“…Obviously I’m working on a story, and here’s what I need to know: Why do battlefields have the power to entrance us? So maybe not everyone has that feeling. Maybe it’s just the buffs who stand there in a trance. I’ve often been struck by the way a Civil War battlefield is the very opposite of the Civil War itself. They’re so serene. They’re orderly. There are informational signs everywhere. I would not be surprised to learn that Gettysburg is a giant no-smoking zone (will check). But for those of us who have read a lot about these battles — and who know about the Peach Orchard, and Little Round Top, and Culp’s Hill, and so on — there’s something powerful about seeing the actual place, and just standing there. You think: This was the place. These were the rocks. This was the view. And all the smoke and dust and fire and blood and gore, you impose that yourself. Because it really happened. And ultimately it was really tragic.”
Cassi Creek: Battlefields are haunting and haunted places.
The majority of visitors to historical battlefields in this period have never been involved in armed combat. They may come alone, in small groups, or on tour busses, with guides who try to condense what should take days to experience into minutes.
The battlefield “buffs” tend to know the history before they arrive at a particular site. They can generally match the current topography to the old maps. They know where the various formations mustered and which paths they took when marched off into the active battle...
There are facts and factors that tend to be universal within particular wars. The hardware and the disposition of troops define the period of history. As the tools become more deadly, the casualties become more numerous.
Artillery has been around since gunpowder became available. Crew-served weapons, cannon, culverin, etc, require attention to detail. Every preparatory step must be followed exactly to ensure the shot goes down range and that no spark remains in the gun to ignite the next powder charge prematurely. Guns that have been fired repeatedly may become hot enough to cook off a round left in the barrel too long. Artillery and infantry tactics from the earliest battles up to the American Civil War were fought in much the same manner. Massed troops from one army were marched or driven into the opposing army’s lines. Eventually one force defeated the other. Individual weapons were edged, pointed, and brutal in nature and function. The weapons changed over the years allowing greater distances between the two forces at first contact. However, then and now, technology and hardware do not capture and hold ground. In the vast majority of battles, it has come down to infantry assaulting fixed positions.
Gettysburg is a prime example of the end of Napoleonic wars and the beginning of modern, mechanized wars. Thousands of men contested for high ground in the face of withering rifle and artillery fire. In many instances, the combat deteriorated to hand-to-hand, fighting with bayonets, using rifles as clubs when lacking time to reload.
I am one of the people who stand and stares at battlefields. I saw the cannon emplacements at Cemetery Ridge, at the Round Tops, It was impossible not to see the opposing infantry trying to assault uphill while the cannon above them blew the world apart around them. It was impossible not to hear the order to crank the cannon down to zero elevation and to load with grape and canister rounds. It was impossible to ignore the smells and sounds that are endemic to any battlefield. It was impossible to avoid the continual cold shivers running down my spine or to ignore the dim ghostly images that were there to be seen and heard at Gettysburg and at every other battlefield I’ve walked.
The tools of war continue to change as technology evolves and expands. The ghosts left behind by those tools never change in nature, only in number.