Lieutenant William Cowper was a soldier fighting for the Confederacy in the 17th Mississippi. In October 1862, he wrote a letter to his mother after Stephen, a slave, ran away. In it, he expressed ideas of God and his justice that many today would find very foreign:
I don’t know that I much regret the loss of Stephen. I have thought that this war was ordered by Providence, as a means of settling definitely and conclusively the question of slavery: if slavery is a divine institute, I believe we will be successful, that our independence will be recognized and the Southern Confederacy will be established as a Government with slavery as its great distinctive feature. if on the contrary, slavery is a curse and obnoxious to an All Wise and Good Creator I believe that he will make this war, the means of abolishing it from the face of the earth. I have the greatest confidence in the wisdom of God, and believe that all things work together for good to them that we love.
From The Hour of Our Nation’s Agony: The Civil War Letters of Lt. William Cowper (Knoxville, The University of Tennessee Press: 2007).p. 102.
Visiting a battlefield can give you a far richer experience than just reading what happened there. It gives a greater depth to the story, and you can strive to visualize what the hills, fields and woods looked like when covered with armed men. Over the years, the Discerning History team has had the opportunity to visit many of battlefields from the American War for Independence. Here’s our picks for the best Revolutionary War battlefields to visit. We have chosen them based on the beauty of the location, how much they enhance your understanding of the battle, how well the landscape has been preserved and how important the original event was.
After the British army under William Howe captured Philadelphia in 1777, George Washington mounted an attack on a British outpost at Germantown. After hours of fierce fighting, his army eventually retreated from the field. Although there is no park or museum commemorating the battle, several buildings from the time still stand. Most interesting is the Chew House, a strong stone building in which a group of regulars took shelter and beat back attacks from the Continental forces for several hours.
Guilford Courthouse National Park
9. Gilford Court House
In the Battle of Gilford Court House, under 2,000 British solders under Lord Cornwallis defeated an American army under Nathanael Greene over twice their size. The British quickly pushed through three Americans lines, and won the battle in only ninety minutes. But they suffered very heavy casualties along the way, with about 25% killed, wounded or captured. The wooded battlefield is preserved today by the National Park Service. There is a road which you can drive or walk to take a tour of the site. You will find commemorative monuments and markers explaining the story of the battle.
Washington’s surprise victory at Trenton is one of the classic stories of the American Revolution, but the battle of Princeton is less well known. Just days later, the Continentals attacked the British garrison at Princeton. The battle was hard fought, at one point the patriot militia began to falter, and Washington himself rallied them. But at length the British collapsed, and the day was won. The battlefield is better preserved than many from this war. It is commemorated by several monuments, and a state park contains some important sites including the Clarke House, which was standing at the time of the battle. Also of interest is Nassau Hall at Princeton University, at which Alexander Hamilton fired American cannon to drive out some British who had taken refuge inside.
The small village of Ninety Six was an important Loyalist stronghold in South Carolina. In 1780 the British built a palisade and several redoubts to defend the place. The next year it was besieged by the American army under Nathanael Greene. For nearly a month he tried to capture it from the smaller force of loyalists. The Patriots successfully stormed one redoubt and fought fiercely for the large Star Redoubt, but they were eventually driven off by hand to hand fighting. Greene quickly retreated, as a relieving British force was close at hand. Today the National Park Services maintains the old site of the town of Ninety Six, as well as the earthworks and a reconstructed stockade.
Daniel Morgan’s stunning victory at Cowpens, South Carolina, was a critical battle for the American cause. Morgan handled his mix of militia and Continentals ably in what was arguably the war’s greatest tactics. When they fell back, the British were convinced that the battle was won, leaving them unprepared for a double envelopment from the Patriots. More than a thousand British were casualties, compared with about 150 Americans. Today the battlefield is preserved by the National Park Service. Walk the battlefield trail to see the positions of the troops, and get a sense of the scale of the fighting.
