The dirt road leading up from the Appomattox River is empty and silent this late summer afternoon but, for the few dozen of us on the porch of the Clover Hill Tavern, the terrible echoes of America's Civil War still hang in the air.
We are listening to Mrs. George T. Pers, the tavern owner's wife, relive the march of Gen. Robert E. Lee's tattered soldiers up the road to stack their weapons for the last time just outside the white picket fence that stands behind her.
Mrs. Pers, her hair pulled behind her ears under her bonnet, is dressed in a white blouse tight at the neck, with an apron over a dark blue skirt that brushes the ground. She is a re-enactor (her real name is Lynda Howe), giving one of the most touching performances I've ever witnessed.
As her sad voice glides on, my mind travels back down the Richmond-Lynchburg Stage Road, across the river (here just a wide creek) to the battlefields far beyond. My wife, Cynthia, and I have spent the past three weeks combing the back roads of six states, most here in Virginia, visiting the sites of the Civil War's Eastern Theater.
Now, at the tavern, tears blur my eyes for the first time. Cynthia's hand brushes my cheek and points down the row of visitors. The men, mostly of a middle and later age, are all losing their composure.
"I have a hard time with it sometimes, choking up myself," Howe says later. "Older men, especially those who have been in war themselves, seem to be reliving it.
"Other people are struck by the descriptions of the war by a civilian woman," Howe adds. "It puts a personal face on the war you don't get visiting many of the battlefields."
While they're in costume, it's as impossible to break the Appomattox re-enactors' facades as it is to distract the guards at Buckingham Palace. The women's portrayals heighten the poignant aura of history that surrounds this cluster of buildings, many of them reconstructed in the 20th century.
"A few months ago, the rangers in the courthouse couldn't convince a man that I was just acting," says Howe, who also lectures at schools and colleges in the area.
"He kept telling them there was this crazy woman outside who actually thought this was still 1865."
Following the war The courthouse today houses a bookstore, museum and small theater. Many of the National Battlefield parks have theaters where historical films are shown. Some are equipped with large contour maps of the battlefields, showing progress of the fighting via rows of colored lights among the ridges and vales while rangers describe the action.
Once you've seen these overviews, the rangers escort you on personal tours of the battlegrounds, offering more details and answering questions.
Military science says that the Union won the Civil War in the west, eventually cutting off the supply of food and material to Lee in Virginia and Joseph E. Johnston in the Carolinas.
But the mystique remains strongest in the east, along a line that roughly follows Interstate 95. A spur from Gettysburg, Pa., runs southwest through West Virginia's Shenandoah Valley.
Because so much of this ground was fought over throughout the war, it's not practical to design a trip that follows history chronologically, no matter where you begin.
Starting from Fort Lauderdale, Cynthia and I worked our way north from Savannah, Ga., through the thinly populated coastal Carolina low country, where stunning revelations awaited us about how the Southern aristocracy was born on rice, not cotton, plantations.
Arriving in Virginia, we skirted I-95 beginning at Petersburg, where Lee and Grant faced one another in the war's final, desperate siege.
From here, the battlefield portion of the trip involved comfortable excursions of 100 miles or less, visiting many sites in a day.
Regional history and culture resonate, as always, on the back roads. Every rut is plainly marked in DeLorme's state "Atlas & Gazeteer" series, indispensible to a byways vacation. History books proved unnecessary because most parks' maps, markers, museums, theaters, rangers and trails offer as much as the visitor can absorb.
For advance planning and general reference during the trip, three books were ideal: Frank E. Vandiver's Civil War Battlefields and Landmarks (Random House, 1996), Julie Shively's Ideals Guide to American Civil War Places (Ideals Press, 1999) and the latest Insider's Guide edition of The Civil War, The Eastern Theater. We adjusted each day's itinerary while reading them under lantern light at state parks and private campgrounds along the route.
The battlefields themselves represent a bewildering array of terrible records of firsts, and mosts, in warfare. The museums recount the toll, depicting them with still-bloodied torn flags, diaries, weapons and uniforms. Most Union garments hold their trademark blue, but Southern gray is evident mostly in the officers' coats. Confederate soldiers earned the nickname "butternut" because the south's inks faded (more quickly as the war progressed and quality deteriorated), leaving the woolens their natural yellowish-brown.
Howe's portrayal of the tavern owner's wife, the only re-enactment we observed, was the touching finale of our trip. But the most transfixing experience encompassed a full afternoon a week earlier, at Spotsylvania.
Vivid descriptions We arrived at Spotsylvania's Mule Shoe salient while a ranger was already deep in discussion with two historians. Cynthia and I joined them in the shallow trench that is the remains of the Confederate line, once a shoulder-high pile of earth and logs.
The ranger had just begun describing 20 hours of hand-to-hand combat in a driving rain on May 12, 1864 that reduced both men and animals into lakes of gore.
