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History's Faded Trail

Freis is a compactly built, 49-year-old Shenandoah Valley native who has been walking Civil War battlefields for more than half his life. As a 23-year-old reporter in Culpeper, Va., he befriended a military historian named Jay Luvaas, who believed that tramping through the historic landscape and stopping to read the words of men who fought there brought the war home in ways no classroom presentation could.

For the last decade and a half, Freis and a succession of fellow enthusiasts have led annual weekend tours for their friends and friends of friends. Four years ago, he decided to turn pro. He has no thoughts of quitting his day job designing and editing magazines for a publishing company in Roanoke, but hopes the battlefield business can perhaps evolve into "a lucrative hobby."

Asa Gordon, left, and Robert Freis at what was Gen. U.S. Grant's headquarters near Hopewell, Va., a site they'd like to include on a "Fight for Freedom" tour. (Wayne Scarberry For The Washington Post)

Lucrative or not, he loves it. What he doesn't love are the assumptions about him that people sometimes make.

"I feel defensive about being interested in the Civil War," he says. "I don't want to be perceived as a racist." African Americans especially, he says, tend to see Civil War history as "the exclusive domain of the people who enforced the system of apartheid."

Which isn't right. "This was their war if it was anybody's," Freis says. "It's about them."

This is why he and Gordon have hit the road, looking for stories to tell and the places to tell them. Just now they're cruising east on the John Tyler Memorial Highway (better known as Route 5) through the lush green landscape north of the James River, heading for one of the likeliest storytelling sites.

The James is where the slave-based plantation system was established in North America.

By the time the war began, Virginia was less invested than the cotton-growing Gulf states in the slave economy that had fractured the Union. Yet the blueblood families who inhabited the "big houses" here -- many of them tourist destinations now, with names like Berkeley, Edgewood and Evelynton -- were the ones who first put that economy in place.

"These are the people who brought you the Civil War," Freis says.

'We'll Try It'

It was May 24, 1864. Behind the line of earthworks snaking through the woods, 1,100 Union troops -- all African American except for the usual complement of white officers -- faced some 2,000 dismounted Confederate cavalrymen. The rebels were led by Robert E. Lee's nephew, Maj. Gen. Fitzhugh Lee. They were so confident that they sent a message demanding immediate surrender, on the grounds that it would be impossible for the bluecoats to hold out.

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