Civil War History Is Best Learned on Foot

By Gail Russell Chaddock, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, June 3, 1998 | Go to article overview

Civil War History Is Best Learned on Foot


Gail Russell Chaddock, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


There are few places more certain to provoke a good conversation than a Civil War battle site.

Start out at a bookstore in town - not one that displays piles of identical books, but the old-fashioned kind that has a musty smell about it, stocks the six-volume version of Carl Sandburg's "Abraham Lincoln," and is run by an owner that reads.

Ask a simple question, such as, "What's a good book for understanding this battle?" If the store has been around for awhile, there may be regulars who love history and will offer suggestions of their own. On anniversaries of great battles, the regulars should be out in force. Last September, 12,500 participants and 85,000 spectators showed up for a reenactment of the Battle of Antietam, near Sharpsburg, Md., on the 135th anniversary of a clash that claimed more lives than any other in the history of the United States armed forces. This week, on the 135th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg (July 1-3, 1863), some 15,000 participants and at least 100,000 spectators are expected to commemorate the largest and arguably the most decisive battle of the Civil War and the high-water mark for the Confederacy. Confederate casualties neared 20,000, with Union losses slightly higher, before Southern soldiers began their retreat on July 4. Lincoln's Gettysburg Address - given at the dedication of the Soldiers' National Cemetery at Gettysburg on Nov. 19, 1863 - offered a vision for national unity in the wake of the Civil War. More than 110 million Americans have ancestors who fought on the fields of Gettysburg and Antietam. Some visitors come to these sites with letters, diaries, or pictures, and want to find out where an ancestor saw action or was wounded. "We can get them to a few hundred feet if we know the time of day," says Paul Chiles, ranger and historian at the Antietam National Battlefield. "The Civil War is endlessly fascinating. The vast majority of men on both sides were literate, so you had books, diaries, and regimental records; unlike other wars, where half the archives were overseas and in a foreign language," he adds. What also interests many visitors is how soldiers and civilians experienced the war. Even if discussions start out about who shot whom where, they often get back to issues of character. "Given an extraordinary circumstance, any ordinary person can do extraordinary things," says Thomas Wight, a tax analyst for MCI Telecommunications Corp., who often walks Civil War battlefields and leads tours at Antietam as a volunteer. Profound interest in those experiences accounts for the vast number of individuals interested in reenacting Civil War battles. There are reenactment units in all the lower 48 states, as well as in Canada, Germany, Britain, France, Norway, and Australia. The reenactment community in the US ranges from 20,000 to 25,000 people, according to the National Park Service. Many spend upwards of $5,000 to get the look of the period clothes and accessories right. They are also part of a growing community eager to make sure that Civil War battlefields preserve their period look - and their usefulness as outdoor classrooms. Many sites, such as Atlanta, have already been overrun by development. Others are threatened, especially those along the Baltimore-Washington-Richmond axis, such as Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Spotsylvania, and the Wilderness, all in Virginia. "Shopping malls in the suburbs are the greatest enemies of Civil War battlefields," says Edwin Bearss, former chief historian of the National Park Service. Even at Gettysburg, the largest and best-preserved of Civil War sites, development has left its mark. Any visitor walking the northern end of Pickett's Charge will run into McDonald's and the Home Sweet Home Motel. …

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