Top Civil War battlefields

Posted: Jun 23, 2005 12:00 AM

Now that it's officially summer, here's my advice to parents who want to continue teaching their kids during the next two months and learn something themselves: visit Civil War battlefields. I probably overdid it with my own children, visiting about 35 in all, but here are my top five:

 1. Gettysburg (July 1863)

 Much as I'd like to make a surprise choice, there's no avoiding Gettysburg's primacy and sadness, with over 50,000 soldiers becoming casualties over three days.

 Driving and walking this Pennsylvania battlefield explains much: the big rocks of Devil's Den were indeed devilish, and the awesome difficulty of "Pickett's Charge" -- across a vast expanse, sloping slightly uphill -- makes it seem that Robert E. Lee's hope that day was for God to intervene. (That's what Michael Shaara suggested in his fine novel, "The Killer Angels"; it's well worth reading before a Gettysburg visit.)

 2. Antietam (September 1862)

 The 30-acre Maryland cornfield through which soldiers charged and countercharged is still a cornfield; the farm road worn down by erosion and called Sunken Road until it gained a new name at the battle, Bloody Lane, is also a good place to meditate on 23,000 casualties incurred in one day.

 Another part of the battlefield is a monument to stupidity. Union Gen. Ambrose Burnside hour after hour sent men to capture a heavily defended bridge across Antietam Creek. Yet, as Shelby Foote writes in his three-volume history, "The Civil War" -- read it, it's the American "Iliad" -- "the little copper-colored stream, less than 50 feet in width, could have been waded at almost any point without wetting the armpits of the shortest man in his corps."

 3. Chancellorsville (April 1863)

 Driving and walking the tree-shaded route of Stonewall Jackson's flank attack illuminates the war's purest example of bold tactical brilliance. Northern forces outnumbered the Confederates 130,000 to 60,000, more than two to one, but Lee and Jackson divided their small force, with Jackson hurrying 30,000 infantrymen on a 12-mile march around Hooker's army. The Confederates came out of the Virginia underbrush screaming the Rebel yell and the rout was on, until darkness fell. Then Jackson fell, shot by his own men in the confusion. He died eight days later, the most prominent of nearly 30,000 casualties of the battle.

 4. Shiloh (April 1862)

 A small country church still meets at the spot where Southern forces on an early Sunday morning attacked U.S. Grant's army, which was camped around the church building. (When my family and I worshiped there on a warm day a few years back, we used small hand fans with the traditional placement of a funeral home name on one side, but this pertinent statement on the other: "Moonshine kills.")

 The commanding general of the Southern forces, Albert Sydney Johnston, was one of the 25,000 or so casualties. He had sent away his staff physician to attend a group of Federal wounded, and he bled to death when a bullet severed his femoral artery and no one around him thought to tie a tourniquet. ("These men were our enemies a moment ago," Johnston had told his doctor, who had not wanted to leave. "They are our prisoners now. Take care of them.")

 5. Fredericksburg (December 1862)

 Union Gen. Burnside (from whose name comes the word "sideburns") ordered his men to attack uphill against the mass fire of artillery and Confederate riflemen protected by a stone wall; thousands were killed or wounded, and not one reached the wall.

 Burnside was so distraught by what he had done that he wanted to lead a new assault personally the next morning, but others dissuaded him, and the two sides remained in a standoff for two days, while Union soldiers froze to death on the few acres between the armies.

 Then Burnside withdrew, but the memory of disaster was so indelibly inscribed in the minds of Union soldiers that, as Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg half a year later was proving equally dismal for the South, some Northerners were yelling: "Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg!"