Friday, September 16, 2011

America's Forts And Battlefields--Echos In Time

Scattered across America are bits and pieces of yesteryear, places where the past permeates the shadows and memories lie tucked away like old clothes in dusty, forgotten attics. It is in these places that pulse-quickening accounts of long-ago battles stir the imagination. Sometimes the tale is of impossibly heroic feats. Other times it relates dogged resistance against overwhelming odds. Still other times it is the story of two cultures clashing head-on, writing history in indelible red. All are echos in time. And they have names like Vicksburg, the Alamo, and Custer Battlefield.

They are fragments of the time when America was being forged. Yet they are places that can never be fully understood or appreciated, for no longer does the air surrounding them reek with the pungence of burning powder. Nor does the ground reverberate with the shock of bursting shell. Neither does the wind carry the cries of the wounded or dying. All are peaceful now; almost parklike.

Hastily fashioned earthworks have rounded off into smooth hillocks overgrown with grassy mats; dusty swales have turned into shaded glens; cannons stand silent, guarding imaginary foe; old battlelines are edged with miles of serpentining asphalt.

Our historic lands have been redefined--by man and time. Yet not entirely. Pieces of the puzzle remain: here a Mississippi bluff where the Confederates made a a grand stand; there a Montana grassland speckled by white grave markers; over there a crumbling church where 183 determined men fought to the death against thousands of Mexican soldiers.

Fit into the puzzle the irregular shapes of the Revolutionary and Civil War battlefields, the ruts of the Oregon and Santa Fe Trails, and the many forts that marked the ever-changing forefront of western civilization and you have a picture of America being forged. Rich is the one who pokes through the past long enough to see how the pieces fit together. Each is an outdoor archive and en-masse they bespeak the courage and tenacity of a people who took a wilderness called the New World and carved out of it one of the most powerful nations on earth. They are yesteryear's legacies. And all you need do to find them is stand very still...and listen for the echo.


Looking toward the Little Bighorn River's
treeline along U.S. 212 in Montana.
While other battlegrounds have undergone some transformation, little has changed in the Valley of the Little Bighorn since that fateful June day in 1876 when 700 men of the Seventh U.S. Cavalry under General George Armstrong Custer met up with the largest concentration of Plains Indians ever to assemble--about 10,000-12,000, almost half of them warriors.

The 285 men fighting alongside Custer perished. Those under the command of Captains Benteen and Reno saw heavy losses, although they managed to hold their defensive line throughout the two-day battle. The siege ended when the Indians withdrew, just ahead of approaching columns of additional cavalry.

The Custer Battlefield of today remains almost as it was. The river has not altered its landscape. Neither has a modern city paved it over. With few exceptions, it is still a simple expanse of hilly grasslands where crickets buzz nosily and grasshoppers hide amidst tangles of amber stalks. It is, perhaps, this very consistency that evokes in visitors the unexplainable impression that the Last Stand battle is only just over.

Perhaps the cause of this eerie mood is the reality of the landscape. Or the mournful silence. Or the fact that the battlefield sits at the heart of the Crow Reservation. Maybe it's that many of the visitors are native Americans, come to experience for themselves the site of their ancestors' greatest victory over those who would take their land and engulf them forever.

Maybe it's the cluster of small white tombstones along the ridgeline. Maybe it's the hundreds more that dot the hills--one here, a couple over there, a little grouping somewhere else. Each marks the spot where a soldier's body was found, more than 300 in all, creating a visual zig-zag of flight that stretches almost from the river's edge to just beyond the crest of the highest bluff--a great sweeping emptiness where there is still no place to run and nowhere to hide.


The Alamo is in San Antonio, TX
There are no markers for the men who died at El Alamo in San Antonio, for there were no bodies to inter after the 13-day siege in which all 188 of the defenders lost their lives. The merciless Mexican general, Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, heading an army of 5,000, ordered the 188 dead carried outside the walls, stacked like firewood and torched.

Today only a hollow tomb marks the spot where the butchered remains of Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie, William Travis, James Bonham and a host of lesser-known but equally heroic patriots were cremated on a cold, wet day in 1836.

The stench of the funeral pyre is long gone. So are the little gray tents of the Mexican army--a canvas blanket that stretched across the rolling prairie almost as far as the eye could see. Gone, too, is the blood-red flag hoisted by Santa Anna as a warning that there would be no quarter; no mercy; that any man left alive when the Alamo fell would be put to the sword. No more does the countryside resound to the bugled strains of the Deuguello, and old Moorish chant that roused the Mexican army to the cutting of throats.

The small Spanish mission has since been called the "Shrine of Texas Liberty" for little more than a month after the Alamo's fall, the 800 men of the Texas army launched a furious attack on the army of Santa Anna. He was captured and Texas became a free republic.

The Alamo still stands--a reminder that the price of liberty is often high. Of course, the years have wrought some changes. The San Antonio river, which once flowed almost directly in front of the old mission, is now channeled underground, and the far-reaching mesquite thickets and undulating prairies have been covered over with the concrete and neon of modern San Antonio. But step inside the Alamo walls and you're in another dimension--a sort of twilight zone where time and space seem almost to have vanished.

Two Spanish cannons guard the southeastern gate, two more the western gate. In the courtyard stands a 12 pounder used to defend the Alamo, and the well, dug so hastily by those inside the crumbling walls, is now a wishing well. The chapel is hushed and dimly lit, its shadows pulsating a silence that is felt rather than heard. Here is the Baptistery where 14 women and children hid during the killing time. Here, too, is the room where Jim Bowie died. A cubicle along one wall contains a Kentucky rifle found after the battle; another houses the flags of 20 states and six countries, origins of the patriots who fell here.


