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5. Battlefield Resources

A Civil War battle followed its own rules of logic based on: standard movements, deployments, and tactics; the range and capabilities of weaponry; and the advantages and obstacles of the terrain. How these elements came together on a field of battle, on the other hand, was unique. The battlefield is the landscape over which the armies contended. The outcome often relied upon the personalities of the commanders, the disposition and attitude of the troops, the celerity of movement, the supply of ammunition, food, or water, even, the weather. The road network, natural features such as watercourses, ridges and ravines, river fords and bridges, the location of a town, a church, mill, or farm house and its outbuildings, the pattern of open fields and woodlots separated by stone or rail fences--all these features, in large measure, defined the course of a battle.

All of these topographical and structural features, or survivals such as foundations or abandoned roadbeds, make up a major class of battlefield resources. If topographical features survive, a battlefield can be studied to answer important research questions about strategy and tactics. The location of an assault can be pinpointed, and, more importantly, a conclusion reached about why the assault succeeded or failed. The assaulting troops may have bogged down in a swamp at the base of the hill, for example. Or high ground to the west may have offered the ideal position for defending artillery. Little of this direct knowledge can be attained from books or battle reports.

Buildings and structures that were present at the time of the battle are an important battlefield resource. Often these buildings served as headquarters, bivouacs, sharpshooter havens, or field hospitals. Researchers can use deed information or verbal history to identify the inhabitants of houses at the time of the battle, in order to accurately locate battle events and check the accuracy of historic maps. Trenches and field fortifications are tangible artifacts of the passing of the armies and often can be used to precisely locate the opposing lines of battle.

In terms of understanding and interpreting history, it is important to note that many contemporary battle reports were often incomplete, flawed, or self-serving. Eyewitnesses sometimes differed so wildly that one cannot believe they are describing the same event. Many accounts need to be compared and carefully weighed. Often some small detail--a house site, a stone fence, spring, ravine, or hillock--holds the key to locating a unit's position. Only close study of the terrain can hope to reconcile such conflicting accounts. Military historians cannot understand or interpret a battle if the terrain has been drastically altered.

The concept of ``battlefield as landscape'' places battlefield preservation among the complex issues of regional planning, farmland preservation, viewshed and watershed protection, wildlife management, and the desire of many residents to preserve open space in general. As residents debate these issues and work to establish a viable direction for the future, they should consider battlefields as a valuable asset. A battlefield, despite the harsh memories that are often evoked, contributes to the distinct identity and character of a community. Battlefield preservation can establish a link with the nation's past and provide opportunities for attracting new businesses and visitors to the area. It is fair to say that, if it were not for their battlegrounds, few people outside of Virginia would know of the towns of Kernstown, Tom's Brook, Fisher's Hill, Piedmont, Port Republic, or McDowell. But the passing of history has changed that. For those who read history, these places are immortal.


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Creation Date: 3/13/95

Last Update 7/17/95 by VLC