01 April 2008 by Published in: Battlefield preservation 29 comments

Food for another blog entry – “Top ten visitors centers for a battlefield.”

So wrote Craig Swain in a comment to the last post. “What a great idea,” I thought to myself. So, here goes….

One note of caution. I’m not a Western Theater guy. I’ve been to Vicksburg once, and while I’m sure I was in the VC, I have absolutely no recollection of it whatsoever. I’ve never been to Stones River. I’ve been to Chickamauga and Shiloh once each and have only the vaguest of memories of the visitor centers there. Consequently, you’re not going to find any major Western Theater VC’s on this list.

1. Gettysburg. It’s the granddaddy of them all. Old, dumpy, dingy, dark, and in a place it never should have been built, the old VC at Gettysburg was my first visitor center. Maybe it was the unique electric map. Maybe it was the amazing collection of artifacts. Maybe it was the Cyclorama. Whatever it was, the place has always resonated with me, crummy as it may be. It gets my vote as the sentimental favorite.

2. Tredegar Works, Richmond. Sentimentality aside, Tredegar is THE state of the art. As a general statement, it just doesn’t get any better than this. There are two excellent museums. There are two excellent book stores. There are lots of great things to see in historic structures that helped to arm the Confederacy. The fact that it’s located right on the banks of the James River at Belle Isle only helps, as it brings the misery of the POW’s kept on Belle Isle to life.

3. Monocacy. The new VC at Monocacy is really cool. I especially like the fiber optic troop movement map. It looks like a barn and is quite unobtrusive, but it houses a great collection, some nice exhibits, and a nifty little store.

4. Fort Fisher. The VC at Fort Fisher sits just beyond the piece of the fort that remains intact. It has THE best fiber optic troop movement map I’ve ever seen. This is a North Carolina state park, not a national park.

5. Antietam. This is another example of a VC that never, ever should have been placed where it was, but it’s awfully hard to argue with the vista of South Mountain and the whole battlefield from the upstairs observation deck. The store is tiny and very cramped. I understand it’s next for a new VC.

6. Bentonville. This VC features another spectacular fiber optic troop movement map drawn by Mark Moore (who did the one at Fort Fisher, too). There are some really good exhibits there, and a decent little book store. Like Fort Fisher, this is a North Carolina state park.

7. Averasboro. Averasboro is owned by a private foundation. The VC is a house that’s been converted. It’s got a small museum with a nice little gift shop with a pretty good selection of books. Averasboro is a model for how to preserve, mark, and interpret a battlefield using private dollars.

8. Belle Grove/Cedar Creek. Belle Grove is one of my very favorite antebellum houses. I just love the place. It drips with history.

9. Harpers Ferry. Harpers Ferry combines a pre-war town with a battlefield. The VC is remote from the town, and you have to take a shuttle to get to Bolivar Heights or to the town proper, but the store has a great selection, and there are some fabulous exhibits at the VC.

10. Ball’s Bluff. I couldn’t resist including this one. The VC at Ball’s Bluff is a porta-potty in the parking lot. Gotta love it. 🙂

Distinctly missing from this list is Pamplin Park. That’s a private venture which has had tens of million dollars thrown at it, and it simply is an unfair comparison to any of these other places.

I’d like to invite my readers to include your lists in the comments.

Scridb filter

Comments

  1. Sam Elliott
    Tue 01st Apr 2008 at 9:16 pm

    Chickamauga’s was redone less than 5 years ago, and contains the remarkable Fuller Gun Collection. It is clearly in the top 10.

  2. Tue 01st Apr 2008 at 9:32 pm

    Sam,

    My one visit to Chickamauga was more than ten years ago, so my perception of it wouldn’t even be current.

    Eric

  3. Ray Todd Knight
    Tue 01st Apr 2008 at 10:51 pm

    My list will be very short as I haven’t visited that many battlefield parks. By far the best has been Chickamauga, about 3 years ago. Stones River has a new VC that is pretty nice. Shiloh was in serious need of an update when I was there last year and Fort Donelson even worse. The new visitor’s center at Fort Negley here in Nashville is very nice for a non national park site.
    Ray

  4. Mike Peters
    Tue 01st Apr 2008 at 11:47 pm

    Eric,

    My list would include the Corinth Interpretive Center, located on the site of Battery Robinett.

