Most people (read: tourists) tend to stay on the marked paths, follow the pre-programmed audio tours, or drive by, stop, read the signage, and move on. Want to have some fun? Seek out someone who knows the field (the NPS can most certainly arrange something for you) and ask to go off the beaten path. Seek out the rarely seen, the unusual, the forgotten. Visit the field during off hours or during the non-tourist seasons. I’ve done this all of these things myself and I have had quite the time. I have had the Shiloh and Perryville battlefields to myself, I have been to places at Gettysburg that only experts on the battle could ever hope to find. Do it. It will be worth the extra effort. And if all else fails, you can just stand by a cannon and point. This has been a battlefield tradition for over a century.
Now friends, before you let me have it for saying such a thing about America’s favorite storyteller, let me just make my case.
I have read nearly everything that Mr. Foote ever wrote. His novels are delightful and well written, particularly Shiloh. And his so-called history, The Civil War: A Narrative is equally well executed. But that’s just it –as the title suggests, The Civil War is a narrative – fine. But in terms of rigorous primary research and pointed analysis his magnum opus falls a little short.
If anything, The Civil War represents a synthesis of the secondary materials that Foote undoubtedly collected in his study over the years. What is really troubling about this work is his somewhat casual use of the contemporary (of the Civil War era) speaking voice. It seems that some of the primary evidence used to narrate the war existed only in the mind of Foote himself.
So, when he described the carnage of Cold Harbor, to use a very famous example, by quoting a young diarist who wrote his last words on the battlefield: “I am killed,” he simply duped his readers. I sure wish that that diary really existed – I could not imagine a more evocative entry in the diary of a mortally wounded soldier on the battlefield than this. But the diary has never surfaced.
Shelby Foote was a wonderful novelist. And his folksy wisdom added charm to Ken Burns’s 1990 documentary, The Civil War. You know, I would have loved to have met him on a battlefield to hear him speak in all his anecdotal glory. I am not sure I would have believed anything he said as he stood, telling tales, smoking his pipe and drawing a circle in the dirt with his foot. I would have had a good time though. I can’t think of a better storyteller.
Skimming lightly, wheeling still, The swallows fly low Over the field in clouded days, The forest-field of Shiloh— Over the field where April rain Solaced the parched ones stretched in pain Through the pause of night That followed the Sunday fight Around the church of Shiloh— The church so lone, the log-built one, That echoed to many a parting groan And natural prayer Of dying foemen mingled there— Foemen at morn, but friends at eve— Fame or country least their care: (What like a bullet can undeceive!) But now they lie low, While over them the swallows skim, And all is hushed at Shiloh.
I will never miss a chance to go to Gettysburg. I love it there…I really do. And here’s why: for a historian who focuses on Civil War memory, Gettysburg is sort of like a remembrance epicenter. Veterans of the war certainly saw it that way – in the decades following the war, they flocked there to walk in their 1863 footsteps, hold reunions, dedicate monuments, and commemorate their respective causes.
Former soldiers from both sides emphasized the “turning point” theme – a problematic issue to be sure, but one that they seemed eager to employ in speeches and monument dedications. The overwhelming number of monuments on the field today were dedicated by Union veterans. Reading through the thousands of monument inscriptions leaves one with little doubt that the preservation of Union was paramount. For those who wish to peel back a few layers of Civil War memory, there are many speech transcriptions available in the Gettysburg archives (and elsewhere) that accent emancipation – a cause veterans celebrated with often equal importance.
If you are lucky, you can make the time here to walk out on the battlefield when all the tourists have gone back to their hotels for the evening. I once managed to find myself all alone on the Union line (at the Pennsylvania monument) shortly after the sun went down. With no other human in sight, I heard a group of visitors off in the distance shouting a few huzzahs. It was a Civil War moment like none other.
The town of Gettysburg is worth the visit as well. Pretty much everything is built around the tourist industry, and it is likely that you will run across a number of people in period dress just walking around. I like to strike up conversations with these folks just to see what they are up to – and to find out what they find most compelling about the Civil War era. You will discover that most are very happy to tell you.
A close second on my list of must-see battlefields is Shiloh. Now this is a completely different experience. The field is much more isolated
from civilization, as it were, and there will generally be fewer visitors stomping around…especially if you choose to visit on a weekday in mid August or something. My advice is to brave the oppressive heat and humidity and have the battlefield pretty much to yourself. At Shiloh I can walk in the footsteps of my own Civil War ancestors who fought with the 16th Alabama infantry (Hardee’s Corps). I know of one who was wounded there – Andrew Jackson Holbert. As the family legend goes, having enough of fighting, he walked home to Lawrence Country, Alabama after the battle to nurse his wound. Later he reenlisted (read: conscription caught up to the intrepid private Holbert) and wound up fighting with the 27th Alabama until the end of the war.
Of course, I enjoy myself whenever I visit any Civil War battlefield. Antietam and ColdHarbor rank high in my book. Manassas makes the short list too (two battles for the price of one!). Maybe it’s because I like getting hopelessly lost for several hours in the Virginia heat with a limited water supply. Or maybe it’s because I like the Stonewall equestrian monument – where both Jackson and his horse look like comic book super heroes.
I imagine you will have your own reasons for visiting a Civil War battlefield. I just say go whenever you get the chance.