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On Hallowed Ground


The last shot fired in the Civil War was from a cannon on a Confederate navy ship two months after the war had officially ended. On June 22, 1865, the CSS Shenandoah, a Confederate raiding ship, fired a warning shot over a Union whaler it had been pursuing for hours. The Shenandoah had been at sea for months and its captain, James Waddell, didn’t know that General Lee surrendered at Appomattox in April. He didn’t find out the Confederates had lost until he read about it in a newspaper in August of 1865. Disillusioned by the outcome of the war, Waddell refused to surrender to Union forces. Instead, he set sail for England and surrendered to the British army, saying, “it is incompatible with virtue that the South should ever be reconciled to the North.”

I like this story because it confirms what I’ve always suspected about the South: We’ve never really, wholeheartedly surrendered to the Union. Bands of renegade Confederate soldiers continued fighting the war from remote mountaintops years after Lee had surrendered his sword. Many Southerners keep up that resistance still today, albeit in a less violent manner. One of the first things I learned about the Civil War when I was a kid was that we don’t call it the “Civil War.” According to my relatives, there was nothing “civil” about that war. Below the Mason-Dixon line, you can refer to it as the “War Between the States” or, if you’re still a little bitter about the outcome, “The War of Northern Aggression.” Some people still refer to it as “The Great Rebellion.”

Regardless of its name, the Civil War is still very much a part of our lives in the South.

I grew up on the edge of a major Civil War battlefield. I played on cannons and in trenches dug into the sides of a mountain. I watched countless reenactments and scanned my backyard with a metal detector looking for stray bullets.

A transplant from New York once asked me why so many Southerners can’t let go of the war. I gave him the easy answer, which was, because we lost. But the truth is, no war-torn country ever forgets. Both sides fought the Civil War, but the majority of the battles took place here in the Southeast, in our backyards, on our mountains. It was our landscape that was devastated, our cities that were burned. That’s a hard thing to forget, even several generations after the carnage.

The trick then, is to honor the history without becoming overwhelmed by it, which is why I think it’s appropriate that the South’s outdoor recreation infrastructure is largely based on Civil War battlefields. Legions of Blue and Gray troops turned farms, mountains, and rivers into war-torn battlefields throughout the Southeast. Today, those battlefields have been preserved as state parks, national parks, and green spaces.

“Preserving a battlefield and establishing recreation on that land is like killing two birds with one stone,” says Mary Koik, deputy director of communications for the Civil War Preservation Trust, a non-profit devoted to preserving battlefields. “Plus, in the Southeast, where the majority of battles were fought, these battlefields are the only green space available.”

This is certainly the case in areas like metro-Atlanta, where the Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park acts as a living history museum and a Central Park for Atlanta residents. At Kennesaw, singletrack runs alongside trenches dug by Confederate soldiers. Popular climbing routes along the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area were originally scaled by Union troops. In parks across the Southern Appalachians, hiking trails often lead to old forts and earthworks built to defend mountain passes.

“It can be a strange juxtaposition,” says Benita Duling, public information officer for Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park. “It’s hard to balance the two interests. People come here for recreation because our trails are extensive, but they may not have knowledge of the history that took place along those trails, and unintentionally, they may not have as much respect for those trenches and rifle lines as is appropriate.”

With the balance of history and recreation in mind, here is a look at some of the South’s most cherished battlefields, from the battles that made them worth preserving, to the recreation that keeps them relevant to outdoor enthusiasts today.
Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park –
Chattanooga, Tenn.

The Battle

Chickamauga protects the scene of one of the bloodiest battles in the Civil War, which was also the last significant victory for the Confederates. Under the command of General Rosecrans, the Union army suffered one of the worst defeats of any army in the history of the U.S. General Rosecrans, trying to push further south, met with massive Confederate resistance along the Chickamauga Creek. The fighting was chaotic due to the dense forest, which kept visibility to less than 150 feet. Men wandered away from their units and messages from the commanders never reached the troops, so enlisted men were forced to make decisions on their own. On the second day, Confederate troops managed to organize and break Union lines, prompting General Rosecrans to flee the battlefield, leaving his troops and subordinate commanders on their own. The battle of Chickamauga bore 35,000 casualties and effectively ended Rosecrans’ career. Lincoln quickly replaced the general with Ulysses S. Grant, who was fresh from a major victory at Vicksburg.
Paddle North Chickamauga Creek

This classic Southern creek boating run features 12 miles of class IV-V whitewater on the edge of Chattanooga, right where the bloody battle of Chickamauga begun. Appropriately, Chickamauga is a Native American term that means “river of blood.”
Climb Sunset Rock

On top of Lookout Mountain, Sunset Rock is home to one of the oldest and best-established climbing areas in the Southeast. Miles of sandstone cliff cover the face of Lookout, offering steep crack and face climbs. Almost 300 routes have been established along the 100-foot tall sandstone walls, but access is always tenuous, so be on your best behavior.
Hike The Cumberland Trail

Chickamauga National Battlefield Park is the southern terminus of this 300-mile hiking trail, and the section closest to Chattanooga follows the ridgeline above the Tennessee River. Take the short hike from Signal Point to Edwards Point, two natural overlooks that were used by Confederate soldiers to monitor Union troop movement along the Tennessee River.

