WASHINGTON — If you're interested in visiting Civil War battle sites, the best start is to read a good overview, says Edwin Bearss, historian emeritus at the National Park Service in Washington.
"The people in the Civil War are collectively the most interesting group of people in our whole history," he says. "These people are characters. There was a premium on being an individual then that there is not now."
His own favorite book is James McPherson's "Battle Cry of Freedom," or the classic Civil War trilogies of Shelby Foote or Bruce Catton. But he credits films and documentaries - such as the PBS television series "The Civil War," produced by Ken Burns, or Ted Turner's film "Gettysburg" - with spurring the most recent interest in Civil War history.
There have always been peaks and valleys of interest in the Civil War, he says. "The first big period came in the 1890s, when the veterans were in their 60s. This is when the great battlefields with monuments were created - Gettysburg, Antietam, Vicksburg, Chimagua, Chattanooga, Shiloh. Chickamauga."
There was another surge immediately after World War I, when "America was looking inward and disillusioned with the adventure in Europe." After World War II, and with the Civil War centennial and publication of regimental histories such as that of the 20th Maine, interest again picked up.
But the most recent period of intense interest in Civil War history, beginning in the late 1970s, has been the most enduring. Books continue to come out at a rate of two or three a week, says Mr. Bearss, co-author of the 1997 "Smithsonian's Great Battles & Battlefields of the Civil War."
The National Park Service administers 28 parks whose primary theme is the Civil War, and up to 37 with sites related to the war.
"Visiting battlefields is a wonderful way for people to walk in the footsteps of history," Bearss says. "Even the most talented writer or filmmaker can't substitute for what you can get from actually visiting the site."