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Civil War Battlefields
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Civil War Battlefields

By Adam Goodheart Photographs by Michael Melford

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That onslaught continues. Evan Kutzler, a 16-year-old high school student and Civil War buff, takes me one afternoon with his metal detector to hunt for relics of the battle. It's a hobby that demands the conscious erasure of the present, an ability to imagine what lies beneath. "This is where the Federal front line was," he says, pointing past a Goodyear Tire store. Nearby, in a drainage ditch next to a parking lot, he shows me where he once found a hundred bullets and a bayonet in a single afternoon. Many more artifacts are rumored to have come out of a field that's being bulldozed for a new Target.

Most of the bodies from the Southerners' mass grave were later moved to a small private cemetery at Carnton Plantation, half a mile or so away. It's a beautiful place, with neat rows of small square headstones, many with the name of a dead Confederate. The names themselves tell stories. There's a Charles Chon, for instance, a Texas infantryman born in Shanghai, China, and a Joseph Lepseits, a Jewish lieutenant from western Tennessee.

These days the graveyard hardly lends itself to quiet reverie. Just over the fence are the parking lots and tennis courts of a local country club. On the graveyard's other side lies a different landscape: the gentle lawn of Carnton, which served as a hospital during and after the fighting and has been preserved by a local group. The Confederate cemetery seems stranded between two worlds, two centuries.

But that graveyard may soon become a place of rebirth. A wealthy preservationist has bought the country club for safekeeping until funds can be raised to create a historical park. On a Saturday morning in August, I sit on the back porch of Carnton overlooking the site with a group of civic leaders who are excitedly planning for the future. Mayor Tom Miller talks about the economic potential of bringing a national tourist attraction to the town. Thomas Murdic, an African American who grew up in Franklin, says he sees an opportunity for racial healing by telling the whole story of the Civil War in the area, including the struggle of freed slaves. Robert Hicks, a Nashville music publisher turned preservationist, imagines undertaking what may prove to be "the largest battlefield reclamation project in North American history."

Why, 140 years after the Civil War's end, does it continue to stir so many hearts and rouse so many new struggles? Why are the fields of long-ended battles still stalked by so many restless ghosts? Part of the reason, no doubt, lies in the nature of the war itself, a struggle over slavery and freedom whose reverberations have continued to echo through American history, and whose consequences for African Americans have only lately begun to be honestly addressed.

Another piece of the answer comes to me when I reach Appomattox Court House. The Virginia village where Lee surrendered to Grant, in a green valley two hours' drive west of Richmond—a six-day slog for the ragged Confederates of 1865—is still a place of peace. Appomattox was preserved almost by accident, by one of those vagaries of the American economy that can leave a town stranded, high and dry as a beached ship. The railroad bypassed the town by three miles, and by the 1890s the once bustling county seat sank into obscurity.

Today Appomattox is a national park, and its remaining buildings sit amid fields of tall grass and stands of twisted old cedars. Even on a summer afternoon there are few visitors, and as I roam the village, the only sounds seem to be the hum of cicadas and the occasional sough of a logging truck that passes along Route 24. A reconstructed 1860s general store—the mini-mart of its day—displays barrels of molasses, bolts of calico, a rack of buggy whips. It seems to emphasize that this place sits above the high-water mark of 21st-century America, above the rising tide of chain stores and cardboard mansions. Perhaps not for long, for suburbia is spreading toward here too. But I realize now that the Civil War's battlefields are precious to us not just because of blood and heroism, but because they let us glimpse a vanishing, agrarian America—the very landscape in which our national identity was formed.

At long last, more and more communities are recognizing the value of this heritage. A month or so after the end of my battlefield journey, I learn that the Spotsylvania County supervisors approved a deal with the Preservation Trust that will save part of the Mullins Farm at Chancellorsville. Shortly after, word comes that the town of Franklin earmarked 2.5 million dollars in matching funds toward the purchase of the country club property. In both cases the preservation side used nimble battle tactics that might have made Lee himself proud.

Appomattox was as far as Lee got on his final, desperate retreat toward the shelter of the western mountains. On the night before the surrender, he heard the boom of cannon to the west and knew that Grant's men had outstripped him, had cut him off. Today, on a hillside above the village, the highway that Lee had hoped to follow, the old stagecoach route west from Richmond, is still visible. For a few hundred yards it has been reconstructed by the Park Service, a startling gash of earth like an open wound across the meadow. But then it dives beneath the turf again, and past the point where Lee turned back, it is visible only as a slight declivity in the earth, tufted with goldenrod and Queen Anne's lace—the merest memory of a road.


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