    Respectively,

    Mike Peters

  5. dan
    Wed 02nd Apr 2008 at 1:19 am

    I concur on the Chickamauga VC, it’s fantastic. In fact, the entire park is awesome. Being a former Bostonian, I have to give a plug for Fort Warren, in Boston Harbor. This is where they held Alexander Stevens. It was one of the better Union POW camps. The fort is fantastic and the views are incredible. When I was last there no VC was there to greet folks, but the fort itself is worth the ferry ride out into the harbor.
    8^>
    Of course, Fort Granger is good little trip, too.
    8^>

  6. Dave Powell
    Wed 02nd Apr 2008 at 8:20 am

    Chickamauga, as noted, is outstanding. The lobby map, the Fuller Gun Collection, and the cool electric light map are all outstanding. I also think they did a fine job integrating the “causes” discussion that so much ink has been spilled over the new VC at Gettysburg.

    Shiloh is ok. Not great. A small museum, a good bookstore, but not a lot else. The park is the jewel there.

    Corinth is definitely excellent. Good interpretive stuff, a really evocative front walk (bronzes of discarded gear and weapons litter the walk) a study room, a good bookstore, etc. etc. It should be among the top 2 or 3.

    Stones River got a new center a couple of years ago, and it is pretty good – but there are no “crown jewel” collections like Fuller to highlight it, so I guess I don’t really find it to be standout. Nice facility, however.

    Chickamauga will be re-doing Lookout mountain, something I look forward to, and there is talk that the park will add a third unit “VC” for Moccosin Bend – not really ACW, but still, a lot of Civil War Stuff to see there.

    It is clear to me, Eric, that you need a Western Theater “Wargasm” to see all these places. As an Ohioan, you really need to get out more.:) I would happily show you the ropes…

    Dave Powell

  7. Wed 02nd Apr 2008 at 8:54 am

    I’ve been partial to Shiloh, more for personal reasons than anything I can point to off hand. For an artillery student, Vicksburg ranks high. Second to that is Petersburg, which should also be lauded for blending with the terrain. I do agree with the rating of Monocacy. Wilson’s Creek and Pea Ridge offer good VC’s IMO, but stand out a bit much. Perhaps the worst, IMHO, of the NPS VCs is that at Chancellorsville. Bad location. Attempts to cram the story of four major battles into a ten gallon jug. The worst in terms of interpretation for a NPS, must go to Arkansas Post. For a state park, unless it has been revised, Missouri’s Pilot Knob was lack-luster. Regarding Balls Bluff, one is advised to knock twice before entering.

  8. Wed 02nd Apr 2008 at 10:04 am

    Dave,

    I will take you up on that offer.

    Eric

  9. Randy
    Wed 02nd Apr 2008 at 10:35 am

    Eric:
    Here goes:

    1. Gettysburg. ‘Nuff said.

    2. Antietam. The view alone is worth the visit. Great battle paintings too.

    3. Fredericksburg. A little skimpy on exhibits but the artwork is great (love the Zouave painting) and the book store is top notch.

    4. Chancellorsville. Talk about a building being built in the wrong place. Jackson was shot somwhere between the men’s room and the parking lot. Still, good exhibits.

    5. Manassas. Exhibits are OK, book store and electric map are very good and location is hard to beat. Good place from which to walk a good portion of the battlefield.

    6. Cold Harbor. Tiny but a good campaign map and very helpful staff.

    7. Petersburg. Love the siege exhibits and artillery displays.

    8. Fort Macon. The whole fort is the visitor center in a way. Very good book store and wonderful exhibits. My love of CW history began there in 1963 (when I was 6).

    9. Appomattox. Very good exhibits; much better than I expected upon my first visit.

    10. Ball’s Bluff. Got to agree with Eric. That porta john is only slightly smaller than the Cold Harbor VC but oh what a welcome site to behold on a couple of occasions. There’s a whole new topic for you: favorite CW visitor center bathrooms. Admit it…they are an important part of battlefield stomping!

    Randy

  10. Wed 02nd Apr 2008 at 10:51 am

    The only problem with Tredegar is that transition to Belle Isle. The footbridge across the river is great, but the island itself cries out for interpretive justice. On my last visit there, about a year ago this past March, I noticed that the only interpretive sign even had a misspelling of the word “cannon” on it. On the other hand, the pathetic look of the island itself may attribute to the overall feeling of depression standing on the site where so many suffered. Isn’t the island under care of the city?

