Pursuing these questions and others has taken me all over my native state, but I've found that Manassas, Appomattox and Richmond provide the most compact answers. A scenic side trip from any of the three is easy by following the state's well-marked and mapped Civil War Trails, http://www.civilwartrails.org.
At her home in Richmond, for instance, Elizabeth Munford heard the rumble of the very battle that killed her son, whose body was returned to her that night. Charles Ellis Munford's military frock coat, laid out in a cart as if his body had suddenly vaporized, is on display at the Virginia Historical Society's major new exhibition called "An American Turning Point."
This signature exhibition of the state's commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War will remain at the historical society until the end of the year, then travel to seven other museums around the state through 2015.
The Malvern Hill battlefield on which Munford died in 1862 is also among the units of Richmond National Battlefield Park, which has its headquarters on Church Hill at the site of the Confederate Chimborazo Hospital and its visitors center on the riverfront in a restored building of the Tredegar Iron Works, which manufactured cannons for the Confederacy.
Near Petersburg, where a 10-month siege gradually cut essential railroad supply lines to Richmond 25 miles to the north, brother fought brother during the breakthrough battle.
Immediately after Petersburg opened the way to Richmond, President Abraham Lincoln and his son Tad toured the ruins of the Confederate capital, which had been set ablaze by its own departing troops as they destroyed supplies. A statue of father and son at Tredegar commemorates their visit.
Lincoln walked from the riverfront to the undamaged Capitol (a creation of Thomas Jefferson, who wanted it to look like a Roman temple to symbolize the democratic ideals of ancient Rome). Then Lincoln continued to the home where Confederate President Jefferson Davis had endured family tragedies as well as wartime defeats.
"Thank God that I have lived to see this! It seems to me that I have been dreaming a horrid dream for four years, and now the nightmare is gone. I want to see Richmond," Lincoln said.
Ten days later, he was assassinated.
Both the State Capitol building and the Museum of the Confederacy, which includes the Confederate White House, have special exhibits for the 150th anniversary, and visitors can trace Lincoln's path through the city.
Californians were not immune from the conflict. In 1863, a San Francisco militia leader recruited the California 100 to form a cavalry company within the 2nd Massachusetts. By war's end, they had been joined by nearly 400 other Californians. The unit was involved in the Confederates' final breakout attempt at dawn on April 9, 1865, the day Lee decided to surrender his remaining 30,000 troops to Grant at Appomattox.
Samuel Corbett wrote about it in the April 9 entry in his diary, now in the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley.
"[At] 9:30 a.m. Lee sent in a Flag of Truce. . . Grant came up and agreed to a[n] . . . armistis [sic]. . until 9 o'clock tomorrow morning. This place is called Appomattox Court House. We camp here tonight. Saw Grant, Sheridan, Mead and Lee and in fact all the big Generals at Head Quarters this afternoon."
Visitation has already increased at least 10% at Appomattox Court House, and its anniversary events are still four years away, said Ernie Price, chief interpreter.
"If you're looking for meaning," Price said, "that's more easily found here than at any other Civil War park.
"Every time I go to a Civil War site in the National Park Service, the big question is never answered. Two armies show up, a horrific thing happens, two armies leave. At Appomattox, two armies arrive, and only one leaves. A big, big question is answered.
"Something happens here that has reverberations up to this minute."