You Must Walk the Battlefield to Understand the Battlefield

Craig here.

XBrad brought a post over at This ain’t Hell to my attention.  The post is right in my wheel-house – touring Civil War battlefields.  The author, Zero Ponsdorf, noted two stops in particular:

Gettysburg: Standing on Little Round Top looking down into The Devil’s Den… Surprising! Pictures and maps do NOT make clear the proximity.

Antietam: Looking down at Burnside’s Bridge from the position of the Confederates… Shocking.

I agree.  I’ve visited both locations countless times.  I always step away in awe of what brave men on both sides did in those battles.

As said in the post, the camera just can’t give you that same sense of proximity at the Devils Den.  Even with the zoom on.

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Zoom In on the Devils Den

This is musket range, perhaps a bit on the high-end, for the time.  This view also points out the declination between the two points of ground.  Federal cannoneers on Little Round Top had a tough time depressing the tubes to bear on the Confederates advancing up Little Round Top.

To the side of the location where this photo was taken stand four Parrott rifles representing Charles Hazlett’s Battery D, 5th US Artillery.  Guns like those could, and did, make life difficult for the Confederates.  The Parrotts could range well beyond the Devils Den to the farm houses beyond.

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View from Hazlett's Guns

So in one view, you might appreciate at once the compactness and the depth of a Civil War battlefield.  And, by the way, Hazlett was among the many Federals who died in the defense of Little Round Top.

Heading over to Antietam.  Walking across Burnside’s Bridge, you are walking the footsteps of those who fought in the battle.

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View from Burnside's Bridge

Some time back, I wrote at great length about the military particulars of the Burnside Bridge crossing.  I really need to update that post with links and map depictions of the referenced movements.  But long story short, the passage over this bridge might seem ill-advised, but military necessity required the crossing.  There are certainly things the commander could have done better. But regardless, this bridge had to be taken.  Because we can indeed walk in their footsteps we can better consider how the men tasked with the crossing accomplished the feat.

My intent here is not to show off photos from my battlefield stompings, rather to point out some of the lessons one might learn walking the ground.  Congressional acts set aside both Antietam and Gettysburg as “national military parks” in the 1890s.  In part, those acts created memorials to the veterans who fought in America’s Civil War.  But the acts also expressly aimed to create “classrooms” for the nation’s military to study the great battles.  Some might argue those classrooms are obsolete in the days of high technology and asymmetrical warfare.

Then again, these old classrooms might have a few more lessons to offer.

6 thoughts on “You Must Walk the Battlefield to Understand the Battlefield”

  1. Years ago, I was walking Manassas with two of my grandsons. We had done the obligatory session of listening to the recording of how the battle was fought, and watched as the lights on the diorama indicated troop movement. We came around a corner when my eight year old grandson pointed and shouted “Look Grandpa, there stands General Jackson, like a stone wall!”

    You cannot discount the value that the battlefields have as history lessons. Everybody should tour at least one (and then they will be hooked and tour many). There have not been many wars fought on our soil, but these battlefields help people understand the horror of war, and why we should only send troops to war as a last resort.

  2. I love walking the actual ground. It brings history to life in a way you can’t begin to get from the written page, or a lecture. Something as simple as the site of the Old North Bridge, or driving the whole trail from Boston through Lexington and Concord. At Normandy, I sprinted from the low-tide line up to the top of the bluffs and was utterly smoked. Without gear. Without being soaking wet. And no machine guns firing at me. Can’t imagine doing it for real.

  3. Most definitely. Nothing clarifies the fight at Barlow’s Knoll in Gettysburg quite like standing there. The horror of the 82nd Airborne’s fight at the La Fiere causeway 67 years ago becomes clear when you stand on the causeway and sense the shooting gallery they advanced across. Similarly, I don’t think I’ll fully grasp the the Marines fight at the Chosin Reservoir or in the Battle of Nasiriyah until I stand that ground as well. These places speak for the fallen and teach us many lessons about tactics, about strategy, about the horrible cost of war and the consequences of failing to prepare for it.

  4. One of the reasons I’m so heavily involved with battlefield preservation (Civil War mostly, but I have worked on RevWar sites too) are the points brought forth here. I certainly don’t wish to take away anything from those who consider the battlefields in a memorial sense, though.

    Speaking to a eminent British historian some time back, he considered our American battlefields “sanitized” compared to European fields. Pressed, he elaborated that we Americans tend to block off large tracks of land for even the battles of lesser importance. I found that a shocking assessment when considering say Chantilly, or Franklin, or the Atlanta battlefields. On the other hand, we have grounds like Valley Forge, where no battle took place, but which still hold significant historical and memorial importance.

  5. When a German general Staff Officer was in training they would visit and walk various battlefields while discussing troop movements and the problems faced by those troops. The Germans produced what was, at the time of WW2, the most proficient Army the world had ever seen. Wedemeyer went through that course and had nothing but praise for it.

    You will never convince me that walking old battlefields is a waste of time for soem one wanting to study war. Particularly so for the soldiers that will direct battle in the future. The principles of warfare have not chnaged, even if the extent of the battlefield has expanded enormously.

  6. As you intimate, there is more than the tactics, however engaging, on the Civil War battlefields.

    I once had the incredible opportunity to walk to the sunken road, “Bloody Lane”, at Antietam on a warm, humid mid-September morning. Looking into the haze, one could almost see the green banner of Meagher’s Irishmen, advancing, advancing, as the men in butternut stood fast, pouring fire into them. And then, once gaining the road, the Federals returning the favor into the crowded roadway. I was then and am still in awe of the massive doses of courage present on both sides to engage for so long in the furious pounding of close-range musket fire.

    I remember the emotion of reverent admiration I felt, and dropping to one knee, with tears streaming down my face. All by myself, in the middle of the field. Surrounded by the spirits of courageous men.

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