Making battle plans

Making battle plans

Darlene P. Copp

From the French and Indian War to World War II, battles integral to our history as Americans are remembered in 32 national battlefield parks, the Civil War accounting for 17. The National Park Service provides excellent interpretation, but it can still be a challenge imagining long-ago military drama on a static battleground. Here are some tips for a meaningful visit:

* Immerse yourself. To review the who what, when, where, and why, especially in the larger parks, reserve a full day. Spend orientation time in the visitor center, but allow plenty of time for the battlefield itself. Making all 16 stops on the 18-mile driving tour of Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania easily soaks up three hours. At Manassas National Battlefield Park in Virginia, First Manassas requires walking a one-mile route, while a 13-mile driving tour covers Second Manassas. Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument in Montana also combines trails with roads to retrace the 1876 defeat of the U.S. Seventh Cavalry by Sioux and Cheyenne warriors.

* Follow a leader. While audiotapes for self-guided tours may be rented at many parks, at Gettysburg and Mississippi’s Vicksburg National Military Park, licensed guides recreate the battle in stirring detail, charging a per-vehicle fee for a two-hour tour. For Gettysburg guides, it’s first come, first served; for Vicksburg, ask when you arrive or call ahead. With advance notice, Antietam National Battlefield in Maryland can also arrange guide service. Ranger-led walking tours are offered free at some parks during peak visitor periods.

* Focus your attention. Even without studying the battle, you can carry away vivid impressions of the war. Zero in on tangible features of the terrain, such as Bloody Pond at Shiloh National Military Park in Tennessee, where wounded soldiers from both sides crawled to drink, many to die. Earthworks, artillery, and other relics of warfare might engage you. At Petersburg National Battlefield in Virginia, you can examine reconstructed earthen fortifications. Monuments certainly deserve notice. Reflection comes naturally at a memorial like the Kirkland Monument, depicting a Confederate soldier giving water to his wounded enemy, at the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania County battlefields in Virginia.

* Linger in the visitor center. Besides the battle itself, films and exhibits flesh out topics such as weapons, flags, camp life, medical care, military leaders, wartime casualties, and heroism. At Guilford Courthouse National Military Park in Greensboro, North Carolina, you can learn about military dress as modeled on life-like Revolutionary War soldiers or study a museum-quality weapons collection. Some parks provide visitors access to the computerized Civil War Soldiers system to trace wartime ancestors.

* Tap into living history programs. While portraying battles is not permitted within national parks, history re-enactors often set up weekend camps, conducting drills and demonstrations. At Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park near Atlanta, we learned about care of wounded Civil War soldiers from a medical-steward re-enactor. Rangers also schedule living-history programs at many parks, especially during the summer.

* Remember the dead. Hastily buried where they fell, thousands of Union soldiers were reinterred in national cemeteries months or years later, most in unidentified graves. These hushed places, many inside parks, can stir the imagination as much as the battlegrounds that created them. Go to to plan your battlefield visits.

COPYRIGHT 2004 World Publishing, Co. (Illinois)

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group