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.
The day was Sept. 17, 1862, and it was Lee vs. McClellan. The North had been humiliated in early battles. This would be a victory for Lincoln's army, though a shallow one: McClellan's failure to pursue Lee's defeated army infuriated the president, who fired him soon after.
In the one day, one in every five men - more than 23,000 - were killed or wounded, 12,410 of them federals. The land looks much the same as it did then. There is no Hardee's here. Along the roadsides, plaques mark positions and events of the battle. Monuments are rare.
There is, near the center of the battlefield, a stretch of sunken road bordered on both sides by the wooden fencing of the time. At the beginning of the road, near a monument, is a sign: Bloody Lane.
That's what this road came to be called. More than 5,000 soldiers fell here. American men, both sides. In four hours.
It is quiet now, except for the rain, and I'm alone, walking down this ditch called Bloody Lane. On a slope and by itself, another monument. It is a statue of a Union soldier.
The soldier, a Pennsylvania volunteer, is carrying a flag. He looks to be about 14.
Day Three: Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville
Looking in Virginia for the battlefield of the Battle of Fredericksburg (Dec. 11-13, 1862) is a little like looking for smoke damage from the Great Chicago Fire.
"The battlefield, for the most part, is almost gone," said a neutral ranger, redundantly but accurately.
The town, which took a pretty good hit during the war (it changed hands seven times), has been handsomely rebuilt over the last 135 years.
Lee and his staff could see everything from what came to be called Lee's Hill; today from the hill you see mostly treetops. Today's houses come within a few yards of remnants of a stone wall that gave Confederate troops cover during some of the battle's more intense fighting.
A mansion on the other side of the Rappahannock was called Chatham when George Washington stopped there, and Lacy House when Lincoln visited in 1862. War wounds were nursed in the house by Clara Barton and Walt Whitman. Now, it's Chatham again, sparsely furnished and not at all interesting except for the view of town from the front garden.
So it goes. But, urged the above-quoted ranger: "You must see Chancellorsville."
I see Chancellorsville, a battle named not for a stream or a town but for an inn 10 miles west of Fredericksburg. Like the Fredericksburg battlefield, most of the inn is almost gone, and other key sites are under pressure from developers.
But the Battle of Chancellorsville (April 27-May 6, 1863) is one of the war's most fascinating, and with a National Park Service-supplied cassette, a little selective vision and some preparation, touring the battlefield is rewarding.
The battle was a triumph for Lee and another debacle for the North. Stonewall Jackson starred here but was fatally wounded here, by his own men, by mistake. Jackson had led those troops on a 12-mile hike through the woods before surprising and hammering Hooker's Union army; the tour route follows Jackson's path (wider now, but much of it still through forest and still unpaved), and some trenches remain.
The actual battlefield remains a field.
At other sites, notably Hazel Grove and Fairview, cannons stand where they did in 1863 - still aimed at each other - and earthen gun pits survive.
There's no sense of the horror of war here. What comes through is tactical brilliance, plus the irony of Jackson's demise. The horror comes later, in the battle that followed Chancellorsville by only a few weeks.
Day Four: The Wilderness, Spotsylvania
We're still in Virginia, only a couple of miles beyond Chancellorsville. The first stop on this audio-tape tour, of the Wilderness Battlefield, is the parking lot of a 7-Eleven.
Sometimes change is nature's doing. Tangled forest undergrowth that gave the Wilderness its name - that worked to the advantage of outnumbered Confederate forces in 1864 - is less tangled, more gentle now.
But evidence remains of a battle that matched Lee and Grant for the first time. Trenches cut by Confederate troops still line Hill-Ewell Drive. The field on the Widow Tapp Farm where so many died - where Longstreet's troops rode to the rescue of Lee's - is still there, still surrounded by dense woods.
And at the edge of the Wilderness, in a family cemetery on the former Lacy plantation and marked by a small stone, rests Stonewall Jackson's left arm.
Battlefield doctors severed the arm May 3, 1863, the day after the general was wounded by friendly fire. Jackson's chaplain, the Rev. Tucker Lacy, saw the sawed-off arm just lying there, wrapped it up and hustled it to his brother, J. Horace Lacy on the family farm.
It was buried behind Ellwood, the plantation house. The rest of Stonewall is in Lexington, Va. Seeing the arm plot isn't easy: The National Park Service requires a permit, and they are limited, and the access road is marked only with a sign that says "authorized vehicles only."
The Battle of the Wilderness (May 5-6, 1864) ended in a draw, but when Lee's army moved south toward Richmond, Grant's army followed. They clashed again May 12 near Spotsylvania Court House. The tape tour takes us with Grant.
On a field still bordered by Confederate trenches, thousands fought hand-to-hand, the most intense fighting of its kind in the war. We know this battlefield as the Bloody Angle. It looks as it did then. Except it's green.
Four clustered battlefields: Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, the Wilderness, Spotsylvania. More than 100,000 Americans killed and wounded.
After Spotsylvania, the war had been decided. It would last another year.
Day Five: Richmond, Petersburg, Appomattox
Richmond, Confederate capital during the war, was a symbol, the North's great white whale, the elusive obsession. Military careers were wrecked trying to overcome its defenses.
It is surrounded by battlefields - particularly east of town - but the city itself, like Washington, wasn't one of them. It burned anyway, the fires set under orders by retreating Confederate troops.
There's still good stuff here. The state capitol designed by Thomas Jefferson that served as the Confederate capitol glistens in the sun; Davis' White House of the Confederacy is overwhelmed by the surrounding commercial clutter, but it's there, alongside a museum full of significant relics; Lee's wartime residence, a rental, made it because his wife refused to leave and the Federals wouldn't let her burn.
