Ken Burns, whose landmark documentary on the Civil War established him as one of its quintessential authorities, thinks there's no better way to get a sense of the Civil War than to visit its battlefields, museums and national parks.
"When we go to Civil War sites, we're making ourselves available to the ghosts and echoes of … the past," Burns said. "That's what we look for when we stand on Seminary Ridge or Cemetery Ridge at Gettysburg [Pa.] and think about the two great armies that collided there on July 1, 2 and 3 of 1863. That extends to every battlefield and applies to everyone — Native Americans, people whose ancestors came over on the Mayflower or those who have recently arrived in our country. When you buy into the American story, you buy into a connection to the single most important event in American history, and that's our Civil War."
Most of the major battles were fought on the same ground along the Mississippi River, along the coasts, near large Southern cities and in Virginia, between Washington and the Confederate capital in Richmond, said Michael Weeks, author of "The Complete Civil War Road Trip Guide."
"If you're standing on one battlefield, you're usually very close to five, 10, even 20 others," Weeks said.
You can start your Civil War tour at home with TravelBrains guidebooks. These comprehensive guides include battlefield driving tours on CD and DVD with maps and images of the six top sites — Gettysburg;, Vicksburg, Miss.; Antietam, Md.; Manassas and Fredericksburg, Va.; and Chickamauga, fought in Tennessee and Georgia. TravelBrains also has an augmented reality tour of a Civil War battlefield, a free download with the purchase of the "Gettysburg Expedition Guide." Prices for the guides range from $19.95 to $29.95 at http://www.TravelBrains.com or at the battlefield visitor centers.
A good Civil War trip should follow a theme. Organize your tour into campaigns or regions so you can follow in the footsteps of the generals and armies.
Begin with battlefields that are familiar to most people. For instance, first visit the Manassas National Battlefield Park in northern Virginia, where the first major battle of the war occurred. From there, work your way west to Antietam, America's bloodiest battle. Harpers Ferry, W.Va., is nearby. Gettysburg is a natural finish, and the new visitor center and battlefield restoration make it a must-see.
Civil War tours
Tauck Tours recently signed a partnership with Ken Burns to produce travel experiences based on his films' themes, including the "Most Hallowed Ground" Civil War tour (11 days, from $3,890 a person, double occupancy. Airfare excluded, with September and October departures). The tour explores not only the conflict but also its causes and related impacts. It will include a visit to a private home in Gettysburg that was used as a field hospital during and after the battle and examine the war's effects on civilians. A visit to Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's home in Charlottesville, Va., will show how the seeds of the Civil War were sown during the founding of our country. Burns will share his perspectives in filmed vignettes. (800) 468-2825, http://www.tauck.com/tours/usa-tours/southern-usa-travel/civil-war-tours-kc-2011.aspx?print=true
Wilderness Voyageurs is offering a four-day, three-night Civil War bike tour of Gettysburg, Antietam, Harpers Ferry and the Monocacy River Valley in Maryland. Departures are set for June 26, Aug.14 and Oct. 16; more dates will be added as needed. Pricing starts at $1,075 a person, double occupancy (single supplement, $190). (800) 272-4141, http://www.wilderness-voyageurs.com/bike-tour-gettysburg.html
For a Civil War experience in the Deep South, Stephen Ambrose Historical Tours has a seven-day excursion beginning Oct. 29 in New Orleans, with stops at Natchez and Vicksburg, Miss., and Nashville and Chattanooga, Tenn., for $2,375 a person, double occupancy (single supplement, $375). (888) 903-3329, http://www.stephenambrosetours.com/tours/civil-over.html
To learn about New York City's changing role in the Civil War, Patriot Tours offers a two-hour walking tour of historic sites in Lower Manhattan. Tickets are $23. (917) 716-4908, http://www.patriottoursnyc.com/civilwar.html
Civil War Tours offers weekend programs and tours at various battle sites through October. $300, lodging not included. (860) 485-3603, http://www.civilwartours.org
Independent travelers may also consider downloadable podcast tours of 31 Civil War battle sites at http://www.civilwartraveler.com. The site also has information on 150th anniversary events on reenactment schedules.
For more information, the Civil War Discovery Trail, http://www.civilwardiscoverytrail.org, is organized by state, with sites plotted on a map and directions from major highways. It is overseen by the Civil War Preservation Trust, a nonprofit organization that seeks to protect the landscapes where Civil War battles were fought. It has preserved 30,000 acres of battlefield land at 111 sites in 20 states from Gettysburg to Glorieta Pass, N.M.
At http://www.civilwar.org/150th-anniversary, hundreds of Civil War sesquicentennial events are listed by state.