Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the rank of Confederate commander John Singleton Mosby. He was a colonel, not a general. The error has been corrected below.
The air at Ball’s Bluff is soft and warm, just whispering of spring. Sunlight spills through the trees, and a wisp of a breeze rustles the dried leaves that still cling to branches here and there. My husband and I stop at the chain-link fence at the edge of the ridge and look down the tumbling chasm to the waters of the Potomac flowing mutely below.
Apart from an odd series of muffled cracks, like rifle fire in the distance, it’s quiet as can be. We have the place pretty much to ourselves on this Sunday morning, our only companions a jogger or two, and a couple of couples walking dogs through the woods.
Oh, and of course, the shades of the past.
They’re with us every step of the way along the interpretive trail. I see their silent outlines on the forested landscape where they fought and fell nearly 150 years ago. I imagine them at my shoulder as I read the historical markers describing the scenes that took place here then. When I walk into the little stone-walled cemetery with its circle of small white gravestones — “Unknown,” “Unknown,” “Unknown,” they repeat, over and over — I can almost hear someone sighing in concert with me.
That’s what happens on a Civil War road trip.
Or on a Journey Through Hallowed Ground, the formal designation of the trail we’re (mostly) following, from Gettysburg, Pa., to Orange, Va., 150 miles and three days along scenic Route 15, through bucolic farms and fields and an area that’s a beehive of sites significant to various periods of the nation’s history. We’re concentrating on the Civil War , in advance of the opening salvos of the soon-to-begin sesquicentennial celebration. (And I mean salvos — Gettysburg will fire 150 cannon shots later this month.)
What happens is: You get caught up in stories from the pages of the past. You visit battlefields you didn’t know existed. You meet up with some people so steeped in the minutiae of the War Between the States that you — well, you wonder about them, just a little.
And then the next thing you know, you totally get how they became that way. Because it’s happening to you, too.
“We are standing, right here, in the battlefield,” says Nancie Gudmestad, punctuating each word with her forefinger. “This is what many people do not realize. But we are standing. In. The battlefield.”
We are standing, precisely, in the gloomy attic of the Shriver House Museum in Gettysburg, on a plank floor strewn with bits of white paper (cartridge papers, turns out). I’m staring at a couple of rifles propped in front of holes knocked into one of the walls, beneath the eaves: Confederate sniping positions. At least two men in gray died in this garret, Nancie says, and their deaths still linger: A CSI team found lots of blood spatter after spraying the attic with luminol.
But what can you say? Soldiers go to war. Not so the good citizens of Gettysburg, to whom the war simply came. And what happened to them was tragic, too. Like the Shrivers, husband and wife and two young daughters, whose elegant new home in the heart of town was commandeered for the three-day battle and hospital service beyond. Long story short: Father George, serving in the Union Army, taken prisoner, dies of starvation at Andersonville, Ga. Mother Hettie, forced to sell the house, remarries. Both girls, dead of consumption by the age of 21. Within little more than a decade of the war, Hettie had buried her entire first family.
“It’s a sad story, because it’s a war story,” says Nancie after the tour, which she gives in full 1860s hoop-skirted regalia, fashionable jailbird-striped stockings included. But it’s the kind of story she wanted to tell when she opened the museum in 1996. Running a B&B in town before that, “I’d hear guests at breakfast talking about General this and Major that and the Peach Orchard and all,” she says, “and I’d think, what about the townspeople?”
Yes, the townspeople. We forget them, don’t we? Most folks just make a beeline for the battlefield because that’s where all the drama is. Or so we think.
But we’re wrong. The town, too, is dripping with drama. It pulls us in: central Lincoln Square (it was “the Diamond” back then), occupied by the Rebel army; the many, many walls everywhere pockmarked still with shockingly large bullet holes; the railroad depot where Abraham Lincoln arrived in November 1863 for the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery; the David Wills House and the bedroom where Abe polished his famous address. (Nonono, he did not write it on the back of an envelope.)
It’s all fascinating, sobering, saddening, moving. And gee — you know, this could get a little depressing. “I think it’s time for a stop in McClellan’s Tavern,” says my husband not-so-jokingly. But I still want to see the Jennie Wade House, so we forgo all the restaurants and pubs with hokey war-related names and head down Baltimore Street, through a gantlet of souvenir shops and battling billboards touting tours and goods and lodgings and meals.
