Thursday, August 09, 2007

The Second Battle of Bentonville

Last Sunday, my new cousin-in-law took us to the Bentonville, North Carolina to visit the battleground where 80,000 soldiers over the course of three days fought one of the last major battles of the American Civil War. We went because my husband, amateur military historian, was making one of his rare appearances in town, and my large Southern family wanted to show him a good time. But if you are not an amateur military historian with a large southern family, why would you want to visit the site of an important but somewhat forgotten Civil War battle in the middle of nowhere?

Well, one reason is to get there before the developers. At the simplest level, if we don’t want our American heritage turned into a CVS pharmacy, we need to visit our monuments and show some solidarity. A sleepy, undisturbed place like the hamlet of Bentonville, population 1,768, close to Interstate 95 and within striking distance of one of the fastest growing urban areas in the country, will be hard pressed to stay undisturbed and rural much longer. Even though worthy groups such as the Bentonville Battlefield Historical Association work hard to protect the site, the ability of rapacious developers, who have been buying up open land throughout the South like the second coming of Sherman, put all our heritage sites at risk. Go now before this “hallowed ground” finds itself next to a WalMart.

But the preservation argument is not the only reason to visit Bentonville. For foreign visitors, or any visitor, trying to understand American history and get under the skin of the American psyche, there is nothing more instructive than a tour of a Civil War monument which noted novelist and poet, Robert Penn Warren, described as the greatest single event in the creation of the American imagination.

At Bentonville, the business of creating America through the blood, guts and glory of this epic conflict begins to comes to life in a small but very well done Visitors Center. Be sure to watch the short audio/visual map exhibit which provides an outstanding orientation and explanation of what happened at Bentonville in relation to what you can still see today.

Visitors also have the opportunity to tour the Harper House, built in the 1850s, which played a key role in the battle, serving as a Union field hospital. The tour was expertly conducted by a fine southern gentleman of the old school who was well versed in his subject and the southern art of storytelling. The ground floor recreates the gruesome field hospital conditions and one can easily imagine amputated limbs being thrown out the window by overworked surgeons. While Union doctors sawed off arms and legs on the ground floor, the Harper family lived upstairs and it is interesting to see how ordinary people carried on their everyday lives in the middle of all that carnage. You can also visit the detached kitchen and slave quarters of the property and learn about ante-bellum life in eastern North Carolina which was light years away from the plantation lifestyle made famous in “Gone with the Wind”.

After our tour of the house and outbuildings, we walked over to the monuments to fallen soldiers and then took the battlefield driving tour having been discouraged about walking through the woods at this time of year due to the ticks and chiggers. How’s that for authenticity? Once we got back into our comfortable, air conditioned 21st century car, I lost that “step back in time” feeling but I enjoyed driving around looking at the open farm land while the military historians contemplated the 29 information plaques along the route.

In the remarkable documentary on the Civil War by Ken Burns, the historian Shelby Foote makes the point that as an outcome of the conflict, Americans stopped saying “the United States are” and began saying “the United States is”. There are plenty of places across the southeast of the United States where you can learn about the price that was paid on both sides for a verb to go from plural to singular, but I think Bentonville is a particularly fine example, with its untouched landscape and low key but thoughtful approach to history to contemplate what America has gained and what, without continued vigilance, can still be lost.

Bentonville Battlefield
5466 Harper House Road
Four Oaks, NC 27524
Phone: 910 594 0789
Fax: 910 594 0070


April – October – 9 to 5pm Monday through Saturday, Sunday 1-5pm
November – March 10 to 4pm Tuesday through Saturday, Sunday 1-4pm

Admission is Free
Photo courtesy of the Bentonville Battlefield Historical Society website