Gathland State Park/ South Mountain State Battlefield – Boonsboro, Md.

The relatively small Gathland State Park (143 acres) preserves one of the more significant but often overlooked battles of the Civil War: the Battle for South Mountain. It’s also home to a gorgeous section of the Appalachian Trail.

The Battle

The Battle for South Mountain is often considered to be merely a prelude to the massive Battle at Antietam, but historians note that South Mountain is perhaps more significant, because the battle abruptly ended General Lee’s Maryland Campaign. In September, 1862, Lee pushed to invade the North through Maryland, hoping to seize control of the border state, effectively surrounding the Union Capital of D.C. with Confederate territory. The invasion, which essentially began and ended with South Mountain, was seen as the Confederate’s best chance for independence, and Lee considered it a move that could likely lead to a negotiated peace.

Lee moved 12,000 Confederate soldiers to the rugged gaps of South Mountain, where he faced 38,000 Union soldiers. The battle over the mountain gaps was one of the few instances of hand-to-hand combat during the Civil War. Fighting in close proximity, Union and Confederate soldiers resorted to bayonets and clubbed muskets. The Confederate advance was thwarted, and the South took on the lion’s share of casualties during the day. The defeat forced Lee on the defensive, and he spent the rest of the war reacting to the Union’s advances instead of marching into Pennsylvania, which was his original plan.

Two future presidents fought in the Battle for South Mountain: Rutherford B. Hayes and William McKinley.


A ten-mile stretch of the Appalachian Trail runs from South Mountain in Maryland to Harper’s Ferry National Historic Park in West Virginia, connecting two Civil War monuments. The portion along South Mountain is the only section of the A.T. that passes through a major Civil War battlefield along the entire 2,000-mile length of the trail. Hike the A.T. through Crampton, Fox, and Turner Gaps, the three major sights of the Battle for South Mountain.

Cumberland Gap National Historic Park – Middlesboro, Ky.

Cumberland Gap stretches across the corners of Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia, encompassing a v-shaped indentation in the Cumberland Mountains that was used by Native Americans and then European settlers as a gateway into what is now Kentucky.

The Battle

Cumberland Gap held strategic value to both the Confederate and Union armies, as it was the most natural path between Kentucky, Tennessee, and western Virginia. The Union army started recruiting troops in Kentucky as early as July 1861 with an eye on taking control of the gap. At the same time, Confederates were already building several forts on the north-facing slope of Cumberland Mountain, but had to abandon the gap a year later when their forces were needed elsewhere. The Union army took control of the gap without firing a shot and built nine forts on the south-facing slope, occupying the mountain with 20,000 men. Still, there was no action. With designs on the gap again, the Confederate troops entered Kentucky further west, cutting off the Union supply line. Without supplies, the Union army was forced to abandon its post on Cumberland Gap and the Confederates took it over again—also without firing a shot.

In September 1862, Union General John Fitzroy De Courcy was ordered to take the gap at any cost. With only 1,700 soldiers in his charge, De Courcy opted against a full-on attack of the heavily fortified gap. Instead, he divided his troops into small groups, then marched them down a hillside one group at a time in plain view of the Confederates occupying the forts. Once his troops were out of sight, De Courcy had them double back through the woods and march down the hillside again, giving the illusion that his numbers were great. The Confederates, thinking they were outnumbered, surrendered their post on Cumberland Gap the next day, and the strategic mountain range remained in Union hands until the end of the war.

Though it was an important outpost occupied consistently throughout the war, battles bypassed Cumberland Gap, largely because of its isolated and rugged nature. No general, on either side, wanted to face a full frontal attack on Cumberland’s steep slopes.
Hike The Ridge Trail

Cumberland Gap maintains 70 miles of hiking trails, but for a unique hike through history, tackle the 21-mile Ridge Trail, which runs the length of the park along the ridge of Cumberland Mountain. Start at Pinnacle Overlook, with views of the entire gap as well as Fern Lake in the distance, and hike east through overlooks, gaps, cemeteries, settlements, and the occasional Civil War marker.

National Capital Parks – Washington, D.C.

The Park

National Capital Parks is actually a series of green spaces based on the forts and defensive lines that surrounded D.C. during the Civil War. Most of the forts were deconstructed and sold after 1865, but some were reconstructed years later to honor the war. Today, the parks serve as an urban playground for D.C. residents, but traces of trenches dug by Union soldiers can still be found in the wooded green spaces surrounding D.C.