The Jennie Wade House — well, it’s as sad a war monument as any ever erected. Twenty-year-old Jennie was the only civilian killed during the battle, shot by a stray bullet that pierced two doors (can you believe it?) and struck her in the back while she was making bread. Right after finishing her morning devotions, during which she reportedly prayed that if anyone in the house had to die that day, please Lord, let her be the one. Talk about goosebumps.
The first Civil War museum in Gettysburg, opened in 1900, it’s a major attraction, plastered with signs. There’s a large gift shop, natch, full of the usual dispensable tchotchkes. (Although a pretty floral ceramic pitcher calls to me while we wait for our tour, I resist; I can’t mix the mercenary with the mournful, can I?)
Inside, the little house is dark and cramped. The tour guide’s story is unspeakably sad. I’m feeling all woebegone, staring at the dough tray Jennie was using that day, when somebody remarks on the sign taped to the door above the second bullet hole. Put your ring finger through it if you’re single, girls, and you’ll be engaged by the end of the year, it avows. Really, I think, rolling my eyes. But Lea Sacks, a young woman in our group, inserts her finger into the worn opening as her boyfriend, Tedd Fabryk, and his young daughters, Quinn and Rylan, look on, grinning. Everybody laughs then, and the mood lifts. Yes, that’s better. And I know how to make it better still.
After the tour, I go back into the gift shop and buy the pitcher.
“You know,” says my husband, as though he’s just hit on a universal truth, “none of these battlefields have visitor centers.”
This epiphany has come to him at the end of a day of Civil War battlefield reconnaissance. Not the battlefields you think, though, although Route 15 runs right past — or through — the biggies: Gettysburg, Antietam, Manassas. Our marching orders, I declare, are to skip those well-visited haunts and make for less glorified but equally grave grounds.
Of which there are a startlingly high number. The night before, we’d already stumbled onto the Battle of Fairfield. What — you’ve never heard of the Battle of Fairfield? Well, you’re forgiven, seeing as we hadn’t, either. It took place on July 3, 1863, in the town of Fairfield, Pa., at the same time as Pickett’s infamous charge at nearby Gettysburg. The outcome was somewhat happier for the South, as the Confederates under Gen. William E. “Grumble” Jones overcame the Union cavalry chasing them.
The fighting apparently took place in the fields right out back of the Fairfield Inn, a 250-year-old hostelry where we spent the night. Jones’s victory cleared a route for the Rebels’ retreat into Virginia, and pretty soon Gen. Robert E. Lee himself was stopping in mid-flight for some nourishment at the inn.
I’ll tell you, there’s Civil War history everywhere you turn in these parts. And there’s always someone around who can fill in the story for you.
Roger and Carol Healy, the owners of the Norris House Inn in Leesburg, where we encamp another night, are British, but they enthusiastically tell us all about Ball’s Bluff. (Actually, Carol thinks we should bag the Civil War and take a nice drive to a picturesque nearby village instead. Tempting, but we have our plan of attack.) Ball’s Bluff (Oct. 21, 1861) was a turning point in Washington’s war spin, the Healys tell us. Not only did a sitting U.S. senator lose his life in the battle, but once the bodies of Union soldiers, shot trying to escape across the Potomac, started washing ashore in the capital, Lincoln’s administration couldn’t pretend that everything was going, er, swimmingly anymore.
Finding the battlefield, though — that’s another story. We drive a mile or so through a series of cookie-cutter suburban subdivisions following little brown signs that eventually bring us to a cul de sac. A dozen or so young people are standing around, all dressed in green and white, some with clown hats and wigs — a belated St. Patrick’s Day thing? I stare at them, wondering, and they stare back, no doubt wondering about us, as we head up the unmarked dirt road at the end of the street to the forested park.
Yes, there are no visitors centers at these battlefields. Just do-it-yourself tours with historical markers and information boards. It’s the same at the Battle of Cedar Mountain north of Culpeper (Aug. 9, 1862), and the bloody Wilderness (May 5-6, 1864, a quick foray beyond strict Hallowed Ground territory, into Spotsylvania County).
At least the Battle of Brandy Station, the largest cavalry conflict of the war (June 9, 1863), has the Graffiti House. I’m excited about seeing that. Imagine walls covered with signatures and drawings scrawled by soldiers of both sides (maybe even the legendary J.E.B. Stuart) bivouacked there at various points in the war. And the backstory! In 1993, the frame house by the railroad tracks in Brandy Station, north of Culpeper, was waiting to be demolished when a young man scavenging for wood tore some paneling from a wall and saw the first scribbles. Wow.
