New Site Guides Offer Tips in Two Distinct Ways

Tourists who have visited the Antietam battlefield in Western Maryland might want to take another trip using either or both of two new Civil War site guides. One introduces more than 600 sites; the other discusses 10 battlefields at length and suggests what visitors should see at each.
Tourists who have visited the Antietam battlefield in Western Maryland might want to take another trip using either or both of two new Civil War site guides. One introduces more than 600 sites; the other discusses 10 battlefields at length and suggests what visitors should see at each. (2005 Photo By Joe Raedle -- Getty Images)
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Sunday, January 13, 2008

Two new guides to Civil War sites make a terrific package to read or take along on a trip.

The Civil War Preservation Trust's second edition of "Civil War Sites: The Official Guide to the Civil War Discovery Trail" is a brief introduction to more than 600 locales across the country, including battlefields, forts, museums, archives, historic homes and cemeteries.

Jeff Shaara's "Civil War Battlefields: Discovering America's Hallowed Ground" takes a different approach, offering readers a selection of 10 battlefields, each with its own story, and suggestions on what visitors should see.

The Civil War Preservation Trust is a private, nonprofit organization with 70,000 members that works to save battlefields through purchase or conservation easements and has inspired public and private donors to raise millions of dollars to accomplish its goals. The Civil War Discovery Trail, a trust program, links 600-plus sites in 31 states, the District and three foreign countries in an effort to teach the story of the war and its enduring impact on the United States.

In his introduction to the trust guide, Pulitzer and Lincoln Prize-winning author James M. McPherson writes a surprisingly thorough history of the war in less than two pages, hitting on the causes, the destruction and the results. It is helpful for someone new to the subject or as a refresher.

The guide organizes information around groupings of states such as the Northeast, the Southern Heartland and the Trans-Mississippi. A map shows numbered locations of the sites in each grouping, and a corresponding text explains its significance. No highways or major cities are noted on the maps, but directions are offered with each site description.

In the Culpeper, Va., area, the guide identifies four sites: Brandy Station battlefield, Cedar Mountain Battlefield, Graffiti House at Brandy Station and the Museum of Culpeper History. The Baltimore area has five locales listed: Baltimore Civil War Museum, Camden Station, Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine, the Maryland Historical Society and the USS Constellation Museum. Each listing includes admission charges, hours, visitor services, regularly scheduled events and directions.

The trust's guide would be more useful if it had a subject index. For instance, the official Abraham Lincoln bicentennial celebration begins next month. A dozen scattered sites are related to Lincoln, but each has to be found under a state listing.

Shaara's guide is as detailed as the trust guide is brief. Shaara, the author of "Gods and Generals" and "The Last Full Measure," has selected the places where 10 battles or interconnected battles were fought, including Shiloh, Antietam, Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Vicksburg, Chickamauga, the Wilderness and Spotsylvania, New Market, Cold Harbor and Petersburg.

Each has a lengthy explanation, followed by a helpful discussion of why the battle is important and a section on what visitors should see. Maps and historic art for each site are displayed.

In his introduction, Shaara writes: "This book may not resemble any battlefield guidebook you have ever seen before. That's the point. My attempt here is to paint a portrait of ten specific sites that offer the best interpretations and experiences to the visitor, who may not already know every tidbit of historical detail of what happened there. In other words, this book is intended not for the academic historian, but for the curious, those who might have time to stop along the road and visit a battlefield they otherwise might have passed by."

Shaara has done here what he has done so well in his novels. He tells a story. What might have been perceived as nothing more than a boring military confrontation quickly becomes an engrossing tale of generals with their quirky personalities, how luck can turn with a convenient hill or shallow river and how ordinary men came to face ungodly anguish at places such as Antietam or Gettysburg.

His chapter on Gettysburg is particularly good. That battle is often seen as difficult to comprehend because of the mystique that has grown up around it and the multiple actions that occurred over three days. Shaara spends considerable time getting each of the great armies to Gettysburg. When they arrive and the battle begins, he doesn't slow the story with military jargon that has to be explained. He uses common language, and the battle unfurls day by exhausting day.

Maybe Shaara has written an excellent Civil War history rather than a good guidebook. Visitors won't have to go to the battlefields to feel as though they have been there.

Linda Wheeler may be reached at 540-465-8934 orcwwheel@shentel.net.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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