I thought I’d take a break from research for a moment to impart some of the wisdom I have earned over the last six months when it comes to traveling to these battlefields. When I started to plan my first big Civil War expedition, I was going to Virginia and I thought I was pretty good at knowing what I should or shouldn’t do, what I should bring, etc. Experience has a funny way of telling you that you’re wrong. And there wasn’t a whole lot of help on the internet for exactly what I was doing, so I wanted to share these little tips and tricks for you.
First Things First – Research
Deciding to make plans
If you’ve got an inclination to travel to a battlefield, or perhaps you’ve heard about a demo or reenactment event in your area, but it’s going to be more than a “day trip”, the first thing you’d need to do is make sure you want to go, and assess the pros and cons of going. I’m a wife, I have two dogs, and I work full time, as well as write novels. I have deadlines and responsibilities that sometimes block out some dates on my calendar. Or, if I know I’m going to be going for longer than a week, I’d need to make sure I have the vacation time available and that someone can cover my shift. What if my husband wants to go? That changes things. Then we have to get someone to dog-sit. All of those factors play into the decision I have to make to go or stay. If it’s going to be too much hassle to go, and if (in the words of Marie Kondo) the idea of that trip doesn’t “spark joy”, I’ll pass. But if I start moving mountains to ensure that everything lines up so I can go, then I will.
Where do you want to go?
Do you have a leaning toward a certain battlefield? Do you like what was going on in the Western Theater or the Eastern? Do you have an ancestor who served in the war and you want to follow in their footsteps? Do you want to stay local or go across the country? These are important questions to ask, because they will shape your experience. It can also determine how much you do, where you’ll stay, how far you have to travel, etc. If you don’t have a direction, I’d suggest that you watch a few documentaries about the war. Something like the Ken Burns documentary. For that matter, there are dozens of documentaries on Youtube, Netflix, and Amazon Prime. Or, just read a book about the war. If you come across a battle that sounds really interesting, see if there’s a battlefield park for it. Get one of those free trials for Ancestry.com and start looking down your family tree branches for a lead. I found out (much too late) that I had 4 or 5 ancestors that served in the Civil War across the country. One was in Vicksburg, one in Mobile, another at Chickamauga, and one served with Lee in Virginia. I had my pick of footsteps to follow, and you’d be surprised about what you can find.
Research that area
Do as much digging about that area as you can, especially if you’ve never been there. I’m not just talking about the battlefield, which is important, but about the various things that will have an effect on your abilities to travel. Are you going to Richmond to one of those museums? Be prepared to pay for parking because Richmond is a busy place. What’s the sales tax in that area? If your sales tax is 6% and it’s going to be 10% in some places, which may create some sticker-shock when you’re in the giftshops. What’s the crime rate like? I know it sounds a little paranoid to consider, but if you’re traveling alone, it’s something that crosses your mind. What are the hotels and restaurants like? Are there any?
And I can’t stress this enough: Look for other things to do! If you’re traveling from Florida to Virginia (as an example) make the trip worth it. Don’t just go to Fredericksburg or Chancellorsville. Richmond is like an hour away, Gettysburg is only about 2-3 hours. Then there’s Antietam and all the other little museums and parks in between. You’d be surprised how clustered the battlefields are and you won’t realize any of that until you’re there. My big Civil War expedition got sidetracked several times because I realized “Hey! I’m really close to this place!” and then I went, taking an extra day or side-trip here and there. It’ll add to your experience and you won’t be kicking yourself later for not going. I totally missed Petersburg while I was there because I wanted to focus on battles from 1861-1863 and now I’m itching to go back.
Comparatively, if you’re going to Vicksburg or Chattanooga, look for other museums or house tours. Most of the time, in big places like that, there’s always something.
Research the Battlefield
Not all battlefields are the same. Some are going to be owned by the National Park Service and others are state owned (like Olustee in Florida) or privately owned (like Fort Gaines in Alabama). That will have a bearing on the cost for admission (if there is one), parking, hours, visitor centers, etc.
National Parks typically don’t charge a fee. One exception I can recall is Vicksburg and Antietam, but those are more or less parking fees and most of the time, they’re minimal. Ranging between $5-$12 per person or per car. If they are charging a fee, see if that’s per day or for several days. The Museum of the Confederacy and American Civil War Museum in Richmond are linked and you can purchase tickets for one or all of their locations, and they last for a few days so you have time to see everything. Other places might charge a fee if there’s a reenactment event taking place. Olustee is a free battlefield park, but when they have their annual reenactment, there’s a daily fee to get in. I found this out the hard way. Also check if that park will take cards or if they’re cash only. Most of the time, this information can be found on their website or event flyer.
