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.
Chantilly, Virginia, where in 1862 Lee and Jackson attempted to push the Federal troops out of northern Virginia, now sits beneath a suburban mall. Mansfield, Louisiana, the site of more than 4,000 Union and Confederate casualties in 1864, is being strip-mined by a lignite company. But the real crisis came in 1988, when a developer bought a large tract of privately held land at Manassas, Virginia, and unveiled plans to build a 1.2-million-square-foot shopping mall directly over the site of the Confederate lines and Lee's headquarters at the Second Battle of Manassas. The effort was defeated only at the cost of a 120-million-dollar appropriation from Congress. Clearly it was time for preservationists to take the offensive.
The tide began to turn at Antietam—just as it had for the Union Army in 1862. On our way to the battlefield one bright morning, Lighthizer keeps up a running narration as he pilots his big maroon sedan up the same road that the Federal Army took through the Maryland hills. "That farmhouse was there during the war," he says, gesturing with his unlit cigar as we pass the place. "D. H. Hill, a Confederate general, looked out that window at the Yankees coming up the hill like a long blue snake and said he felt like the loneliest guy in the world."
By the 1990s the suburbs of Washington were also creeping, snakelike, toward the battlefield. Lighthizer was then transportation secretary for the state of Maryland, a job that gave him early warning of the threat. In classic backroom fashion he found millions of dollars that had been earmarked for "highway beautification" in a federal law and started spreading the money among the local landowners—sometimes purchasing the threatened acreage outright, more often buying easements that would maintain it as farmland forever. It's a strategy he has continued at the Preservation Trust.
These days, Lighthizer says, the trust is fighting in several dozen different places, a list that reads like a regimental battle roster—Morris Island, Franklin, Gettysburg, Harpers Ferry, Gaines' Mill. But it's a war that won't last forever. "We estimate there's about 200,000 acres of privately held battlefield land left," he says. "We're losing about 10,000 acres a year, so do the math. In less than 20 years, it's over."
Capt. Tod Carter's war ended where it had begun. In the spring of 1861 the blue-eyed 21-year-old left his father's farm near Franklin, Tennessee, and enlisted in Company H of the 20th Tennessee Infantry. He served through three years of hard fighting, was captured, and escaped. In the late autumn of 1864, as the Army of Tennessee, barefoot and famished, prepared for its last major struggle against the Federal troops, the tide of war swept Carter's regiment back toward Franklin. He could see the Stars and Stripes waving on the hilltop beyond his family's house, which had been commandeered as a Union headquarters. Far to the right and left stretched long lines of blue.
Late on the afternoon of November 30th, Carter mounted his horse, drew his saber, and rallied his men to the charge. He fell in a fusillade of bullets. Early the next morning, after the fighting subsided, he was laid on an old overcoat and carried, still half-conscious, up the hillside to the house he had left three years before. Family tradition has it that he died in the back bedroom, and that his last words were "Home home home."
Of all the Civil War's major engagements, the Battle of Franklin is the most unjustly forgotten. It was a struggle at once magnificent and hideous. Both armies went in as though they knew it would be their last leap at glory. Some witnesses later recalled the battle flags waving along the lines, the bands playing jaunty airs in the heat of battle, the splendor of the Confederacy's full frontal attack. Others were haunted by grim visions of what followed: bodies stacked like cordwood, blood flowing ankle-deep. Nearly 9,000 men were killed, wounded, or captured in the space of just a few hours, including no fewer than 15 Confederate generals. It was perhaps the most concentrated slaughter of the entire war.
Today Tod Carter's house, still pocked with bullet holes, is a museum that sits amid a landscape of auto-muffler shops, fast-food restaurants, and low-rise shopping centers. The ground where he fell lies beneath a housing project. More than 1,700 of his rebel comrades were killed in the trenches and temporarily buried in a mass grave—now the site of a pizzeria. Many have declared Franklin a "lost" battlefield. For a long time local people resisted attempts at commemoration. When the Park Service raised the possibility of buying land there decades ago, it was rebuffed. "The battle was viewed by many as an embarrassment," says Julian Bibb, a lawyer and town planner. "People thought of it as a huge Confederate debacle." It was also a sore spot for the local African-American community, which wanted no part of nostalgia for Dixie. And so, except for a few acres preserved by local groups, the battlefield was left to be engulfed by suburban sprawl from nearby Nashville.
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.