Civil War Battlefield General Notes
General Notes on Visiting Battlefields
Many of our observations applied to more than one city, or to preparing for the trip. This was particularly true with regards to planning and booking the trip and the items we brought with us on our vacation. Rather than duplicate those comments in the Antietam, Harpers Ferry and Gettysburg trip reports, I've included a separate page for these general comments here.
Travel Tips For Before You Go
Overview of the Civil War Vacation Trip - This trip report actually covers two separate vacations. In June 2009 we took our two 16-year old boys to Washington DC. During that vacation we went to Gettysburg, stayed overnight there and returned to Washington DC the next morning. My wife and I loved Gettysburg so much that as soon as we got home, we started planning a return trip for just the two of us in July. This second trip was for five days, and included Antietam, Harpers Ferry and Gettysburg. As a change of pace, we stayed in a log cabin while in Antietam and at the famous Cashtown Inn B&B near Gettysburg.
The first trip to Gettysburg obviously went well, based on our immediate desire to go back. The weather was terrific and we got to see all the best-known places on the battlefield. Even though the weather SUCKED for our second trip, it was still a great success as well. We did almost everything we wanted to do, catching a lot of things we missed on our first trip. All told, we ended up shooting over 3,500 pictures for the two trips.
Our focus on the first trip was simply to see Gettysburg. We wanted to visit all the famous battlefield spots, enjoy the town and learn about what happened there. Having done that, our second trip was more focused. Of course, we spent a lot of time going around the battlefield at Antietam to see the famous spots there. That said, this was more of a photo vacation, where we spent a lot of time and effort on the memorials at both battlefields. My wife gets a big kick out of the ghost stories in Gettysburg so we made sure to see some of the areas and buildings most associated with the spooky stories in Mark Nesbitt's books, and we were lucky enough to stay for two nights in the famous Cashtown Inn. Be sure to check out our Gettysburg ghost stories!
Airfare and the Cost of Car Rental - When we priced out our flights, we found the best deals took us to Baltimore's airport. We checked the airports in Washington DC, Baltimore, Harrisburg and Baltimore was the best deal, so we booked it. Then we looked at rental cars and realized we probably made a mistake. The rental cars in Baltimore are outrageous - we were consistently finding weekly fares of $400 or more for a mid-sized car. (In Dallas we could find rates of $120 for the same car.) The best we could find was $300+ and that was with several coupons and discounts. My wife finally was able to get a car for $160 for five days through Priceline.com, which is still a lot but much better than the $80/day rate we heard the Alamo representative quote someone while we were getting our keys.
Check the prices of airfare AND car rentals as you plan your trip. When both are factored in, the best deal may be out of another airport than Baltimore.
Our Flights - We went bargain basement on our tickets and flew Air Tran. We still can't figure out how Air Tran can give good service, have friendly employees, give drinks with refills AND (gasp) snacks, and still be cheaper than other airlines. (Are you reading this, US Air???) Both our flights were a little late, but otherwise we thought Air Tran did great.
Lodging - As you research your hotels in Gettysburg in Antietam, do not rely on the room availability information on the various travel websites. We found that the websites showed several hotels as being booked, but when we called they had rooms available. This was true for the Quality Inn at General Lee's Headquarters, for example. All the travel websites showed it was completely booked. I called and they had several rooms open, including a few suites.
Itinerary - We broke our cardinal rule and didn't set a specific itinerary for the trip this time. Our reasoning was simple: Almost nothing we had planned required specific entry times or advance reservations. We had a list of things we wanted to see and do, but didn't try to pre-plan when we would do each item.
For the most part this worked okay. Our last full day in Gettysburg we had to scramble a bit because we didn't accomplish as many of our planned stops the day before. This carried over to the last half-day, and ultimately we ran out of time before we could do a couple things on the list.
If the weather had cooperated more I think we may have been fine. With the unplanned itinerary and rain combined, however, we didn't do everything we wanted. Next time, I'll at least plan out what things we'll do each day, even if I don't try to assign times to them.
Research - One month before our first trip to Gettysburg, we knew virtually nothing about that battlefield or the Civil War. We did a bunch of research before we went the first time. When we returned from that vacation and decided to do a second trip there, we did a lot more. We take research very seriously. Here is just a partial list of the books and DVDs we went through to prepare for the two trips:
- Gettysburg - The First Day - Harty Pfanz
- Time Life Series - Civil War - Battle of Antietam: The Deadliest Day*
- Time Life Series - Civil War - Tenting Tonight: The Soldier's Life*
- Gettysburg Battlefield - The Definitive Illustrated History - David J. Eicher
- Time Life Series - Voices of the Civil War: Gettysburg
- Civil War Battlefields - Jeff Shaara*
- 35 Days to Gettysburg - Mark Nesbitt
- Ghosts of Gettysburg - Mark Nesbitt
- More Ghost of Gettysburg - Mark Nesbitt
- Ghosts of Gettysburg III - Mark Nesbitt
- Ghosts of Gettysburg IV - Mark Nesbitt
- Ghosts of Cashtown Inn
- Civil War: America Divided - 3 disc set
- Lincoln's Last Night - LionHeart FilmWorks
- The Civil War: Blood and Honor - Madacy Entertainment LP (3 disc set)
- The Civil War - Ken Burns (5 disc set)*
- Gettysburg: Darkest Days and Finest Hours - LionHeart FilmWorks
- Gettysburg (the movie)
- Civil War Minutes - Union and Confederate (4 discs total) - civilwarminutes.com - amateurish production but probably the most unique information of any DVDs we watched other than Ken Burns' Civil War.
