Summer’s the season for Civil War tourism. There’s nothing like a scorching July day with clouds of gnats and 90% humidity to make you appreciate the misery that soldiers endured. The problem is... all those other tourists. Go to the High Water Mark at Gettysburg on July 3 and you’ll be lucky to hear the canons’ echo over the whirr of cameras and a thousand dads droning to their kids.
So if I were a Civil War pilgrim this summer, I’d skirt the major shrines and seek out less-traveled sites. For instance, Lee’s Retreat Route from Petersburg to Appomattox, a self-guided driving tour with interpretive markers and historical narration you can follow on your car-radio. Rural Southside Virginia has an elegiac air that forms the perfect backdrop to its forgotten battle sites--Amelia Court House, Farmville, Sailor’s Creek--where hundreds died in the war’s final days. Most of the stops are quiet places to reflect before driving on, but Pamplin Historical Park near Petersburg and the national park at Appomattox offer opportunity for much deeper immersion. And you can continue on to Lexington, one of the loveliest towns in Virginia and the resting place of Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and their horses, Traveler and Little Sorrell. Lexington is also home to my favorite Civil War show: “Stonewall Country,” a stirring musical about Jackson’s life performed at the outdoor Lime Kiln Theater.
For major-combat tourism, I’d go outside Virginia, since so many of the state’s leading battlegrounds have been engulfed by housing tracts and big-box malls. Shiloh, in southwest Tennessee, is remote enough to have escaped the South’s ubiquitous sprawl, and it remains much as it was in the nineteenth century. Heavily wooded, with Indian mounds and a log church, Shiloh has a frontier feel that’s very different from open-field battle sites in the East. Wandering paths through the Tennessee thicket and stumbling onto clearings, it’s easy to conjure the intimate, chaotic slaughter that occurred at the Hornet’s Nest, Bloody Pond, and the Peach Orchard in 1862.
Purists, however, may prefer to visit Shiloh in April, when the battle took place. For a more seasonally-appropriate battlefield, I’d choose Antietam, which was fought over in mid-September--still summer in that part of Maryland. Antietam, like Shiloh, has a bucolic setting where the cornfields, sunken roads, and stone bridges contested in 1862 remain today. Also, Antietam’s broad vistas, and the relatively brief clash that occurred there, make it possible to gaze out and grasp the overall flow of battle. A late-summer meander by Antietam Creek, retracing the bloodiest day in U.S. history, is the best way I know to fathom the majesty and horror of the Civil War.