Forested Slopes of King’s Mountain
5. King’s Mountain
King’s Mountain, in north-central South Carolina, was a crucial victory for the Americans in the southern theater. The loyalists under Patrick Ferguson were defeated by a force of patriots, many of them “over mountain men” who came from the settlements on the other side of the Applacian Mountains. It is easy to get a sense of the fighting today, as you walk around the top of the mountain where the loyalists made their stand, and imagine the patriots charging up the steep sides, studded with rocks and trees.
4. Fort Ticonderoga
Fort Ticonderoga is the best and most important fort surviving from the American Revolution. It was built by the French during the French and Indian War, and saw two battles during that war. Its dramatic capture by Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys was one of the patriots’ early successes. The fort later fell into British hands, and they defended it against an American attack in 1777. Ticonderoga was restored in 1909. Today it is an excellent site to visit, and costumed guides do cannon firing demonstrations.
The North Bridge at Concord
3. Lexington and Concord
It was the “Shot Heard Round the World” on the green in Lexington, Massachusetts that began the American Revolution. The victory at Concord later that day was pivotal to the American cause, as it showed that the colonial militia could defeat the regulars. Lexington is a great place to visit today, and while walking around across the green and through the period houses and taverns around it you can really get a sense of how the fighting progressed. The landscape along “Battle Road,” from Lexington to Concord, looks much like it did in 1775. Also interesting is the reconstructed North Bridge at Concord. Walk down from the Visitor’s Center to retrace the steps of the Patriots who gave the first check to the British forces.
A Redoubt on Yorktown Battlefield
The capture of the British army under Lord Cornwallis at the siege of Yorktown, Virginia, was the crowning victory of the Revolution. While the war went on for several more years, the fighting in America was effectively won. It is also one of the most interesting battlefields to visit. Many of the fortifications that were built during the siege have been reconstructed, and they have palisades and cannon to boot. Make sure to see Redoubts No. 9 and 10, which were stormed by the American and French troops near the end of the siege. You can also go into the village, where there is a battle monument and several historical homes run by the National Park Service.
A Cannon Overlooking Saratoga Battlefield
Although Saratoga, in upstate New York, is one of the more remote of the battlefields of the American Revolution, it is unarguably one of the most picturesque. Standing on the bluffs next to cannons marking the artillery positions, you can look across the beautiful fields and woods down to the Hudson River. Victory in the Saratoga campaign was crucial to the American cause, as Horatio Gates’s capture of John Burgyone’s British army helped convince France to enter the war on the American side. Although virtually none of the earthworks have survived, colored stakes mark the positions of the armies. Of special note are the many artillery positions, the Neilson House which Benedict Arnold used as his headquarters, and the site redoubts which the Americans attacked during one of the battles.
Old South Church in Boston
Bonus: Downtown Boston
Boston, Massachusetts was arguably the most important city in America for the revolutionary cause. It was one of the main places that stood up against the authority of the British Parliament. The town itself was besieged by the Patriot forces in 1775-1776, in the longest siege ever to take place in the United States. Although the terrain has changed considerably and the sites of the battles around the town have fallen to development, you can still see many historic locations. These include monuments commemorating the battles of Bunker Hill and Dorchester Heights, the Old State House, in front of which is the site of the Boston Massacre out in front, the Old South Meeting House where the Boston Tea Party was planned, the Old North Church, Paul Revere’s House, and many more.
If you liked this post, you may also enjoy our Top 10 Best Civil War Battlefields. What Revolutionary War sites have you visited? Which was your favorite? Comment below and let us know!
A solitary medical doctor urged his horse forward into the cold and foggy November night. Behind him lay the safety, warmth, and comfort of a fort. Ahead lay danger, mystery, and a long ride back to his isolated Presbyterian mission station called “Waiilatpu” – the place of rye grass. In the wee hours of the morning, Marcus Whitman rode into the mission compound at Waiilatpu. Ten years earlier, this had been a wilderness, inhabited only by wild beasts and wild men. Now there were cultivated fields, orchards, flocks of sheep, herds of cattle, and a gristmill. This clearing had come to represent a clash between two cultures. On one side of the clearing were the lodges of the Cayuse, where even now could be heard the muffled death wail of a bereaved Indian family. On the other side of the clearing were five covered wagons, a vivid picture of Westward expansion.