  11. Wed 02nd Apr 2008 at 11:11 am

    The “VC” at Ball’s Bluff is indeed tops. Why? It has all the qualities of a great Visitor Center:

    1. It’s always open.
    2. You usually don’t have to wait in line.
    3. You can bring your own reading material.
    4. If it intrudes on a vista, all you need do is pick it up and move it.
    5. When it wears out, they just bring in a new one.
    6. You can park right next to that sucker.
    7. Handicap accessible.
    8. Natural lighting.

    Great list, Eric.

    J.D.

  12. Keith Toney
    Wed 02nd Apr 2008 at 11:57 am

    In no particular order, except the first:
    Gettysburg: lotta good times in that building
    Antietam: ditto, plus the view
    Cedar Creek/Belle Grove
    Bentonville
    Cowpens
    Kings Mountain
    Chickamauga (haven’t been in years but still remember being impressed)
    Stones River
    Brandywine
    (tie) Harpers Ferry/Ft. Sumter (gotta love the view)

  13. Wed 02nd Apr 2008 at 12:41 pm

    I am not a big VC person. For me, the reason for going to the battlefield is to explore the battlefield. I rarely spend more time in the building than it takes to get a map, check on any special ranger walks of interest, check the book store, fill the canteen and ‘use the facilities’.
    Building these big buildings, usually smack in the middle of combat areas, and then spending large annual sums to maintain them just seems a waste. The money could be better spent on interpretive wayside markers on the field itself and the upkeep of historic buildings.
    However, having said the above, I understand some need ‘orientation’, therefore a small visitor facility is fine…. something the size of the Cold Harbor Battlefield VC would be sufficient to do that or using an historic structure, like the Graffiti House at Brandy Station that can orient people in an historic setting.
    If I want to see guns and uniforms, I’d go to a museum rather than a battlefield.
    Just my opinion.

  14. Ken Noe
    Wed 02nd Apr 2008 at 1:42 pm

    The last time I was at Ball’s Bluff, I got lost and ended up in some guy’s back yard. And I went into the Visitor’s Center first.

  15. Wed 02nd Apr 2008 at 5:40 pm

    Ken,
    Sorry about that – usually one of us, annually, checks the battlefield directions for Balls Bluff that are written inside the “Visitor Center” with permanent marker. It’s right above the TP roll and just below one of the vents.

    They must have brought in a new VC just before you visited, and no one had re-copied the directions yet.
    J.D.

  16. Keith Yoder
    Wed 02nd Apr 2008 at 7:48 pm

    Hmmm… heresy perhaps, but I normally don’t even step inside the VC when I go to battlefields. I’ve been to many of these battlefields multiple times and haven’t been beyond the front desk. Obtrusive eyesores imo…

  17. Art Bergeron
    Thu 03rd Apr 2008 at 8:28 am

    The big problem with Belle Isle is that it is subject to flooding so placing expensive interpretive signs there probably will never happen.

  18. Thu 03rd Apr 2008 at 8:53 am

    BTW, I do hold the record for most time spent in the Balls Bluff VC. Then again, with the site less than a mile from my “homestead” it makes a convenient stop on the way during my evening constitutionals.

  19. Ken Noe
    Thu 03rd Apr 2008 at 9:31 am

    Caswain:

    If you were the guy who told me how to get back to my car, thanks.

    Ken

  20. Thu 03rd Apr 2008 at 10:40 am

    No, I was the guy playing the banjo, standing next to the guy who told you how to get back to the car….J/K.

  21. Cronan Maxwell
    Fri 04th Apr 2008 at 2:34 pm

    Revisted Fort Sumter last fall. NPS has built a great VC which offers a great summary of antebellum Low Country history in addition to Sumter & the CW around Charleston.

  22. Stan O'Donnell
    Fri 04th Apr 2008 at 6:45 pm

    Just hit the portable Little Skippers Room/VC at BB today. What a great battlefield!

    Has nobody mentioned New Market?

