Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Visiting Civil War sites is Essential to Understanding the War

Civil War Canon On Top of Kennesaw Mountain

I am conflicted visiting Civil War sites.  Had I lived then, I hope I would not have owned slaves and would have voted against secession.  Yet, part of my heritage is with the Confederacy.  My grandmother spoke with venom about the deadly prison where her Confederate soldier father endured the war.  Until her death, she still used the word Yankees for Northerners as her eyes hardened.   But a trip through the South requires at least some stops at battlegrounds to give perspective on the terrain, battle tactics and suffering of the soldiers.  We started with the Battle of Vicksburg, Mississippi.

Vicksburg lies on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River, immediately giving the Confederates a ten-fold advantage to control the nation’s biggest river.  The major east-west railroad passed through town bringing to the South badly needed Arkansas hogs, Texas horses, and Mexican and European imports.  Northern General Ulysses Grant had won 10 of his last 12 battles and knew he could cut off the legs of Dixieland by winning Vicksburg.  General John Pemberton realized a loss at Vicksburg would be the beginning of the end for the insurrection.  The battle began on May 18, 1863 and ended July 2nd with a complete surrender by the Confederate Army.

At the large Vicksburg National Military Park, roads wander through hill and dale with markers indicating shifting battle lines.  In 1863, trees would have been leveled to provide open views for snipers.  Today, only part is cleared.  We used Michael Logue, a local guide who provided local commentary as he drove our car through the grounds.  Distances between lines were surprisingly small, indicative of the distance a rifle could shoot successfully.  We learned the difference in a redoubt (square fort) and a redam (triangle fort), both French words from the language used in army manuals.  Local quartz dust soil provided perfect dry conditions for digging trenches, a tactic to be used soon in World War I. When the battle stalled outside Vicksburg’s fort, Pemberton moved his men inside the city walls to weather the coming 47 day disastrous siege.  Some experts (including our guide) consider this battle more important than Gettysburg because of its commercial significance.

Vicksburg’s Park is unique in two other ways.  On the grounds is the remains of the U.S.S. Cairo, one of seven ironclad gunboats built in 30 days by the Union to carry thirteen canons along the Mississippi.  Inside, the boat was so hot only immigrants could be talked into working there.  It had a short life, sinking in 1862 but was resurrected in 1965 and displayed at the park in 1972.  Also scattered throughout the park are 140 artistic monuments honoring every state that fought in the battle as well as individual officers or groups who served.    For years, a reunion of veterans from both sides was held here.

View of Atlanta from top of Kennesaw Mountain
We probably would never have visited the Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park if our son were not attending school in Georgia.  It is one of the many “lesser” battles and yet was a part of General Sherman’s famous march to Atlanta in June, 1864.  Kennesaw Mountain was a large, natural barrier protecting the approach to railroads in Atlanta.  The Northern army used maneuvering tactics to minimize an attack uphill and eventually reached the other side.  It is hard today to visualize the battle since nature has filled in cleared spaces but a drive takes you to the top of the mountain to see Atlanta in the distance. 
Locomotive inside Southern Museum of Civil War
and Locomotive History

The biggest surprise of the trip was the discovery in Kennesaw of the excellent Southern Museum of Civil War and Locomotive History, a member of the Smithsonian Affiliations Program.  That’s a big name for a small museum but this one details the importance of railroads and manufacturing in the outcome of the Civil War. 
After seeing the displayed statistics, I realized the South had little chance to win.  The North had 21,000 miles of railroad – the South 1,000.  The North produced 234,000 tons of rails – the South  26,000.  The North manufactured 2.5 million guns – the South only 250,000.  Food was brought in regularly by rail to Union soldiers.  Southern boys had to forage for nourishment.  And, most crucially, an entire construction corps of eventually 10,000 men under Herman Haupt developed construction techniques to more quickly rebuild Union railroads destroyed by the South and to prevent reconstruction by the Confederacy of their own railroads. 


Judging by exit signs on the Interstate Highways, many Civil War sites have been preserved.  The American Battlefield Protection Program was established to classify the preservation status of battlegrounds.  They had to choose which sites among 8,000 battles deserved protection and rate them according to importance.  Add that to the 135 Civil War Museums in the country, and one could use every vacation reliving our country’s most painful time.  Yet, we should all visit a few of the sites to understand how close and personal this war was.  My conflict from 100 years later is nothing compared to those who had to fight on one side or the other – a choice we are fortunate not to have.

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