Question of the Week: 6/1-6/7/2020

We often talk about the importance of “walking the ground” of Civil War battlefields.

What’s your favorite “aha moment” that you’ve had while exploring Civil War topography?

23 Responses to Question of the Week: 6/1-6/7/2020

  1. One of the last Rebel attacks on the first day of Shiloh aimed at rolling up the Union army’s left flank. In order to reach the federals’ line, Confederate troops had to cross the Dill’s Creek ravine. Before visiting the site, I had no idea the ravine was so deep. We’re talking about steep cliffs some 40 feet high in places. The rugged nature of the gorge slowed the attack to a snail’s pace and made unit cohesion almost impossible. As if sliding down into the ravine and then crawling up its sides wasn’t difficult enough, the Rebs were caught in a cross fire between two Union warships on the Tennessee River and about 25 Union cannons perched atop an incline,.Needless to say, the attack failed.

    1. Been to Shiloh twice, both trips more pleasant that the one my GGG Grandfather made there, with the 32nd IL. One thing I’ve learned is that the banks of creeks do change over time–the edges of Antietam Creek at Burnsides’ Bridge in the 19th century for example, were flat, gravel sand bars; today, because of 20th century floods, they are steep. Regardless, no doubt about it though, Shiloh was, topographically, a problematic place for army-level command-control.

      1. Steve32ndil:

        Good point about the changing topography of battlefields. I’ve read several books on Shiloh, plus after-action reports and haven’t come across any detailed description of the ravine at Dill’s Branch at the time of the battle. Any suggestions?

      2. First stop of course is the big 1890s collection of maps put out by Congress. Lacking an actual 1860s local map, these capture the terrain in various scales and detail. I have the repro, and Plate 78/3 does show a portion of Lick Creek being bordered by an embankment/slope cartographical symbol. The cartographers were pretty conservative, and I’ve found that whenever these slope symbols are used, they mean something. So that indicates that as late as the 1890s, the cartographer–using whatever sources he had–had sufficient evidence to indicate that part of Lick Creek was indeed steeply banked.

      3. Steve32ndil:

        Thanks much for the info. Very helpful. I’m doing extensive research on Ulysses Grant and the Navy. Two timberclad warships assisted greatly in repulsing the Reb attack at Dill’s Branch ravine.

  2. I tour with a good friend and we have had several “aha” moments during our adventures touring Civil War battlefields. Following the instructions on the Emerging Civil War blog, we were finally able to find the elusive Gallant Pelham Monument at Kelly’s Fiord ( and it really is elusive).

  3. Topographically, I’m focusing these days on finding (or at least identifying) the original 19th century roadbeds, and their remaining traces. (I consider this a topographical issue simply because 19th and 18th century roads had to follow the topography much closer than bulldozers allow today). For example, the trace that still leads from Keedysville down to the Antietam, at the Upper Bridge, or the old Telegraph Road trace at North Anna. Finding the old roadbeds allows one literally to walk the route soldiers used. Also, lots of modern state and even county roads depart from their original 19th or 18th century routes, and finding where 20th century surveyors “straightened out” the road is part of reconstructing the 1860s contexts.

  4. One western battle of the Civil War that received adequate coverage in the school text books of Rock Island County, Illinois: the Victory at Chattanooga. Missionary Ridge and Lookout Mountain; Sherman, Hooker, Thomas and Grant versus Bragg and Cleburne. And the one illustration for the battle in the text: smoke from muskets and artillery shrouding Lookout Mountain.
    So, when my wife and I visited Chattanooga years later, and took the tour south from the city, and paused with Lookout Mountain looming perhaps three miles away, I was impressed. “Imagine all those Federal troops racing up that!” I remarked.
    “You’re referring to Missionary Ridge?” asked the tour guide.
    “That’s right.”
    He shook his head and pointed to a long, continuous hill, about 500 feet high, that stretched away for many miles to the left. “THAT’s Missionary Ridge.”
    And that’s when the scale of the operation, and the magnitude of the achievement hit home: this was not a few thousand troops scaling a single prominent peak, but a line of tens of thousands of soldiers in blue, two or three miles long, racing south to scale a heavily defended, seemingly impregnable high ground, crowned with an endless LINE of artillery and rifle pits.
    And the rush to the top of Missionary Ridge “just happened,” spontaneously… I was, and still am, in awe.
    Mike Maxwell

  5. “Up men and to your posts! And let no man forget today that you are from old Virginia!” Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg never disappoints! Gazing over to Cemetery Hill at the line of blue while forming up on Seminary Ridge. Then marching into the swail where you can’t see Cemetery Hill at all, then rising out, crossing the Emmitsburg Rd and over the split rail fence only to be met by a withering fire of shot and shell. A distance of 1 mile that is pretty exhausting to walk, much less march under fire.

