Space, “Western Theater” not the Final Frontier

(Editor’s Note: The ECW YouTube page will feature videos from Phill’s trip over the next few weeks, kicked off by this discussion, which is also available as an ECW Podcast.)

Recently, I had the opportunity to visit a few battlefields that had been on the old bucket list. Fort Donelson, Shiloh, and Vicksburg. Three battlefields, two states, but a heck of a distance in between. When charting out the trek, which would depart from the suburbs of Baltimore and head generally west, I took into account that I would be covering a lot of ground.

Fort Donelson NB
(author collection)

After traveling up the beautiful Shenandoah Valley as far as Harrisonburg—for those unfamiliar, the geography of the Valley of Virginia is opposite cardinal directions, so traveling “up the Valley” means going South—I turned into the mountains of western and then West Virginia. I took in the sites associated with the Battle of McDowell; one of the side bonuses of a battlefield trip exploration, finding other historic sites, battlefields, or graveyards (I have a fascination with finding Confederate generals final resting places, check out a series of blog posts “Tales of the Tombstone” on this blog). I cut through the rest of the Mountain State and spent the night in Lexington, Kentucky.

I then drove the entire Bluegrass State, heading generally southwest toward Paducah where I would pick up the trail for the Fort Henry-Donelson Campaign.

That is when a thought struck me. Space. How much space, miles, distance, however you want to term it, in this section of the country. As I traveled into the northwestern corner of Tennessee, I realized I drove almost the breadth of Confederate General Albert S. Johnston’s initial defensive line, from one side of the state of Kentucky to the other side.

I was able to drive, at 65, okay 75 miles per hour, and in an air-conditioned car, and could stop for provisions anywhere I wanted, even could pick up some bourbon if I was so inclined. Yet, Johnston was tasked in 1861-1862 with constructing defensive line, finding a headquarters, dealing with subordinate officers, politicians, the Confederate government in far-off Richmond, Virginia, and trying to impose confidence that he could defend the geographic middle of this fledgling nation.

I did not envy him.

After spending the day in the Fort Henry-Heiman-Donelson area, I ventured down to Shiloh, stumbling upon the Parker’s Crossroads Battlefield, conveniently located on the exit from I-40 that one takes to travel down to Shiloh National Military Park.

Parker’s Crossroads, TN
(author collection)

Once again I picked up the trail of Johnston, making Corinth a priority and then following the route to Shiloh, which meant I backtracked some but, as history enthusiasts know, if you are going to go “battlefielding” you might as well do it following the route of one side or the other in its entirety, right?

I tried to put myself into the shoes of the soldiers making that trek as well as thinking about what Johnston was feeling, he was proverbially “rolling the dice”, akin to what Robert E. Lee would do in the eastern theater, by taking a chance and placing his confidence in one climactic battle to reverse Confederate fortunes.

If you have not been to Shiloh, I highly recommend placing it as a priority for your next history trip. Yes, it is out of the way, but the battlefield is well preserved, the staff and visitor center are great at orientation, and, for us book aficionados, the Eastern National bookshop has a great selection.

I spent an entire day, hiking, riding, reading, and trying to comprehend the action that went on in that corner of the Volunteer State. From the death site of Johnston, to locating where a few Floridians fought, which was a pleasant surprise, temporarily forgetting that the 1st Florida was there, to spending time marveling at the Hornet’s Nest and the steadfastness of the Union soldiers that made that valiant stand. I ended down near the Pittsburg Landing site, contemplating the mental fortitude of Ulysses S. Grant.

Gen. Albert S. Johnston Death Site Marker
(author collection)

In reference to Grant, what a difference from when I last followed his footsteps in northwestern Tennessee in the Fort Donelson engagement/siege to the experiences of the Ohioan at Shiloh.

I then bid adieu to Tennessee, after a quick pit stop in Memphis to try and catch a glimpse of Graceland and snag some barbecue. I decided to push on and drive to Jackson, Mississippi to set myself up for the Vicksburg Campaign, or what I could fit in in the one-day I had left before having to turn southeast back to south Florida.

Unfortunately, the rain moved in and I had to cut the Vicksburg day short. But, got to glimpse the siege lines in between torrential downpour and left with the idea that I need to dedicate a lot more time to this part of Mississippi.

One final stop was made though, a small town in southeastern Alabama, a short distance north of Mobile.

Citronelle. The site of Lieutenant General Richard Taylor’s surrender in May 1865, the last organized infantry force east of the Mississippi River to lay down their arms.

Gen. Richard Taylor surrendered here, May 1865
(author collection)

Definitely off the beaten path, definitely worth a quick stop if ever in the Mobile area.

A lot of space, a lot of time, a lot more appreciation of the difficult task that Johnston and in essence, the Confederate government faced, with devising a defensive scheme in the “west.”

1 Response to Space, “Western Theater” not the Final Frontier

  1. Thanks for such an informative narrative! I toured Vicksburg close to 50 years ago on a trip from NJ to see relatives in Louisiana. Hope to get to Shiloh for the first time soon and revisit Vicksburg. My wife and I met Phill at a CW Roundtable in Palm Coast, Florida about a year ago. He is a fascinating CW lecturer and is also a primary source on the Revolutionary War.

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