by Bryan & Heather
For Christmas 2021, we were lucky enough to receive an America the Beautiful National Park pass from Heather’s sister. For those unfamiliar, this pass grants free admission to any National Park that charges admission or parking fees. This is not quite as generous as it sounds, however; few parks outside of the major western parks charge such fees, and so we had been looking for possibilities to use our pass for months. As Labor Day weekend 2022 rolled around, however, we alighted on a nice little day trip north of Atlanta to visit Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park.
A key engagement in William T. Sherman’s campaigns through Georgia in 1864, Kennesaw Mountain was simultaneously the first major battle for Atlanta, Sherman’s first defeat in Georgia, and the beginning of the end for the Confederate defenders as commanding general Joseph E. Johnston was replaced with the recklessly aggressive John Bell Hood. After a pleasant morning drive and a bracing meal at the famous Marietta Diner in town (including splitting an absolutely monstrous slice of cake), we bundled back into the car ready for some serious battlefielding.
That lunch may have been a mistake, as it turns out; little did we know just how serious an effort Kennesaw Mountain requires to appreciate it in full. Our visit began, of course, at the battlefield visitor center, which offered a brief but admirably comprehensive interpretive framework for the park. We did not expect such nuance as each side’s interpretation of the ideas of freedom and liberty or dispelling of myths such as the pervasive fiction of black Confederate soldiers, but we were pleasantly surprised by these and more. We wished we could have seen more than simple text plaques (and fairly dense ones at that), and the singular sign gesturing to the pre-European history of the area was almost laughably insufficient, but both of these may have been the result of budgetary or administrative constraints. Even having unfortunately missed the park’s introductory video, we set out fairly prepared (we thought) to interpret what we were about to see.
As we began our self-guided driving tour of the battlefield, however, it quickly became evident how unique an experience Kennesaw Mountain is to tour. Used to the major and (relatively) undeveloped parks of the northeast like Gettysburg, Antietam, or even Andersonville, we were surprised at how spread out and sparse the actual interpretation was as we covered the field. As we drove, Bryan was in fact reminded of Fredericksburg, where he interned during the summer of 2013. Like Fredericksburg, the suburban sprawl of a nearby town and larger metro area has steadily encroached on the battlefield, requiring a somewhat ad hoc approach to preservation and interpretation, with modern neighborhoods (some quite affluent) coming right up to the edge of the park and necessitating any visitor to drive in and out of preserved land on their journey. Yet while Fredericksburg offers an approach of exhaustively interpreted enclaves of battlefield, Kennesaw Mountain is organized into beachheads (or more fittingly, trailheads) into an interior that can feel more akin to a nature preserve or suburban greenspace than a preserved Civil War site. Indeed, the park offers a combined twenty-two miles of hiking trails for visitors to penetrate the battlefield and explore (its three main heights–Kennesaw, Pigeon Hill, and Cheatham Hill–are actually only accessible via trail), facilitating a close personal experience of the ground the soldiers fought over in the summer of 1864.
We would have appreciated even more interpretive markers to aid this approach, as we often had difficulty orienting ourselves to the events of the battle, but this approach to battlefield interpretation and management also had a very obvious upside: community engagement. As former NPS interns, we’ve both seen our share of local residents using parkland for recreation, but Kennesaw Mountain was on another level. The visitors’ center’s (not small) parking lot was packed to the gills when we arrived at 3:00 in the afternoon, and we witnessed a veritable flood of hikers, joggers, and dog walkers across the breadth of the park.
There’s something to be said for such a close relationship between park and community, and while it may not quite measure up to the historical experience of a Gettysburg or even Spotsylvania or Chancellorsville, we would absolutely recommend Kennesaw Mountain to anyone passing through the Atlanta area and looking for a way to spend a lovely day outside. Just make sure to bring good shoes and plenty of water–and refrain from indulging in too much cake before taking to the trails.