In the middle of these two cultures stood Marcus and Narcissa Whitman. Ten years ago, they had left their homes in rural New York to come into this wilderness with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Some Cayuse had welcomed their influence, had abandoned their pagan ways, and had come to embrace Christianity. They had ceased their witchcraft, their murder, and the horrid practice of burying alive their unwanted children. These Cayuse had learned to cultivate the ground, to raise cattle, and to love their children. But some Cayuse had not appreciated the Whitmans’ sacrifice. Fear, resentment, and suspicion ran deep. In the last few weeks, muttered threats and secret pow-wows had broken out into open resentment. Indians were dying of a measles epidemic despite the best efforts of Marcus. It was a Cayuse custom to kill a “tewat” – medicine man, if his patient died. Marcus knew that the Indians also resented the growing influx of white men from the east. But Marcus could not change history. He could only do what he could to help the Indians adapt to a changing world.
Marcus dismounted at the T-shaped mission house. It was late, and Marcus was tired. But he sent his wife, Narcissa, to bed so that she could get some needed rest, her last on earth. Marcus took her place attending the sick children, white and red alike, who needed his aid through the rest of the night.
Perhaps a great flood of memories swept over Marcus that night. He recalled the day when he, as a young medical doctor sitting in a church in rural New York, first heard the missionary Samuel Parker tell of the tribes beyond the distant Rockies. He remembered the day that Narcissa Prentiss had agreed to become his wife. He remembered how, at their wedding, Narcissa had requested that the congregation sing the great missionary hymn, “Can I Leave You?” He remembered that, by the fifth verse, the song was stifled by sobs as his courageous bride sang alone this stanza:
In the deserts let me labor,
On the mountains let me tell,
How he died—the blessed Saviour
To redeem a world from hell!
Let me hasten, let me hasten,
Far in heathen lands to dwell.
They had already given so much. Narcissa, so young and eager, was already broken in health. Marcus too was worn with care and toil. And not far away, Alice Clarissa, their only child, rested in a shallow grave—drowned in the Walla Walla river at the tender age of two. The Whitmans had sacrificed wealth, home, family, friends, society, and their own health to come and labor here. But they still had one thing more they could give. The supreme test of their loyalty would come with the dawn of a new day.
The Whitman’s Mission
On November 29, 1847, a band of hostile Cayuse came to the main mission house, demanding medicine. Marcus had dealt with angry men before, and he hoped for the best. He could not deny their request and reached for his bag. One of the Cayuse warriors stepped behind Doctor Whitman, drew a concealed tomahawk from his belt, and slammed the blade into the base of the doctor’s skull. A shot was fired, and instantly all was confusion. Narcissa must have known what the gunshot meant. But she did not panic. Her first thought was not for herself, but for the little orphan girls of the Sager family who depended upon her. Bolting the door to her room, she gathered the children about her as a general massacre began outside. The fury of the murderers would not be restrained even by the sight of women and children. A gun was thrust into the window, and a bullet tore through Narcissa’s shoulder, wounding her severely.
Several of the immigrants from the east were slain in the yard. A ministerial student named Andrew Rogers, a descendant of Scottish Covenanters, could have escaped, but instead he ran toward the compound to defend the women and children and was mortally wounded in the process. With his life’s blood ebbing away, Andrew Rogers fought on. Getting Narcissa and the orphan girls upstairs into a loft, he kept the murderers at bay for over an hour with the broken end of a gun barrel. At last, the wounded Narcissa was lured out of the house by promises of safety. On the way out, she passed her husband lying in a pool of blood. Amazingly, he was yet alive. Their conversation was brief, but he assured her of his love for her and his confidence in God’s eternal purposes. As Narcissa came trustingly outside, a volley rang out and she was instantly pierced by several balls. She had given her all for the Cayuse. She had nursed the Indian children, taught them to read the Bible, taught them to pray, and to sing the name of Jesus. She had been faithful unto death, and now was to receive the crown of life.
