Almost seven score years since the War Between the States, it continues to fascinate Americans. We are a country of sports fans, but grown men do not dress up in late 19th-century baseball uniforms or even early 20th-century football uniforms to spend a weekend re-creating old contests. That's exactly what thousands of people do at major Civil War battlegrounds every year.
The Civil War grips me, even though none of my ancestors fought in it. They were stuck in the Russian Empire, running from the Czar's thugs. My great-grandfather was killed by a Cossack, but do I study Russian history of that period? No way. Instead, like many others, I've read Shelby Foote's three-volume history, The Civil War-it's the American Iliad-along with countless analyses of why the war began and how it was fought. Every time I think I'm done with reading about the long-ago war, the sadness of it grabs me again.
Maybe it's because the South was right about many things but wrong about slavery, so that I cannot unequivocally cheer for either side. Maybe it's because brothers really did fight against brothers, and the only way the war finally came to an end was by the North adopting military tactics that until then had been considered unethical, but would become commonplace in the 20th century: wars of attrition, war against civilians.
The Civil War is to me as his major league career, in retrospect, was to pitcher Jim Bouton: "You think you're gripping the baseball, but it's gripping you," he said. The war grips me, and when I'm teaching an American history course I still get choked up about it.
And so it became a minor hobby of mine to visit battlefields occasionally, and if possible walk the way the armies walked. I've gone to 35 now, and they all have their merits, but here are my top half-dozen. Readers may (and will, I'm sure) nominate their own candidates. Battlefields not mentioned below that would fill out my top 10 are Manassas (Bull Run), Stones River, Chickamauga, and Vicksburg.
I've included the month and year of the battles not only for historic interest, but because a visit at the time of the year the battle took place will yield a better sense of conditions as they were. For example, it's good to get some sense of how high the corn was in the bloody cornfield at Antietam, or how cold it was after the fatal frontal assault at Fredericksburg. Crops and temperatures vary, of course, but a bare wintry field at the first and a balmy night at the second would not provide the same sense of terror.
Gettysburg (July, 1863)
Much as I'd like to make a surprise choice, much as the commercialism surrounding the battlefield is disliked by many (but not by kids who yearn for souvenirs), there's no avoiding Gettysburg's primacy. It was the single greatest battle of the war, stretching over three days and involving 170,000 men, with over 23,000 Union soldiers and 28,000 Confederates becoming casualties. Driving and walking this Pennsylvania battlefield explains much: The big rocks of Devil's Den were indeed devilish, and the awesome difficulty of "Pickett's Charge"-across a vast expanse, sloping slightly uphill-makes it seem that Robert E. Lee's hope that day was for God to intervene. (That's what Michael Shaara suggested in his fine novel, The Killer Angels; it's well worth reading before a Gettysburg visit.)
Antietam (September, 1862)
Neither side could gain the advantage in this one-day battle that produced the most grisly results of any single Civil War day: about 13,000 Federals and 10,000 Confederates killed, wounded, or missing. The 30-acre Maryland cornfield through which soldiers charged and countercharged is still a cornfield; the farm road worn down by erosion and called Sunken Road until it gained a new name at the battle, Bloody Lane, is also a good place to meditate on man's sin. Another part of the battlefield is a monument to stupidity. Union general Ambrose Burnside hour after hour added to the casualty figures by sending men to capture a heavily defended bridge across Antietam Creek. Yet, as Shelby Foote writes, "the little copper-colored stream, less than fifty feet in width, could have been waded at almost any point without wetting the armpits of the shortest man in his corps."
Chancellorsville (April, 1863)
Driving and walking the tree-shaded route of Stonewall Jackson's flank attack illuminates the war's purest example of bold tactical brilliance. Northern forces outnumbered the Confederates 130,000 to 60,000, more than two to one, but Lee and Jackson divided their small force, with Jackson hurrying 30,000 infantrymen on a 12-mile march around the Union army. The Confederates came out of the Virginia underbrush screaming the Rebel yell and the rout was on, until darkness fell. Then Jackson fell, shot by his own men in the confusion. He died eight days later. The North had 17,000 casualties, the South 12,800.
Shiloh (April, 1862)
A small country church still meets at the spot where Southern forces on an early Sunday morning attacked U.S. Grant's army, which was camped around the church building. When my family and I worshipped there a few years back on a warm day, we used small hand fans with the traditional placement of a funeral home name on one side, but this pertinent statement on the other: "Moonshine kills." The Tennessee battlefield's markings make it easy to follow the course of the savage fighting over two days that left the North with 13,000 casualties and the South with nearly 12,000; some of the dead were buried in mass trenches that are still well-marked. The commanding general of the Southern forces, Albert Sydney Johnston, was one of the Southern slain. He had sent away his staff physician to attend a group of Federal wounded, and bled to death when a bullet severed his femoral artery and no one around him thought to tie a tourniquet. ("These men were our enemies a moment ago," Johnston had told his doctor, who had not wanted to leave. "They are our prisoners now. Take care of them.")
Fredericksburg (December, 1862)
If you're curious about what "high ground, good ground" really means in civil warfare, stand by the stone wall at Marye's Heights. Northern troops had to move across 400 yards of open Virginia terrain, uphill; if they made it through the fire of massed artillery, they ran into the massed fire of Confederate riflemen behind the stone wall. Union general Ambrose Burnside ordered thousands of men to the attack, and about 8,000 were killed or wounded; not one reached the wall. Burnside was so distraught by what he had done that he wanted to lead a new assault personally the next morning, but others dissuaded him and the armies remained in a standoff for two days, while Union soldiers froze to death on the few acres between the armies. Then Burnside withdrew, but not before the memory of the disaster was so indelibly inscribed in the minds of Union soldiers that, as Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg half a year later was proving equally disastrous for the South, some Northerners were yelling, "Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg!"
Cold Harbor (June, 1864)
By 1864 Lincoln and his generals had settled on a war of attrition: "doing the arithmetic," Lincoln called it, for the North could lose men and replace them, but if Southern forces lost half as many they would likely stay in that depleted condition. The night before battle Northern soldiers were writing their names and home addresses on slips of paper and pinning them to the backs of their coats, so the identity of their corpses the next day could be recognized more readily. U.S. Grant's forces at Cold Harbor, Va., had 7,000 casualties, most of them during a furious 8-minute assault against the Southern lines; Robert E. Lee's army lost 1,500. When the attack ended, an Alabama colonel noted that "the dead covered more than five acres of ground about as thickly as they could be laid." One blood-stained diary found in the pocket of a dead soldier had this final entry: "June 3. Cold Harbor. I was killed."