What is Your Favorite Civil War Battlefield?
I will never miss a chance to go to Gettysburg. I love it there...I really do. And here's why: for a historian who focuses on Civil War memory, Gettysburg is sort of like a remembrance epicenter. Veterans of the war certainly saw it that way - in the decades following the war, they flocked there to walk in their 1863 footsteps, hold reunions, dedicate monuments, and commemorate their respective causes.
Former soldiers from both sides emphasized the "turning point" theme - a problematic issue to be sure, but one that they seemed eager to employ in speeches and monument dedications. The overwhelming number of monuments on the field today were dedicated by Union veterans. Reading through the thousands of monument inscriptions leaves one with little doubt that the preservation of Union was paramount. For those who wish to peel back a few layers of Civil War memory, there are many speech transcriptions available in the Gettysburg archives (and elsewhere) that accent emancipation - a cause veterans celebrated with often equal importance.
If you are lucky, you can make the time here to walk out on the battlefield when all the tourists have gone back to their hotels for the evening. I once managed to find myself all alone on the Union line (at the Pennsylvania monument) shortly after the sun went down. With no other human in sight, I heard a group of visitors off in the distance shouting a few huzzahs. It was a Civil War moment like none other.
The town of Gettysburg is worth the visit as well. Pretty much everything is built around the tourist industry, and it is likely that you will run across a number of people in period dress just walking around. I like to strike up conversations with these folks just to see what they are up to - and to find out what they find most compelling about the Civil War era. You will discover that most are very happy to tell you.
A close second on my list of must-see battlefields is Shiloh. Now this is a completely different experience. The field is much more isolated
from civilization, as it were, and there will generally be fewer visitors stomping around...especially if you choose to visit on a weekday in mid August or something. My advice is to brave the oppressive heat and humidity and have the battlefield pretty much to yourself. At Shiloh I can walk in the footsteps of my own Civil War ancestors who fought with the 16th Alabama infantry (Hardee's Corps). I know of one who was wounded there - Andrew Jackson Holbert. As the family legend goes, having enough of fighting, he walked home to Lawrence Country, Alabama after the battle to nurse his wound. Later he reenlisted (read: conscription caught up to the intrepid private Holbert) and wound up fighting with the 27th Alabama until the end of the war.
Of course, I enjoy myself whenever I visit any Civil War battlefield. Antietam and ColdHarbor rank high in my book. Manassas makes the short list too (two battles for the price of one!). Maybe it's because I like getting hopelessly lost for several hours in the Virginia heat with a limited water supply. Or maybe it's because I like the Stonewall equestrian monument - where both Jackson and his horse look like comic book super heroes.
I imagine you will have your own reasons for visiting a Civil War battlefield. I just say go whenever you get the chance.