Gettysburg Marks End of 2015 Wargasm

Best View in Gettysburg

Best View in Gettysburg

After a week of campaigning, we limped back into Gettysburg nearing the end of our 2015 Wargasm.  But even as tired and sore as I was, I would have to be dead not to spend time on perhaps the most famous American battlefield of them all.

My point of vantage in the photo above is, of course, atop Little Roundtop.  I have always loved the view from here.  The view is probably even better from Roundtop, a hill even higher just to the south, but I am usually too lazy to climb that.  Anyway, the view from Little Roundtop — lovely as it is — is actually the second best view from a Civil War battlefield.  Can you name the best view?

View from on High

View from on High

It is from atop Lookout Mountain overlooking Chattanooga and the Tennessee River.  The mountain looms over the town.  More than 2,300 feet above sea level, the point of the mountain above Chattanooga can be visited through Point Park after a long, winding road up the side of the mountain.

Very famously Union troops scaled Lookout Mountain in November 1863 and pushed the Confederate troops from a position that was thought to be absolutely impregnable.  Thereafter it became one of the most sought after spots for a photo op.

Enjoying the View

Enjoying the View

Of course, this was something I discovered on a Wargasm a few years ago.  As you would expect, I also had my own photo op.

Photo op on Lookout Mt.

Photo op on Lookout Mt.

Just don’t ask how I got there.  I am certain my life insurance rates would immediately go up.

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Pamplin Park in Petersburg, VA

Although I have been a candidate for a job at Pamplin Park in Petersburg, VA,  a couple times, I have never actually visited.  The park has a great reputation too.  So, with these reasons I figured it was time.

One thing is certain when you first walk in the door: someone dropped big bucks to build the place.  Normally these means some corporate entity that expects to derive significant revenue from the venture.  In this case it was the Pamplin family, who had a vision for making history accessible and entertaining.  It was hoped that the experience would bring alive an appreciation for history for all.  These are high aspirations indeed.  For this alone, I applaud them!

Sculpture at Pamplin Park

Sculpture at Pamplin Park

The price of admission, remarkably low considering how much it all must have cost (and maintenance), is more than worth the Museum of the Civil War Soldier inside the visitor center.  I believe that the experience would be especially appealing to children — very vivid.  The experience of battle is simulated in one area with light, sound, color, and even the trembling of the ground.  Not in a disturbing video game sense, but in a immersion-kind of way.  The whole museum was quite well done.

Outside the museum are the living history sites.  There is the Tudor House – a 19th century plantation house.  The house is actually one that was in the Pamplin family and was preserved.  No one lives there now except ALOT of bees and this guy (WARNING: gratuitous cuteness below):

Resident of Pamplin Park

Resident of Pamplin Park

Besides the Tudor House there are other outbuildings, including slave cabins.  Beyond the plantation house is part of the original Petersburg Battlefield, including earthworks that are quite well preserved.

Earthworks at Petersburg

Earthworks at Petersburg

The mound of earth to the right of the trees is part of a long system of earthworks used to protect soldiers from enemy fire.  Behind these works would have been Confederate soldiers.  Part of a system of trails at Pamplin, visitors can get a good idea of what the works would have looked like from inside and out.

In short, I was impressed with the park and the Pamplin family’s motivation for preserving the ground.  They have done a good job as custodians and a better job at making the ground accessible for generations to come.  And just for the record, I am not on their payroll.

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Petersburg and Five Forks

Field Fortifications at Petersburg

Field Fortifications at Petersburg

Working our way backwards, we visited Petersburg – including Pamplin Park – and Five Forks.  When we arrived at the National Parks Service Bldg. at the Petersburg Battlefield, it was obvious that the place was itself under siege.  There did not even seem to be electricity when we first entered.

What most caught our attention at Petersburg was the poor condition of the facilities and the signage.  It seems not much has changed here since the 1960s.  The markers that explained what happened at the various locations was in very poor shape.  Some you could not read at all.  And while I am complaining I will chime in on Fort Stedman too.

Fort Stedman was the scene of a Confederate break-out effort from Petersburg.  Gen. Lee launched an attack under the command of Gen. Gordon at 4:00 AM on March 25, 1865.  In the first rush, Gordon’s men took the fort and began to improve on their efforts when they were flung back by heavy Union reinforcements and from artillery fire from adjacent hills.  As a result, Grant believed that Lee was trying to break-out and ordered an attack along the whole Confederate line in the coming days.

So, what is my complaint?  Take a look at the fort:

Fort Stedman

Fort Stedman

Isn’t it pretty?  It is too pretty.  Scenes like this help promote romantic notions of war.  It is a picture-book affair in the minds of the public.  The working fort looked nothing like this.  If you want people to understand war, you show them what it really looked like.

The Wargasm continues…

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Cutting to the End

I would have preferred a day that saw us begin at Petersburg and would have ended at the McLean House at Appomattox Court House. But sometimes time does not allow all that we might wish.  So, the day began at Amelia Court House and ended at Appomattox.  Tomorrow will be my visit to Petersburg and Five Forks.