“This is going to be great,” I say to my husband as we approach the front door. On which hangs a sheet of paper. “Winter hours,” it reads, “Monday-Saturday, 11 to 4.”
Aargh. I try the door anyway, and whoa! It swings open. We step inside. A man’s voice, talking steadily, floats down from upstairs, but nobody appears to greet us.
We hesitate, then head up the worn wooden stairs to the second floor. In the North Room, a group is apparently listening to a lecture. Sensing our presence, the speaker breaks off and comes out onto the landing.
“We’re actually closed,” he says.
“Could we just quickly peek into one room?” I plead.
He pauses a moment. Then he says, “Yes, ma’am.”
We duck into the Small Room and stare at the flowing autographs that run floor to ceiling over the white wall. No famous names, but I do spy Bo Reed, a scamp who apparently signed his name all over.
Back downstairs, we exit past four young people who are standing around waiting to be acknowledged.
Somebody, I think, should remember to lock the door.
My husband wants to sit where Robert E. Lee sat.
I think it’s out of Southern loyalty (he’s a Richmond boy, after all), but then he says, “I’m going to tell Skip about this.” So it’s really about bragging rights to his history buff brother-in-law. Or okay, maybe both.
We’re in a back hallway of St. Thomas’s Episcopal Church in Orange, Va., a pretty white-spired brick building. My husband is sitting in a worn wooden pew outside the nursery school. A brass plaque identifies it as the pew the Southern commander used when worshiping here during the winter of 1863-64, while regrouping after Gettysburg.
Inside the light-filled sanctuary, another plaque on a newer pew says it occupies the former spot of Lee’s pew. I count the rows — eight back from the front. I try to imagine Lee sitting there, listening to the sermons, thinking about the war, his men, the future.
The thing about visiting all these Civil War haunts is that you spend so much time trying to imagine everything. Some things being easier to imagine than others.
I don’t have much trouble picturing Lee’s horse, Traveller, tied to the gnarly, spindly locust tree outside the church. It looks 150 years old, although town visitors center volunteer Phil Audibert tells us it’s just a descendant of the original. “It’s fallen over several times,” he says, “but then new sprouts come up.”
In other places, imagination is all you have. Like A.P. Hill’s boyhood home in Culpeper. The Confederate hero grew up in this blocky commercial building? Bank of America Home Loans? Really?
In Warrenton, the house named Brentmoor looks just as it did when Confederate Col. John Singleton Mosby, a.k.a. the Gray Ghost, lived there briefly after the war. It beckons from behind its wrought-iron fence, and you’d love to go in. It was all ready for visitors, too, says the friendly volunteer at the local visitors center, but then the recession hit and the money for the museum dried up. So all you can do, for now, is stare from the outside and imagine the ghosts moving around beyond the tall windows.
And speaking of ghosts.
On a Civil War tour, you’re always bumping into them. Or the possibility of them. Every place has a ghost story. Every town has its Civil War ghost tour. Every museum and inn, it seems, has been scanned by “Ghost Hunters” or “Ghost Lab.” And visitors lap it all up.
At the Jennie Wade House (sample sign: “The Jennie Wade House Is Haunted!”), a basement room next to the one where the family kept vigil over her body is devoted to photographs taken in or near the house, showing odd shapes and squiggly lights and indeterminate shadows that might or might not indicate otherworldly visitors.
Lea Sacks thinks they do. She pulls out her iPhone to show me a photo she’d taken herself, upstairs, on a previous visit. There in the mirror, you can make out something that looks like a child’s head peeping out from behind a bedpost. Then again, it might be nothing. It’s really too small to tell.
But Lea and boyfriend Tedd are ready to believe. “I think it’s neat,” says Tedd, “that it just might be possible.”
They know all the ghost stories about the place, including the one about the chair beside the bench where Jennie’s body lay. It was her father’s, supposedly, and he supposedly doesn’t like anyone to sit in it. Which Lea and Tedd both promptly do.
“It does feel funny to sit here,” says Tedd. “It gives you a heavy feeling in your chest. Here, try it.”
I lower myself gingerly into the seat, skeptical and yet, I admit, a little nervous. But — nothing. At least not of the phantasmagorical kind.
Which doesn’t negate the truth:
There may be no actual ghosts of the Civil War. But those who lived and died in it will haunt us forever.