Civil War history is taught in our schools, but the stories in text books and depictions in movies gave me a false sense of what the battlefields were like. As part of our trip to Washington, D.C., we put three battlefields on the itinerary: Antietem, Monocacy, and Gettysburg.
Antietem is the bloodiest one day battle in American history. 23,000 soldiers lost their lives, were wounded, or went missing in a single 12 hour battle in 1862. 100,000 soldiers fought from dawn to midnight, but neither could claim victory. General Lee retreated back into Virginia. President Lincoln issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation officially making the war as much about slavery as preserving the Union.
Touring the battlefield was a shock. There were no big ridges, no high points. The soldiers fought in places like Miller's Cornfield and The Sunken Road. Just a few feet of relief provided cover. A shallow creek that would only be of concern if I didn't want to get my boots wet while hiking formed an almost impenetrable barrier. At Burnside's Bridge just 450 Confederates held off 14,000 Union attackers.
Next was Monocacy, or the "Battle that saved Washington, D.C." The southern armies were threatening the Capital. The Confederates numbered 15,000 opposed by only 6,600 Federal troops, many of whom were completely inexperienced. The Union didn't need to win the battle, just delay the advance. They gave ground when they had to, but never broke.
After the expansive scale of Antietem the Monocacy battlefield felt small. The exhibits in the visitor center did an exemplary job of explaining the battle. We watched the movement of troops depicted in flashing lights on a diorama and it was clear what happened and why. Special bonus: My aunt, who I hadn't seen in years, joined us for the battlefield tour and dinner.
Finally we stopped at Gettysburg. Of all the battlefields, Gettysburg was the only one that matched the pictures in my mind. It was massive, over nine square miles. For three days the hills and farmland was contested. The battle effectively ended with Pickett's Charge across an open field toward Cemetery Ridge. The Confederates suffered 50% casualties in the charge and withdrew in defeat.
Gettysburg is so massive that you can only really see it effectively from your car. Great maps from NPS and any of a number of digital tour guides will keep you oriented. You can also hire a licensed battlefield guide if you want to go really deep. Similarly, the museum and Cyclorama are worth the price of admission. And of course, you need to stop by the cemetery where Lincoln gave the Gettysburg Address.
Visiting these places, where so many fought and died, is a potent reminder of what has been sacrificed to make the United States and hold it together. When you go, think of Lincoln's words and consider what we owe to the past.
[W]e can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. - Gettysburg Address