These Battlefields Go to the Max
By Bill Newcott/AARP Bulletin | July 11, 2011
Yes, the most decisive Civil War battles were fought by large armies on the sprawling landscapes you read about in your high school history books. But from New England towns to Arizona’s deserts, memorials and museums remind visitors of a far-flung, secret Civil War.
Location: Picacho Pass, Arizona
On April 15, 1862, a Union cavalry patrol from California and a local band of Confederate Ranger scouts waged a fierce hour-and-a-half battle at the base of 3,374-foot-high Picacho Peak, the eroded flow of a long-extinct volcano. The Union troops retreated after two soldiers and their commander were killed, but Arizona soon fell to the Union.
What to See: Picacho Peak State Park, about 45 miles north of Tucson, features several scenic trails — the most spectacular one is 2-mile-long Hunter Trail, which leads to the top of Picacho Peak. The trail is closed late-May through mid-September. The park is open year-round.
What’s nearby: Nothing — the peak’s isolation is part of its haunting charm. But 26 miles away is Casa Grande Ruins National Monument, the vestiges of an ancient desert farming community.
Location: Saint Albans, Vermont
With orders from President Jefferson Davis, 22 drifted from Canada into Saint Albans, Vermont, over several days in the fall of 1864. On October 19 they robbed three banks (forcing the tellers to swear allegiance to the Confederacy), then galloped back to Canada with $208,000. The money was to enrich the Confederacy’s treasury, but the strategy was to draw Union forces north and aggravate a political rift with Canada. Amazingly, both aims were accomplished.
What to See: An 1861 school building, across the street from Taylor Park, where the raiders gathered for their bank-robbing spree, is now the Saint Albans Museum, open June 1 through early October. There you can enjoy not only exhibits about the Saint Albans Raid but also a diorama of the Lake Champlain basin from Quebec to Fort Ticonderoga.
What’s nearby: On the eastern shore of Lake Champlain the Missisquoi National Wildlife Refuge is home to the endangered spiny softshell turtle.
First Submarine Attack
Location: Charleston, South Carolina
As Union ships pelted Charleston with artillery fire in 1863, the local Confederate military officials pinned their hopes on a weird, 40-foot-long “torpedo fish,” an experimental submarine called the H. L. Hunley. On February 17, 1864, the Hunley torpedoed the USS Housatonic, the Union’s largest ship. The Housatonic sank, but so did the Hunley. The sub was finally recovered in 2001; remains of the eight-man crew were removed and buried in 2004.
What to See: In Charleston you can visit a high-tech workshop to observe conservation work on the Hunley, immersed in a tank of refrigerated freshwater.
What’s nearby: If you’ve never before seen an albino alligator, you can visit one at the South Carolina Aquarium.
The Battle Over Cattle
Location: Fort Myers, Florida
Florida belonged to the Confederates, but Union troops used the fort in this Gulf of Mexico backwater as a base for stealing local cattle — 4,000 head in all — which would have supplied Confederate troops in Georgia. In February 1865, Confederates began firing on the fort. The soldiers there held off the attack, and casualties were light on both sides.
What to See: A monument in downtown Fort Myers honors the 2nd Regiment Infantry, U.S. Colored Troops. Flanked by marble tablets, a bronze statue of an African American sergeant stands guard, in honor of the more than 1,000 freed Florida slaves who enlisted with the Union.
What’s nearby: The coolest places in town are the Thomas Edison and Henry Ford winter estates — the two mansions where the industrial giants lived side by side. Edison’s lab is preserved the way he left it.
Location: Gettysburg, Pennsylvania
Robert E. Lee’s 75,000-man Confederate army was pushing into the North when it ran into the Army of the Potomac, 90,000 strong, on July 1, 1863. The resulting three-day bloodbath ranks — even today — as the biggest battle ever fought in the Western Hemisphere, with 51,000 men killed, wounded, captured or missing.
What to See: With 1.1 million tourists a year, Gettysburg is America’s most visited battleground. See the monuments and clamber around Devil’s Den, but don’t miss the quiet cemetery, dedicated by Abraham Lincoln with his stirring address.
What’s nearby: Adjacent to the battlefield is the home of President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Besides Ike’s house, visit his black Angus cattle farm.
Location: Palmito Ranch, Texas
Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant in April 1865, but in Texas, Rebel forces fought on. On May 12 and 13, nearly 300 Confederates skirmished with some 500 Union soldiers near Brownsville. The Union reported 105 men captured, 9 wounded and one killed; the Confederates had 5 or 6 wounded. A month [April 9] after the Confederates had surrendered at Appomattox, the Confederates won the final battle of the Civil War.
What to See: While most Civil War sites are threatened by encroaching development, this remote spot at Texas’s southern tip looks much as it did in 1865, aside from a small historical marker on Route 4. No buildings remain from the era — just the ruins of a former rail line and the bullets, buttons and cannonballs that keep turning up across the battlefield.
What’s nearby: The Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville, about 12 miles west, specializes in breeding endangered wildlife species from around the world, like the Galápagos tortoise.
Originally published July 1, 2011; Updated October 21, 2016