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Great battlefield tours

There are several ways to experience the Waterloo, Belgium, battlefield where Napoleon's war career came to an end, including guided tours, historic reenactments, hiking and mountain biking.
There are several ways to experience the Waterloo, Belgium, battlefield where Napoleon's war career came to an end, including guided tours, historic reenactments, hiking and mountain biking.
/ Source: Forbes

Standing on the porch of a blood-red cabin, I look out across the Hudson Valley to the Green Mountains of southern Vermont and wonder how such a peaceful, rural landscape could have played such a vital role in shaping western civilization as we know it today.

It was here, around this very cabin and on these same wooded bluffs, that the two battles of Saratoga played out three weeks apart in the autumn of 1777, when a British invasion force under the command of General John Burgoyne met head-on with the ragtag colonial troops of Horatio Gates. The American MVP, so to speak, was a daring young American officer by the name of Benedict Arnold, who would lead two spectacular charges against the Redcoats.

Even though they were far from being the largest clashes of the American Revolution or even the most significant in military terms, the battles of Saratoga had a greater and more long-lasting impact on world history, than any other fighting that occurred during the war.

Saratoga is one of a handful of battles that have had a profound impact on history and culture far beyond whatever actually happened in the trenches or the killing fields. And that makes it and other battlegrounds compelling for the modern day weekend warrior and other travelers to cover at leisure.

“Saratoga was a turning point in the war,” says Eric Schnitzer, a National Parks ranger and historian as we walk across the battlefield. “The battles came at a time when it really looked like the rebels would lose the war and the colonies would not gain their independence.” The American victory knocked an entire British army out of action, boosted public confidence in the rebellion, quashed loyalist activity in a state (New York) that could have easily gone either way at that point and brought France into the war as an American economic and military ally. “Talk about a reversal of fortune,” says Schnitzer.

Hastings is another battle that had monumental ramifications. The Norman invasion of Anglo-Saxon England was relatively small in military terms (only about 16,000 troops took part), but it would be difficult to find a battle with a more momentous effect on world history.

“The battle decided that the king of England henceforth would be basically French and oriented toward the southern Latin orbit of medieval Europe,” says author Cecelia Holland, whose first novel, "The Firedrake," was a fictional account of Hastings. “This is no small thing. England [became] a rich, populous and advanced kingdom and the explosion of the 12th century Renaissance in Europe has no small English influence.”

Without the invasion and battle, England might have forever remained in the Germanic, Celtic or Scandinavian sphere. Some might say that would have been a good thing. But it could have also meant no English language or Shakespeare, 13 American colonies or independent United States, not to mention cricket, rugby and David Beckham.

Perhaps the single greatest battle in history, Waterloo (1815), ended Napoleon’s brilliant military career, became a synonym for ultimate defeat—and proved the unlikely inspiration for the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest winner by Abba. The epic battle not only ended a quarter century of European upheaval but also helped propel Britain into the position of world’s leading superpower and sparked the rise of Germany into a modern, unified state.

“It was hugely important militarily,” says bestselling author Caleb Carr, who has long been fascinated by Waterloo. “But it was also a symbolic moment. Almost like the crowning of the British Empire. They come out of this decade of trying to be a superpower and at that moment it happens. So Waterloo has taken on status of great battle, but it really was something that transcended the military significance to a point where it’s far more than just a battle.”

It wasn’t just European battles that altered history. The Spanish quest to take the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán (modern-day Mexico City) was another titanic clash between radically different civilizations. The crucial moment of the back-and-forth struggle was the Spanish massacre of hundreds of Indian nobles outside the Templo Mayor which eventually lead to Hernán Cortés and his men being taken hostage by the Aztecs. They managed to break out — by the skin of their teeth — during a dramatic midnight escape that involved a running battle across one of the causeways connecting the island-city to the mainland.

The episode is remembered as La Noche Triste — “The Night of Sorrows” — a watershed moment in the history of North America’s indigenous peoples and the European conquest of the Americas. A Spanish loss, or the death of Cortés during battle, may have staved off the European conquest for decades or even centuries as was the case with some Asian empires (like Thailand and Japan) who successfully resisted colonial invasion.

Some influential killing fields were the sights of multiple clashes, like Poitiers in central France, where a pair of battles that book-ended the Middle Ages took place. During the first battle of Poitiers (732 A.D.) Charles Martel led his Frankish forces to victory over Abdul Rahman al Ghafiqi and a superior Muslim army, ending the Islamic threat against European Christian civilization. Other than the fact that Martel achieved his miraculous win without cavalry, not much is known about the actual fighting. The second battle (1356 A.D.) pitted England’s Black Knight against King Jean of France in one of the great showdowns of the Hundred Years’ War. English longbows prevailed over the French knights, forever changing the way wars were fought.

“If not stopped at Poitiers,” says Strauss, “the Muslim advance might have continued far into northern Europe, around into Italy and possibly even England. Certainly at the time there was some question about whether or not Latin Christendom would survive. Victory at Poitiers was an important step in the development of French power and laid the foundation for the dynasty that Charlemagne would later create.”

Of course, the mother of all battlefields is Gettysburg in central Pennsylvania. With roughly 2.9 million visitors per year, it is the most visited battlefield in the United States, if not the entire world. Why? First and foremost because the most critical battle of the American Civil War took place there in the summer of 1863, but also because Abraham Lincoln delivered his Gettysburg Address there four months later, redefining the war between North and South as “a new birth of freedom” for all Americans no matter their color, creed or social level.

Senator Charles Sumner, delivering the eulogy at Lincoln’s funeral, declared, “The battle itself was less important than the speech.” While this might be true in philosophical terms, the fighting that waged for three days in and around the town of Gettysburg was without a doubt the decisive battle of the Civil War. The Confederacy never again mounted a serious threat to the Union, and even though the Civil War dragged on for another two years, Gettysburg was the initial death knell for Dixie.

“It was the beginning of the third year of the war,” said licensed battlefield guide John Fitzpatrick as we drove along Seminary Ridge on the south side of Gettysburg. “In this theater of war (the East Coast), the Confederates had never lost and the Yankees had never won. They had total contempt for the Yankee soldiers and thought themselves invincible.”

“Historians call it the high watermark of the Confederacy,” adds Fitzpatrick, a former US Marine fighter pilot. “The tide ebbed after this and the South never recovered the momentum it had had before.”