Civil War Road Trip

Gettysburg on a Segway
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
Oct. 8 2010 7:20 AM

Civil War Road Trip

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Slide Show Day 5: The Rise and Fall of Robert E. Lee. Click image to expand.

John Swansburg John Swansburg

John Swansburg is Slate's deputy editor.

Yesterday we visited the CSS Hunley, a Confederate submarine. Today it's time to give the Union Navy its due. We're on our way to the Mariners' Museum, in Newport News, Va., home to the USS Monitor, the Union's first ironclad warship.   Except we seem to have missed our turn. My friend Brian is currently driving our ungainly RV down a narrow, winding suburban street. Now he's nearly running over an oncoming Chevy Malibu. Yikes—that was close. Does anyone else hear a siren?

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It turns out the Malibu was an unmarked police cruiser—and the officer seems put out by his near-death experience. He cools down a bit when he hears that we're on our way to see the Monitor, mollified, apparently, by our interest in local maritime history. He lets us off with a warning and mediocre directions to the museum.

The Civil War saw a series of technological advances that changed the nature of warfare. On the battlefield, the game-changer was the advent of the rifled musket, which was more accurate and far deadlier than the old smooth-bore muskets. On the high seas, the big move was from wooden ships to ironclad ones, which were more resistant to cannon fire. The Monitor exhibition tells the story of this transition masterfully. Seriously, this may be the slickest museum I've ever visited. Artifacts salvaged from the Monitor, which eventually sank in a storm off North Carolina in 1862, are supplemented by a series of detailed replicas evoking life aboard ship.   My favorite is this rendering of the captain's well-appointed head, which wouldn't look out of place in a boho Brooklyn brownstone. Is that a loofah?

A loofah.

We linger for so long in Newport News that we end up shortchanging our next stop, Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy. My traveling companions, perhaps nursing some lingering resentment that I ushered them out of the Mariners' Museum before they had a chance to fully appreciate its collection of miniature ships, decide to have a late lunch at an Irish pub rather than accompany me to the Museum of the Confederacy, which is really more of a reliquary than a museum. Here's the uniform and sword that Robert E. Lee wore when he surrendered at Appomattox. Here's Stonewall Jackson's tote bag; it looks a little like a Filson. I hope you're enjoying your soda bread, guys—I'm getting acquainted with J.E.B. Stuart's hat, holster, and pistol.

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We wake early the next morning and drive to Fredericksburg, Va. This is the most ambitious day of our road trip. The plan is to see four battlefields clustered about 50 miles south of Washington, D.C.: Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Spotsylvania, and the battle known simply as the Wilderness. Until this point, we've been focused on the war's Western Theater; it's time to get acquainted with the handiwork of Robert E. Lee, whose Army of Northern Virginia cost a series of Union commanders their jobs.

If any man is up to the task of narrating so much history in so little time, it is National Park Ranger Jake Struhelka, whose exuberance is simply not in keeping with the triple-digit heat and the fact that he's clad in the NPS field uniform.   I really hope those kelly green trousers are more breathable than they look.

We make efficient work of Fredericksburg—an embarrassing, bloody defeat for the Union—and proceed to Chancellorsville, the site of Lee's most audacious victory, but also, Struhelka argues, a victory that holds within it the seeds of Lee's eventual defeat. The Federals have Lee badly outnumbered here. Yet he seizes the initiative from the Union by doing what he does best—violating the basic tenets of military strategy, in this case the rule stating you should never divide your force in the face of superior numbers. Lee does precisely that, sending 30,000 of his 45,000 men, under the command of Stonewall Jackson, on a 12-mile, do-or-die flanking march. Jackson pulls it off, scattering the Union's right flank to the wind. But the victory comes at great cost: Jackson himself is killed.   Struhelka believes the victory at Chancellorsville emboldens Lee to invade the North—an invasion that will fail, in no small part, because he no longer has Jackson, his most trusted, reliable commander, at his disposal.

From Chancellorsville, Struhelka takes us to the Wilderness and then to Spotsylvania, never losing steam. If anything, he's getting more energized as the day wears on. (When building to an important point, Struhelka has a tendency to slip into what he apologetically calls his "thousand-yard voice," which travels at least that far.) By contrast, the road-trip crew is starting to feel a little worse for wear, having spent a late night at a very hospitable Charlottesville bar. As if sensing our flagging spirits, Struhelka excuses himself to make a quick phone call. He returns with some stunning news: He's secured permission from his boss to cap off our tour with a visit to the Jackson Shrine. It's exceedingly rare for visitors to be allowed to traipse around in the room where Jackson died, but Struhelka's going to let us do just that. We're ecstatic.

Over the course of this road trip, my companions and I have found ourselves drawn to certain figures, and we've grown particularly fond of Jackson. A devout, humorless man who was notoriously hard on his troops, Jackson nevertheless enjoyed their devotion and was forever pulling off victories that seemed next to impossible. He was also a delightfully odd duck. Notes historian James McPherson, "Jackson constantly sucked lemons to palliate his dyspepsia and refused to season his food with pepper because (he said) it made his left leg ache."