- Civil War Minutes - Confederate - civilwarminutes.com
* These resources were particularly valuable.
We used the National Park Service pages for Antietam and Gettysburg and found a variety of other websites with great information. The Park Service's online book about Antietam gives a lot of information about the battle. One site of particular note is civilwartraveler.com, which has tremendous podcast walking tours. I talk more about these on the pages for Antietam and Gettysburg.
One website I found after the trip is worth mentioning - Battle of Gettysburg Buffs, old and new . It provides information on lesser known or visited areas of the battlefield and topics for those who are interested in learning or doing more than the average visitor to Gettysburg. I really, really enjoy this website. Randy has put together a lot of information not widely available elsewhere. I plan to devote a lot of time on there before our next trip to Gettysburg.
Imagination - If you go to the Hoover Dam or Empire State Building, it doesn't take much effort to be impressed. You don't have to know anything about these structures to look at them and say "That's a big dam to build!" or "That's a big damn building!" (respectively).
Civil War battlefields aren't as easy. The soldiers are long gone, the flags are showcased in museums, and the cannon have been silent for almost 150 years. There are no super structures or fireworks or acrobatic demonstrations. All you'll see are hills and fields, farm houses and small buildings, memorials and plaques. All you hear is quiet. A battlefield isn't a tangible place of great creation and invention, but an intangible place of great accomplishment and valor. You aren't there to witness the show but to view the empty stage and honor what took place there.
To appreciate a battlefield you need two things. First, you need a fundamental understanding of what happened at that location. Without that knowledge, Little Round Top is just a fairly ugly hill and Bloody Lane is nothing more than an abandoned old cart path. I grew up in the cornfields of Iowa but visiting The Cornfield was something completely different - because I understand what happened there. That's why the research I mentioned above is so important. The battlefields have real human and historical significance; if you don't understand that significance, the places simply appear mundane and random.
The second thing you need is imagination. With imagination you can look out in awe from The Angle to see 12,000 Confederate soldiers, marching inexorably towards you through the merciless canister explosions and musket fire. You can walk through the Wheatfield in Gettysburg or the Cornfield in Antietam and experience the horror and desperation of the chaotic battles, watching the armies rage back and forth to leave thousands of dead and wounded to blanket those fields. You can stand in Bloody Lane and feel the terror of those soldiers, trapped in a gully that became a shooting gallery . . . where they were the sitting ducks. Or walk across Burnside's Bridge and feel the frustration and helplessness of the Union soldiers who were jammed up on that 12' wide bridge and couldn't move, only to be easy targets for the Georgia sharpshooters on the hill.
You visit a battlefield to see the stage. You research a battlefield to understand what took place. But with imagination, you experience the emotions, sights and sounds of the battles themselves. You FEEL it.
On our second trip to Gettysburg I walked the route of Pickett's Charge. In actuality, what I saw was a lot of grass and weeds, a couple old fences and a bird that got angry with me because I was too close to its nest. But I experienced much more than that. Out there in the quiet field, I could see and feel what it must have been like as the rebels attacked the copse of trees. When I crossed Emmitsburg Road, I looked up at the Angle and could see hundreds of Union soldiers blasting thousands of minnie balls at me. (They missed, fortunately.) I literally felt the anxiety of approaching that low wall and wanted to run up there rather than walk. In my mind's eye I could see and hear it happen before me. I didn't just see The Angle - I experienced it.
You take as much from a visit to a battlefield as you're willing to bring with you. Don't be ashamed to try. Learn about what took place before you go. When you get to the battlefield, stand at a famous spot, close your eyes, and think about what took place there. Then open your eyes and see it play out before you. Listen for the sounds of cannon and rifle and men, imagine the smell of the smoke and gunfire. You will see AND feel that place, and the memories you take with you will be far more rich and powerful than you can imagine.
Travel Tips For While You Are Traveling
Photography and Time of Day - This almost goes without saying, but the time of day has a big influence on your photos due to the direction of light. If the sun is behind a statue, for example, you'll have a tough time shooting a good picture of it. Chances are you'll end up with a silhouette. If you come back at a different time, the sun will have moved and the front of the statue will be better illuminated.
