Presidents Day (Civil War Edition)

Posted by on February 19, 2013 in travels | Comments Off

Yesterday, we observed Presidents Day by heading down to the Petersburg National Battlefield.  I’ve wanted to go there since I watched Ken Burns’s documentary on the Civil War — his description of the trenches and the earthworks fascinated me.  Of course, I *wasn’t* interested in going during the assorted Sesquicentennial celebrations, and at a little over 2 hours from the house, Petersburg isn’t a totally casual afternoon drive…

But yesterday, we finally got down there.  I was intrigued to discover that were were practically the only non-military visitors to the park.  (As a National Park, the Battlefield gives reduce-fee (free?) entrance to military personnel, and there are lots of bases in the general vicinity.)

The Battlefield has a National Parks outpost, where we could watch an orientation film, see some artifacts, and pin down a ranger to answer questions.  Then, we headed out on the self-guided tour of (part of the massive) battlefield itself.

Some of the sites were surprising, in how very little remains.  Others, though, were impressive — one reconstructs the trenches and earthworks, as they were in 1864.  And it was striking how minimal the “forts” were, where soldiers made last stands (for the most part, they were earthwork star-shaped formations, of thirty or forty yards across).  Most meaningful to me, though, was the Crater and its accompanying mine shaft — Pennsylvania coal-miners fighting for the Union dug a 500-yard tunnel, set off tons of explosives, and created a massive crater.  Alas, through poor management or planning or something, Union troops then ran *into* the crater, creating a killing pit for thousands, who fell to Confederate soldiers.  The failure of the Crater led to months more of siege and some additional fighting — all told, more men died in 9 months at Petersburg than in the entire Vietnam War.

When we got home, we re-watched the Burns documentary section on Petersburg.  I got shivery, seeing the photographs that were taken 150 years ago at the site where I had just been standing…

So, that was my American history day.  Today, I’m back in the swing of writing.  And writing.  And more writing…

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