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Hiking through History ...Touring Civil War Battle Sites

Hiking through History
Touring Civil War Battle Sites

Elementary school field trips and family weekend excursions to battle sites weren't on my top list of things to do when I was young. Now, as a parent of three, I understand the importance behind the trips. My stepfather was someone who knew every little thing about the area he lived in. Every weekend, if we weren't at bluegrass festivals, we were hiking through history.
We've seen the Paw Paw Tunnel more times than I'd like to mention, strolled down the Sunken Road in the Antietam Battlefield once or twice, and even toured local cemeteries known for their picturesque uniqueness and to visit those who were buried there.
Battlefields sprawl across thousands of acres of farmland, consuming towns, rolling over mountains, crossing rivers, spreading endlessly through small towns and through forests. Most of these sites are dotted with monuments, towers, pillars, statues, and plaques paying tribute to the soldiers who fought there.
Battle sites mean forests and fields, mountainsides and rivers, basically--most of what you see (and can't see). Some of the most critical Civil War events took place in what is now some of the most beautiful, serene, and still relatively unspoiled countryside.
Here is a little Hiking through History:
Harpers Ferry National Historical Park
The battle that took place at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, from September 12 to 15, 1862. This battle was not a major conflict of the Civil War. Harpers Ferry is noteworthy for the role it played in preparing the south for its next major battle--the Battle of Antietam--and for its many layers of history, before and after this battle.
The town changed hands, from north to south, eight times between 1861 and 1865. Its mixture of history and natural beauty makes it worth visiting.
The Battle of Harpers Ferry took place in September 1862 as part of the Maryland Campaign. Wishing to capture the Union garrison stationed here, General Robert E. Lee divided his army into four columns, three of which met in Harpers Ferry. With Confederate artillery in place on Loudoun and Maryland Heights overlooking the town, Union Commander Colonel Miles was forced to surrender 12,500 soldiers on September 15 to Confederate Major General Thomas J. Jackson.
The defeat gave the south the war's largest capture of troops and freed Confederate forces to provide much-needed backup for their counterparts at Antietam. Two months later, the Union returned to Harpers Ferry and fortified the surrounding heights. In 1864, Union General Philip H. Sheridan used Harpers Ferry as his base of operations against Confederate troops in the Shenandoah Valley.
For you What-To-Doers: Harpers Ferry is a town rather than a blanket of fields. With restored buildings, quaint shops, and riverside location, Harpers Ferry is a pleasant stop for an afternoon pause.
The park itself covers 2,343 acres. The visitors' center is located on Cavalier Heights and is home to a Civil War museum that details Civil War action in the area. From the visitors' center, a shuttle bus will take tourists to the Lower Town District, where buildings have been maintained and restored to reflect the Civil War era. Just outside park boundaries, boutiques and restaurants line the lower town's streets.
Antietam National Battlefield
The Battle of Antietam (or Sharpsburg, as the South called it) took place September 17, 1862, just two days after Union soldiers surrendered at Harpers Ferry. It was the first major Civil War engagement on northern soil and the bloodiest day in American history. Here, an army of 41,000 Confederate soldiers battled a Union force twice its size. Some 22,726 Americans were killed or wounded at Antietam-nine times as many as were killed or wounded in the D day invasion of World War II.
Although the battle is officially considered a draw, it is widely held as a strategic victory for the north, since the Confederates withdrew to Virginia. The battle also led President Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, which gave the war the twofold purpose of preserving the union and freeing the slaves.
Antietam National Battlefield's 3,365 acres are peppered with 103 monuments, 500 cannons, and 300 War Department tablets, which detail troop movements and activity. Since they're scattered, your best bet is to start at the visitors' center, which has a small museum, documentaries, and ranger talks. For a summary of the battle, check out the 26-minute film Antietam.
Now get out there and do some of your own Hiking Through History excursions with your family.

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