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Visiting National Battlefields and Forts

by Grant
National Battlefields and Forts

I didn’t start out this week looking to write this blog post. But, with the debate over Confederate memorials front and center in the news, it is time to talk about visiting national battlefields and forts.

Since we started visiting parks in 2009, we have visited 23 battlefields and 11 different forts. These span from colonial Spain (San Juan National Historic Site and Gulf Islands National Seashore) to World War II (Gulf Islands National Seashore, again, and Tuskegee National Historic site). We have even visited where “the shot round the world” was fired at Minuteman National Historical Park and Minuteman Missile National Historic Site, where the world breathed a collective sigh of relief when no shots were fired.

Battery 234 was a coastal artillery emplacement during World War II designed to protect Pensacola Bay from attack.
Battery 234 was a coastal artillery emplacement during World War II designed to protect Pensacola Bay from attack.

The vast majority of the sites we have visited, however, have been Civil War battlefields. Our closest national park is Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park. The first trip in the camper was to Chattanooga, where we visited Chattanooga and Chickamauga National Military Park. Our most recent national park visit was to Shiloh National Military Park.

So, let’s talk about what it is to visit a national battlefield or fort.

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Visiting a Fort

There are several types of forts in the US. The majority on the East Coast are coastal defense forts erected after the War of 1812. These forts are designed to defend our harbors from coastal attack. Some, like Fort Jefferson in Dry Tortugas, were built after the Civil War.

The Castillio San Cristobal provided impressive fortifications for Old San Juan when it was a Spanish Colony.
The Castillio San Cristobal provided impressive fortifications for Old San Juan when it was a Spanish Colony.

All of these forts are pretty much the same in terms of architecture, but each of them has a unique story. Union forces quickly destroyed Fort Pulaski, near Savannah, during the Civil War with artillery. Fort Barancas in Gulf Islands National Seashore stayed intact through the war. 

Fort Pulaski National Monument is a Civil War-era fort located outside Savannah.
Fort Pulaski National Monument is a Civil War-era fort located outside Savannah.

Heading out west, Fort Larned and Fort Laramie held Army outposts on the frontier with wooden buildings as opposed to hardened fortifications. That’s not to say there isn’t plenty of history to see, like the home of the Buffalo Soldiers at Fort Larned.

Bent’s Old Fort and Fort Union Trading Post are a bit unique. The government didn’t build them. Trading companies built these forts to allow for trade with the Native American tribes.

When visiting a fort, be sure to wear sturdy shoes. A lot of the forts have very tight stairs and plenty of rocks and uneven ground. Ranger tours and demonstrations are always cool, so check in with the visitor center for a schedule. Also, many forts will have living historians who explain what life was like when the fort was active.

Visiting a Battlefield

With few exceptions, national battlefields are not incredibly scenic. Most have large open fields and only a few vistas. Some have hiking trails, but, for most, the way to see the battlefield is by driving or biking the tour road.

Nearly 8,000 soldiers died at the Cornfield at Antietam.
Nearly 8,000 soldiers died at the Cornfield at Antietam.

The National Park Service does a very good job of making the driving tours informative, but understand what you will see: a lot of open fields. Depending on the battlefield, you might find stone memorials or grave markers.

Little Bighorn and the Battle Road running between Lexington and Concord have grave markers. I was particularly gratified to see markers for those who fell on both sides of the battle.

I particularly like the fact that both sides' losses are memorialized at Minuteman NHP and many other NPS sites.
I particularly like the fact that both sides’ losses are memorialized at Minuteman NHP and many other NPS sites.

Your first stop for any battlefield should be the visitor center. You will find informative displays, relics from the battle and, typically, a movie to explain what happened in the battle. You will also find rangers who can show you the best way to visit the park and let you know of the ranger-led activities.

Most battlefields will have an informative movie. I find a good movie will explain a lot about the battle and the surrounding events leading up to it.

This was particularly helpful for Horseshoe Bend National Military Park in Alabama, which preserves the final battle of the Creek War. Before visiting the battlefield, I had never heard of the war, much less the battle.

This bend in the river was the site of the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, the major battle of the Creek War around the same time as the War of 1812.
This bend in the river was the site of the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, the major battle of the Creek War around the same time as the War of 1812.

Some battlefields have good hiking trails as well. We particularly enjoyed hiking the field at Saratoga National Historical Park, which is the site of the first big victory of the Revolutionary War. Be sure you check in with the rangers, however. The trail we hiked at Pea Ridge National Military Park was chock full of ticks.

Civil War Battlefields

All battlefields contain some monuments and informational placards. In the larger battlefields, especially in the east, stone monuments litter nearly every inch of open space. Indeed, at Gettysburg, it seems as though there is a monument behind every blade of grass.

The monuments honor the individual units which fought and died during the battles. There are monuments to many of the officers who died during the battle, as well as monuments commemorating the efforts by the states to the battle.

General Buford commanded the Union cavalry at Gettysburg. It was his decisive action to hold against a force three times his size which allowed time for Union troops to occupy the high ground around Gettysburg. The cannon in the foreground fired the first shot of the battle.
General Buford commanded the Union cavalry at Gettysburg. It was his decisive action to hold against a force three times his size which allowed time for Union troops to occupy the high ground around Gettysburg. The cannon in the foreground fired the first shot of the battle.

Gettysburg has so many monuments, many regard it as one of the largest collections of outdoor sculpture in the world. There are more than 1,300 monuments, markers and memorials at Gettysburg. The vast majority of those monuments were erected between 1880 and 1920.

With the recent controversy over Confederate monuments, it is important to note, just like Little Bighorn and the Battle Road, that we represent and memorialize both sides. I do not defend the “why” of the Civil War. But, please understand, many of those soldiers did not fight for the “cause.” They fought because they were drafted. They fought because their neighbors went to war. They fought for each other.

This monument, with Robert E. Lee seated on his horse, overlooks the field of Pickett's Charge.
This monument, with Robert E. Lee seated on his horse, overlooks the field of Pickett’s Charge.

As a veteran, I am a firm believer in honoring those who fought, regardless of the side they fought on.  And there is no better place to honor them than the fields where they fought and died.

A Final Note on Visiting National Battlefields and Forts

Since Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park is our closest park, it is probably wise to talk about etiquette.

Locals use Kennesaw Mountain NBP more for urban recreation than battlefield preservation these days. While the National Park Service does an excellent job preserving areas in the park for historic reasons, there is an ongoing conflict between rangers trying to preserve and locals looking for recreation. Indeed, there are several signs asking for folks not to play ball or sunbathe in various fields.

When you are visiting a battlefield, remember it is there to preserve where brave men died. Please follow the signs and treat the park with the appropriate respect.

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Our guide for visiting our national battlefields and forts: what to expect, how to make the most out of your visit and paying respect to all who fought.
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