Hours at a National Battlefield Park can also be a little confusing. THE GROUNDS are open from sunrise to sunset in most cases, but their visitor center has limited hours of operation. This was an interesting duality when the government shut down. The battlefield itself was still open, but there was no one to man it. Make sure to account for this during your visit. You may want to go to the visitor center first, and then tour the battlefield until the sun sets so you don’t risk missing anything. And by the way, you want to go to the visitor’s center. They’re often more than just an information desk. They’ll have artifacts on display, a bookstore, a little video about the battlefield, maps, bathrooms, etc.
Know how big the battlefield is. If you’re like me and want to HIKE the whole thing, try to find out how long it is. All of the big battlefields will have some sort of guided driving tour. Some will have an audio guide for each stop to explain what happened, or like at Gettysburg you can download an app that will have all of the markers and monuments mapped out for you. Smaller battlefields, like Olustee or Fort Gaines, aren’t big at all and you can walk them in an hour or so with no difficulty. But, if you want to hike around the entirety of Vicksburg or Gettysburg, give yourself a couple of days. Find a map of the battlefield and mark out your trails and intended path. Sometimes this will change when you get into the field, but having a rough game plan helps.
Decide on a Budget
Can you drop a hefty amount for this trip? Or do you need to be frugal? If you have someone else that helps to pay your bills, get them in on this discussion. Consider if you have enough vacation time to throw toward this, or if you need to take some time and save up for being absent from work for a while. If you can take your work with you, even better.
Everything you do from booking the hotel to paying admission into the parks will be dependent on your budget, so it’s good to figure that out first before even looking into hotels and attractions. You should also keep in mind what is a priority expense, and what isn’t. If there’s a museum you’re vaguely interested in seeing, but the admission costs as much as a tank of gas, that’s something you need to keep in mind. On that note, find out how far away your battlefield is and do the math for how many times you’d have to fill up your tank between there and home. You can always sleep in your car or eat off the dollar menu to pinch pennies, but you can’t skip on the gas. Maybe that should be a good starting point when calculating your budget.
If you tend to get a little charge-happy, set a budget for your gift shop visits too. Buy a prepaid card and load it if controlling yourself is that difficult. I spent over $200 just in books on my Virginia trip, which wasn’t accounted for in my budget. The credit card bill that month wasn’t pretty.
Pick your day(s)
If you don’t care for the demos, battle anniversaries, the reenactment events, the educational talks, etc. then for the love of Thomas Jackson, pick a weekend when they are NOT happening. You may not think it’d play much of a factor in your experience, but it will. Reenactments and demos can draw huge crowds and can make for a noisy, frustrating, and sometimes unsatisfying day. Especially if you don’t like kids running around and dismantling the Virginia worm fences around the battlefield (there’s a story with that). If you want a quiet, easy trip to a battlefield, pick a weekend when you think it won’t be crowded.
Now, the other side of that coin is that the battle anniversary weekends, the demos, and the like, can often be incredibly cool. I went to the battle anniversary for Corinth in October and that was my first taste of Civil War reenactment because they held a day-long infantry demo. It was only about 12 guys shooting their rifles, but it was incredible to watch. Likewise, there can be a schedule of talks or lectures about aspects of the battle that may interest you. At that same anniversary event at Corinth, I learned the interesting history of a battle flag from Missouri that changed hands several times over the last 150 years.
It all depends on what you want out of the experience. If you’re the kind that can’t stand children or crowds, plan accordingly. Another point is that if there’s something else non-Civil War related going on at the same time in the community, like a parade that will mess up the usual traffic flow in the town, be aware of that.
Also keep in mind that if there is a reenactment or a demo event on the battlefield, this could have a direct affect on what is accessible to you. At Olustee, half of the traditional park trail with its information plaques was closed off because the reenactors needed to use it for their demos. This hampered my education of the battlefield while I was there. This may not be the case for all the battlefields, though.
Also assess how long you want to be there. We accounted for two days at Vicksburg because we wanted to hike the whole thing. Factor travel time in there. If you’re driving for 8+ hours, that’s a day to get there and a day to get back. Don’t try to cram the whole thing in two days. Cramming makes for a poor experience and it’ll wear you out.
Pick a hotel
Now, don’t go crazy. Keep a perspective. You’re going to be on a battlefield for most of the day, or hopping around museums. Don’t book an expensive hotel or bed and breakfast. You won’t be in the room long enough to enjoy it, and really all you need is a place to sleep. I don’t necessarily recommend the cheap roach motels, but don’t go for The Ritz either. If you’re traveling with someone else, keep their preferences in mind, and if this is a special getaway, then you can splurge a bit for a luxury here and there. Look for a middle-of-the-road hotel that will provide breakfast and is in a good part of town.
