The American Civil War (1861-65) has been shamefully ignored by British schools, because it was deemed to have been irrelevant to our island history. Yet the issue of Britain’s possible recognition of the South’s legitimacy was key to the conflict. And the current obsession with slavery and ‘enslaved peoples’ makes it a war for today’s social, political – as well as military – historian.
Our tour of Civil War battlefields, in early August 2022, started at Gettysburg, moved on to Antietam (or Sharpsburg as it is still known in the South), and then to Harper’s Ferry, Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Chancellorsville… taking in Grant’s HQ at City Point (at the confluence of the James and Appomattox rivers) on the way to Petersburg and the famous Crater (rather smaller than craters at Ypres). Thence to Appomattox Court House, and the recreated Maclean House where the Surrender was signed. After admiring the preserved village (all but two of the buildings are original), we motored on to Jefferson’s Monticello, the Shenandoah Valley, and eventually Bull Run (or Manassas).
Pictures and maps give no impression of scale – there is no substitute for standing on ‘hallowed ground’. The famous Malvern Hill is actually hardly a hill, more a plateau, for example. Bull Run is many separate actions, quite widely spaced; Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg seems even crazier – or bolder – when you stand at The Angle and see the open space that the attackers had to cover under cannon and musket fire.
The Shenandoah Valley is stunning, lush and green, with stud farms and wineries on the slopes of the hills. We stayed at old plantations or in houses on their estates. Of those we visited, Westover on the James was my favourite. A perfect Georgian house, as fine as anything in England, and a remarkable view of the river. Berkeley, next door, has a dramatic avenue of weeping willows down to the water.
Some of the smaller battlefields we detoured to see were worth it. Some not. But you need to go to these places to grasp their dimension. We hired a light airplane to fly over Gettysburg so we could appreciate the scope of the battlefield and the importance of key sites like Little Round Top (regrettably the summit was closed).
Mostly, the Park Service does an admirable job in preserving and explaining the battlefields. Rangers are sometimes on hand to give freely of their knowledge. Sometimes the history is romanticised; and sometimes vulgarised.
Monticello has a more spectacular vista than you might envisage from photos, but the Visitor Centre is obtrusive; and the whole ’experience’ is marred by cringing guilt at Jefferson’s perceived crime of ‘racism’.
But rural Virginia is lovely, with the Crepe myrtle in bloom. Sitting on my plantation house porch in the evening heat with the crickets chirping was idyllic. At most battlefields we were alone. No one else was stupid enough to stand in a field in 40 degrees. Yet without braving the heat, I would not have stood at The Angle at Gettysburg, the Bloody Angle at Spotsylvania, or that ‘vortex of hell’ at Second Bull Run where 5th New York Zouaves, in their brilliant red and blue, were all but destroyed. The plaque on the monument tells the story:
Here, about 4 p.m. August 30, 1862, the regiment, 482 strong, supported Hazlett’s Battery, “D” 5th U.S. Artillery, when attacked by a Division of the victorious Confederates. The Regiment stubbornly withstood this force, and checked its advance, until the Battery had withdrawn.
In holding this position, the regiment suffered the greatest loss of life sustained by any infantry regiment, in any battle, during the entire Civil War.
The casualties were: killed or mortally wounded, 124; wounded 223. Both color bearers, and seven out of eight of the color guard were killed; but the colors were brought with honor, off the field.