Civil War buffs can see a lot of history in a few day trips


April 21, 1991|By Dan Fesperman

In pursuing the ghosts of the Civil War through the fields and forests of Virginia, one keeps bumping into Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson.

On a grassy rise at Manassas, just south of Washington, Stonewall Jackson's granite statue scans the field from the spot where he earned his nickname by holding fast against a Union attack.

A few hours' journey to the west, along Skyline Drive, are the gaps and ridges of the Shenandoah Valley, where he built his reputation by baffling the Union with a grueling series of long, fast marches.

Toward the middle of the state, on the shoulder of a two-lane road 10 miles west of Fredericksburg, is the spot where he and Robert E. Lee mapped out Jackson's boldest stroke of the war -- a sweeping march through the woods at Chancellorsville to surprise the Union army just as it was sitting down to dinner.

Finally, a mile or so from that spot, is the place where Jackson got his bloody comeuppance -- mortally wounded by his own skittish troops as they fired through the night at his approaching clatter.

It took Stonewall Jackson nearly two years to complete that meandering ride into history, but today one can cover the same ground with a few easy battleground day trips. For Marylanders interested in the Civil War who already have made the obligatory stops at Antietam and Gettysburg, the jaunts to Virginia are the next natural step.

Such trips are best divvied up region by region, unless one is prepared to overdose on history with an entire weekend on the highway. To help get you going, here are three suggested itineraries, each of which can be done in a single day:

First and Second Manassas: This is the shortest and simplest othe trips, and the best one to start with, if for no other reason than it was the site of the first major battle of the war, on July 21, 1861. This was the fight that awakened the North to the possibility of a long, grim war. Hundreds of spectators had rattled down from Washington in buggies to view what they figured would be a glorious victory, only to turn tail and run after Union forces did the same.

Of course, this was where "Stonewall" earned his name, supposedly when South Carolina Gen. Barnard Bee shouted the description to rally his men. To enhance one's appreciation of the spot, take along writer Shelby Foote's description of the moment, from his three-volume narrative "The Civil War":

Then, as the tide turned again, the Federals exerting the pressure of their numbers, in war as in peace the fire-eaters looked to Virginia. On a ridge to the rear -- as Johnston and Beauregard had observed, arriving at this moment -- Jackson's Virginians were staunchly aligned on their guns. "There is Jackson standing like a stone wall!" Bee shouted. "Let us determine to die here and we will conquer."

The battleground, by virtue of its relatively small size, may be the easiest place in which to "see" a battle in the mind's eye as it must have unfolded. Several vantage points on the mostly open tract offer views of all the major points of action at First Manassas -- and, so far, no shopping mall or housing development has come along to spoil the view.

Second Manassas was fought in the same general area Aug. 28-30, 1862, but sprawled across about four times as much land. That means it is not so easily absorbed, and is best toured in a car, stop by stop. A brochure put out by the National Park Service, available at the First Manassas Visitor's Center, clearly outlines the route. To get there, take Interstate 66 south off the Washington Beltway, then exit north on Virginia Route 234. The entrance will be on your right after a short distance.

Fredericksburg-Chancellorsville-the Wilderness-Spotsylvania: Sure, that sounds like a lot of battle to cram into one day -- and it is, because each of these fights was a big one. The first two were among the Confederacy's most decisive victories (Chancellorsville, with Stonewall Jackson's daring flank attack as the crowning blow, is considered to be Lee's craftiest tactical achievement). The latter two, savage conflicts fought back to back in May 1864, were the first two battles in U.S. Grant's inexorable final push to Richmond and Appomattox.

Don't be scared off by all these big names bunched together. The battlefields themselves are bunched. None is farther than a few miles from the next, and an easy-to-follow driving tour of all four is outlined in a National Park Service brochure available at the Fredericksburg Battlefield Visitor's Center. That battle, because it was the first of the four, is where you want to begin a tour.

It's about 100 miles south of Baltimore, or roughly a two-hour trip. Exit east off Interstate 95 onto state Route 3 at Fredericksburg, then follow the small brown signs to the Fredericksburg Battlefield Park, about two miles away.

Those used to the open expanses of Gettysburg and Antietam, where one can gulp down vast battlefield panoramas from a single vantage point, should be prepared for a different experience.

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