The Battle

As the capital of the Union, the District of Columbia was used as the training ground for Union troops and the supply depot for the war effort. Every inch of the city was dedicated to the cause. It was also a capital that was surrounded by hostile territory. Virginia seceded from the Union in April 1861, and even though Maryland didn’t secede, the state was full of Confederate sympathizers who burned Maryland’s bridges and rail lines in an attempt to keep Union soldiers from reaching D.C. In order to protect the nation’s capital from potential attacks, 68 forts were built around the city, a defensive line that was stocked with 807 cannons. Twenty miles of rifle trenches were dug and 30 miles of military roads were built. By the end of the war, the District of Columbia was the most fortified city in the world.

Surprisingly, there was only one Confederate attack on the city. On July 12, 1864, the Confederates rushed Fort Stevens on the northern edge of town. President Lincoln stood at the fort surveying the battlefield. The attack was squelched by the heavily armored fort, but it was the only time in American history that a sitting president came under enemy fire during a time of war.
Run Fort Circle National Recreation Trail

The 8-mile trail follows a chain of forts established to guard bridges, Capitol Hill, and a few naval installations against potential Confederate approaches through Southern Maryland. Check out what’s left of Fort Dupont, which at one time was protected by a moat with felled trees arranged like spikes.

Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park – Marietta, Ga.

Amid the sprawl of ever-expanding metro Atlanta, Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park is a respite of much-needed green space. The park consists of 3,000 acres of rolling fields and rocky peaks with the 1,800-foot Kennesaw Mountain as its centerpiece. The Battle of Kennesaw Mountain is well-preserved with trench lines, cannons, and historical markers highlighting the park’s rugged trails. You can even find large boulders where Confederate soldiers carved their names before the battle.

The Battle

Kennesaw Mountain saw some of the heaviest fighting during the Atlanta Campaign. It was also one of the few Confederate victories of that portion of the war.

Roughly 5,000 soldiers were killed on and around the mountain, with Sherman’s Union soldiers taking the brunt of the casualties during a two-week series of battles. Sherman’s army boasted 100,000 men, 254 cannons, and 35,000 horses. The Confederate army only had 63,000 men and 187 cannons, but the Confederates were heavily entrenched on and around Kennesaw Mountain and had the upper hand associated with higher elevation. From the mountaintops, Confederates could see every move Sherman made.

Historians still don’t quite understand why Sherman insisted on a frontal assault of Kennesaw. The 1,800-foot mountain stood between the Union Army and a Confederate railroad and manufacturing center, but Sherman could have bypassed the mountain altogether on his march toward Atlanta. Perhaps it was the constant rain that kept the roads thick with mud, making troop movement difficult, or perhaps it was Sherman’s ego. Whatever the reason, the Union general opted for a frontal attack on Kennesaw and its surrounding hills, and suffered heavy casualties at the hands of the Confederates who were dug into the mountainside.
Run The Kolb Farm Loop

Roughly 18 miles of trails bisect the 3,000-acre national park unit, ranging from stroller-friendly interpretive trails to steep, rocky singletrack. High school and collegiate cross country teams train at Kennesaw every weekend, and trail runners flock to Kennesaw for their training.
Hike Kennesaw Mountain

Because Kennesaw offers steep elevation gain and rugged terrain close to Springer, many A.T. thru-hikers use the mountain to train for their 2,175-mile push toward Maine. Check out the Kennesaw Mountain Trail, which starts from the visitor’s center and climbs 700 feet in just over a mile to Kennesaw’s summit. From the top of Kennesaw, you can see Atlanta’s skyline 30 miles to the south.

Five Most Endangered Battlefields

Think all of the Civil War battlefields are preserved as parks and monuments? Think again.
“It’s a common misconception that all of our important battlefields are already preserved,” says Mary Koik of the Civil War Preservation Trust. “Only 20% of the major battlefields are preserved today. The rest are on private land or already developed into shopping malls or neighborhoods. Everyday, we lose 30 acres of battlefield.”

Here’s a look at the five most endangered Civil War Battlefields according to the Civil War Preservation Trust. Not surprisingly, most of them sit below the Mason-Dixon Line.


The bloodiest day of battle in American history, Antietam bore 23,000 casualties. The battlefield itself is well-preserved, but a proposed cell phone tower would be visible from almost every corner of the field.


The Confederate’s last stand in the Shenandoah Valley could be marred by the proposal to expand a nearby limestone quarry onto 639 acres adjacent to the preserved battlefield.


This was the site of the final infantry battle of the 1864 Overland Campaign, as well as one of the most lopsided victories of the war. Only 300 acres of the 7,500-acre battlefield are now preserved. Growth around Richmond is so great, that a recent city plan designates portions of the battlefield as suitable for development.


Part of the three-day Battle of Gettysburg, Hunterstown was recently recognized by the park service, but is experiencing rapid housing development and is located inside the National Interest Electricity Corridor, which allows the construction of power lines on preserved land.


The battle at Monocacy slowed the Confederate attack on Washington D.C. long enough to allow Union reinforcements to reach the city, making Monocacy the “battle that saved Washington.” Today, attempts to widen Highway 270 through the battlefield could threaten the integrity of the monument.

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