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Civil War deeply rooted in Virginia

Three key places in Virginia tell the tale of rebellion and answer some big questions.

April 10, 2011|By Katherine Calos | Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • A Confederate commander leads his troops during a 2008 reenactment of a Civil War battle at Ft. Pocahontas in Charles City County, Va. On May 21 and 22, the battle will unfold again on the very ground where the original soldiers fought in 1864.
A Confederate commander leads his troops during a 2008 reenactment of a… (Dean Hoffmeyer / Richmond…)

Reporting from Richmond, Va. — On a blustery late-winter afternoon at Manassas, where a muscular statue of Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson marks the spot where the Confederate general earned his nickname, the Civil War lives, not separate from life in Virginia, but intricately entwined with it.

A father and son inspect cannons in formation for the first major battle in the war that determined what freedom would mean in America. A jogger passes by on her daily route through the suburban sprawl of Washington, D.C., oblivious.

On a glorious day when spring is promised in every new bud at Appomattox, the state's still-rural center exudes the calm of truce. Visitors must make a point of finding this place where the nation reunited after four horrific years of war. It isn't on the way to anywhere. But it provided a pathway to everything that America would become.

The battlefield beginning and the inglorious ending of the Civil War in Virginia, and everything in between, tell the story of the war as only one place can. More major battles of the Civil War were fought in Virginia than in any other state. The National Park Service lists 123 sites, the most significant of which are protected in six national parks. About 7% of all visitors take in a Civil War site, and $1 of every $7 in visitor spending is related to the Civil War, according to Virginia Tourism Corp. research.

"I've found that people of all different kinds of ethnicities here in Richmond say, 'OK. I read about this all the time. Why does this matter to me?'" said Edward Ayers, a prizewinning historian of the American South and president of the University of Richmond. "What people … need to understand is that events that changed world history happened right beneath our feet. And that if the Civil War had turned out differently, in a multitude of ways, all of world history would have been different. …

"It's hard not to be interested in the human drama of 4 million people becoming free, of 625,000 people dying, of a struggle across the entire continent.

"If you don't find that interesting, you're dead to human interest."

From Manassas to Appomattox, standing on the very ground where those combatants once stood gives answers to the war's big questions.

Would there be an easy victory, as both sides expected? No, was the deadly answer at Manassas in July 1861. Washingtonians came out from the city in buggies with picnic lunches to watch from nearby hilltops, expecting that the Confederate Army would crumble and that the war would be over with a single battle. Instead, they were horrified when the clash of 60,000 soldiers produced 4,700 casualties, including 900 deaths. The U.S. Army, with 28,000 troops, suffered nearly 3,000 casualties before retreating back to Washington on the same roads as the civilians.

Today, Manassas National Battlefield Park commemorates both the first and second battles of Manassas (also known as Bull Run). The second battle, which happened a year later, was even deadlier than the first — 3,300 killed — but by then, soldiers were seasoned and ready to fight again.

A one-mile walking tour covers the ground of the first battle, which centered on Henry Hill, site of the visitor center. Henry House, rebuilt in 1870, stands next to a monument erected in 1865 by Union soldiers to honor their fallen compatriots. The grave of Judith Carter Henry, who was mortally wounded inside her house, is in the yard.

Following the trail toward the Robinson House, where South Carolina troops entered the battle, I decided to cut across the field to Jackson's statue — not a good idea for many reasons, including hidden marshy ground that soaked my feet. At the statue, seasonal park ranger Maureen Santelli was talking to a group. "In case you're curious, [Jackson] didn't really look like that," she said. "He's not that muscular."

An 18-mile driving tour explores the second battle at landmarks such as the Stone House and Stone Bridge. The first stop, at the Brawner Farm, includes exhibits focusing on that battle. On a Saturday afternoon, it's a pleasant drive. On weekdays, traffic can back up for miles on U.S. 29, which narrows to two lanes as it bisects the park.

Would African Americans continue in slavery? No, came the answer at Ft. Monroe in Hampton at the mouth of the James River, where just a month after the war began, Union Gen. Benjamin Butler declared that escaped slaves who reached the fort were "contrabands of war" and, therefore, free. ( President Lincoln made his Emancipation Proclamation two years later.) The historic fort will close as a military base in September, and its future development will include interpretation of its history.

No, was the answer again at New Market Heights, one of the units of Richmond National Battlefield Park, where 14 black Union soldiers received Medals of Honor for bravery in battle. The fascination now comes from standing on the spot where it happened more than from what you can see.

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