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Civil War Battlefields

by Knight Allen, NSC Director
Published on  April 14, 2011 - reprinted with permission

  Did anyone catch the re-broadcast of the Ken Burns documentary "The Civil War" on PBS last week? As Vern has noted this week is the 150th Anniversary of the start of a war that killed more Americans than any conflict in our history. The documentary makes riveting television even if you're not a big history buff. The war had such a huge effect on not just who we were then but who we are now. As one of the commentators pointed out, before the war it was the United States are. After, it was the United States is. Have you ever visited any of the battlefields? What kind of emotions did they stir in you? I got kind of depressed at Fredericksburg which was fought in December 1862. I found myself walking behind the wall at Marye's Heights where the Confederate army was entrenched looking out over this wide expanse of open space wondering how Union General Burnside could possibly have been so stupid as to order a frontal assault on that kind of a defensive position. Lee's army slaughtered those poor Union kids. The whole battle was a disaster for the Union with over 12,000 casualties. The South lost over 5,300. But, at Marye's Heights where I was standing behind the wall? The ratio was eight Union casualties for every one Confederate. A total Union debacle and very depressing. Of course Lee came out looking like a genius but then, only seven months later at Gettysburg with the tactical situation completely reversed; with the Union soldiers holding the wall position at Cemetery Ridge; calling to each other "Remember Fredericksburg! "Lee made the same blunder Burnside did. He ordered Pickett's Charge. A frontal assault across a three quarter mile open field by over 12,000 southern kids. They were crushed with more than 50% casualties. So much for great generalship. I also visited the notorious Confederate prison camp at Andersonville, Georgia deep in the heart of Jimmy Carter country around Plains and Americus. The camp held 45,000 Union prisoners and almost 13,000 died of starvation, malnutrition and disease. When I was there it was a walk in the park-literally. Did you ever notice wherever man conducts the most brutal acts of war the places al-most always wind up beautiful sites of peace and tranquility? The Civil War is not as far removed from us as we might think. Motion pictures in the documentary showed that in 1938 at the 75th reunion at Gettysburg over 2,500 veterans of the war showed up. How old were you in '38? How about your own family's history? Any connections to the war? In my family my great grandfather who died around 1913 (the 50th Anniversary of Gettysburg) carried a piece of a Confederate musket ball in his chest for all those years. Or, so the story goes and who am I to question it? We'll be seeing and hearing a lot about the Civil War in the months ahead but for me it will always be a walk behind a stone wall at Fredericksburg and a stroll in a park in Georgia.

The place I remember most is Vicksburg National Military Park in Mississippi. I drove the 16 mile tour road and visited many of the 1325 historic monuments and markers put up by of the states on both sides. There are 144 emplaced cannons of the type used during the 47 day Siege of Vicksburg. The civilian population suffered heavily during the siege when they as well as the Confederate troops were under constant bombardment and could not get supplies or help of any kind. I also visited the restored gunboat USS Cairo (the “Hardluck Ironclad), the first U.S. ship in history to be sunk by a torpedo mine. Many personal effects of the sailors who perished were on display. The national cemetery in the park has 18,244 interments (12,954 unidentified). The surrender of Vicksburg combined with Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Gettysburg on July 3rd, marked the turning point of the war that would continue on until April of 1865. The City of Vicksburg would not celebrate July the Fourth for about 80 years as a result of the siege and surrender. — Vern.