk the Bolivar Heights (in the footsteps of Lincoln and Jackson).
I was keen to visit Winchester since this town changed hands so often. I headed for Stonewall Jackson's headquarters where an elderly enthusiast showed me round. He was so interesting to talk to and was amazingly knowledgeable on anything even remotely associated with General Jackson.
The next site visited was Antietam, which was the best-kept battlefield of them all. In the visitor centre they show a good film of the battle made by some excellent re-enactors. the impression given to me was that many raw soldiers were used in this battle and that there was much confusion and misunderstanding. I stood and reflected in the Sunken Road (Bloody Lane) and also could easily see why the small number of Georgia riflemen could stop General Burnside from crossing the bridge now named after him.
During a few days spent sightseeing in West Virginia I was asked what I was doing in the USA. I replied to find out more about the Civil War and was abruptly corrected, you mean the War of Northern Aggression. As I have found before on previous visits to the South (Stone Mountain near Atlanta for instance) people still have very strong views on the Civil War.
Next it was on to Appomattox Courthouse. The ranger who showed me round the McClean House told me that her husband was a 4th Texan. The coy of the famous picture of the surrender signing, that hangs in the courthouse, is amended to exclude General Custer because he was not present during the signing. There was a soldier on duty that I was told would only talk as if it was April 1865. At the end of our conversation he said when you get home give my regards to Prince Albert, I thought that the Prince died in 1861.
From here I followed in reverse the well signed route called Lee's Retreat, to Petersburg. At Five Forks I met a ranger who was a cavalry re-enactor and he had all his own personal gear on show (hardtack, guns the lot). He shared my view that if General Beauregard had been given more responsibility and freedom of action then the South would have been much harder to beat. He thought because of person dislike, as well as not being a Virginian and being part French that Davis would not give General Beauregard that responsibility and freedom. He even thought that Beauregard was a better general than Jackson.
The battlefield area to the south of Petersburg was not very well looked after and sign posted. In the Northern sector it is very interesting to see the remains of the Crater and the associated tunnels. With more support, thought and organisation this idea I believe could have succeeded. At City Point one can get the impression of how enormous a stores area this must have been and how good a commander General Grant must have appeared to live in such a small cabin, he actually wanted to stay in a tent.
Our last main site visit was to Richmond where a drive or 80 miles is required to see all the battlefields. We started from Parker's Battery and Drewry's Bluff. Beauregard had an easy task from the Bluff to stop any Union boats from getting to Richmond. There is still an original 9000 pounder on the site. I failed to find where Beauregard's headquarters were located, this is not part of the Battlefield Park but in the middle of a new housing estate. The new visitor centre for the Richmond battlefield is now located in the Tredegar Iron Works. At Gaines Mill where General Hood was prominent in the battle one Confederate said that it was the strongest position that he had to attack during the whole war and you can see why. Similarly at Malvern Hill, you can see why one Union soldier described it as sheer murder. I looked down the barrel of one of the cannons on the site and a Bluebird flew past my ear as there was a nest with 4/5 Bluebirds eggs just inside the barrel. At Fort Harrison I stood where General Grant was nearly killed and finally ended my tour at Fort Brady, the Union's position which prevented Confederate boats from coming out of Richmond.
Next day we went back into Richmond to firstly see the magnificent statues of Lee, Davis, Stuart and Jackson in Monument Avenue and General lee's statue in the Capitol Building. Secondly to visit the Confederate Museum and the White House of the Confederacy. I was disappointed with how they have only restored part of the house and allowed it to be dwarfed by the buildings close by.
On our way to Baltimore airport we briefly saw the confederate defences around Jamestown/Yorktown and the Union Arsenal in Fort McHenry in Baltimore. The fort also housed a Confederate prison. I was interested to discover that the commander of the fort in the 1814 battle with the British was Colonel Armistead a close relative of General Armistead of Pickets charge fame. Whilst watching the 1814 battle in detention from a ship in the harbour Francis Scott Keyes wrote the words of the Star Spangles Banner.
The lasting impression of this tour is the total stupidity of so many attacks which seeing the battleground had NO chance of success and the very real emotion shown by those walking the ground where their close relatives were killed.
If anyone is planning a visit to the battlefields and I can be of any help just E-mail me at email@example.com
The above article appeared in the ACWS Newsletter, August 2001