During summer of 2015, I was posted to Fort Knox for manning assistance to assess the medical standing of incoming Army Cadets. For anyone happening to drive by, you can see the bank depository building, prominent in the movie Goldfinger (and, yes, I had to watch it while there, as a nod to the film), right off the 31W highway. The highlight on post is the Patton Museum, well worth a visit if you are in the area. I cannot recommend much more to see in the area, however. Unfortunately, for those like me who like armor, almost all of the vehicles have been transferred to Fort Bragg – that was a minor disappointment but definitely offset by the amazing display in the museum. I had to get past all of the tie-ins with current “Army Values” but that only caused minor eye-rolling because the museum is amazing. It holds a ton of Patton memorabilia to include the car in which he was driven when he fractured his neck, to childhood toys, his Civil War grandfather’s saddle and sword, items from West Point and LOTS of other things. It was definitely in keeping with my impression of an officer who had a penchant for paying attention to detail. Three items of particular interest – Patton’s ivory handled revolvers are on display – one is a Colt .45 and the other a Smith and Wesson .357 magnum. The Colt has two notches from men Patton claimed to have killed during Pershing’s Punitive Expedition into Mexico in 1914. The last, one of great interest to me as a former athlete, is his clothing from the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm – extremely cool to see.
The weather was HOT, the thunderstorms impressive (so loud, in fact, that they would set off the fire alarms in the building in which I was staying), the water bugs massive and plentiful and the Army chow very good (I like institutional food – I do not have to buy it, cook it or clean up afterwards!) The post does shut down completely at 2000hrs – even the fast food places shut down then and there is not a lot to do on post. Despite all of that, there were some big advantages as the post was less than two hours from my daughter’s home in Indiana. I got to spend a lot of time with my grandson, my daughter and her boyfriend. Legally blowing up the neighborhood with fireworks on the 4th of July was a neat bonus, too. The last neat perk was getting a four-day pass so I could spend a little more time with my family before heading back to Colorado and to visit some Civil War battlefields on the way home. I had a neat target of opportunity while driving back to my billet at Fort Knox as I passed right by Fort Duffield, one of the largest earthworks forts in Kentucky. Overlooking the Ohio and Salt Rivers, the fort is WAY up a steep climb and despite over 170 years of tree growth, there were views of the rivers that were impressive.
Before I left my posting at Walter Reed years before, I spent several weekends touring many major Eastern theater battlefields that I had not yet seen – Manassas 1 and 2, Chancellorsville, the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Courthouse and Cold Harbor in 100+ degree July weather. All stunning battlefields. Now that I was going to be in the middle of Kentucky, I could see several large battlefields that were not an easy weekend drive from Washington, DC. I planned to see Stones River, Chattanooga, Chickamauga and Shiloh. The last was of particular interest because the battlefield is not near any large cities so has not been infringed upon by urban sprawl. There were just so many places to try to visit, I knew I could not see everything so I settled on these four – they were large battles, a reasonably convenient drive and, for the most part, fairly well preserved.
Day 1 – I started my drive early on a Friday morning, heading south from Indiana through central Kentucky into Tennessee. I got great mileage in the Insight, however, the AC was not up to the task of combating the early July heat; I arrived in Murfreesboro around midday after about four hours. I went to the Visitor’s Center first, something highly recommended as I could get a map, watch a small film and prepare my coming drive. I picked up a pin for my collection, some postcards for my wife’s collection and some candy for the kids in the shape of a bullet and cartridge – pretty neat! If desired, an audiotape of the battlefield is available for a small fee, however, the movie and information on the drive might not make this a must purchase. I saw almost no one people walking or driving the battlefield; the warmth and stillness was enjoyable.
The driving tour is extremely well thought out with lots of places to pull over, look around and take photos. The parking spots are positioned near paths that allowed me to walk to specific parts of the battlefield – to see how things looked from the Confederate or Union positions/perspective and to look at well know parts of the battle, like Hell’s Half Acre, the Slaughter Pen (where I ate lunch) and others. There are some cut outs of soldiers firing their muskets to give an idea of the approximate position of the opposing armies. Best of all, I did not have to worry about annoying or boring my family while walking or exploring these places – all by myself, I could come and go at my own pace. A cool addition by the National Park Service are places where I could stop, call a number on my cell, punch in a number corresponding to the specific place in which I found myself on the battlefield and hear a story about that phase of the battle. That was a very, very nice addition to this tour. On the way to Chattanooga, I stopped by to see the remnants of Fort Thomas, a massive enclosure and depot built after the Stones River battle to protect the road and rail lines. By late afternoon I got back on the road heading southeast towards my hotel on the Tennessee/Georgia border, only a 1.5 hour drive.