  6. I’ve got two “Aha!” moments. The first was at Gaines Mill and standing on the trail, looking down to Boatswain’s Creek that became a killing zone during the Seven Day’s Battle. I hadn’t realized just how steep it was until I had my feet on the ground and stared down through the trees into that ravine. It was an “Aha!” and an “Oh, snap!” kind of moment. I would not have wanted to be a soldier trying to scale that slope while being shot at.
    The second was at Stone’s River at the Slaughter Pen, crouching amongst the rocks and seeing just how a soldier (both blue and gray) would have used this place for cover during the battle. The added affect of a train going by made me realize the full scope of the battlefield and how close these battle lines would have been. ECW should do a book on Stones River, by the way :).

  7. My moment came when I was standing on Fisher’s Hill in the Shenandoah Valley. It’s potential for defense was remarkable and the climb the Federal troops had to make steep.

  8. Visiting the actual battlefields to me, is always an eyeopening experience and an aha moment. One example of an aha moment that comes to mind is on a trip that my wife and I took to Vicksburg a couple years ago, we were able to appreciate how extensive and intricate the earthworks were, both Federal and Confederate, that literally surrounded that city. We visited the fortifications in the National Military park, but besides these examples of what was done in an attempt to defend and at the same time used to strangle and capture the city, we noticed that the city itself, outside the National Park, had incorporated some of the remaining unprotected earthworks into the landscape of the various neighborhoods in Vicksburg proper. This illustrated to us that in this instance, the city of Vicksburg had used this horrific, past experience to create a platform for a better future.

  9. Visiting the Wilderness is essential to fully appreciate the impact that dense wooded terrain had on Civil War combat…limiting fields of observation & fire, neutraling the use of artillery, reducing the advantage of numbers, making command & control a nightmare, and creating general confusion in all directions.

  10. Observing the blood stains on the wood floor where the field hospital operating table had been placed by the window in the Carnton plantation house at Franklin, TN

  11. I think I may have mentioned this experience before on this blog, but it’s worth repeating because it celebrates a great CWT/now ABT land save and the extraordinary generosity of the individuals and private and public entities who saved it..

    CWT entered into a very expensive land purchase contract for a substantial 405 acre tract of land called the Slaughter Pen Farm element of the Fredericksburg Battle, locally known as the Pierson Tract.
    As Wikipedia says, citing a New York Times 2011 article, “The Slaughter Pen Farm was considered to be the largest remaining unprotected part of the Fredericksburg battlefield. It is also the only place on the battlefield where a visitor can still follow the Union assault of December 13 (1862) from beginning to end. Nearly all the other land associated with Union attacks at Fredericksburg—either on the southern end of the battlefield or in front of Marye’s Heights—has been degraded by development. The $12 million acquisition of the Slaughter Pen Farm at the Fredericksburg battlefield has been called the most ambitious nonprofit battlefield acquisition in American history.”

    I had toured Fredericksburg on more than one occasion with now Senior Historian Frank O’Reilly. We always looked at the important Union charge only from the Confederate perspective, where there was public access along a dirt road. Once the Trust had the contract in place to purchase the Slaughter Pen Farm, visitors were able to access the ground. Frank interpreted the charge and the ensuing fight from both sides of the ground.

    My initial reaction looking at the Slaughter Pen Farm ground from the Bowling Green Richmond VA road was the same as my years earlier reaction when I first saw the Third Day battle ground at Gettysburg: how did anyone survive that Confederate march in the face of the opposing cannons?

    Not until I was able to walk the ground under Frank’s guidance did I understand I was looking at the same result. The field is not as flat as it appears from the road. It is crossed by a variety of gulleys that provided at least minimal shelter for Union troops to rest, restore their lines and grab some new chunks of their courage.

    Aha indeed. It was still a terrible march, but not suicidal.

  12. I would have to say it was when I got to the far right flank of the Union trenches at The Wilderness, knowing that the 65th NY Volunteers, as part of Shaler’s brigade, was positioned there when Gordon’s flank attack came. And that my great-great grandfather 1st Sgt. Timothy Carroll was there. He survived without capture or injury, only to be wounded a few days later at Spotsylvania.

  13. The Confederate Field artillery emplacements at Fredericksburg demonstrated how the guns were recoiled off a heightened position and down a slope for reloading in a sheltered position to protect the gunners from incoming. After the piece was reloaded, it was pushed back up the platform for aiming and firing. Aha, so that’s how they did it.

  14. I’ve visited most every major battlefield, but the most profound and moving moment for me was standing on the ground in remote Madison County, North Carolina where the Shelton Laurel Massacre occurred. Thinking about the horror those 13 men and boys faced truly brought the war to me on a very personal level. It was an “aha moment” that personalized the suffering of soldiers during the war. Instead of being overwhelmed by thinking about 20k, 30k, or 50k casualties during the battles of the war, standing on that sacred ground where 13 senselessly (and horribly) lost their lives jolted me awake about romanticizing the war.

    It was brutal. It was ugly. It was personal. It was local.

    Standing in Shelton Laurel was my “aha moment” of clarification on the horror of war.

  15. Looking down into that pool of water and seeing the C.S. Hunley . Charleston S.C.

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