On the war path

Battlefields let visitors follow in the footsteps of history

April 07, 2011|By Timothy B. Wheeler, The Baltimore Sun

One hundred fifty years ago this week, the first shots were fired in the Civil War, the bloody conflict that pitted North against South for four long years and forged our identity as a nation. Though the guns have long since been silenced, they echo down through the years, in countless ways large and small, in our politics, our pastimes, even in some of our popular sayings.

For me, the Civil War is personal. Growing up in West Virginia, I recall vague talk among my family about how one or more of our forebears fought for the South, but only years later did the stories become more concrete. I inherited a tarnished sword handed down from my grandparents, and a battered, fading roll book kept by one Sgt. William H.H. Wheeler for Company B of the 10th Virginia, whose members hailed from the Shenandoah Valley.

You don't have to have a blood tie, though, to appreciate the significance of the Civil War, and its lasting impact on American society. There'll be many opportunities starting this spring, as a four-year-long sesquicentennial observance kicks off Tuesday with a reenactment of the war's beginning — the Confederate bombardment of Union-held Fort Sumter in Charleston, S.C. Then at the end of the week, Baltimore commemorates the first actual bloodshed in the war, when Union soldiers passing through town on their way to Washington fired on a menacing mob of Southern sympathizers.

There are countless sites across the eastern half of the country dedicated to remembering some event or person of importance in this seminal conflict, but no greater concentration than in the Mid-Atlantic region.

The major battlegrounds have been at least partially preserved by the National Park Service. And there is no better way to appreciate what those soldiers saw and went through than to walk the battlefields, feel the ground beneath your feet and try to imagine the chaos and cacophony that unfolded around them so long ago.

And you don't have to do it alone — even if you go alone.

Civil War Traveler, a website dedicated to promoting heritage tourism, has produced more than two dozen podcasts of guided walking tours led by National Park Service historians. Civil War Trust, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving historic sites, is putting together iPhone "battle apps," with integrated maps and GPS to make sure you don't get lost. I downloaded a few podcasts recently and set out on hikes at some of my favorite battlefields.


You get two battles for the price of one at Manassas National Battlefield Park, about 25 miles southwest of Washington. These rolling fields and woodlots in northern Virginia were the scene of the first major clash between Union and Confederate armies. And the railroad junction here was of such strategic importance that the two armies staged a rematch a little over a year later.

Many Americans on both sides had thought that this feud over slavery and states' rights would be quickly resolved. Ten hours of chaotic fighting here on July 21, 1861, changed all that.

To learn about that first battle of Manassas — or Bull Run, as those in the North called it — you can take a one-mile self-guided walking tour across the grassy top of Henry Hill. Other tours of roughly the same length take you to other spots in that first battle.

Walking away from the visitor's center, you pass a row of cannon that changed hands five times in the seesaw struggle. You come to a two-story frame house, rebuilt in 1870, where you learn about Judith Carter Henry, the only civilian killed in the battle. The bedridden 85-year-old widow was mortally wounded when her house was fired on by one of those cannon after Confederate soldiers started shooting at the gunners from her windows.

There are interpretive signs explaining stops on the tour, but I listened along to a podcast. The narrative provides more context and color, urging the listener in one instance to imagine waves of soldiers emerging from a line of trees, screaming and hollering as they advance — the first "rebel yell" that was to become a trademark of Confederate attacks throughout the war.

The second battle of Manassas took place in August 1862 a few miles to the west and covered more terrain. Not as well known, the battlefield here is less crowded, more natural, with walks mapped out of 1.2 to 2.6 miles.

I joined a living history tour led by Neal West, a Waldorf resident wearing the butternut uniform of a Georgia volunteer. West, who said his great-great-great-grandfather fought with a Georgia unit at Second Manassas, demonstrated how to load and fire his replica 1858 Enfield rifle, one of the standard infantry weapons of the war. The muzzle-loader's two-step cocking mechanism, he explained, was the source of the popular term "going off half-cocked.''

Getting there: Manassas National Battlefield Park, 6511 Sudley Road, Manassas, Va. 20109.

Hiking time: Allow at least 4 hours

Admission: $3 per person; children under age 16 are free.


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