Following the first summer I spent at Fort Knox, KY, my wife decided that I would go again for the second year in a row. Yay. To be fair, the worst part about this was the 15+ hour drive from Colorado to Kentucky. There were some significant advantages to the summer work at Knox – first, the work was pretty simple and not stressful, second, I had a lot of down time to spend on wargaming projects and best, I got to spend a lot of time with my daughter, grandson and future son-in-law. Not a bad set of perks, really. The icing on the cake, of course, was a second opportunity to see more Civil War (or War of Northern Aggression!) battlefields in the western theater of operations. Initially, my plan was to see Fort Donelson, Corinth and Vicksburg during the four day pass my company commander approved.
Pre-pass – Before I even started on my second southern tour, I learned of a local battlefield only about 90 minutes from Fort Knox – Perryville. It was, however, to the east of the fort and not convenient to seeing after I was done. I decided to use one of my down days in between seeing new ROTC recruits to visit this battlefield. So, after an early breakfast at the dining facility, I took off for the Perryville battlefield. Easy to find, I got to the battlefield by mid-morning. All I can say about this battlefield is WOW! I was so impressed with everything about this battlefield, from the well-manicured fields, the easy to walk paths, easily identified markers to the small, but very well presented museum. The artifacts and information presented in this museum were far more impressive than that of the Chickamauga museum. I really enjoyed listening to the movie which described the situation in 1862, noting the movie described seven Confederate invasions of northern held territory and referring to the period as the Confederate high water mark. The film went on to describe the battle and its impact on the theater in late 1862. Really well done. The walking tour of the battlefield was easy and fun to walk and though it did not have the cell phone support like Stone’s River and Chickamauga this did not detract from the walk. What struck me was the undulating nature of the battlefield, something that could not be appreciated on maps or from photos. Like all of the other trips taken to the battlefields, I ate lunch while walking the fields. The grounds are extremely well preserved and maintained which only increased the overall positive impression and appreciation of the fighting that occurred there in October 1862. The battlefield maps make it easy to follow the course of the battle; the “creeks” on the battlefield maps were a string of puddles with moist spots in between them. I quite happily spent the major part of the day touring the fields and museum, making my way back to Fort Knox for dinner. It is easy to see why this is a popular battle/battlefield for re-enactments.
Day 1 – I signed out as early in the morning as I could to make the three hour drive from Fort Knox to Fort Donelson. By midday the temperatures were well into the 90s with extremely high humidity, so thick it seemed like I could cut it with a knife (and I recalled a reason why I did not miss the Philadelphian summers!) The driving path was easy to follow; most roads on the battlefields are one way, so take your time and see all that you want at that time. By the time I got to the river batteries, the heat was extremely oppressive though a cool breeze from what used to be the Cumberland River helped a bit. It must have rained prior to my visit because, the ground of the more inland batteries was very soggy and I almost lost a shoe to the soft red clay. Period guns dot the river batteries which are very cool to walk around. After completing the battlefield tour, I drove to the crossroads where the crisis of the breakout occurred. I wonder if the local people understand the significance of that crossroad in their neighborhood. Once done on the Tennessee border, I made the nearly seven hour drive to Vicksburg, the longest drive of the either year.
Day 2 – The battlefield park at Vicksburg is extensive and usually requires a fee to enter, however, due to an admin glitch, no one was charged on the day I visited. At the entrance to the park, there is a recreation of field fortifications which looked very cool. As with all the other National Parks, I stopped by the Visitor Center to watch the short film and buy some t-shirts. Instead of following the normal path of the park, I first went south to view the Railroad Redoubt and Fort Garrott (probably to avoid having to make a left turn in rush hour traffic as I anticipated spending the entire day here). As with every other battlefield, each important area is supported by parking areas and sign posts explaining the events that occurred in the area. There are several loops off the mail road that allowed me to park, get out and explore the area. Military monuments honoring units that fought in the campaign surround the National Military Park (in the blazing Mississippi summer, the coolness of the interior of the Illinois state memorial was quite welcomed!) The rough terrain in many parts of the battlefield was just stunning to observe and easy to access. It is quite easy to simply park the car, get out and walk to different vantage points to view the battlefield from the Union and Confederate perspectives. The defensive positions on both sides of the siege were truly spectacular.
The Vicksburg Battlefield
As I drove along the road toward what used to be the Mississippi River, I noted a large canvas awning below the steep edge of the road. What it was protecting was immediately clear – the salvaged ironclad USS Cairo. Spectacular. Words really cannot express how amazing this sight was. It is possible to walk all around and through this vessel; the damage from a “torpedo” that sank her is still evident on her port bow section. There is a small museum next to the ship that is brimming with artifacts salvaged from the vessel. What an incredible sight. Extra icing with strawberry topping on an already amazing cake.
