By RICH GRANT
It would be difficult to overestimate the strange appeal that the American Civil War holds on some people. Historian Ken Burns notes that more than 50,000 books have been written on the conflict. There are obscure books on the buttons of the Civil War, the horses, even the weather. There are eight Civil War magazines and hundreds and hundreds of websites. Each summer, tens of thousands of people wear hot, itchy wool uniforms to reenact battles, while millions of tourists visit 600 preserved Civil War historic sites that stretch from New Mexico to Maine. Go to a Barnes & Noble bookstore, and there are almost as many Civil War books as there are self-help books.
“Any understanding of this nation,” American historian Shelby Foote said, “has to be based on an understanding of the Civil War. … It defined us.”
Any understanding of the United States has to be based on an understanding of the Civil War.
Well, it’s all about to begin again, albeit in an abbreviated format due to covid-19. The 160th anniversary of the event that triggered the Civil War (the April 12, 1861, expropriation by the Confederates of Fort Sumter in Charleston Bay) kicks off in 2021 and as a result, we are likely to see even more books, articles, movies, documentaries, reenactments and memorabilia than ever before. So get ready. Grab some hardtack, download “Dixie” on to your iPod and take a crash course on 10 ways to become a Civil War buff.
Walk the Battlefield of Gettysburg
The Civil War was fought in a documented 10,000 places over a battlefront 1,200 miles long. More than 620,000 young men were killed – about the same as in all other U.S. wars combined.
At the end, the South was devastated. One quarter of the men of military age were gone. Nothing can bring this home more than walking the ground where they fought and died, and no battlefield brings this home more than Gettysburg.
Brilliant leadership at the national park has led to an attempt to recreate exactly what the land looked like on July 1, 1863. Forests that grew up are being clear-cut, orchards are being replanted and 40 miles of picket fence have been replaced. An incredible museum and visitor center have been built near the site, while the old one has been torn down.
All of this makes Gettysburg the one “must” visit. Every true buff has walked the sacred ground of Pickett’s Charge.
Gettysburg the one “must” visit for any Civil War buff.
Gettysburg is a two-hour drive from Washington D.C. and is a major tourism site with 2 million annual visitors, dozens of Civil War shops and attractions, and all the amenities. Plan at least two days to see it all. For more information, check out the Gettysburg webpage.
Read a book
The book for most Civil War buffs is the 1974 Pulitzer Prize winning novel, “The Killer Angels” by Michael Shaara. This book has launched more buffs than any other, including Civil War superstar Ken Burns.
After that, there are 50,000 other books to choose from, depending on your interest. Many pick Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Battle Cry of Freedom” by James M. McPherson, considered the best single-volume history of the war.
Watch the 680-minute long documentary: “The Civil War – a Film by Ken Burns”
You may feel like you fought and lived through the entire Civil War by the end, but you can’t be a “buff” until you see the final credits.
Research Your Ancestors … or someone else’s
Three million Americans fought in the Civil War. For the first time in any major war, almost all of them could write – and they did. One reason there are so many books on the subject is that almost every soldier kept a diary, wrote letters or lived long enough to dictate or even type their memoirs. If you’ve heard stories of a Civil War ancestor in your family tree, you’ll need three things to trace him: his name, which side he fought on and the state in which he enlisted. There were amazing bureaucrats back then who kept meticulous records and you can find out many things about your relative’s history.
No relatives in the war? It’s still helpful to read a first-person account to get an up-close look at the day-to-day life of a private solider. “Co. Aytch, A Side Show to the Big Show,” by Sam R. Watkins, Private C.S.A., is considered the classic and can be both funny and sad, often in the same sentence.
Attend a Reenactment
Yes, many of the reenactors are old, overweight and odd, but put 15,000 of them together, add 100 cannons, 500 cavalry charging on horses and state-of-the-art pyrotechnics with explosions both on the ground and in the air, and you have a spectacle that outdoes any movie. Major reenactments on big anniversary years have attracted up to 100,000 spectators.
Some tips on attending reenactments: be prepared for traffic and long dusty walks on dirt roads. There are no perfect seats because the reenactment may stretch over ground more than a mile long, but the spectacle is unforgettable.
See a movie
From “Glory” to “Gettysburg,” “Gone with the Wind” to “Ride with the Wind,” the “Red Badge of Courage” to “Cold Mountain,” Wikipedia lists 70 Civil War films worth watching.
Subscribe to a Civil War Magazine
There are eight dedicated Civil War magazines and many more military history magazines that have articles on the War Between the States. The most popular general magazines are the “Civil War Times” and “America’s Civil War Magazine.” A more scholarly journal with top historian authors is “North and South Magazine,” and for those “who still hear the guns” and like to tour battlefields, there is “Blue and Gray Magazine.”
Drive a Civil War Trail
The Civil War Trail system started in Virginia and has now expanded to Maryland, Tennessee, West Virginia and North Carolina with more than 800 historic signs erected that let travelers follow major campaigns of the war. You can cross Virginia following Robert E. Lee’s Retreat to Appomattox or march alongside Lee as he invades Maryland in the Antietam Campaign. You can even follow obscure historical oddities, such as the escape route used by John Wilkes Booth after he assassinated Abraham Lincoln.
You can even follow obscure historical oddities, such as the escape route used by John Wilkes Booth after he assassinated Abraham Lincoln.
The tours are part “road rally,” driving across countryside that has changed little since the Civil War, looking for road markers that will direct you down a maze of farm roads to some forgotten cornfield that was once the site of a skirmish where men fought and died. Brilliantly produced color maps and driving guides are available for free, or can be downloaded at the absolutely terrific travel site. This is the place to find everything about touring Civil War sites in 28 states.
Buy something from the war
All buffs have something from the war to bring them closer to it. You can own a minie ball (the three ring rifle bullet that most soldiers fired) for a few dollars, but there are authentic photos, buttons, insignias, Confederate money, diaries, signatures, uniforms, weapons and letters galore. No one ever threw away a souvenir of the war and they have been handed down and sold and resold for 150 years. Rummaging around a Civil War artifact shop (there are dozens of them in the South) can be fun and illuminating.
Save a Civil War battlefield
The war was fought at an estimated 10,000 sites. Only 20 percent of the major battlefields have been preserved – the rest are unprotected or already destroyed by housing, industry and roads. Experts say another acre of hallowed ground is lost to development every hour. The Civil War Preservation Trust has saved 25,000 acres of battlefields in 19 states. A membership not only helps preserves these historic sites, but includes a subscription to their excellent magazine, “Hallowed Ground.”
…Feb. 12, 2021