Jackson's military prowess and personal eccentricities make him a natural object of curiosity. Admiration, too, though here things get stickier. Out on the battlefield, listening to a talented guide like Struhelka describe one of Jackson's brilliant tactical maneuvers, it's easy to find yourself pulling for him and indeed for the Confederates, who fight valiantly, are often outnumbered, and thus have the appealing air of the underdog. More than once, I've had to stop and remind myself what, exactly, the Rebels were fighting for. Earlier in the trip, I'd become fascinated by cavalryman Nathan Bedford Forrest. A self-made man, Forrest enlisted in the Confederate Army as a private, worked his way up to lieutenant general, and despite having no prior military experience, routinely outclassed his Union opponents. Yet these facts are also true: Forrest made part of his fortune in the slave trade; oversaw a massacre of black soldiers at Fort Pillow, Tenn.; and was a founding member of the Ku Klux Klan.

After wrapping up his account of the fierce fighting at Spotsylvania's Mule Shoe Salient, Struhelka directs us about 15 miles down the road to an unassuming white clapboard building. It's the Jackson Shrine. After disarming a motion detector (and dancing a quick jig to confirm it's been disarmed), he lets us into the small room where Jackson expired. In the room is the bed he was lying on when he died, of pneumonia. On the mantelpiece is the clock that counted off his final hours. Jackson was in and out of consciousness during that time, but shortly before he died the general came to long enough to utter these final words: "Let us cross over the river and rest under the shade of the trees."

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No such respite for us. Time is running out on this trip, and we've still got a lot to see. On our second-to-last day we manage to squeeze in Ford's Theatre   in the morning, Antietam   in the afternoon, and still make it to Gettysburg in time for dinner at the historic Dobbin House Tavern, which served as a hospital in the wake of the battle and today offers healthy portions of acceptable prime rib for unreasonable prices. Excuse me, Miss? Would it be possible to get a lemon wedge?

Gettysburg is the most famous Civil War battle, and the most-visited battlefield, too. Each year, more than a million tourists come to see where Lee's daring invasion of the North was turned back after great loss of life on both sides. There are many ways to experience the battlefield—including a cyclorama and the annual re-enactments, held on the Fourth of July weekend, the battle's anniversary. But when I came across Segway Tours of Gettysburg, I couldn't resist.

It's only as we don our helmets and practice maneuvering our Segways by weaving in and out of orange cones in a parking lot adjacent to the graveyard where Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address that I begin to wonder whether it is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. Did 7,000 men really give their last full measure of devotion that I might have the freedom to putter around on this absurd conveyance?

But the Segway proves to be a convenient way to cover a lot of ground quickly and still see the battlefield up close. (Gary Kross, a veteran Gettysburg tour guide, leads our caravan and narrates as we go.) To be honest, my friends and I are exhausted at this point, worn down by 10 straight days of rigorous sightseeing. Yet even in our depleted state, being here—standing where Pickett stood as his men charged to their deaths, or where Joshua L. Chamberlain   ordered the 20th Maine Regiment to repulse the Rebel assault on Little Round Top with bayonets—brings on that now familiar feeling of having experienced history not just intellectually but physically and emotionally.  

In the middle of our tour, a ranger in a National Park Service SUV pulls up and informs our group that a Boy Scout is missing on the battlefield. He describes the boy and asks us to keep an eye out for him. About 10 minutes later, as we're descending into Devil's Den, we spot the Scout, standing sheepishly by a tree. We stop our Segways and radio in that we've found the missing boy. As we wait for the park service to come pick him up, I study the young man, who, out of embarrassment—his own, or on behalf of the ridiculous grown-ups clustered about him on Segways—has pulled his baseball cap down low over his eyes. It's possible that he's a bad seed who wandered off to check out a cute girl he'd spied at the Alabama monument. But I concoct a more charitable narrative. He was admiring the statue of Gouverneur K. Warren that stands just above us on an outcropping on Little Round Top. He was so transported, imagining what Warren saw through his field glasses on the battlefield below, that he failed to notice his troop was back in the van, on its way to the next stop on the tour.

If you visit:

  • Budget several hours for your visit to the outstanding Mariners' Museum. You want to have time to chat with the kind, elderly docents who greet each new visitor and describe the museum's many treasures; to explore "The Nelson Touch," an exhibit dedicated to the exploits of British naval hero Horatio Nelson; to take in the museum's beautiful collection of figureheads; to not get pulled over for erratic driving by the vigilant local police force.
  • If you go to Fredericksburg, promise me this: You'll ask for Jake Struhelka. Even if you don't go in for the full eight-hour, four-battlefield tour, just shaking hands with him and letting him tell you about a few of his favorite sites will be an informative blast. The next time I write a check to the IRS, I'm going to console myself with the thought that some fraction of my taxes goes toward paying Struhelka's salary.
  • You need to get (free) tickets to visit Ford's Theatre and its associated exhibits—including the suit Lincoln wore the night of his death and Booth's Derringer. In 1968, the theater reopened as a performance space, so you can now take in a theatrical production there as well. Our American Cousin is not on the 2010-11 calendar.
  • Antietam is a good starter battlefield. The fighting was dramatic and deadly, but it took place on a relatively small patch of land, so seeing all the sites feels manageable. You can see most of the battlefield from an observation room in the park service visitor center, though be sure to walk over to the lovely Burnside Bridge (not so lovely for the Union soldiers trying to cross it in 1862). Two future U.S. presidents served in the Ohio regiment that fought there: Rutherford B. Hayes and William McKinley.
  • The Gettysburg Cyclorama is my second-favorite cyclorama, but it's worth the $9.50 (with AAA discount) admission.
  • Keep an eye on your Boy Scouts. Try the buddy system.

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