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A Walk Amongst the Dead – Hiking History’s Battlefields

February 1, 2024
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A famous fictional character, speaking of the annihilation of his people, once said “Stand amongst the ashes of a trillion dead souls, and ask the ghosts if honor matters. The silence is your answer.” While the statement holds some wisdom, the reverse more often feels true. Walking through those fields upon which warriors gave their lives in just cause for the preservation of their people, one may find it difficult to not feel a strength and inspiration from that hallowed earth. 

Many battlefields have been preserved either in their natural state, or as the sites of combat they once were to commemorate their history. These exist as local, state, or federal parks and preserves, which can be accessed by the public, especially those who take advantage of the National Park Service’s America the Beautiful military and veteran passes. These are just a few places to spend some time hiking in the sunlight, and reflect on those who came before.

Gettysburg National Military Park, Pennsylvania

The iconic Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania park boasts an extensive network of hiking trails that wind through the rolling hills and historic landmarks. Hikers can explore areas of interest both topographical and historic, like Little Round Top, Devil's Den, and the Peach Orchard while reflecting on the sacrifices made during this pivotal battle.

The Battle of Gettysburg was fought on the first three days of July in 1863, during the Civil War. The conflict unfolded as Union and Confederate forces clashed in a fierce struggle for control, becoming the largest engagement of the war, with massive casualties inflicted on each side. General George G. Meade led the Union forces against Confederate General Robert E. Lee; despite Lee’s prowess in battles prior, the Union emerged as the victors. The Battle of Gettysburg is remembered for its strategic significance and for the sheer carnage wrought on the field of combat.

Antietam National Battlefield, Maryland

Further south lies Antietam National Battlefield in Maryland. The hiking trails guide visitors through the picturesque landscape, passing by the Dunker Church, Burnside Bridge, and Bloody Lane. Hikers can absorb the solemn atmosphere while contemplating the impact of this significant Civil War clash or reflect on their own experiences of difficult conflicts.

The Battle of Antietam was fought on September 17, 1862, near Sharpsburg. Standing as the bloodiest single-day battle in American history, Antietam marked a critical moment in the Civil War, pitting General George McClellan’s Union Army of the Potomac against the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, commanded by General Robert E. Lee. The brutal conflict resulted in staggering casualties on both sides, with over 23,000 soldiers killed, wounded, or missing. Despite the heavy toll, the battle ended inconclusively, but it provided a strategic advantage for the Union. The shock of Antietam prompted President Abraham Lincoln to finally issue the Emancipation Proclamation, altering the war's course by declaring that all slaves in Confederate-held territories were to be freed.

Shiloh National Military Park, Tennessee

Heading westward, Shiloh National Military Park in Tennessee invites hikers to explore the site of the Battle of Shiloh. The park's trails wind through lush woods and open fields, leading visitors to the Hornet's Nest, Peach Orchard, and Shiloh Church. Walking in the footsteps of soldiers, hikers gain a deeper appreciation for the strategic maneuvers and sacrifices made during this early Civil War engagement.

The Battle of Shiloh, also known as the Battle of Pittsburg Landing, unfolded on April 6th and 7th, 1862, near Shiloh Church in Tennessee during the Civil War. Union forces, led by General Ulysses S. Grant, faced Confederate troops under General Albert Sidney Johnston. As with the previous battles mentioned, fierce fighting and high casualties on both sides were an unfortunate staple of this engagement. Initially caught off guard, the Union forces managed to regroup and hold their ground, and the arrival of reinforcements on the second day turned the tide in favor of the Union. The Confederates were forced to retreat, but the cost of that victory was high.

Saratoga National Historical Park, New York

Saratoga National Historical Park in upstate New York offers a captivating hiking experience. Hikers can explore the park's trails, which pass by the Barber Wheatfield, Freeman Farm, and the famous Saratoga Monument. As they tread through scenic landscapes, hikers can reflect on those who fought and perished to ensure the birth of a new nation.

The Battle of Saratoga, fought in 1777 during the Revolutionary War, is recognized as a turning point in the conflict in favor of the colonists. Taking place in upstate New York, the battle unfolded in two key engagements: the Battle of Freeman's Farm and the Battle of Bemis Heights. British General John Burgoyne faced off against American forces led by Generals Horatio Gates and Benedict Arnold (before the treason). The Americans successfully thwarted Burgoyne's advances, leading to his surrender on October 17, 1777. This victory bolstered American morale, secured crucial foreign support, most of which from France, and ultimately contributed to the turning of the tide in favor of the United States in its quest for independence. 

Kings Mountain National Military Park, South Carolina

Kings Mountain National Military Park in South Carolina allows hikers to traverse the park's trails, experiencing the rugged terrain where American militia clashed with Loyalist forces. The Overmountain Victory Trail offers a particularly scenic and historically rich route for those seeking a deeper connection in combination with a view that reminds us of why our nation is referred to as America the Beautiful.

The Battle of Kings Mountain, fought on October 7, 1780, during the Southern Theater of the Revolutionary War, was a pivotal clash between American patriots and Loyalist forces. The battle unfolded atop the eponymous mountain and proved to be a turning point in the conflict, due to the leadership of American commanders like Isaac Shelby and John Sevier. The patriot militia launched a successful assault on the Loyalist troops under Major Patrick Ferguson embarrassing the British commander with asymmetrical warfare on already difficult terrain. The Battle of Kings Mountain is celebrated as a significant patriot triumph, boosting morale, and weakening British influence in the Southern colonies. 

Hiking through American battlefields provides a unique opportunity to merge a love for the outdoors with a passion for history and appreciation for our legacy. These five battlefields, each with its own story and significance, offer us a chance to step back in time and gain a profound understanding of the sacrifices and struggles that shaped the nation. They say the most important step a man can take is the next one, yet we must always remember the road already traveled.

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