I didn’t start out this week looking to write this blog post. But, with the debate over Confederate memorials front and center in the news, it is time to talk about visiting national battlefields and forts.
Since we started visiting parks in 2009, we have visited 23 battlefields and 11 different forts. These span from colonial Spain (San Juan National Historic Site and Gulf Islands National Seashore) to World War II (Gulf Islands National Seashore, again, and Tuskegee National Historic site). We have even visited where “the shot round the world” was fired at Minuteman National Historical Park and Minuteman Missile National Historic Site, where the world breathed a collective sigh of relief when no shots were fired.
The vast majority of the sites we have visited, however, have been Civil War battlefields. Our closest national park is Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park. The first trip in the camper was to Chattanooga, where we visited Chattanooga and Chickamauga National Military Park. Our most recent national park visit was to Shiloh National Military Park.
So, let’s talk about what it is to visit a national battlefield or fort.
(Disclaimer: When we link to places you can buy our stuff or places we stayed, we are using special codes which earn us commissions on the sales at no additional cost to you. Please see our Review Policy for more information.)
Visiting a Fort
There are several types of forts in the US. The majority on the East Coast are coastal defense forts erected after the War of 1812. These forts are designed to defend our harbors from coastal attack. Some, like Fort Jefferson in Dry Tortugas, were built after the Civil War.
All of these forts are pretty much the same in terms of architecture, but each of them has a unique story. Union forces quickly destroyed Fort Pulaski, near Savannah, during the Civil War with artillery. Fort Barancas in Gulf Islands National Seashore stayed intact through the war.
Heading out west, Fort Larned and Fort Laramie held Army outposts on the frontier with wooden buildings as opposed to hardened fortifications. That’s not to say there isn’t plenty of history to see, like the home of the Buffalo Soldiers at Fort Larned.
Bent’s Old Fort and Fort Union Trading Post are a bit unique. The government didn’t build them. Trading companies built these forts to allow for trade with the Native American tribes.
When visiting a fort, be sure to wear sturdy shoes. A lot of the forts have very tight stairs and plenty of rocks and uneven ground. Ranger tours and demonstrations are always cool, so check in with the visitor center for a schedule. Also, many forts will have living historians who explain what life was like when the fort was active.
Visiting a Battlefield
With few exceptions, national battlefields are not incredibly scenic. Most have large open fields and only a few vistas. Some have hiking trails, but, for most, the way to see the battlefield is by driving or biking the tour road.
The National Park Service does a very good job of making the driving tours informative, but understand what you will see: a lot of open fields. Depending on the battlefield, you might find stone memorials or grave markers.
Little Bighorn and the Battle Road running between Lexington and Concord have grave markers. I was particularly gratified to see markers for those who fell on both sides of the battle.
Your first stop for any battlefield should be the visitor center. You will find informative displays, relics from the battle and, typically, a movie to explain what happened in the battle. You will also find rangers who can show you the best way to visit the park and let you know of the ranger-led activities.
Most battlefields will have an informative movie. I find a good movie will explain a lot about the battle and the surrounding events leading up to it.
This was particularly helpful for Horseshoe Bend National Military Park in Alabama, which preserves the final battle of the Creek War. Before visiting the battlefield, I had never heard of the war, much less the battle.
Some battlefields have good hiking trails as well. We particularly enjoyed hiking the field at Saratoga National Historical Park, which is the site of the first big victory of the Revolutionary War. Be sure you check in with the rangers, however. The trail we hiked at Pea Ridge National Military Park was chock full of ticks.
Civil War Battlefields
All battlefields contain some monuments and informational placards. In the larger battlefields, especially in the east, stone monuments litter nearly every inch of open space. Indeed, at Gettysburg, it seems as though there is a monument behind every blade of grass.
The monuments honor the individual units which fought and died during the battles. There are monuments to many of the officers who died during the battle, as well as monuments commemorating the efforts by the states to the battle.
Gettysburg has so many monuments, many regard it as one of the largest collections of outdoor sculpture in the world. There are more than 1,300 monuments, markers and memorials at Gettysburg. The vast majority of those monuments were erected between 1880 and 1920.
With the recent controversy over Confederate monuments, it is important to note, just like Little Bighorn and the Battle Road, that we represent and memorialize both sides. I do not defend the “why” of the Civil War. But, please understand, many of those soldiers did not fight for the “cause.” They fought because they were drafted. They fought because their neighbors went to war. They fought for each other.
As a veteran, I am a firm believer in honoring those who fought, regardless of the side they fought on. And there is no better place to honor them than the fields where they fought and died.
A Final Note on Visiting National Battlefields and Forts
Since Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park is our closest park, it is probably wise to talk about etiquette.
Locals use Kennesaw Mountain NBP more for urban recreation than battlefield preservation these days. While the National Park Service does an excellent job preserving areas in the park for historic reasons, there is an ongoing conflict between rangers trying to preserve and locals looking for recreation. Indeed, there are several signs asking for folks not to play ball or sunbathe in various fields.
When you are visiting a battlefield, remember it is there to preserve where brave men died. Please follow the signs and treat the park with the appropriate respect.
We use Skyscanner to find deals on flights. Skyscanner has a great interface and compares tons of airlines for the best pricing and routing. That said, it does not always have every airline and some airlines will have better deals on their website. Still, Skyscanner is a great place to start.
Click here to search for a flight.
We typically stay at Hilton properties, so we use the Hilton website. You can find good Hilton Honors discounts or AAA discounts for a hotel there. We make great use of our free night certificates from our Hilton Honors American Express.
Click here to book a Hilton property.
If there are no Hilton properties available, we use TripAdvisor to read reviews and book the hotel. We find we can get the best price that way.
Click here to search for a hotel.
We recently partnered with Stay22 to add interactive maps to each of our destination posts. This will allow you to see a plethora of hotels and vacation rentals all in one responsive map of the area.
We use Vrbo for the times when we have rented a cabin for a weekend getaway, like this cabin in Townsend, TN, or needed to rent a house for a large family vacation. We had a great experience with them in terms of refunding deposits when COVID hit and will continue to use them.
Click here to search for a vacation rental.
As a general rule, we book with Hertz for rental cars. We have had nothing but good experiences with them. Plus, we really like unlimited mileage and not worrying about crossing state lines. We have even rented from Hertz overseas in both Slovenia and Croatia.
Click here to book a rental car.
We have found some amazing prices booking a cruise through Cruise Direct. We have saved a lot of money on our cruises compared to what we found elsewhere, making a last-minute Bahamas cruise even cheaper.
Click here to book a cruise.
We highly recommend Outdoorsy for RV rentals. We rented a camper van for a week to visit Rocky Mountain National Park for the elk rut and Custer State Park for the Buffalo Round-Up and had a blast. The program was easy to use and we really enjoyed the freedom of having a camper van for that trip.
Click here to rent an RV.
We don’t often book tours. Typically, we like to do stuff on our own. That said, there are some experiences you just can’t have any other way. So, when we do want to book a tour, we always check Viatour first.
Click here to book a tour.
We make extensive use of both Good Sam and AAA on the road. Good Sam is normally regarded as a discount card for RVers at campgrounds and Camping World but anyone can use the 5 cents off a gallon at the pump at both Pilot and Flying J.
Click here to get a Good Sam membership.
We have had AAA as long as we have been married and it has more than paid for itself in discounts at hotels, aside from the peace of mind of having roadside assistance. Add in paper maps and the ability to get an international driver’s license and it is more than worth it for any traveler out there.
Click here to get a AAA membership.