Memorials range from grand statuary to an alley named for Lee's horse.
But when Grant couldn't get past Lee's depleted army into Richmond after Spotsylvania, it was Petersburg - 20 miles south of the capital - that took the hit.
"This," says Petersburg ranger Elizabeth Dinger-Glisan, "is pretty much the beginning of the end."
Petersburg's battlefield is a popular bike path for locals. Joggers trot past surviving trenches and gun pits. The Crater, where a land mine planted by Pennsylvanians tore into hundreds of rebel soldiers, is a grassy dip now.
In the battle and in skirmishes that accompanied a 292-day siege of Petersburg, more than 70,000 soldiers died. "People say 'Federal,' 'Confederate,' " says Dinger-Glisan. "It's 70,000 Americans."
In Petersburg is little Brandford Church, which predates the Revolution (and now has 15 century-old Louis Tiffany glass windows). Within its cemetery, 30,000 Americans of the Confederate persuasion are buried. Neighbors began decorating the graves in 1866, and they say that's what inspired Decoration Day, today's Memorial Day.
Another version has the custom starting the same year in Waterloo, N.Y. Those graves were Union.
The war never ends.
On April 2, 1865, Lee and his army finally abandoned Petersburg and skirmished their way west.
Their route, most of it on what are now pretty back roads, has been turned into a driving tour; at 28 stops, you tune your car radio to 1610-AM and a narrator tells you what happened there.
On April 9, 1865, in a house owned by Wilmer McLean in the village of Appomattox Court House, Lee surrendered his army to Grant. I miss the moment by 133 years, 36 days and, most unfortunately, several hours; the National Historical Park closes at 5 p.m., it's after 8 in the evening, and I don't get to see the interior of McLean's house.
But the grounds remain open until dark, which it isn't quite. Except for grazing cattle, I have the place to myself.
I sit on the steps of McLean's house. I try to imagine what it must have been like: Lee, Grant, horses, thousands of war-weary soldiers on both sides who want nothing more than to just go home.
At Appomattox, I listen to the silence.
Day Six: Manassas, Washington
On this day we are to go from where it basically ended to where it basically started.
From Appomattox, there are three main routes to Manassas, all of them wonderful: Interstate 81 cuts through the Shenandoah Valley (and another battlefield at New Market); Skyline Drive runs along a ridge within Shenandoah National Park and alongside the Appalachian Trail; and there's my choice: a combination of two-lanes, particularly Virginia Route 20, which links Jefferson's home at Monticello with Madison's at Montpelier and is therefore called the Constitution Route.
The notion of Civil War was still a novelty when the first real battle began July 21, 1861, near the town of Manassas along a creek called Bull Run.
We are less than 30 miles from Washington. Lore has it some of the capital's social elite packed wine and cheese and watched the battle from nearby bluffs. I wanted to see those bluffs. The lore is an exaggeration. The nearest eligible high ground is outside the park and well beyond viewing range, maybe five miles away and probably under some Red Lobster.
"They really couldn't have seen any part of it, other than the retreat, when they probably added to the confusion," says ranger Chris Bryce. Earlier, troop traffic from Washington would have jammed the roads.
"It would have been almost impossible," says Bryce. "Just like like driving around here now."
I walk part of the battleground, drive other parts. Landmarks remain from both battles (a Second Manassas - and resulting in a second Yankee humiliation - was fought here a year later).
From the Stone Bridge, where the first battle's first shots were fired, boys throw rocks into Bull Run, competing to see who can make the largest splash.
The war never ends.
Our road does, however, in Washington, with a visit to the Lincoln Memorial. I have been there several times, and I've loved it.
But never before have I been there after a week of visiting 10 Civil War battlefields where 278,000 Americans fell.
This time, it's not the same. It's just not the same.
This time, for the first time, I want to ask him a few questions.
This six-day drive of 10 Civil War sites totals about 860 miles. Daily stops include mileage (usually by indirect routes) and suggestions for lodging and dining. Lodging prices are for one person; doubles are slightly higher. All prices subject to change.
* Day One
Baltimore-Frederick: 122 miles.
Overnight: Days Inn, Frederick; $55.80.
Best grub: Veal Michelle (with sherry, artichokes, wild mushrooms and cream), $18.95; the Brown Pelican, Frederick.
* Day Two
Frederick-Fredericksburg, Va.: 152 miles.
Overnight: Sheraton Inn, Fredericksburg; $89.
Best grub: Crab cake sandwich, $4.95; Boone's Family Restaurant, Middletown.
* Day Three
Fredericksburg-Chancellorsville: 67 miles.
Overnight: Sheraton Inn, Fredericksburg; $89.
Best grub: Crab meat Norfolk, $16.99; Olde Towne Steak and Seafood, Fredericksburg.
* Day Four
The Wilderness/Spotsylvania-Richmond: 117 miles.
Overnight: the Jefferson, Richmond; $145.
Best grub: Sauteed fresh local rainbow trout with "redneck caviar" (grits blackened with squid ink), fresh mussels and a tomato/basil/garlic broth, $19.75; the Frog and the Redneck, Richmond.
* Day Five
Richmond-Lynchburg, Va.: 193 miles.
Overnight: Holiday Inn Select, Lynchburg; $68.
Best grub: Hot dog (mustard, relish, onions, chili), $1.25; street vendor, Richmond.
* Day Six
Lynchburg-Washington: 208 miles.
Overnight: Canterbury Hotel, Washington; $156.
Best grub: Baudroie grillee, sauce aux moules safranee (grilled monkfish with mussels in saffron sauce), $15.95; Lavandou, Washington.
Pub Date: 12/13/98