Last week and early this week I had the pleasure of taking a Civil War Battlefield tour with Dr. Tom Murphy, Dr. Watson Arnold and Mac Arnold. It was a great trip with a focus on the Shenandoah Valley with a final day at the Antietam NBP.
The first day we spent “down” the Valley in Winchester, Kernstown and Cedar Creek. One thing you learn on a trip to the Shenandoah Valley is that “down” is North and “Up” is South. It is very confusing until you realize that the Shenandoah River flows from South to North. Highlights of the day were downtown Winchester, the Kernstown Battlefield and the Cedar Creek NBP. At Kernstown we had an excellent guide and he gave a great explanation of how First Kernstown, Second Kernstown and Second Winchester all took place on the same field. At Cedar Creek we took advantage of the audio App. This is a very large battlefield going over 6 miles from North to South which gives one some idea of the physical endurance of the Civil War soldiers.
The second day we spent at New Market Battlefield and at Cross Keys and Port Republic. The New Market Battlefield is owned by VMI. It is well preserved. Tom Murphy and I walked the Battlefield which is highly recommended. Of particular interest is the “Field of Lost Shoes” where the VMI Cadets were included in a charge on a Union line. The charge was instrumental in the Confederate victory.
Here is the advantage of walking a battlefield. How was the charge against a battery of canons firing canister successful? The answer is that the “field of lost shoes” is in a depression that protected the attackers until they were about 100 yards from the canons. By the time the Cadets reached the crest of the depression the Union gunners did not have a chance to reload. In short order, they were on top of the guns.
Day three was spent in Lexington. Washington and Lee and VMI are just as impressive as I had hoped. We also had a fine tour of the only house that Stonewall Jackson had ever owned.
Day four was spent at Antietam. In my mind, this is one of the “must sees” of Civil War sights. Of course, the battle was the bloodiest single day in American military history. But the Battlefield park is excellent. Everything from the movie at the Visitor’s Center to the driving tour is clear, informative and educational.
Two take-aways for me. One is that my wife’s Great Grandfather was wounded at Antietam and we were able to trace the path of his unit. Two is that being on the battlefield provides many “Eureka” moments. My favorite is that the terrain dictates how the “Sunken Road” went from a perfect Condederate defensive position to “Bloody Lane.” There is a hill on the left of the Sunken Road and once the Union troops made it to the top of the hill, they had a perfect line of fire down the entire Confederate line.
Bottom line is that the best way to understand a battle is to walk the field. We are very fortunate to have the National Park Service and battlefield preservation groups like the Civil War Trust that work to give us this opportunity.