Many of the park's 124 cannons reside
as they once did--along battlelines.
The defenders of the Alamo held out for 13 days before the end came. The people of Vicksburg, Mississippi were locked inside their town for 47 days during a crucial Civil War battle, before Confederate Lt. General John C. Pemberton was forced to surrender both the city and his men to Ulysses S. Grant.

It was not that the Vicksburg defenders had lost the will to fight. It was only that munitions were critically low, water was scarce, and food had dwindled down to horsemeat, mulemeat, and as many rats as could be found.

The victory gave the North control of the Mississippi River and cut the Confederacy in two. But it was not without cost. About 17,000 Union dead lie in the adjoining national cemetery. The Confederate dead are in the city cemetery.

The town, of course, still sits atop the 200 foot-high bluffs that made it one of the most formidable Confederate defense spots on the Mississippi River. The artillery batteries that lined the waterfront are gone. So are the cannons that blazed from atop the city's ramparts.

Time has healed the obvious wounds. Tall, widespreading trees have replaced those cut for parapets or blown apart by artillery fire; houses and buildings have been rebuilt or restored; and cannon-cratered soil has rounded out. But the Confederates' sturdy earthworks still command the heights. And just to their east, 500 yards away at most, are the Union's parallel siege lines.

Vicksburg Military Park is but a vignette of light and space, and walking this gently rolling countryside is a bit like looking into a mirror with silvered backing that has succumbed to the ages: All is still visible, and yet it is not.

On the highest grassy hill stands the Rebel's Great Redoubt, an earthen fort so well-designed and well-staffed it was impregnable; further along is the Second Texas Lunette, a crescent-shaped earthwork that the Yankees tried twice to overrun and could not. Just to the east is Battery DeGolyer, a Union siege line where cannons still guard a rebel redan. And everywhere are the monuments, granite reminders of the states that fought here.

That is reality. But when the Mississippi's gray-gauze mist rolls in and the air hangs heavy and sounds are smothered, shadowy images of those 46 days in 1863 float across the mind's eye: teenage soldiers with sweat running down their powder-blackened faces; sharpshooters manning rifle pits, taking aim at anything that moves and seldom missing; infantrymen using short-fused shells as hand grenades, wreaking havoc on their foe in the ditches; thousands of dead and wounded lying for two days where they fell; farm boys killing farm boys; the brave standing against the brave.

Perhaps the reason our yesterdays remain so visible is that our nation is relatively young and its history lies close to the surface of the land. For the most part, our pockets of the past are still out in the open, tiny islets in time where the ghosts refuse to lie quietly and the deeds of bygone days remain undisturbed.

They are flights backward through time, and whether the site is marked by white headstones or a hollow tomb or granite monuments, each is easy to find. Most are designated as under either state or federal protection. Listed below are but a few of those the whole family will find interesting.

Fort Smith NHS in AR was one of the first military posts in the Louisiana Territory.

Fort Point NHS in CA is a mid-19th Century coastal fortification modeled after Fort Sumter.

Bent's Old Fort NHS in CO was established in 1833 and until 1849 was the chief way-station on the Santa Fe Trail.

Chickmanga and Chattanooga NMP on the GA/TN border is our largest and oldest national military park and the site of some of the hardest fighting of the Civil War.

Fort Larned NHS in KS was established by the U.S. Army in 1859. A key frontier post on the Santa Fe Trail, the fort served as a base of operation against attacks from Southern Plains Indians.

Fort Scott NHS in KS was built in 1842 by Dragoons, the elite troops of the frontier army. It was part of a chain of outposts that reached from MN to LA.

Antietam NB in MD was the scene of a bloody Civil War battle that ended Robert E. Lee's first northern invasion and drastically altered the course of the four-year war.

Fort Snelling HC in MN was established in 1820 at the junction of the MN and MS Rivers. It was the northernmost link in a chain of forts that reached from Lake Michigan to the Missouri River.

Wilson's Creek NB in MO is the place where, on August 10, 1861, Union and Confederate forces fought for control of the Missouri River during the first year of the Civil War.

Fort Robinson SP in NE was founded in 1874 as a post Civil War Indian Agency protective post. It was here that Chief Crazy Horse, who defeated Custer at the Little Bighorn, was mortally wounded by resentful soldiers.

Fort Union NM in NM was occupied from 1851-1891 and was not only the Southwest's largest military post, but a key defense on the Santa Fe Trail.

Moore's Creek NB in NC is the site of a brief but violent battle during the opening phase of the Revolutionary War.

Fort Clatsop NM in OR was founded in 1806 and commemorates the place where explorers Lewis and Clark wintered after their arduous journey from St. Louis MO to the West Coast.

Fort Necessity NB in PA was established by George Washington in 1754 and was so named because of his army's dire need for a haven against mud, rain, and swamps.

Fort Sumter NM in SC is the place where, on April 12, 1861, Confederate troops fired the opening shots of the Civil War.

Shiloh NMP in TN is the site of the first major battle of the Union's campaign to control the Mississippi River.

Manassas NB in VA is the site of two Civil War battles called the First and Second Manassas, better known as Bull Run.

Fort Vancouver NHS in WA was the western headquarters of the Hudson's Bay Company and from 1825 to 1849 it was the hub of all the Pacific Northwest fur trading activity.

Fort Laramie NHS in WY was originally established in 1834 as a privately-owned fur trading center. In 1849 it became a military post guarding emigrants along the Oregon Trail as well as passengers on the Overland Stage and riders for the Pony Express.

This is not a comprehensive listing of our national historic sites or battlefields or forts--they are but examples of places where our nation's history can be seen, touched, and explored. 

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