Shiloh National Military Park

“I saw an open field in our possession the second day, so covered with dead that it would have been possible to walk across the clearing in any direction, stepping on dead bodies without a foot touching the ground.” ~ Gen. U.S. Grant on the losses at Shiloh, Tennessee in April, 1862

On an overcast and chilly day in early April, Steve and I decided to drive over to the Shiloh National Military Park to check out the extensive battlefield and park. Before we left, neither of us knew much about Shiloh except that it was one of the biggest, and bloodiest, battles of the Civil War. Since the Civil War is not one of my favorite eras in history, I was woefully ignorant of the details of the battle before we arrived. By the end of the day, I knew much more.

Our first stop was the visitor’s center to figure out where to start. We found a small museum that had maps of the two day battle as well as artifacts from the battle and the Civil War in general. The nice brochure the park hands out provided more background about the reasons for the battle:

By mid-February 1862, United States forces had won decisive victories in the West at Mill Springs, Kentucky, and Forts Henry and Donelson in Tennessee. These successes opened the way for invasion up the Tennessee River to sever Confederate rail communications along the important Memphis & Charleston and Mobile & Ohio railroads. Forced to abandon Kentucky and Middle Tennessee, Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston, supreme Confederate commander in the West, moved to protect his rail communications by concentrating his scattered forces around the small town of Corinth in northeast Mississippi—strategic crossroads of the Memphis & Charleston and the Mobile & Ohio.

In March, Maj. Gen. Henry W. Halleck, commanding U.S. forces in the West, advanced armies under Maj. Gens. Ulysses S. Grant and Don Carlos Buell southward to sever the Southern railroads. Grant ascended the Tennessee River by steamboat, disembarking his Army of the Tennessee at Pittsburg Landing, 22 miles northeast of Corinth. There he established a base of operations on a plateau west of the river, with his forward camps posted two miles inland around a log church called Shiloh Meeting House. Halleck had specifically instructed Grant not to engage the Confederates until he had been reinforced by Buell’s Army of the Ohio, then marching overland from Nashville. Once combined, the two armies would advance on Corinth and permanently break western Confederate railroad communications.

To read more about the logistics and history of the battle, check out the excellent National Park Service web page. Before you start looking at photos of what the battlefield looks like today (peaceful and beautiful), look at this 1888 Chromolithograph drawn by Thure de Thulstrup (from the United States Library of Congress). This images gives us just a glimpse into the horror of that day.


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Visiting Chickamauga Civil War Battlefield

Let me just get this out of the way. My usual reaction to Civil War history is typically “meh.” In fact, that’s my reaction to history of warfare in general (with the exception of World War II). You see, I just think war is stupid. Most of the wars I’ve studied seem to be situations of “Hey, that country has some land we want, let’s go shoot some people and take it!” or “Hey, those people are Catholic and they ought to be Protestant, let’s go make them convert, and if they won’t, let’s kill them!” And so on. I’m being a bit dramatic, but you get the picture. So I think my husband (who loves military history) was shocked when I suggested we go visit the Battle of Chickamauga National Military Park near Chattanooga, TN (the actual location is Ft. Oglethorpe, GA very close to the Tennessee state line). The Battle of Chickamauga took place over two days, September 19–20, 1863. The National Military Park provides a brief description of the battle and its significance:

In 1863, Union and Confederate forces fought for control of Chattanooga, known as the “Gateway to the Deep South.” The Confederates were victorious at nearby Chickamauga in September. However, renewed fighting in Chattanooga that November provided Union troops victory and control of the city. After the fighting, a Confederate soldier ominously wrote, “This…is the death-knell of the Confederacy.”

The death toll in the battle was horrific: over 34,000 men died. The only other battle worse in terms of casualties during the war was the Battle of Gettysburg (with over 51,000 men killed).


I recently started to read a book about the Civil War called The Fall of the House of Dixie: The Civil War and the Social Revolution That Transformed the South. It’s not about battles, or generals, or soldiers (at least not so far), it’s more about societal norms that led to the war and then societal changes occurred as a result of the war. The changes in society were enormous. I’m looking forward to getting further into the book to better understand this era.

So, even though I usually am not terribly interested in Civil War history, I knew there were several huge battles near my home, and it seemed like it would be interesting to go visit one of the battlefield parks near us. I stumbled across some information about Chickamauga and I was curious about what it’s like. On Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, we headed to the park.

I wasn’t really sure what to expect. I’d looked at the web page and sort of thought there would be a visitor’s center, a few outdoor exhibits, and some hiking trails. We we got there, I was amazed at the size of the park. It’s huge! Plus, Civil War re-enactors shot off a cannon while we were there! The cannon is beautiful. Of course, it’s weird to say that because the whole point of a cannon during the Civil War wasn’t for ceremony or show, it was to kill or terrify soldiers fighting for the other side.
Civil War cannon at Chickamauga battlefield national military park [Read more…]

Droop Mountain Battlefield State Park

Winding my way along the curvy West Virginia roads was a nice way to start the day. I was in West Virginia for a caving convention but wanted to get out and see some local sights while I was there. That morning I was heading towards an outdoor recreation area called Bear Creek and I just happened to see a sign for Droop Mountain Battlefield State Park. I decided to stop and check it out. It’s a lovely little park, well worth a visit if you’re in the area.

The last big Civil War battle in West Virginia took place here on this little round mountain deep in the woods. The date was November 6, 1863. Union General William W. Averell was part of a plan to raid several Confederate railroads to disrupt supplies and travel in the area. Averell was set to raid a part of the Virginia-Tennessee railroad, a critically important railroad system during the war to move Confederate men and supplies between Richmond, VA and Chattanooga, TN.

The day before, Averell fought a short skirmish in Mill Point in Pocahontas County. Averell drove the Confederates out of Mill Point, forcing them to take refuge on Droop Mountain. The retreating troops were reinforced by troops under Confederate Brig. Gen.  John Echols. On November 6, Averell attacked. He had a slightly larger force, but the men under Echols were able to hold their position throughout the morning. After noon, Averell changed tactics, using his infantry men to drive out the Confederates. He then sent in his calvary (without their horses) for a frontal attack. The battle was short but very violent. In the end, Union forces won the day. Many of the Confederate soldiers had fled the battle near the end, so Averell spent a lot of time rounding up prisoners and confiscating weapons while Echols had to round up the remainder of his troops. His only option then was to retreat to Virginia.

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Visiting Fort Morgan, Alabama

Driving along next to sparkling white sand dunes  as sea gulls toss and call in the salty breeze, it’s hard to imagine that the peaceful coastal outpost of Fort Morgan, Alabama was ever the scene of cannonfire or battle. But it sure was.

Gulf Shores, Alabama is one of my favorite vacation spots. It’s a beautiful little town with lots of great seafood (scallops!). It’s also near not one, but two interesting historic travel destinations, Fort Morgan and Fort Gaines. For now, we’ll just talk about Fort Morgan since it’s so easy to get to from so many tourist destinations along the Alabama coast.

To get to Fort Morgan, just drive west out of Gulf Shores on highway 180. Keep going until you get to the fort. You’re driving down the middle of a very narrow barrier island so it’s impossible to get lost.

The Fort is currently a living museum. Although many of the structures have disintegrated under the stress of time, wind, rain, and blowing sand, many of the key structures remain in place. You can wander through the pentagon-shaped stone walls and imagine what it would have been like to have lived in this fort during the early wars of the 1800s, the Civil War, and even World War II.

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