We addressed this by going around each park several times, at different times of day. Particularly in Gettysburg, as we drove through the park in the afternoon and found subjects we couldn't shoot (due to lighting, rain, mobs of tourists, etc.) we made note of them on a list. I bet I had more than a hundred shots I wanted to take after this initial drive-through. We then returned later that afternoon and again the next morning to pick up those shots.
Shoot the Picture Now - The weather was extremely uncooperative on our second trip. We had sporadic bouts of rain almost every day, intermixed with short periods of sunlight and blue skies. We timed things poorly in some cases and found ourselves driving long distances or shopping with blue skies out, then getting to a place to take pictures only to have it start raining.
Don't make this mistake. If the weather is spotty, make use of those few moments when the sun is out, even if you have to shift your schedule around.
Luggage - We decided we were going to use only carry-on bags for the trip and go with no checked luggage. Dumb choice. We carried overstuffed bags onto the plane and through the airports, almost herniating ourselves in the process. Then we bought the obligatory excessive amount of souvenirs and gifts on the trip and had no way to carry them back. Before our return, we stopped by Wal-Mart and bought a cheap duffle bag with wheels for $14 and filled it up with all the stuff we bought and some of our clothes. It was a much easier return flight for us. With all our equipment, it just doesn't make sense to try and use carry-ons only. The duffle bag is really cheap and will only last a couple trips, but for $14 it's already paid for itself.
Park Rangers - The National Park Service should send the park rangers at Arlington National Cemetery to Antietam, Harpers Ferry or Gettysburg for customer service training. All the rangers on this trip were very friendly and helpful, and added a lot to our trip.
Field Hospitals and Headquarters - We noticed that almost every building that goes back to the Civil War was once used as a field hospital, a headquarters for some general, or both. At first we were impressed when we saw "Field hospital after the battle!" on some building's sign. By the end of the trip, we were looking for older buildings that DIDN'T have that comment on their sign.
Civil War Artifacts - Remember that looking for artifacts on a national park is a felony and you have to get permission to look on private property. Honestly, if you want artifacts you can find them very inexpensively. I was surprised by this. I thought even bullets would be expensive. I have since learned that civil war bullets are very common. There were an estimated three million bullets fired at the Battle of Antietam, and seven million over the three days of battle at Gettysburg. God knows how many tens of millions of bullets were used in Virginia, Maryland, Tennessee and across the South over the course of the Civil War.
As a result, you can purchase bullets very inexpensively. You can find "fired" or "dropped" (unfired) bullets for a couple bucks each at gas stations and gift shops around the battlefields (like the ones pictured to the right). You can also buy pieces of cannon balls, canister balls or grape shot cheaply as well. If you want bullets specifically from Gettysburg, those cost a bit more because so much of the land is now federally owned.
We bought several bullets on our vacation. We sent most of them home via U.S. Mail and carried a couple back on the plane. I thought the security folks at the airport might take issue with them, but they were more concerned about the 13 cents in change I had in my pocket. The USPS was interested in our package, however; when it arrived I saw it had been opened and inspected. Everything was delivered that we sent, so it was no problem.
Ghosts - Gettysburg is considered one of the most haunted places in America. There have been hundreds of paranormal experiences reported. Former Park Ranger Mark Nesbitt has made a career of documenting these stories in his books. Antietam also has its share of ghost stories.
I don't know where you stand on the question of whether or not ghosts exist. I try to approach this subject from a totally objective perspective. I don't immediately leap to accepting ghosts as real, nor do I dismiss the possibility. I simply accept the evidence as it comes to me, dismiss those events that can be explained by normal reasons, and wonder about what is left.
You can make your own decisions. If you dismiss the possibility of ghosts, you can enjoy your Civil War experience without them. (If they'll let you MWHAHAHAHAHHAAAAA!!!) If you are open to the possibility, this adds a whole dimension to your visit there.
Visit our Gettysburg Ghosts page for more information about our experiences with ghosts in Gettysburg and Antietam.
I'm Glad We Took:
- GPS - the roads
in this part of the country are winding and difficult to follow at times. In some
cases we found ourselves going through a mountain pass out in the wilderness on
a gravel road. Even using maps printed with Mapquest or Yahoo maps would have
been difficult. Fortunately, we took our GPs along and it made a huge difference.
Ipod speakers - I found a mini
speaker device for the Ipod at Radio Shack for around $20 and it worked great
for the audio walking tours on this trip. Normally you would use your headphones
but in this situation, my wife and I both were listening to the podcast. I plugged
in the mini speakers and we were all set. The speakers run on one AA battery -
the sound quality is adequate for a podcast and you have to max the volume, but
it worked very well for us. (The one I linked to at Radio Shack's site and showed
in the picture to the right is not exactly the same as the one I own, but it's
essentially the same thing.)
