Veterans may be a diminishing subculture in America, but here on Signal Mountain, a group of veterans and military history enthusiasts congregate regularly for breakfast and programs sharing our common history as veterans. We recall military experiences of a bygone era, perhaps seeking affirmation of our value to our culture as we recall our youthful deeds from a long ago and far away time.
Recently, a group of these kindred spirits, Jim Wade, Dan Saieed, Jerry Pala, Bill Leonard and George Davenport, decided to get a better appreciation of the men who fought in the American Civil War. We toured the battlefields of that war in Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania.
On our way north, we stopped in Lexington, Va., and visited Washington and Lee University, where Robert E. Lee both finished his life as president of the school and is buried. Nearby, we watched the Virginia Military Institute cadets lower the flag at close of day. We finished our visit by stopping at the gravesite of Gen. “Stonewall” Jackson, a fitting way to start our tour.
Gettysburg, the pivotal battle of that war, was our main destination. It is full of historic settings, and we took a self-guided auto tour to experience them properly. The museum there is superb, and the Cyclorama is a grand overview of the battle’s culmination. If you have not seen Little Round Top, The Devil’s Den, Cemetery Ridge and the rest of those famous sites, your education is not complete.
We culminated this part of our experience by recreating Pickett’s fabled charge across the cornfield to Cemetery Ridge; like those soldiers, we disappeared from view as we crossed that long field. It was quite an experience to recreate that charge. We ended the day in the cemetery where Lincoln made his famous Gettysburg Address about the war to end slavery and restore freedom to all the people.
Onward we marched (metaphorically), down a narrow, twisting road, to Antietam. Antietam is a more compact battlefield than Gettysburg; it was the bloodiest single day in American history. We took another self-guided tour, stopping at the Dunker Church where so many fell in one brutal morning. We also walked the Sunken Road and later hiked down to Burnsides Bridge. They were all somber scenes. Antietam is not as vast an experience as Gettysburg, but led to the Emancipation Proclamation, and a change in the war.
From Antietam, we drove to Harpers Ferry, and viewed the fire hall where John Brown made his stand and lit the fuse that ignited the Civil War. This town is surrounded by steep mountains and is the juncture of two famous rivers, a site that changed hands 13 times in the war.
We spent the next morning in Manassas, where the first large battle of the war occurred, beginning the war in earnest. Here, also, Lee had one of his greatest victories the following year at Second Bull Run. It’s now a suburb of Washington, D.C.
We explored Arlington Cemetery, and watched the somber changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown. We also visited the Vietnam Memorial, the Korean War Memorial and the World War II Memorial. These memorials are deeply meaningful to us, and the cold and windy day was a fitting climate for their settings.
We continued to Marye’s Heights in Fredericksburg, which is now overgrown with suburbs. We walked along the sunken road, wondering how anyone could attack that hill, something the union forces did 13 times to no avail. The movie in the battlefield’s museum depicted a far different scene from the tranquil setting we saw, but that is true of all of these famous battles.
From there, it’s only a short drive to Chancellorsville, (perhaps not so short on foot in 1862). It is a confusing tangle of wooded forests, just as it was then. Here, Lee split his army in a daring maneuver, and here “Stonewall” was fatally wounded, even as Lee won his greatest victory.
That same day, we encountered a new general, U.S. Grant. Only a few miles further along the road, we came upon the Wilderness and Spotsylvania battlefields; they are not well-known, but impactful nonetheless. The trenches in the “Bloody Angle” at Spotsylvania are still there to help visitors get an impression of what the war became.
Our last day was spent in Richmond at the Tredegar Iron Works Museum, the industrial heart of the Confederacy. After immersing ourselves in this small but impactful setting of life in a beleaguered city, we headed for our last experience, Appomattox.
Appomattox is a serene, restored courthouse and village that makes you aware of how that war ended. We watched Gen. Lee sign the articles of surrender in a movie, as his small army passed Grant’s forces and were given their paroles.
The Civil War was a catastrophe, perhaps the only way our country could rid itself of the scourge of slavery. More than 700,000 men died as a result of that war, more than all our other wars combined. It was a transformative experience for our country, and it has yet to become the dust of history.
It’s difficult to define what the experiences meant to each of us. We spent eight days in close quarters, shared many meals and many stories, all the while enjoying our experiences. We traveled 1,700 miles in the confined interior of a Suburban, seldom at a loss for words, and our time together was an important feature of the trip. More than once, total strangers engaged us in lengthy conversations (one veteran even bought our breakfast – did we look a bit tattered?).
We were young soldiers and sailors once, and now we are no longer young. And yet, we are still soldiers and sailors in our hearts, sharing bonds that time cannot erase. As we rode home we sang everything from “Dixie” to the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” perhaps not in perfect pitch, but with great gusto. We rejoiced at the unforgettable experiences we had serving our country and the camaraderie and privilege of wandering those hallowed grounds together. We are the old guard!