Dawn creeps low and stealthy over the fields of Virginia, a haze of pale gray tinged with fire. Slowly, too, my comrades-in-arms rouse themselves. Along our line of trenches, men and boys yawn, scratch at the heavy wool of their dew-soaked uniforms, and huddle over the few embers that have smoldered through the night. A ragged double file of Georgia infantrymen slouches against rifles as a caisson rattles past.
Then the sharp crack of gunfire breaks the morning's stillness. "Everybody down!" yells our startled lieutenant. Across the field before us sweep the Yankee skirmishers, and behind them a denser wave of blue moves with startling speed. The massed forces of the Union Army charge at a dead run toward the center of our Confederate earthworks. Our men load and fire as fast as they can, tearing paper cartridges with their teeth as the woods behind us echo with the crashing volleys. But still the Federals come, the officers' swords flashing as they rally their men forward.
I enlisted in the Fourth Georgia Infantry only yesterday, when I traded my sweater and jeans for the battered slouch hat, too-tight shell jacket, and dirt-stiffened gray trousers that one of my new comrades produced from deep in the trunk of his Pontiac Bonneville. Together with some 4,000 Civil War reenactors, I've come to a historic Virginia farm to relive the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House, which was fought in May 1864. In real life the combatants are schoolteachers and cell phone salesmen, teenage history buffs and paunchy suburban dads. But now, amid the clamor and confusion of the dawn assault, the 21st century dissolves and we are all inhabiting another century, another America, wild and strange—a place of blood and thunder, reeking of burned powder and churned mud.
I try to carry those sensations with me later in the day as I leave the reenactors' camp and drive some ten miles to the place where the actual Battle of Spotsylvania was fought, but it isn't easy. Still dressed in my faded uniform, I sit in backed-up traffic along Route 1, a fumey strip of asphalt lined with gas stations, fast-food joints, and car dealerships. As I enter the once sleepy, now suburban village of Spotsylvania, my first glimpse of the battlefield is of the neat headstones of a Confederate cemetery—behind the parking lot of a 7-Eleven.
Traveling among the nation's Civil War battlefields today is a disorienting experience, constantly beset with such slippages between the present and the past. From New Mexico to Pennsylvania, many of the places where the Union and Confederacy clashed are now caught up in another struggle between a quickly vanishing America of small farms and crossroads villages and a newer landscape of megamalls and sprawling McMansions. Places that were at the front lines 140 years ago—Manassas, Antietam, Gettysburg—are at the front lines again today. Exactly at a moment when Americans seem more interested than ever in finding connections to the wartime past, much of that past is in danger of being lost.
Nowhere is this more true than in Spotsylvania County, a place whose location has cursed it before. After the South seceded, this bucolic region found itself dead center between the warring capitals of Washington and Richmond. In all some 108,000 soldiers were killed, wounded, or captured in this one county, more than ten times as many as on the D-Day beaches in World War II. By the end of the war in 1865, the land was furrowed with earthworks, the inhabitants scattered, and the battle dead lay buried in cornfields and farmyards.
It took Spotsylvania almost a century to regain its prewar population of 12,000 residents. But since the 1960s that population has multiplied nearly tenfold as the county—less than an hour down Interstate 95 from Washington, D.C.—has become, in the words of one local, "a bedroom community for Yankee bureaucrats." Today a new crop sprouts in the former cornfields: row upon row of cookie-cutter houses. Much of the 1860s landscape has been obliterated, often by developments whose names give hollow echo to the Civil War's guns—Artillery Ridge, Lee's Parke.
Back in the 1920s the federal government created a national military park in Spotsylvania County—actually, a disconnected smattering of battlefield parcels that would eventually total more than 8,000 acres—but excluded many historically significant sites. "At the time they did this, they just assumed the area was going to remain rural forever," says John Hennessy, a National Park Service historian.
One morning Hennessy takes me for a drive out to Salem Church, a dignified old brick building that commands a ridge overlooking Route 3, once known as the Orange Turnpike. During the Battle of Chancellorsville in May 1863, Gen. John Sedgwick's Union troops, in hot pursuit of Robert E. Lee's army, were halted here by Confederates atop the hill. Hundreds of bullet scars on the church's walls still testify to the fury of the ensuing fight. But the ground that Lee's men fought to defend now sits beneath a Hardee's, a Chick-Fil-A, and an empty grocery store. The old turnpike that Sedgwick marched down is now a roaring eight-lane highway lined with malls and big-box retail stores. A granite Yankee, placed as a monument 45 years after the war, casts a stony gaze on Trivett's Family Furniture and the Old Country Buffet.
"This was still a quiet country road in the 1960s," Hennessy says. "The development here didn't happen in one fell swoop; it went in one project here, one project there. That's always the hardest kind to fight."
A few miles farther on we reach the site of one of the most famous battle maneuvers of the Civil War: Gen. "Stonewall" Jackson's brilliant flank attack in which he divided his troops from the rest of Lee's army and caught the much larger Union force completely by surprise—a move that won the victory at Chancellorsville, but cost Jackson his life. The battlefield here appears still much as it did in May 1863, with rolling pastures dotted here and there with a stand of oak trees or an old farmhouse. But just down the road, the owner of an 800-acre farm has been trying for several years to get county approval for a large-scale housing development. I sat in on a contentious meeting of the county's board of supervisors when it took public comments on the plan. The motley crowd of citizens in the packed hall reflected the changing character of Spotsylvania County, and of many places in America: sunburned farmers and well-heeled suburbanites, Sons of Confederate Veterans and kids in Cub Scout uniforms. The landowner, a local mortician named John Mullins, was on hand as well. For each person who spoke, the Mullins farm seemed to stand for a different and essential concern: property rights, highway traffic, the influx of outsiders, the future of tourism, the memory of the Civil War dead.
Afterward, in the parking lot, I fell into conversation with one of the local Sons of Confederate Veterans, a lean, gray-uniformed man—a sign painter in civilian life—named John Martin. I asked him why he'd come to the meeting. "Every Virginian needs to take a stand against losing these parcels of ground," he replied. "This is hallowed ground to us."
"Sounds a lot like 1861, doesn't it?" I asked. Martin thought for a moment, then laughed. "It sure does," he said.
If the romantic and perhaps doomed cause of saving America's Civil War battlefields can be said to have its own Robert E. Lee—a strategist who time and again snatched victory from the jaws of defeat—he is a man named James Lighthizer. The only catch is that in person Lighthizer seems better to resemble Ulysses S. Grant, a hard-driving, cigar-chomping politico straight off the pages of a gilded age broadsheet. As president of the Civil War Preservation Trust, Lighthizer has become adept at fighting many foes on many fronts all at once.
The trust is a private group, which surprises those who think of Civil War battlefields as a national inheritance. Indeed, the federal government did start preserving battlefields as long ago as the 1890s, purchasing land at a number of major sites to create the first national military parks. Its efforts have continued, sporadically, throughout the century since. But Congress never appropriated enough money to buy an entire battlefield—understandably, since no one in decades past imagined that places like central Pennsylvania or the Virginia Piedmont would ever require much protection from development. And so, slowly, some battlefields were lost.