I know this may get me some criticism, because there’s some people that refuse to stay in any place that’s less than $100 a night because they think price equates to quality of service and amenities. Sometimes, it’s not. I’ve been in some new, upper-end hotels that have crappy internet service and rude customer service. I’ve also been to some cheaper places that went above and beyond for me. Pay attention to reviews, but don’t put a lot of stock in them. Again, you only need a place to sleep and you want to keep the cost of your trip as cheap as possible.
Scout for restaurants
This is a quick, almost moot point. Do you like a certain fast food place? See if they have one in the area. Do you want to go out after your long battlefield hike? Check out some higher end restaurants that you can enjoy. I like to eat at some place I’ve never been before when I go to a battlefield. If I always go to an Olive Garden or Burger King, I’m getting the same thing I always get and there’s nothing shiny and novel about the experience. But if you go to that little mom and pop place out on the highway that has excellent reviews, you can say that you did something adventurous and new. You may find yourself in that area again and want to eat there a second time.
Remember when you were a kid and your parents told you to pack an extra of everything just in case. Do it. I know as teenagers and young adults, we think they’re talking crap, but there’s some sense in it. Especially if you’re hiking or plan on getting sweaty/dirty. You might want to go to the battlefield on Saturday and go out to eat, but want something nicer to wear. Factor for that.
Make sure you bring the necessities like clothes and bathroom things. If you’re low maintenance, you might not need to bring any bathroom stuff because the hotel should supply little bottles of shampoo, soap, and towels. If you’re a little high maintenance like me and use a special kind of shampoo and conditioner (because my hair would be a chaotic mop otherwise), or if you like to wash with something other than a rag, then pack all that and make double sure you have everything. Nothing ruins a trip like realizing you forgot your makeup or that special towel you always sure. I’ve been there and done that. All that spells is embarrassment and a quick, unnecessary trip to the store.
Also keep in mind how many bags you’re carrying in and out of the hotel. If you’re going on a big trip, there’s that piece of luggage, but you have to account for all the other pieces of baggage you carry with you. Laptop bag, backpack, cooler (if you need it), etc. If you do hopping from one hotel to the next on your trip like I did in Virginia, this can get really old and frustrating as you’re trying to find your room. If you can go without certain things like a laptop or squeeze some bags inside one another, it’d be easier and you’ll thank yourself in the end.
Pack for the battlefield
If you’re going to drive the whole thing, it’s not as big of a concern. You can store everything you need in your car and be done with it. If you’re hiking, that’s another matter.
Whatever you’re going to bring to keep your supplies in (which you will need), make sure it’s big enough to handle everything without being cumbersome. If you need to go out and buy a new bag that will be the perfect size, so be it.
You’ll need things like:
– Water (I recommend 2-3 bottles, 4 if it’s in the summer)
– Snacks (nonperishable and nutritious like Cliff Bars or beef jerky)
– A first aid kit
– Your maps and printouts from all that research you did
– An umbrella or raincoat (don’t trust the weather reports)
– A hat and/or sunglasses
– A light jacket (or heavy if you know it’ll be cold)
– Medicines if needed (I tend to get migraines, so this is a must for me)
– A flashlight (in case you stay out past dark)
– Some way to protect yourself (pocket knife, mace, pepperspray, etc.)
– And a portable power source for your phone (not completely necessary, but good if you have a tendency to take a lot of pictures or videos).
A tip for packing for the battlefield is to just think of all the possible ways that something could go wrong, and pack to prevent it. My phone died once while I was at Antietam and I had to go all the way back to my car to charge it, so when I went to Olustee, I purchased a portable battery pack because I went for the reenactment weekend and I knew I’d be using my phone a lot. I ended up not using it, but I forgot my regular phone charger for that trip, so it came in handy. I forgot my laptop charger on the trip to Virginia and had to drop $60 for a new one at a Best Buy in Fredericksburg. It gave me some time to stop at a Starbucks for a quick lunch, but it was definitely not a fun experience. I forgot my hat when I went on my Shiloh-Corinth-Chickamauga-Chattanooga expedition and I was so miserable the whole week because it happened to be a very sunny weekend. I only took one bottle of water with me to Gettysburg and drained it quickly as I was hiking down Confederate Avenue. As a result, I got a headache from dehydration and couldn’t even eat my beef jerky because my throat was so dry. The whole time I was at Antietam and some of the other battlefields in Virginia, it was raining so the umbrella and raincoat was used a lot.
