There are few places more certain to provoke a good conversation than a Civil War battle site.
Start out at a bookstore in town - not one that displays piles of identical books, but the old-fashioned kind that has a musty smell about it, stocks the six-volume version of Carl Sandburg's "Abraham Lincoln," and is run by an owner that reads.
Ask a simple question, such as, "What's a good book for understanding this battle?" If the store has been around for awhile, there may be regulars who love history and will offer suggestions of their own.
On anniversaries of great battles, the regulars should be out in force.
Last September, 12,500 participants and 85,000 spectators showed up for a reenactment of the Battle of Antietam, near Sharpsburg, Md., on the 135th anniversary of a clash that claimed more lives than any other in the history of the United States armed forces.
This week, on the 135th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg (July 1-3, 1863), some 15,000 participants and at least 100,000 spectators are expected to commemorate the largest and arguably the most decisive battle of the Civil War and the high-water mark for the Confederacy. Confederate casualties neared 20,000, with Union losses slightly higher, before Southern soldiers began their retreat on July 4. Lincoln's Gettysburg Address - given at the dedication of the Soldiers' National Cemetery at Gettysburg on Nov. 19, 1863 - offered a vision for national unity in the wake of the Civil War.
More than 110 million Americans have ancestors who fought on the fields of Gettysburg and Antietam. Some visitors come to these sites with letters, diaries, or pictures, and want to find out where an ancestor saw action or was wounded. "We can get them to a few hundred feet if we know the time of day," says Paul Chiles, ranger and historian at the Antietam National Battlefield.
"The Civil War is endlessly fascinating. The vast majority of men on both sides were literate, so you had books, diaries, and regimental records; unlike other wars, where half the archives were overseas and in a foreign language," he adds.
What also interests many visitors is how soldiers and civilians experienced the war. Even if discussions start out about who shot whom where, they often get back to issues of character.
"Given an extraordinary circumstance, any ordinary person can do extraordinary things," says Thomas Wight, a tax analyst for MCI Telecommunications Corp., who often walks Civil War battlefields and leads tours at Antietam as a volunteer.
Profound interest in those experiences accounts for the vast number of individuals interested in reenacting Civil War battles. There are reenactment units in all the lower 48 states, as well as in Canada, Germany, Britain, France, Norway, and Australia. The reenactment community in the US ranges from 20,000 to 25,000 people, according to the National Park Service. Many spend upwards of $5,000 to get the look of the period clothes and accessories right.
They are also part of a growing community eager to make sure that Civil War battlefields preserve their period look - and their usefulness as outdoor classrooms. Many sites, such as Atlanta, have already been overrun by development. Others are threatened, especially those along the Baltimore-Washington-Richmond axis, such as Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Spotsylvania, and the Wilderness, all in Virginia.
"Shopping malls in the suburbs are the greatest enemies of Civil War battlefields," says Edwin Bearss, former chief historian of the National Park Service.
Even at Gettysburg, the largest and best-preserved of Civil War sites, development has left its mark. Any visitor walking the northern end of Pickett's Charge will run into McDonald's and the Home Sweet Home Motel. The National Park Service built its visitor's center and museums along the high ground, where, on Day 3 of the battle, 12,000 Confederate infantry marched in mile-long lines through withering fire toward a clump of trees in the center of the Federal line on Cemetery Ridge. (Only half returned.) Park service officials now concede that development there was a mistake.
More than 1.8 million people visited the 5,900-acre Gettysburg National Military Park last year. Some did the auto tour, stopping long enough to let the kids climb on the canons or the rocks at Devil's Den. Others wandered past cases of Enfield rifle-muskets and bullet-bashed furniture (more than 7 million bullets were fired) in the visitor's center.
But for hard-core history buffs, there is no substitute for walking the grounds. Many plan their visits to put them on a portion of the field at exactly the time an engagement occurred, when they will read memoirs or letters of combatants describing the action.
"There is a great education that can be obtained by walking a Civil War battlefield," says Jeff Driscoll, director of education for the Association for the Preservation of Civil War Sites, a national nonprofit organization based in Hagerstown, Md. Since its founding in 1987, the APCWS has helped save portions of about 40 Civil War battlefields in 12 states.
"To preserve these places is to preserve the memory of the people that fought there; not to glorify war, but to honor what they did," he adds.
Antietam and Gettysburg are also used as classrooms by the US military. "Walking the actual site of a battle concentrates the mind. When you sit in the comfort of your study and read a book, it's one thing; but when you walk Pickett's Charge and watch the distance closing, it's quite another," says Col. Len Fullencamp, who leads staff rides through these parks for the Army War College in Carlisle, Pa.
He recently returned from a staff tour of Antietam, which has been maintained much as it was at the time of the battle. "The fields then were planted in corn; today, it's in wheat and beans. But you can mentally paint in the height of the corn. What's important is that you can still see the tree line, the road, and the hilltops. Even if the road is built up, it's still a road," he says. "But at a site like Fredericksburg, the open field today is all town. That's the kind of intrusion on a battlefield that is harmful."
The latest battle of Gettysburg is over how to restore the site. Park officials want to move the visitor center and museums and restore Cemetery Ridge to its 1863 condition via a public-private partnership. An early version of the plan called for a giant-screen Imax movie theater, an arts and crafts gallery, gift shops, and restaurants. Critics dubbed the $40.4 million plan "a commercial mini-mall on hallowed ground."
In response to public criticism, the Park Service scaled back the plan this month. "Most people were sympathetic to our goals: to protect the artifacts, improve interpretation for park visitors, and restore the high-water mark of the battlefield," says Katie Lawhon, a spokeswoman for the Gettysburg National Military park.
"The critics say we spend too much time talking about who shot whom where. We recognize this, and think we can tell a better story: why the Civil War took place, the meaning of this battle and how it affected the civilian population, and the Gettysburg Address," she adds.
The public will see the new plan in August, and there will be a 60-day period for public comment. The new complex is expected to open in 2003.