RICHMOND, Va. – If you’re not careful, your next step while exploring a Civil War battlefield could harm a precious physical remnant from a vital chapter of American history.
Civil War sites will experience a significant boost in visitor traffic as events observing the 150th anniversary of the conflict take place in next few years. Consequently, safeguarding these distinctive locations from the expected wear and tear can prove challenging.
The maintenance responsibility for Civil War landmarks varies around the country.
Local governments and preservation groups care for a fair number of sites. But many of the most important Civil War battlefields come under the management of the U.S. National Park Service.
The Park Service oversees more than 100 Civil War specific and legacy sites, including the revered battlefields at Gettysburg, Pa.; Shiloh, Tenn.; and Fredericksburg, Va. The conservation load for Civil War lands, however, does not have to fall entirely on the Park Service. We, as visitors, can help protect these areas and keep them safe.
All Civil War sites are commemorative in nature, and deserve respect. When touring a National Battlefield or National Military Park, visitors should bear in mind these preservation conduct guidelines, drawn mainly from Park Service resources:
Watch your step
The best way to explore a Civil War battlefield is by foot. Always stick to established trails, paved and unpaved. The Park Service would prefer people not create their own trails. Moreover, blazing your own path through tall grass, brush and other foliage can increase the chance of coming into contact with poisonous plants and biting insects, including the deer tick, which can carry Lyme disease. Visitors should always examine their clothing for insects, during and after a hike. If a hiking mishap occurs, report all accidents to Park Rangers.
After hours a no-go
Don’t snoop around on battlefields after dark. All roads and park areas close after sunset.
Enjoy wildlife from a distance
Do not approach, touch or feed wildlife at battlefield parks. Dangerous animals, like copperhead snakes, inhabit some battlefields, such as at Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park in Georgia. Use of artificial light to view wildlife is also discouraged. Lastly, hunting and fishing are not permitted at any time.
Don’t mess with field structures
Never play or climb on snake rail fences, earthworks, bridges or any other man-made structure at a Civil War battlefield. Furthermore, do not deface or toy with roadside exhibits stationed along roads and footpaths. The Park Service has gone to great effort to upgrade or add battlefield exhibits for the sesquicentennial.
Stay off cannons
Perhaps no object possesses more iconic power on Civil War battlefields than cannons. These artillery pieces, both authentic and replica, can offer wonderful photo opportunities. But visitors should only pose by a cannon, and not play upon it. A person can fall off and get hurt, or damage the cannon.
Be a good house guest
Civil War period homes, farmhouse and churches still remain on many battlefields. As some places, you can enter and study the interior, such as the Dunker Church at the Antietam National Battlefield in Maryland, or the Stonewall Jackson Shrine house in Guinea Station, Va., where Confederate Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson died in May 1863. Other structures, though, are inaccessible. Always check with the Park Service staff to learn about access before visiting the site. Private residences also lie within some battlefield boundaries. Never trespass on these grounds or fenced-off property.
Admire the monuments
Monuments honoring the fallen of the North and South spotlight the human sacrifice that occurred on a battlefield.
You should admire these commemorative markers, but avoid climbing upon them. One can suffer an injury or accidentally break off a piece of the memorial.
Pass on relic hunting
Never use a metal detector to search for relics at a National Park. In fact, it’s a felony offense. Should you make an accidental discovery, immediately inform the Park Service staff and provide its location. Some Civil War items, especially ammunition, can pose a safety hazard, even after 150 years.
Check your recreational urge
Kite flying, ball playing, Frisbee throwing, roller-skating, roller skiing, snow sledding or any other recreation activity are prohibited on battlefields, unless on grounds specifically set aside for these purposes. Feel free to bring food and non-alcoholic drinks to a Civil War battlefield, but only picnic in designated areas. Camping and open fires are strictly forbidden on battlefields.
Keep canines close
Most National Park battlefields permit visitors to bring dogs inside the park, provided pets remain on 6-foot leash at all times. If a dog is a bite risk, restrain it with an anti-bite collar and harness. Owners should not tie or leash dogs to trees, signs or monuments. Only seeing-eye dogs accompanied by owners may enter a National Park Museum or Visitor Center.
Exercise low impact
Battlefield hikers should pack out all litter, and deposit it at a proper trash receptacle. Also, clean up all pet waste and store it in a plastic bag, and take it away for disposal.
Limit the noise
Do not play audio devices (unless with headphones) or music instruments while in a National Park battlefield. Part of the appreciation when visiting a battlefield comes from listening to natural sounds of the environment.
Follow the road rules
Many battlefields have paved roads for auto, motorcycle and bicycle touring. Drivers should abide by all traffic laws and speed limits while in the area, and park in provided spaces. Motorcyclists must wear a helmet. Cyclists should also sport a helmet, and stay on established roads. Off-road cycling is not permitted. And, whether you rely on a motorized vehicle or pedal power, you should always yield to pedestrians and crossing wildlife, and mind any road detour.
Behind the lines
The Park Service routinely schedules special living history programs at battlefields. Park Service staff often use tape to create a temporary viewing area separate from an active event, such as an artillery or period firearms demonstration. Visitors should always enjoy these displays from behind the established safety line. Some living history presentations though, like an encampment, may not require a tape partition. In these instances, the Park Service encourages visitors to explore the setting and interact with the re-enactors.
Stick to bridal trails
A limited number of National Park battlefields allow horseback riding. Riders must stay on bridal trails at all times. Off-trail riding can seriously damage the terrain, particularly earthworks, and possibly lead to a fine. The Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park Web site (www.nps.gov/chch/planyourvisit/things2know.htm) features a link to several good equestrian guidelines. Riders should call ahead to a National Park battlefield to find out about riding opportunities.