Highlights of the day were Saylor’s Creek and, of course, Appomattox Court House.  The first came as something as a surprise.  Although the significance of the battle there has long been known.  After all, Lee lost a third of his army there.  He also lost the services of Gen. Richard Ewell, who was captured – one of the highest ranking Confederates ever nabbed by Federal forces.

The surprise is how recently the land was organized into a military park.  The visitor’s center and interpretive signs have all been added after 2000.  And it is still far from done.  The defining features are the Hillman House, which was used as a Union hospital during and after the battle, and Saylor’s Creek itself.

Hillman House at Saylor's Creek

Hillman House at Saylor’s Creek

After leaving Saylor’s Creek we made a bee-line for Appomattox Court House.  I have to admit to mixed feelings about it.  On the one hand, it was one of the Civil War sites I have always most wanted to see.  On the other, I did not want to go at all because it meant the END.  Don’t get me wrong; I don’t wish the war lasted longer.  It is more of a personal-kind of end.

When we arrived I was very pleased that the little village of Appomattox Court House is out away from modern life on a little pristine piece of land where you could immerse yourself in the 19th century.  In other words, it is not a working village anymore and no one lives there.  Most of the buildings are located where they were at the time.  The McLean House famously was torn down after the Civil War by speculators who had plans to move it north as an attraction.  The building was taken brick by brick elsewhere.  The plan never came to fruition and the materials that once were the McLean House disappeared.  What stands now is a very authentic recreation.  Of course, most of the furnishings ended up in the hands of Union officers in the minutes after the surrender.  Much of it know can be found in various museums.  Still, the visit was special — even if a bit melancholy.

McLean House

McLean House

The table on which Lee signed his letter accepting Grant's terms of surrender.

The table on which Lee signed his letter accepting Grant’s terms of surrender.

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Charlottesville Means Jefferson

Monticello

Monticello

The University of Virginia’s 2015 Signature Conference brought me to Charlottesville, VA, today for a star-studded look at the end of the Civil War and the way America remembers it.  Big name historians such as Gary Gallagher, Ed Ayers, Elizabeth Varon, made appearances with us lesser lights sitting dutifully at their feet hoping to gain wisdom.

Of course, a visit to Charlottesville also means a mandatory visit to Mr. Jefferson’s mountain-top home.  Why would a historian on a Civil War trip visit the Sage of Monticello, you ask?  Because no discussion about states rights would be complete without the significant contributions of this famous son of Virginia.  Google “Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions” and you will find that Thomas Jefferson is one of those leaders that helped pave the way for the tragedy of the 1860s.  Besides, he probably has the coolest house in America.

Thomas Jefferson is also the answer to a question that is often posed to historians: If you could have dinner with anyone, regardless of the boundaries of time, who would that be?  Many people are surprised that I don’t automatically answer Lincoln.  Nope.  The key word here is “dinner.”  No one dined in finer style than Jefferson, who enjoyed a seven-course mean everyday.  This guy was American’s first “foodie” (another term to Google).  He was especially fond of European wine.  Besides, if I dined with Lincoln it would mean that Mary Todd would likely be at the table with us.

Tomorrow we go to Appomattox.  Stay tuned.

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Spotsylvania to Cold Harbor

Upton Monument at Spotsylvania

RICHMOND — After an unexpected delay yesterday (pain related), We made our way out to the battlefields today.  Since I have already visited the Wilderness, the journey began at Spotsylvania today under a genial sun.  It was a great day to walk the field and consider this grisly scene.

Grant’s Overland Campaign in 1864 got bogged down in the Wilderness, where he opened the campaign.  His solution was to maneuver Lee back toward Richmond.  He put the Army of the Potomac on the march around the Army of Northern Virginia.  Spotsylvania Court House was the next objective.  It turned into something of a race, in fact.  Union cavalry arrived first, but pulled back too soon.  The result was the Confederate infantry was able to make a secure lodgement before the Union infantry could arrive.

The fight that resulted was one of the ugliest of the war, and one that has a Batavia connection.  Trying to come to grips with Lee’s position, Grant heard about a plan being offered by Batavia-native Emory Upton.  He liked what he heard and gave Upton a chance to prove his theory correct.  In the picture above, I am standing next to the spot from which Upton launched his attack.

Upton’s plan worked well, but begin unsupported adequately, he was not able to capitalize on the lodgement his men had scored in the Confederate position and had to retreat.  Still, his efforts proved that his idea could work and Grant would try it again on a much larger scale.  For his part, Grant conferred a battlefield promotion on Upton, who could now add a star to his shoulders.

From Spotsylvania we moved on to the North Anna and explored the Confederate position around Ox Ford.  We finished the day at Cold Harbor, which was one of the bloodiest of the battles of the campaign and one that Grant would forever regret.

Conference at UVA Saturday.  Sunday we begin at Petersburg and will end the day at Appomattox Court House.

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Wargasm Lift-Off

Ah, Gettysburg!

Ah, Gettysburg!

We have lift-off!  The picture above is an unmistakeable sign that the 2015 Civil Wargasm is under way.  As is our custom, the Wargasm always begins in Gettysburg – and usually ends there.  The weather on the trip down was great and really felt like spring is finally here.

Now, as Horace Greeley was wont to demand, “ON TO RICHMOND!”

Stay tuned.

 

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