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Roaming Historic America : A Civil War Odyssey : Inspired by the PBS series 'The Civil War', one couple embarked on an 8,300-mile, 22-state journey to visit the haunting battlefields of a country divided.

June 30, 1991|ROBERT W. GIBSON | Gibson is International Economics Correspondent for the Times.

Like many Americans, my wife, Esme, and I learned early on about Fort Sumter, Gettysburg and Sherman's march through Georgia to the sea. We savored movies about Yanks and Johnny Reb, read Margaret Mitchell and belted out Dixie and Battle Hymn of the Republic.

But Civil War buffs? Never. Our interests went elsewhere.

So nobody is more surprised than we are to see us now, back from an 8,300-mile, 22-state car trip through Civil War country. We left Pasadena in April with our dog, Logan, and an array of maps for which Robert E. Lee would have swapped Traveller and Ulysses S. Grant sung Dixie.

Our inspiration was the PBS series "The Civil War." Even now, I'm not sure what impelled us to switch it on last fall. We had never traveled in the Deep South except for a day I once spent in Plains, Ga., interviewing Jimmy Carter, and a few visits Esme paid to New Orleans. Maybe it was the spirit of Esme's Rebel great grandfather, a Cherokee chief with a Confederacy medallion on his grave. Or my own ancestor and namesake, an Ohio abolitionist who is buried in the prisoner of war cemetery at Andersonville, Ga.

Whatever, we watched every minute of "The Civil War," 11 hours in all. Kenneth Burns took four years to produce that TV masterpiece and two seconds to capture us. At Christmas, Esme presented me with a full set of the PBS tapes and we watched the series again. At the same time, on our bookshelves, we discovered Shelby Foote's three-volume Civil War history. These and other books fed our fire.

As the flames grew, we came to realize a personal tour of the South was in order, not only of the battlefields but of much more. We wanted total immersion.

We wanted to inspect Andersonville, the infamous prisoner of war camp, enter Wilmer McClean's home in Virginia, where Grant met Lee at Appomattox Court House, explore every peripheral to the war we could track down, from houses and hospitals to locomotives and tools to fashions andfurniture. And we wanted to visit our Civil War ancestors' graves.

So, on April 9, we set out chasing Civil War ghosts, south to Vicksburg, Miss., east to Fort Sumter, S.C., north to Gettysburg, Pa. Wherever we went, our heads so echoed with Ken Burns' uncanny audio effects--the soldiers' shouts and yips, caissons, cavalry, cannon,mortars and muskets--we could almost smell gunpowder. We visualized the carnage and imagined the sounds at the other battle sites we visited, too: Shiloh, Chickamaugua, Lookout Mountain, Missionary Ridge (now an exclusive residential district that we found through detective work), Cold Harbor, Petersburg, Harper's Ferry and Wilson's Creek, Mo. (We had planned to stay with friends in Washington and make day trips to Bull Run, Antietam, Chancellorsville, Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania, but Esme became ill and we decided to save these visits for a future trip.)

Such ghosts! In the army and out, these heroes, gallants, nitwits, philosophers, scalawags, dandified aristocrats, slaves, farmers, mechanics and tradesmen--well, virtually every man and woman, north and south--peopled a world of passion and sorrow that resonated, one can see now, with something akin to universal truth and folly.

We viewed ourselves as the Civil War Express. Although Esme put Cherokee museums and information centers in North Carolina and Oklahoma on our list and I added air museums in Pima, Az., and Oklahoma City, The War Between the States pervaded our lives for five weeks.

That was fine with the dog. Logan was so happy to evade the kennel she would have followed us to Red Adair's camp in Kuwait.

Besides Logan, we took another dear companion: A three-box Book on Tape, James McPherson's "Battle Cry of Freedom," considered by some experts to be the best one-volume history about the Civil War. As we drove, we listened to 36 McPherson cassettes.

Although most of our maps came from the auto club, we obtained others plus stacks of briefing materials from book stores, shops along the way and archives of Civil War junkies (whose personal guidance we synthesized because no two made the same recommendations.) Jeb Stuart, the South's great cavalryman and reconnaissance man, would have been proud.

More than 10,000 battles, engagements and skirmishes took place during the Civil War's four years so there is plenty of choice for a visitor today. While we visited about a dozen sites--and each haunts me--Vicksburg and Gettysburg stick most in my mind.

Vicksburg sticks because it made so much military sense and played out almost like a chess game, with the winner, Ulysses S. Grant, getting control of the Mississipi River after a 47-day siege.

Gettysburg sticks because it made no sense at all (it started by accident), the losses were horrendous (51,000 casualties in three days) and it was the site of Lincoln's famous address.

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