A Memorial Day guide to America’s most historic battlefields

by Ned Levi on May 30, 2011

Arizona Memorial, Pearl Harbor, Honolulu, Hawaii, by NSL Photography

Today is Memorial Day in the United States, giving each American a special opportunity to honor the memory of our service men and women who gave their lives for us, ensuring our nation’s freedom.

As is my custom, I will make my way to Washington Square, Philadelphia, to the “Tomb of the Unknown Revolutionary War Soldier.” There in the shadow of Independence Hall where many unnamed soldiers of that war are buried, an eternal flame burns in perpetual vigilance. On the wall of the memorial it says,

“Freedom is a light for which many men have died in darkness.”

There are many opportunities to travel and learn about the rich fabric of U.S. history, by visiting America’s battlefields and military encampments, which in part shaped the U.S. as we know it today.

Here is my Memorial Day list of five U.S. historic military sites, I recommend every American visit at some time, while traveling the country.

Gettysburg National Military Park –  The Battle of Gettysburg was a major turning point in America’s Civil War. The Union victory at Gettysburg ended General Robert E. Lee’s second and most ambitious invasion of the North in 1863. The battle was the war’s bloodiest, with more than 46,000 casualties, including almost 8,000 killed.

The eerily named Cemetery Ridge, Pickett’s Charge, and Little Round Top, were all added to America’s lexicon during the Battle of Gettysburg. Four months after the battle was ended, President Abraham Lincoln dedicated the Soldiers’ National Cemetery with his historic, famous, Gettysburg Address.

Walking the sprawling fields of the Gettysburg battlefields (located approximately 140 miles west of Philadelphia) you can to begin to clearly understand how the three bloodiest days of the Civil War unfolded.

Valley Forge National Historical Park – No battle was actually fought at Valley Forge, but this Continental Army encampment was none the less instrumental in the American victory over the British. Valley Forge (just 25 miles from historic Philadelphia) was the site of the 1777-78 winter encampment of the Continental Army, led by General George Washington. The sacrifice and perseverance of the men encamped during that Philadelphia area winter of alternating freezing and melting snow and ice, which made it impossible to keep dry, brought honor to themselves during the extraordinary birth of the U,S.

When visiting Valley Forge it’s easy to imagine, back in time, to the wind and snow swept field conditions, and men in cold, damp, often disease ridden, log huts with little light.

Boston National Historical Park – Bunker Hill Monument –  While we don’t know if it was said by General Israel Putnam of Connecticut, or Colonel William Prescott of Massachusetts as the Battle of Bunker Hill began, “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes!” is a quote emblazoned into the lore of America.

The Battle of Bunker Hill mostly took place on Breed’s Hill, the site of the existing monument to the battle, in the heart of historic Boston. The battle pitted the newly formed, inexperienced Continental Army against the British army, considered by many, at the time, to be the world’s best.

When atop the hill, looking down from the monument, you can begin to understand how the dedicated army of colonists, out numbered 2–1, held off the British until they ran out of ammunition.

Colonial National Historical Park – Yorktown Battlefield –  The Siege or Battle of Yorktown lasted 22 days, ending on October 19, 1781. General Lord Cornwallis’ surrender and the capture of over 7,000 British soldiers, led to the beginning of peace negotiations, resulting in the Treaty of Paris in 1783, ending the American Revolution.

Looking out from the American and French positions at Yorktown, (about 10 miles from Colonial Williamsburg) you can begin to envision the predicament of the British forces on September 28th. Out numbered 2–1, on land, and cut off by 29 French “ships of the line,” their end was in little doubt.

USS Arizona Memorial – “Yesterday, December 7, 1941, a date which will live in infamy…” President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s speech began. The USS Arizona serves as the final resting place for many of the of the battleship’s 1,177 crew members who lost their lives on that day at Pearl Harbor, Honolulu, Hawaii.

Looking down at the Arizona from the Memorial floating above, in the harbor, oil can still be seen rising from its wreckage to the surface of the water. Some swear you can still see smell the battle in that oil as you survey the harbor, where two battleships were lost, and six others severely damaged, and more than 3,200 men and women killed or wounded.

When visiting the Memorial for the first time a few years ago, I was struck by the eerie quiet among the memorial’s visitors, even children.

While it was said almost 150 years ago, at another battlefield, I can’t help but feel these words of President Abraham Lincoln are fitting for this memorial,

“… that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain – that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

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  • Deanstar

     Excellent collection of important places sanctified by the blood of those who served.  Just a short comment on the above about the Arizona.  This is one place where the beginning and the end, for the US anyway, of a war can be seen simultaneously.  USS Missouri is moored as a museum ship just down the quay from Arizona on Ford Island.  This gives us the bookend battleships for WWII.  The two ships make an excellent day (or three) of naval and US history. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1068051376 Susan Liberantowski

    I am very proud to say that I have visited all but the Yorktown site.  The Arizona Memorial is so haunting.  To see the oil bubbles come up and see all the names of the lost.  Then to look over and see the Missouri, standing there proudly.  When we were there, the flags were half mast as President Ford had just died.  It was fitting for the flag over the Arizona to be half mast. 

  • bodega

    We have been to all the sites mentioned here and scores more.  They all put a lump in your throat, but the one, of all we have ever visited, that moved me the most was a Civil War site called Stone’s River in TN.  Here the North was on one side of the river and the South on the other.  The evening before the big fight, both sides were playing music with each other from their respective campsites. Then when the sun came up, they killed each other.  It just chills me thinking about it.

    At Bull Run, in the visitors center, is a plague showing the number of US soldiers killed in every war the US has been in, except the most current ones.  The Civil War had the most killed, but to see all the wars and the numbers of lives lost is extremely sobering. 

    As a very young mother, we visited the Punchbowl, the Cemetery of the Pacific, on Oahu.  There is a part of the cememtery were all the battles that we have fought in the Pacific is on a wall and down the steps on beautiful marble walls, are the names of the men and women who died in these battles.  I could not leave without looking at each and every name on those walls.  I did it for all the mother’s who child was listed there.  To honor them all, which today my flag is flying for the same reason! 

  • http://www.k9stud.com Puppies

    I have nothing to say about Arizona. I love this place very much. I’m feeling proud to say that I got a chance to visit this historical place.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1068051376 Susan Liberantowski

    I thought of another one for your list Ned.  The Saratoga Battlefield.  I remember when they first opened it – driving it with my father and getting out to read each sign.  Now there are self guided tours.  A couple of years ago, I toured it again with tour guides on the bus and getting out to see the battle lines and the river and some of the recreated forts.  Up here in this neck of the woods it is all Revolutionary War and French/Indian war history. 

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