- Ipod remote charger - My wife
found this little toy. It looks a bit like those portable pencil sharpeners you
buy for your kids each year at the start of the school year - you know, the sharpeners
that kids never use and lose after two weeks. This thing takes two AA batteries
and, when plugged into the Ipod, will charge it up without needing a wall socket.
This was very helpful in the car and at the airport.
- Auxiliary cable for Ipod - The last several rental cars we've used all had auxiliary jacks for the stereo. We brought the cable along this trip and listened to some of the podcast information through the car stereo.
Photographic Equipment - Most of my comments on our cameras and camera bags can be found on the What Camera Equipment Do We Use? page.
As far as specific equipment comments for this trip, I managed to use almost all the lenses I have. The 12-24mm, 17-55mm, 28-135mm and the 100-300mm. The long lenses came in handy for shooting portrait shots of the sculptures. You will see in the pictures that the long lens allowed me to shoot with a small depth of field and blur out the background. My wife used the long lens up on the observation decks and had a lot of fun with that.
I also used my external flash unit quite a bit, especially when I used the 12-24 lens. The Slingbag camera bags were fantastic for this type of trip. We did a lot of hiking around the battlegrounds and the Slingbags kept our hands free and the weight distributed on our backs.
Over the course of the second trip I filled both my 8GB cards and my 4GB card. I had to stop by Wal-Mart to pick up another 4GB card for the last day or so.
Ugly Tourists - I'm sorry to say that we saw many examples of ugly tourists on this trip. Lots of parents allowing their kids to crawl around on the monuments . . . folks, these are memorials to soldiers who lost their lives in battle. They aren't jungle gyms. We saw people walking their dogs through Bloody Lane (apparently hoping to change the name to Crappy Lane). Other people were yucking it up, posing as dead soldiers in the lane for pictures. Many drivers ignored the park rules to drive left, park right on one-ways, or simply stopped in the middle of busy roads. Teenagers were hollering obscenities and splashing around in Antietam Creek beneath Burnsides Bridge . . . right next to signs that tell you to stay out of the water.
Too many people forget why this ground has been set aside and why the National Park Service takes care of it. More than 23,000 men at Antietam and 51,000 at Gettysburg paid a terrible price for those small pieces of land. It is believed that more than 1,000 bodies are still buried in unmarked graves at Gettysburg - men whose names, legacies, even their mortal remains, have been lost to time. The use of the phrase "hallowed ground" does not constitute hyperbole when it is applied to Antietam and Gettysburg National Military Parks.
If all you're wanting
is a place for your kids to burn off energy or your dog to take a dump, please
go elsewhere. There are hundreds of local or state parks for that. Or your back
Civil War Trip Reports
Civil War trip report (general notes) - Many of our observations applied to more than one battlefield or to the trip in general. This was particularly true with regards to planning and booking the trip and the items we brought with us on our vacation. Rather than duplicate those comments in the Antietam, Harpers Ferry and Gettysburg trip reports, I've included a separate page for these general comments here.
Antietam National Military Park trip report - We spent one and a half days touring Antietam National Military Park. Read this trip report to learn about our cabin, a great restaurant . . . to avoid, suggestions for improving your visit, and much more.
Harpers Ferry National Historical Park trip report - We visited Harpers Ferry National Historical Park for a half day. While we weren't there for too long, we still had a good time and identified several tips and observations that might help you as you plan for your vacation.
Gettysburg National Military Park trip report - We made two trips to Gettysburg. The first was an overnight stay as part of our June 2009 vacation to Washington DC with our two 16 year-old boys. We all loved it there and when we got home, my wife and I planned a second trip for the two of us in July 2009. We devoted a great deal of time to the Gettysburg battlefield and came up with several tips and suggestions that should help you save time, money and mix-ups on your vacation.
Vicksburg National Military Park trip report - We spent a fast two days in Vicksburg to travel the battlefield in March, 2010. We spent a great deal of time traveling around the battlefield, and stayed overnight in Vicksburg. Good tip for a hotel, not so good experiences with restaurants unfortunately. But you can learn from our mistakes.
Living Civil War History - Civil War Reenactment in Jefferson, Texas - In May, 2010 we traveled to Living Civil War History a civil war reenactment in Jefferson, Texas. This trip report describes the event and provides reviews of two restaurants you don't want to miss.
Texas Civil War Museum - Fort Worth Texas - We have driven past this facility literally hundreds of times - it is within 10 miles of our house. Every time we see it, one of us will say to the other, "We need to check that place out - is it open?" Well, we finally broke down and went for a visit on February 27, 2010. Yes, it is open. We were pleasantly surprised at how nice it was inside too! Check out the trip report from the Texas Civil War Museum in Fort Worth, Texas.
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