Pack for the drive
Depending on how far you go, whether it’s a couple of hours or over 10 hours of traveling, you’ll need a nice kit ready in your car.
For my Virginia trip, I packed:
– Paper towels (for small spills)
– A bath towel (for big spills)
– A trash bag
– A little caddy for snacks and drinks (those too, of course)
– I purchased a cellphone prop to stick on my dash so I could easily follow the GPS without taking my eyes off the road
– My phone charger
– First aid kit (which I also used for my battlefield pack)
– Baby wipes for the sticky things I’d spill like coffee or soda
– At least $20-$30 in cash for tolls and cash only places you didn’t account for
– Car insurance card, registration, and all necessary car-related documents
– Energy drinks if you tend to get sleepy while driving
– Some way to entertain yourself on the drive (CDs, audiobook, playlists, etc.)
You’ll need to figure out how much you’ll be driving and research where to stop for gas. Know your car, get an oil change before the trip whether you think you need it or not, and while you’re at it, have a mechanic look it over for any extra maintenance it might need (because breaking down out of state would be very bad). If you don’t trust your own car for the trip, then rent one. Most places will have insurance you can add onto the rental agreement, and have unlimited mileage options. Don’t forget to factor this into your budget.
If you tend to get a little sore while sitting for a long time or have lower back problems, look into getting some sort of padding or cushion. There are some that can attach to your seat.
Stopping while on the road can be a little anxiety inducing, but I assure you, it’s not that complex or risky. Take it from someone who is picky about when and where she stops for a potty break. The rest stops, the ones run by the state, are not bad. Some have nighttime security as well. Most big interstates have websites that will list all the rest stops between exits, if you want to plan it out that way. If you’re really opposed to stopping on the interstate or you’re on a highway, look for fast food restaurants. They’re required to keep their bathrooms clean on a daily basis and you can get something small like a fry or drink to make up for your time there. Places that would be open late at night for stops like that would be Waffle House or McDonalds. I’m not all that keen on stopping at gas stations for a restroom break, but they are getting better on their cleanliness. Stop at a gas station you trust and doesn’t look shady or dingy.
If you stop for food, pick a place that’s close to your interstate exit with a drive thru. Keep in mind what you can and can’t eat in the car. Something that may require two hands, like a Whopper or Big Mac, isn’t ideal. Pick one-handed menu items like nuggets, tenders, fries, or smaller burgers you can eat out of the wrapper. No dipping sauce. I know that’s hard, but if you NEED dipping sauce, you better lay out a bunch of napkins to cause the mess when you spill it. This is another reason for baby wipes.
If you’re worried about leaving your house unattended for a long trip, you can call the police department and ask them to have an officer come by and check the place every now and again, just to be on the safe side.
Ask around to your friends about what the driving conditions are like in each state, if they may know. In Florida, you can usually get away with going a little over the speed limit. In Georgia and Virginia, I’ve been told they’re stricter. This could save you a speeding ticket. And even if you don’t know those little details, try to be on your best behavior on the road. It’s always safer not to speed and refresh yourself on the traffic rules/guidelines for odd situations like roundabouts or one-way streets. Parallel parking may come up in your trip. Be sure you remember how to do that. Sometimes you can’t avoid it.
If you’re hiking, which I highly recommend, pace yourself. You’ll see joggers out on some of these battlefields and I admire their stamina, but I’m not in good enough shape to do something like that. Just hiking the southern half of Gettysburg (partially due to my lack of provisions) was exhausting.
Time is precious when you’re on a big trip. If you have a set list of things you want to do, make sure those things get done before anything else. If there’s a monument you NEED to visit, try and see that first before the rest so you can be sure you’ve seen it. If you want to spend more time in the visitor center museum, let that take up the first half of your day. You don’t want to look back on your trip months or years later and regret that you didn’t spend more time on one thing or another. Believe me, it’ll hit you if you don’t spend the extra thirty minutes at the museum for a lecture, or spend too much time obsessing over a certain hiking trail and end up missing other parts.
The most important part of this is to have fun and to learn. We only live once and if you really want to go, you will find a way. Life is too short to spend it in monotonous routines that don’t bring you joy and fulfillment. If you have a passion for history, go out and see it firsthand. It gives a new depth to the things you learn at home, and can be a transporting sort of experience. To stand where they stood, and envision the battle as it happened, can never be duplicated in a classroom or library.
I look forward to seeing you on the battlefield! Happy travels!