Thursday, April 28, 2016

From Antietam to The Wilderness, a memorable Power Tour

A backdrop of a field of buttercups at Ellwood Manor, where Stonewall Jackson's arm is buried.
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And so my week-long Civil War Power Tour has ended. The final tally shows three states visited, six battlefields toured, nearly 45 miles hiked and more than 1,000 road miles logged. The special moments? Ah, those were numerous.

I was moved by the deep-purple violets in front of the graves of Connecticut soldiers at Antietam National Cemetery and the seemingly endless fields of buttercups at Ellwood Manor, the final resting place of Stonewall Jackson's amputated left arm. I stuck my head through the trapdoor hatch at the Philip Pry House to see what Union commanders may have seen while fighting raged in the West Woods at Antietam, and listened to the crunch, crunch, crunch of gravel as I walked behind the infamous stone wall at Fredericksburg.

While trudging just after dawn through The Wilderness forest near Saunders Field, where fighting raged in early May 1864, I had the eerie feeling that I wasn't alone. I don't believe in ghosts, but there is something deeply spiritual about that place. I huffed and puffed my way to the Maryland Heights overlook for a spectacular view of  Harpers Ferry, W.Va., and felt like I was on top of the world. Do yourself a favor and make that trip.

Violets in front of the grave of a Connecticut soldier at Antietam National Cemetery.
The fabulous view of Harpers Ferry, W.Va.. from Maryland Heights.
In the woods near Sudley Church at Manassas, a group of nearly 60 of us Civil War fanatics stared at unusual depressions in the ground. Those likely were once the temporary graves of Union soldiers, said tour leader John Hennessy of the National Park Service. One of John's favorite places, it was a poignant scene in a trip full of them. I want to go back there.

But this trip was especially about people. In a hotel in Hagerstown, Md., a tall, slender man and I laughed about the names Southerners and Northerners call a certain battle in western Maryland. Is it "Sharpsburg" or really "Antietam"? Don't laugh: More than 150 years later it's still debated. For our First Battle of Bull Run tour, a gentleman told me he left Connecticut at 3 in the morning to get there by 9 a.m. And when the seven-hour tour was over, he headed right back home. That's crazy... in a cool sort of way.

A landscaper named Joe and I trekked through the woods and a clearing to see where Jackson's arm had been amputated in 1863. Peaceful today, that scene near Wilderness Tavern was awful more than 150 years ago, when thousands of wounded Rebels were treated there after Chancellorsville. I closed my eyes and tried to imagine it.

Leaves mask depressions that likely were once graves for Union soldiers in the woods at Manassas.
The Wilderness, near where Confederate General Leroy Stafford was mortally wounded.
I drank beer and swapped war stories (literally) in Fredericksburg with Civil War photo expert John Cummings and his friend, James. Afterward, John pointed out the location just blocks away of a graveyard in 1864 for Union soldiers, many of whom were victims of the brutal fighting throughout that war-torn area. Long gone, the burial site today is partially in  the back yard of a house painted blue. There's a child's play set there now..

Unfortunately, I didn't get to speak with the man who sat in the grass at Fredericksburg National Cemetery. Deep in thought, he had just completed shooting close-ups of a grave of a Union soldier. More than 15,000 Union soldiers, most of them unknown, are buried in the terraced cemetery on Marye's Heights, which once was dotted with Rebel artillery.

Do yourself another favor: Visit there, too.

And most of all this trip was about Henry Pearson. Mortally wounded at the Battle of North Anna River in 1864, the lieutenant colonel in the 6th New Hampshire was only 24 years old, just three years older than our eldest daughter. I had goosebumps as I walked the pathway in the national cemetery in Fredericksburg to place a tintype of him next to his grave there. Let's not forget young Henry and thousands of others like him.

Henry Pearson "returned" to his gravesite at Fredericksburg (Va.) National Cemetery.

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