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Exploring Civil War Sites

April 24, 2020

When I was younger, I was lucky to go on vacations with my family which many times included stops at historic sites. As an adult, I have continued that tradition. My husband’s love of the Civil War often leads us to sites related to that topic. Using a sample of the Civil War collections at the Indiana Historical Society, I can further explore, and maybe better understand, what was going through a soldier’s mind at those sites.

Vedra at Fort Donelson, 2007

As I stood at Fort Donelson in Tennessee during a 2007 trip and read descriptive panels about the fight there in February 1862, it couldn’t resonate the way reading a soldier’s letter could. Christian Wolfram, a musician in the 11th Indiana Infantry was there. On February 17, 1862, Wolfram wrote:

“Dear Mother, … You have no doubt heard of the fight at Fort Donelson … we … were ferried across the river to Fort Henry from which place we marched to Fort Donelson a distance of 13 miles. We armed there at 5 P.M. and were there informed by one of Smith’s aids that the 11th Ind. & 8th Mo. were to have a chance at the secesh, and that a bayonet charge would be required of them.”

An artist’s rendering of the battle also enhances one’s perspective:

Charge on Fort Donelson, Indiana Historical Society, P0455

For various reasons, Fort Donelson is probably less quickly remembered than Gettysburg. This could be because of Gettysburg’s placement in popular culture or for other reasons. Though as an historian, I was familiar with the Battle of Gettysburg, it took until 2017 for me to visit the historic site.

Vedra’s View of the Valley of Death from Little Round Top, 2017

One of the IHS’ most well-known Civil War letters is the David Beem letter written to his wife, Mahala, on July 5, 1863 after fighting at Gettysburg. It begins, “My Dear Wife, The Army of the Potomac has again met the enemy, and after three days’ desperate fighting have achieved the most glorious victory of the war.” He goes on to describe in detail his perspective on the events that unfolded there as he experienced them. Imagery in our collection also lends itself to better understanding the battle from the soldier’s perspective.

Battle of Gettysburg, Thursday Evening, July 2d, 1863, as seen from Rocky Hill, on Meade’s Left, Indiana Historical Society

There are so many more battle sites that I have visited that I can explore based on the IHS collections, but I will leave it at two for now. Maybe you can take some time to explore places you have visited and find their Indiana ties. Our digital collection is always a good place to start.

Amy Vedra

Amy Vedra is the director of reference services. She is currently reading her way through the Great American Reads list.

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