"Horses used for cover by the Confederates were so riddled after the battle, their bodies were only 3 inches thick," the ranger said at one point. We never got his name; he and the historians were still debating the battle's finer points when we left two hours later.
A half-mile outside the battlefield park, we detoured up a short road to Spotsylvania's Confederate Cemetery. I watched Cynthia from the base of the tall soldier's monument in the center of this quiet place, as she paced up and down the rows of headstones, searching for an ancestor.
My own forebears were still in Ireland and Germany in 1864, and wouldn't arrive until just before 1900. I'd become fascinated with the Civil War in high school in Ohio, and studied it ever since.
But not until I watched Cynthia moving silently among these graves, with the Spotsylvania ranger's words still ringing in my head, did I begin to fathom it. At that moment, the trip stopped being a simple vacation.
We'd posed at Malvern Hill alongside the first cannon forged by the Revere Copper Company, a 1,200-pound tube that protected Union commander George B. McClellan's retreat at the end of the Seven Days' Campaign, on July 1, 1862. The cannon now faces across a farmer's field, watched mornings by a single park ranger.
A few miles away, another ranger showed us both battles of Cold Harbor (the first officially called Gaines' Mill), in 1862 and '64.
In Richmond, a guided tour of Jefferson Davis' White House of the Confederacy was followed by hours in the Museum of the Confederacy next door, and a short ride to the Tredegar Iron Works. The factory on the James River continued making the South's arms until the day Lee evacuated Petersburg, a few miles south, and began the race to Appomattox.
Most of the battle sites of central and southern Virginia are now overgrown with woods or encroached by towns and suburbs. The National Park Service's efforts to remove trees and undergrowth, to restore the land to its 1860s' appearance, now prompts battles with environmentalists.
But in the north, at Manassas, Va.; Sharpsburg, Md.; and Gettysburg, Pa.; the land looks almost as open as it did then.
At Manassas, we stood on the hill where Thomas Jonathan Jackson got his knickname "Stonewall" at the first battle of Bull Run in July 1861.
The next day, a dozen of us followed Ranger Don, with umbrellas, through a rainstorm across Deep Cut and up a slope to the Unfinished Railroad. There, Jackson turned back Gen. Fitz-John Porter's 5,000 Federals during the Second Bull Run in August 1862.
Massive Gettysburg Gettysburg was next. After a week of trekking through woods, river and creek basins, and across silent hillocks, it seemed like a huge, albeit somber, theme park. A ranger shook his head when we told him we'd be there for just one day, saying, "You need at least three to really understand this place."
We couldn't follow him or the others offering detailed tours and lectures throughout the park. But we unhurriedly covered the whole area ourselves after a few hours in the museum and theater. Lecture tapes are available at the bookstore to play in your car en route.
Although Gettysburg seems at times like an infant Gatlinburg, Tenn., the park was the most impressive stop on our trip. The monuments, the cemetery, Lincoln's Address, and the array of individual battle sites seem a metaphor of the entire four-year conflict.
The most awe-inspiring vista is the valley between Seminary Ridge, where Gen. George Pickett's charge began on July 3, 1863, and The Angle on Cemetery Ridge, where it was shattered. The valley seemed magnificent when viewed from Lee's statue across to the Union heights at the Angle in the distance. But an hour later, while I stood at the Angle looking back across to Lee's statue, the horror that Pickett's men endured coming up this hill became palpable.
For all of Gettysburg's notoriety, the nearby Antietam battlefield at Sharpsburg, Md., holds the record for the war's bloodiest single day. About 22,700 soldiers were killed, wounded or missing. Its panorama is visible from the ranger station on a central hill.
"Everything looks open from here, but you can only see the tops of the many low hills," the ranger said.
"As you travel through the park you'll be in the vales where the soldiers marched and fought, and you'll probably lose your sense of direction," the ranger said. "The soldiers did, too. That's why the battle was so confusing."
We lost our own way later, between the cornfield where the battle started at dawn and Burnside Bridge three miles south, near its conclusion. We regained our bearings in the center, where an observation tower stands vigil over Bloody Lane, scene of the afternoon's closest fighting, said to be on a scale of horror with Spotsylvania, second Cold Harbor and Gettysburg's worst.
Our trip south through Harper's Ferry, Front Royal and the once-contested Shenandoah Valley offered picturesque relief.
That is, until we recrossed the Blue Ridge to Appomattox, where Blue and Gray, and butternut, met on April 9, 1865. On this dirt road, Howe is telling us, in the voice of Mrs. Pers, they gave silent, final tribute to one another while she watched from the tavern's porch.
This, too, was a first. After the costliest war in human history, two armies met without final bloodshed, and winner and loser then walked to their respective homes. Peacefully.