Saving Our History
“I didn’t understand, until I was actually there.”
"Being here makes things so much clearer."
The above comments or ones similar to these have been uttered many times by visitors to America’s Civil War battlefields. Reading books, studying accounts, viewing images, and listening to lectures are excellent ways to learn about Civil War battles, however, it is difficult to fully understand these historic events without actually visiting the ground where they took place. This is why battlefields are our greatest resource and preservation of these battlefields is integral to providing everyone with the best education.
Why didn’t they just cross the river on foot or swim? Why didn’t they jump over the ditch? Why didn’t they shoot the guys in front of them with cannons and cross the bridge? These are all understandable questions to ask when one has not seen the actual ground where the battle took place. Upon seeing these ditches, creeks, the rise of the land, and the undulating subtleties of the “open” fields a whole new perspective is acquired.
Even with a detailed description it can be difficult to appreciate the irrigation ditch that gave so many soldiers trouble at the Slaughter Pen Farm in Fredericksburg. However, upon visiting the battlefield, it is easy to see the perils associated with this ditch and how truly terrifying it would have been to the soldiers on that December day. And, while one could watch a video of a historian running up the hill in front of Burnside’s infamous bridge, the steep incline and view from the top is something one cannot really appreciate until they themselves stand at the top of it. From these perspectives, a better understanding is acquired of how and why the battles unfolded as they did, along with a new point of view with which to evaluate the actions of those involved.
In addition to the understanding gained by experiencing the physical qualities of a battlefield, the battlefield provides an emotional connection for many visitors. At these battlefields men and women served, many laying down their lives.
It is an incredible experience to stand on Little Round Top at Gettysburg on a summer evening and look out onto the same view the soldiers would have had, imagining their fear, exhaustion, and excitement. It is an equally amazing experience to drive through Antietam each December to view the lit luminaries, one for every casualty of the battle. A moment of reflection among the flat rocks at Stones River, or a chance to touch a cannon ball still embedded in the side of Fort Sumter – these are moments that cannot be found, except in these places.
Civil War battlefields provide us a place to study, reflect, and connect with the past. We are a better society if we study the past; understanding the point of view of our ancestors, and seeing a bigger picture when we are put into similar situations.