Writing Tip: Walking the grounds

There is an excitement at Manassas, a cramped-ness at the Little Round Top, and a simplicity at Appomattox that cannot be experienced without being there in person. I’ve been to all three, and the experiences have taught me something about writing: you have to go to your setting to understand it, and you can’t describe it without understanding it. Knowledge leads to understanding, which leads to descriptions that live in the reader’s mind, not just on the page.

The Manassas battlefield is small enough that you can walk the trail for one of the battles (there were two at the site) in a day. It is a bit of a hike, and you need to be in good shape and know where you’re going, but it can be done. The first place you start at is actually the end of the battle, where the visitor center is located. Looking out across the expanse of the hills on which the first battle was fought you get an idea of the scale of things in that day, and how large the battle was. But at the same time it prepares you to realize just how small the engagement was, relative to what was to come. A quick trip down to and across Bull Run Creek where the Union crossed and you find yourself emerging on the other side of the battle, behind Union artillery emplacements. Captain Imboden’s Confederate guns are barely visible from here, but you tend to forget them as you wrap your head around the scale and start to realize that what was once strictly the realm of artillery is now considered a standard sniper qualification range. It’s a long way from Matthews Hill to Henry Hill, but not that long.

At Gettysburg the close quarters of the Little Round Top belie the scale of the battlefield and the impossibility of touring the entire place in one day on foot. The lines of battle for both sides stretched literally for miles and were separated (at times) by miles, yet were still easily visible to each other. The scale of the engagement in Pennsylvania is enormous, but what is most interesting is that the Union victory was possibly sealed on a hill the size of a tennis court. This is a remarkable conclusion to draw for such a large battle and such a small space – it could be a tennis court in another setting – but nevertheless, many historians (but not all) have reached that conclusion. Roughly one hundred men were crammed shoulder to shoulder into a space normally occupied only by squirrels and strewn with boulders, but it would become the setting for a battlefield maneuver still studied at West Point and other institutions that teach the art of leading men into the jaws of death.

Appomattox is the simplest of the three sites, consisting of little more than a small preserved village from before the electrical age with an attached parking lot and National Park entrance gate. There are two main buildings and several smaller ones, all connected by dirt pathways that serve as reminders of simpler times as well as foot-roads. It is walked in an hour with more time standing still and pondering the events and men that came here in April 1865 than spent actually walking. The room in the McClean house where the surrender took place is small as well; if Grant brought half his staff there would have been little room for Lee and his adjutant as is commonly depicted. But it was sufficient to hold the sentiments of the men involved and the words they left behind for us, as well as the rebirth of the nation and the good and bad that came with it.

Of course, walking the grounds does little to help if your story is set on the moon or some other country or some other planet, but that’s what historical records and your imagination is for.