A couple of funny stories as I got to my hotel – I was wearing a Philadelphia Flyers t-shirt (my home town) and happened to meet some other people who were from the same area. Small world, no? I also got a lesson on being a northern boy in a southern town. The hotel agent asked me why I so far south (Washington state car plates, a PA driver’s license, etc.), to which I replied “I am visiting Civil War battlefields.” The hostess took the time to correct me by saying “Honey-chahl, yoo in the Say-outh now. It’s called the Wahr of Nawthen Aggression down hee-yah. You’ll stand out like a saw thumb and sound lack a faw-ner if you call it the Civil Wahr.” Lesson learned.
I got something to eat, came back to my hotel room and started to plan the next day’s drive. Realizing I still had several hours of daylight and that the daily rush of traffic was over, I decided to take a drive along Missionary Ridge. As much of the original Chattanooga battlefield has been built over, I figured this would be a reasonable compromise to see what I could see. The road on the ridge is a single lane, each way, but, as I had hoped, I encountered little traffic. All along the road were red (Confederate) and blue (Union) signposts telling which unit had fought here; in a parking lot is a large statue and monument where the rebel gun line stood and where the Federal forces overran the Confederate lines. One resident actually had a stone monument in his front yard! I was able to stop several times to enjoy the view from what had been the Confederate lines and what I saw was beautiful – through breaks between the trees, shrubs and houses was an amazing view of the Tennessee Valley, the City of Chattanooga and Lookout Mountain, all silhouetted by the setting sun. Only road construction and the setting sun kept me from driving the entire length of the ridge but what I saw was well worth the drive.
The setting sun behind Lookout Mountain and Chattanooga from Missionary Ridge
Day 2 – I started my day by heading to the Chickamauga battlefield first because, even though it was farther away from my hotel, the Visitor’s Center opened earlier. The center also had a movie about the battlefield, helpful for those who are unfamiliar with the battles around Chattanooga. There was a small and very disappointing “museum” that was centered around what looked like a reproduction wagon. Given the extent of the fighting in the area, there were very few artifacts. The coolest part of the museum was a story about prosecution for hunting and digging up artifacts on US battlefields – essentially, the first time you lose all the artifacts and any equipment you might have (e.g. metal detector); the second time brings quite hefty fines, potential jail time and a lifetime ban from battlefields.
The Chickamauga battlefield is set up exactly like the one near Murfreesboro with the driving path allowing the “War of Northern Aggression” enthusiast to follow the course of the battle as it progressed from start to finish. The cell phone links were especially useful; I did see guided tours throughout the day. My lunch this day was taken at the northern end of the battlefield where the Confederates initially pressed the Union positions quite hard. Just like Stones River, the battlefield was full of monuments, markers and information plaques to help identify units, actions, where key leaders fought and fell, etc. At the south end of the battlefield is the Wilder Tower, an 85’ tower that gives a wonderful view of the area. The driving path goes around the original Union positions and ends near where Gen. Thomas made his famous stand to prevent a total Federal catastrophe. Finishing up around early afternoon, I made my way northwest to the top of Lookout Mountain.
If you like winding roads, the trip to the top of Lookout Mountain will be your bag, baby. Wow! Once at the top the next tricky part was making sure I had enough quarters to pay for parking to avoid a getting a ticket. Of all the places I visited, this is the only one that was not a free National Park. The park is only the small tip of the mountain but the view is incredible. A sweeping panoramic view is possible from left to right (northwest to southeast) taking in first the open valley, the bend of the Tennessee River, the city of Chattanooga and, finally, in the distance Seminary Ridge. Stunning is the best word to describe the view and one absolutely worth the effort.