The Death of Marcus Whitman
The massacre did not end with the killing of the Whitmans. All the able-bodied men the Indians were able to find were massacred. Helpless women and children were savagely abused and held ransom for almost a month. Finally, the women and children were saved after a thrilling rescue. After a search that took several years, justice was eventually served upon all of the murderers. Some of the murderers were tracked into the Blue Mountains by a Christian Nez Perce chief, and some of the guilty Cayuse were slain in battle. Five of the murderers, including the two men who personally slew Marcus and Narcissa, were brought to trial and convicted of capital murder by a jury that included converted Indians.
What became of the martyrdom of Doctor and Mrs. Whitman? Was their sacrifice in vain? Did a young doctor and his bride waste their potential when they went “far in heathen lands to dwell”?
The obscure mission station called Waiilatpu was obscure no more. Newspapers in the east were soon ablaze with the stirring account. In those days of slow mail, the newspaper was the way that relatives in New York first learned of the martyrdom. Judge Prentiss, as he read the headlines handed him by his grieving wife, must have remembered the image of his daughter, an eager young bride, singing:
In the deserts let me labor,
On the mountains let me tell,
How he died—the blessed Saviour
To redeem a world from hell!
A great wave of interest in missions swept across the United States in the coming years. Boys and girls, inspired by the courage of the Whitmans, took up the banner of Christ. Henry Spalding, a steadfast friend of the Whitmans who labored at Lapwai, a mission station east of Waiilatpu, returned to the field after the tragedy, reaping a great harvest that had been sown among the Cayuse and Nez Perce. A converted chief named Timothy became an earnest and dedicated Christian. Spalding’s church in Idaho still exists to this day as a testimony to the martyred missionaries.
In the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. stands a statue of Marcus Whitman, clad in buckskins. He holds a Bible in one hand, and saddlebags full of medical supplies in the other. His life and influence have not been in vain for Marcus and Narcissa served a God who has promised, “My word shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it.” (Isaiah 55:11)
Drawn from Marcus and Narcissa Whitman and the Opening of Old Oregon by Clifford Drury
On April day in 1851, an old man walked into the office of the justice of the peace in Talladega County, Alabama. He was there to tell the tale of his service many years before in the War for Independence, so that he could file for a pension. His story began as a sickly young man of 17, going off with his uncle to fight with the Patriot militia:
[I] was first taken to the wars by my uncle John Brewer. I went with him to gratify curiosity, and went with him wherever he went. I went with him to a place called the Pine Tree, on Catawba River in South Carolina, but soon after and ever since called Camden. I arrived there about 3 weeks before Gates defeat, and was ignorant of the way people done in the wars, but they gave me a gun and I mustered with them, answered to my name and obeyed orders. Soon there was preparations making among them for a battle, and in about 3 weeks from the time I arrived there the Battle came on….
The Battle of Camden transpired after the Patriots under Horatio Gates ran into the British under Lord Cornwallis during a night while each was marching to surprise the other. The militia behaved badly in the battle. Gates made no accommodation for their known unreliability. When the British changed bayonets, they were struck with a panic. They turned and fled the field, many without firing a shot.
[T]he clash of arms and the struggle of death took place, in which our people were defeated many of them slain, but many more ran, and I am sorry to have to say of my uncle John (peace to his ashes) that he ran, and I was induced to run to because Uncle John ran. Uncle John Howell and I were both taken prisoners & after serving in the sepulcher of the dead, we were turned at liberty.
By “the sepulcher of the dead” he most likely means a prison ship. On the British prison ships, the American POWs were kept in very cruel conditions. Thousands died.
This trying experience did not end Brewer’s military career. He fought at the Battle of Guilford Court House, and was badly wounded in the back the Battle of Lindley’s Mill in North Carolina. After the war he volunteered to fight the Creek and Seminole Indians, serving as a spy. When the War of 1812 came along, he joined a company called the Silver Grays, “old gray headed men who still felt Patriotic, and determined to show that if the Country needed them they were ready, also to excite younger persons.” But they didn’t see enough action for his tastes, so he found a job as a wagoner for the army, driving all over Indian country between the armies forts. By 1851 he had raised nine children, the youngest being 37. After a long and full life he declared, “[I] still live, for which I thank my Maker with an overflowing heart.”