  23. Sat 05th Apr 2008 at 6:34 am

    Eric,
    Glad to see so many of our North Carolina sites listed here. At least I know we are doing a good job! I would agree with Randy’s comment that Fort Macon is also very good, though they don’t really have a VC, per se. They will begin construction of one in May, but the exhibits inside the fort’s casemates are great. Paul Branch, the ranger/historian there has written two books on the history of the fort and is THE authority, so its nice to have him there. Thanks again for the kind words about our sites in the Old North State!

    Andrew Duppstadt
    Assistant Curator of Education
    NC Historic Sites Division

  24. Teej Smith
    Tue 08th Apr 2008 at 2:05 pm

    I was surprised to see that Monroe’s Crossroads didn’t make the cut as their VC, twin porta potties, has one of the coolest signs ever and so appropriate for a battlefield. The sign reads, “Please Do Not Drop Live Rounds into the Hole.”

    Teej

  25. Tina
    Sat 02nd Aug 2008 at 9:47 pm

    The VC at Chickamauga is absolutely top notch. The Fuller Gun Collection is a real gem. The East doesn’t have it all. I’ve told I dont know how many CW Round Table people about it but they won’t travel beyond the Mystique of R.E. Lee.
    Shiloh VC and amenities are very spare but then you get the feel of what it may have actually looked like. Few monuments and isn’t very crowded with visitors. I went on the anniversary this spring and had the place to myself. Visitor Centers aren’t what the battles are about after all.
    Corinthe VC was a nice building with a goal of becoming a research center. The charming walkway littered with soldiers’ detritus in bronze is a plus but isn’t really informative.
    Lexington MO is a lovely piece of property but beware of trying to eat in the town. Stones River is confusing.
    Anybody interested in the Indian Wars should try not to miss Ft. Larned. That complex of buildings has been very carefully restored an outfitted with accoutrements and props that make the place very haunted. It is a real GEM of a park.
    Finally one of the most awesome places to visit when you decide to go West of the Blue Ridge is Andersonville. Go in the heat of summer so you can feel hot hot it must’ve been. Lie down on the roasted soil and feel the sun’s heat scorch your throat and skin. Think about how there was no shade and very little water. It’s mind boggling.

  26. Sun 22nd Mar 2009 at 11:24 pm

    Eric, I was so glad to see you give special mention to Pamplin Park. Last Spring I visited Pamplin Park with my wife and children, and we all loved it. This Summer I hope to visit a number of the VCs in Virginia that you list. Any recommendations especially for children who are pretty interested in history for their ages (7 to 12)?

  27. David M.
    Wed 16th Sep 2009 at 8:58 pm

    09.16.09

    Thanks for ALL of your comments. Since I have a week off, I plan to visit Antietam/Sharpsburg …. Chickamauga and if time permits, Shiloh.
    Will report back…

  28. Chris
    Wed 06th Jan 2010 at 12:44 pm

    Thanks to everyone who has commented so far. I’m planning my first trip to VA this summer and was looking for some recommendations. I’ve never been to a civil war battlefield (lots of revolutionary battlefields up here in MA and I have visited Fort Warren and loved it!). Anyway, personally Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville are #1 on my list, but I’ve heard that there’s so much development especially around Fredericksburg that it’s a disappointment….initial thoughts were to travel to Manasses and than Fredericksburg/Chancellorsville area….would I be better off going to a different battlefield(s) for my first trip?

    Thanks.

  29. Tue 09th Feb 2010 at 5:21 pm

    Chris,
    If you’re headed into Virginia by all means stop at Manassas first. VC’s aside, you will love Fredericksburg/Chancellorsville/The Wilderness/ Spotsylvania. These are all about getting out in the sun and walking and soaking in the countryside. Downtown Fredericksburg has some quaint old shops as well. And don’t forget to hit the north side of the river and visit Catham Manor. You can also park at the entrance of Elwood (between Chancellorsville and the Wilderness) and after a pretty nice walk, visit the burial site of Jackson’s arm and Meade’s headquarters. This part of Virginia is beautiful. But be aware that it can get mighty hot and humid in the summer. I’d try to hit New Market too on your way south. Luray is a spectacular mountain town. And a stop at VMI and Lexington in general is a must. E-mail me and I’ll meet you along the way. I live right in the middle of The Peninsula Campaign. I can show you spots that the NPS won’t tell you about. I’m eight miles from Cold Harbor/Gaines Mill.

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