The road to WAR Pilgrimage: A tour of 10 regional battlefields brings the history of our great, uncivil war into sharp focus.

December 13, 1998|By Alan Solomon | Alan Solomon,Chicago Tribune

The Civil War continues to fascinate us, and it should. This didn't happen on some Pacific atoll or in a town on the Rhine. It happened right down the road.

We think we know so much about it.

"This was the first war where just about everyone in it could read and write, so there's a wealth of information," said Paul Chiles, a ranger at Antietam Battlefield.

But the books and movies are predigested bits of drama and humanity and tactics and troop movements. Unless you actually walk the ground where Americans slaughtered Americans, the war remains comfortably distant.

Until you visit the battlefields - at least one great battlefield - and see the scale as it was, you don't know this war at all.

Our drive will touch 10 battlefields. Parts of our tour will be uncomfortable. As in the war, moments of actual glory will be few.

The Civil War will become very real.

"And," said Tracy Shives, a ranger at Monocacy Battlefield, "it wasn't that long ago."

Day One: Gettysburg

Our drive from Baltimore into Pennsylvania, for a time, follows the Taneytown Road (Pennsylvania Route 134). J.E.B. Stuart's Confederate cavalry camped along this same road in 1863. So, days later, did Union soldiers.

Many from both sides would die in Gettysburg.

There are other Civil War battlefields - thousands of them, counting skirmishes - but none more famous than this place. The battle itself, with nearly 170,000 combatants the greatest ever fought on this continent, is one reason. Abraham Lincoln's speech is another. The battle (July 1-3, 1863) happened here because Lee's Confederate army was in Pennsylvania on one side, Meade's Army of the Potomac was in Virginia on the other, and roads from both directions met in Gettysburg.

Considering the battlefield's 135 years of notoriety, it's amazing that only one blight (the National Tower, a 300-foot Eiffel-like growth) seriously corrupts the landscape.

George Symons is my licensed guide. He's been doing this four years. He also appeared in the film "Gettysburg," but you have to look fast.

"I'm a horse groom, checking the straps," he says.

I drive, he speaks. "Now, here on our right is a statue of Gen. Abner Doubleday. He takes command of the first corps on July 1 and does a splendid job here. It's what he should be famous for, not for starting baseball."

At Little Round Top, a strategic hill, he says someone on one of his tours asked him this: "Were those boulders here at the time of the battle?" We both laugh.

Later, I check one of my reference books. In it is a large photo of Little Round Top taken soon after the battle. The boulders are there. Same boulders. Among them are the bodies of dozens of dead soldiers.

Near the park's visitor center is Gettysburg National Cemetery. Cannons mark the placements of Union artillery during the battle. Here, a few steps from the gate and the memorial near the entrance, surrounded by graves of soldiers who gave their last full measure of devotion, Lincoln spoke on Nov. 19, 1863.

Behind the memorial are more soldiers' graves. They are dated 1967.

Day Two: Monocacy, Antietam

Just a couple of miles south of Frederick, my overnight stop, Monocacy is easily missed.

"We get a lot of people on their way to other battlefields," says Tracy Shives, a ranger. "It's away from the congestion."

It is past noon on a Tuesday. I am the first person to sign the welcome book.

But this little battle (July 9, 1864) was a key one. It matched Gen. Jubal Early's Confederate troops against Gen. Lew Wallace's bluecoats, the only fighting force between the rebels and Washington. Wallace's army lost (and Wallace eventually went home to write "Ben Hur"), but in delaying Early's charge, he probably saved the federal capital from invasion.

The lack of monuments is somehow refreshing after the granite forest at Gettysburg. It's one of the reasons Shives likes Monocacy.

"Have you been to Antietam yet?" she says. "It's really well preserved."

It is raining, a light rain, a soft rain, and the hills and valleys along U.S. Route 40-A are a vibrant green. The small towns along the way - Middletown, Boonsboro - are charming.

So is Sharpsburg.

Across the street from the house where Lee and his generals considered options is the Sharpsburg Arsenal. It is a shop selling books and the usual tourist junk - but also real things, many of them recovered from the battlefield just down the road: muskets, drums, bullets, belt buckles, buttons.

A single crutch sells for $45.

Don Stoops, who owns the shop, has been in this business more than 30 years. "There's something different about this war," he says. "It's very hard to believe that it happened here."

Its bloodiest day happened just a couple of miles up Maryland Route 65 and not far from Harpers Ferry, where John Brown's 1859 raid stirred passions. In the South, it is called the Battle of Sharpsburg. Northerners call it the name of a stream: Antietam.

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