Even the town of Vicksburg is beautiful and has the look of an 1860s town; the fact that the waterway passing most of the town is no longer the mighty Mississippi does not detract from the entire picture. There is a neat museum by the river that is worth visiting and costs a nominal fee. The railroad dioramas were not my thing but the models on the second floor were very cool (and included a large selection of artillery pieces made by my friend John McEwan/Riveresco). There is a small movie about the siege but the best part of the museum is a full diorama of the entire battlefield which highlighted key sections of the siege and battles. It was there that I learned of “Old Douglas”, the camel of the 43rd Mississippi Infantry Volunteers. This “veteran”, killed in the siege, has his own gravestone in the city. Normally I take about 10-20 pictures of each battlefield – in Vicksburg I took nearly 80, clearly identifying this national battlefield as the highlight of this trip.
Sometime during the trip I realized that the sites in and around Corinth were not as extensive as I had anticipated. The trip would also be east, making my drive home to Colorado that much longer. While in the hotel the night before my Vicksburg tour I realized that I would never be this close to Arkansas again and that this was a golden opportunity to see any battlefields there. A quick search online actually found two that were in close proximity – Prairie Grove and Pea Ridge. The final days’ plans were set. After a late night drive that ended on gas fumes, I arrived in northwest Arkansas. A quick look at the weather showed a good probability of rain for the coming day. Yay.
Day 3 – Two for the price of one. The final day started overcast and gloomy, however, the advantage was a nice drop in temperature. The trip to Prairie Grove was uneventful in the early morning. I stopped by the museum which had some very neat computer graphics on the use/effectiveness of different artillery pieces. While small, the museum had a nice display of Civil War artifacts. There was a short video which described the course of the battle which I found very interesting as I knew little about this clash. The battle itself is not all that complex – the Union attacked, followed by the Confederates – repeat twice. The battlefield is pretty much an open field in between two wooded areas. The actual field itself, however, is very interesting as it was yet another extremely well preserved site. Walking the battlefield was enjoyable as I was the only Civil War enthusiast there at 8 in the morning. I seem to recall there was a walking area and another to which I had to drive to see the field from another perspective. Like all the other battlefields, the handouts/maps from the Visitor Center were helpful as were the informational signs available explaining important events at that part of the battlefield. By mid-morning I was ready to drive an hour north to Pea Ridge. The expected rain still had not materialized but was threatening to disrupt my plans.
The Pea Ridge Visitor Center is very well set up with pictures, movie, artifacts and treats (that serve as neat little gifts for the kids, trying to entice them to enjoy the Civil War as much as I do!) It was a great place to start/prepare for my visit. I chose to follow the driving path around the battlefield as it was around noon on my final day and the heavens looked like they were about to open up. Each stop has ample parking and informational signs explaining what occurred at that part of the battlefield. The Visitor Center movie and the park drive appears to be very nicely coordinated so as to help those who may not be familiar with this battle understand and see the key parts of the battle/battlefield. Highly recommended. Because the foul weather was closing in, I think I made the driving tour of parts of the battlefield too quickly. I had plenty of time so figured “Why not?” and made a second tour of the one-way road. I was rewarded with something incredible – from stop #7 (and a short walk from the parking loop), the East Overlook provides a beautiful view of the valley below where, on the second day of the battle, the Union army formed up in a single line of units. While taking a panoramic picture the threatened thunderstorms started to appear or, better said, the thunder from the storms began. I immediately took a video of the same panoramic view and was treated with several thunderclaps which, in my mind’s eye (ear?), simulated cannon fire from the battlefield. This was a unique experience that capped the end of another successful Civil War battlefield tour. And the thunderstorms never materialized.
So, thanks to the needs of the Army, I was able to see 10 Western Theater ACW battlefields that I would not have been able to visit under normal circumstances. I truly enjoyed visiting every one of them – even Chattanooga, where most of the battlefield has been lost to urban sprawl, had its unique points: imagine that, on your front lawn, there is a monument to some great Civil War general or battlefield event. Wow, too cool. Of the 10 battlefields I visited over the two years, I would recommend, without any doubts, that ACW enthusiasts visit the Vicksburg National Military Park – it is a hands down the “gotta see” battlefield. The extremely beautiful terrain, the ability to view the fields from multiple vantage points, the museums and the USS Cairo make this a cannot-miss tour for every Civil War enthusiast. Perryville was my second favorite because it is so well preserved and maintained; perhaps another reason was the complete surprise in finding this beauty, almost a well-kept secret. My third choice was the toughest to make – I really enjoyed the ease of getting around the Stone’s River and Chickamauga battlefields because of the cell phone support at each stop. I really enjoyed the wonderful views available at Chickamauga, as well. It was a difficult choice, however, I would have to place Shiloh only slightly ahead as my third choice, perhaps because it is nearly entirely preserved. The yellow on white signs were extremely annoying to try to read but I really should not let that detract from the experience.
Where to go in the future? Well, I have told my wife that we really must tour the Shenandoah Valley to see the beautiful fall foliage. If the trip happens to take us past New Market and Appomattox Court House, well, so much the better, right?!