The view from left to right from Lookout Mountain to the Tennessee, Chattanooga and Missionary Ridge
I was back on the road late in the afternoon but had the longest drive in front of me – five hours – through Alabama and Mississippi. I made sure to do the speed limit as I recalled another story a friend told about how, when driving to his first Army posting, he got pulled over for speeding in the deep South. When he tried to get out of the ticket by saying he was a brand new Army Soldier going to his first duty station, the officer replied “You mean the Yankee ah-mee?” ‘nuff said and definitely forewarned. I took my time, seemingly crossing over the winding Tennessee River countless times as I headed west. I could have and probably should have driven all the way to Corinth but I was pretty tired by this time of my trip and turned north towards Shiloh in Iuka. By this evening time it seemed like the weather was getting even hotter! I settled into another motel room, this one with amazing AC and went to a local restaurant for dinner and a bit more culture shock. It has been some time since I ate at a cash/check only restaurant in an area where my accent identified me as a foreigner. Still, the catfish dinner was very nice and inexpensive and the view of the massive Tennessee River was beautiful.
Day 3 – Shiloh. Finally. This is the battlefield about which I had read so much – that it was one of the best battlefields to visit because so much of it had been preserved as it was not situated near any major city. In that regard, it was all that it was cracked up to be. As with the other battlefields toured, I began my day at the Visitor’s Center to look at artifacts and view the movie about the campaign and battle. Even though I have enjoyed reading about the Civil War my entire life, I had not understood the significance of control of the Tennessee River. The film clearly demonstrated the significance of the fight for Forts Donelson and Henry – the capture of those forts opened the Tennessee River and western Tennessee to the Union armies, allowing them to plunge deep into Confederate territory. Riverboat transports were easily able to move Federal troops to Pittsburgh Landing in southwestern Tennessee. The museum, while better than the one at Chickamauga, did not contain as many artifacts as I would have anticipated for such an important and large battle. I made my traditional postcard and pin purchase and even a cool t-shirt and headed out to start my tour.
Two minor inconveniences I noticed almost immediately were the absence of the cell phone stops that were present on the first two battlefields and the color of some plaques. The former is a little understandable as the first two places I visited were “one way” battles – the course of the battle followed a set pattern. At Shiloh, however, fighting followed more of an ebb and flow path as the Confederates surged northward on the first day and the Federals pushed south on the second. The battle did not follow an “easy to drive, this happened first and this next” type of path. The second issue involved the choice of colors for the armies involved: the Confederate Army of Tennessee had the traditional red lettering on a white background and the Union Army of the Tennessee blue on white. The Army of the Ohio, however, had yellow lettering on white which was extremely difficult to read from the car on the road, especially when a lot of information was crammed on a single sign; it could be a challenge even when near the signs. Despite these inconveniences, the day was spectacular as the projected rain did not appear and the warm, sunny weather was not oppressive to someone who is no longer acclimatized to hot and humid weather.
Unlike the first two battlefields, there were a LOT of people walking, driving and biking at Shiloh. The driving path is well marked out on the map available at the Visitor’s Center, making it very easy to find key parts of the battlefield. The drive was very pleasant and, despite the increased number of spectators, I did not feel rushed. The paths around the park are extensive allowing visitors the opportunity to explore the entire park in detail. I was able to walk from one side of the Hornet’s Nest to the other; it was here where I enjoyed my lunch on this final day of battlefield sightseeing. I was able to stand where Gen. Albert Sidney Johnson’s wound was first discovered and walk the short distance to the depression where he had been taken. It was poignant to be able to stand in the same place where the highest ranking Soldier in US history died in a battle. The battlefield tour ended with steep drive down to a circle that marked the original Pittsburgh Landing on the banks of the Tennessee, a massive river!
My three-day, four-battlefield tour over, I started my long drive back home to Colorado. While very busy with a LOT of driving – all told, about 700 miles – I will admit to having enjoyed myself capitally! On the way home I had plenty of time to think about what I enjoyed the most. There were so many from which to choose: the quiet trip around Stones River, the stunning view from Missionary Ridge, the panoramic vista from the top of Lookout Mountain, the expanse of Shiloh – all were amazing! I really think the part I enjoyed the most was looking up at Rosecrans’ HQ on the top of a hill and imagining what he must have been thinking when, instead of his own troops, he saw Longstreet’s 11,000 Confederates emerge from the woods where the center of the Union lines were supposed to be!
What will be next on my list of top places to see? I regret not making a trip to see Forts Donelson and Henry. Considering all the driving I did later on, a three-hour trip was not all that far, really. Corinth would a cool place to visit, too and, of course, Vicksburg is a western battlefield must. I was told that, if we are tasked to do the same mission next summer, I am certainly on the list to go. If that is so, I have my post tasker Western Civil War battlefields already selected!