This year marks the 150th anniversary of the end of the American Civil War. As a nation reflects on its bitterly divided past, Civil War buff Simon Reeve takes his partner and two intermittently fascinated children to see where it all unfolded.
I have a long shopping list of faults as a parent. Stella and Sam, my kids, feel obliged to point them out from time to time – like every 20 minutes or so. For example, I know I’m entirely responsible for the slow internet in our house. But on one count, a passion for history, I might get a pass. Planning a month-long holiday to the US, my partner, Linda, and I strike a deal: for every day of Disneyland or outlet shopping, we’ll match that by doing something with a little more, well… substance.
I’ve been enthralled by the American Civil War for almost 40 years. Flicking through an American history book as a teenager, I came upon a grainy black-and-white image of dead and wounded soldiers. I don’t know how long I stared at it but the picture, taken during that conflict, became imprinted on my brain. When I read more about it, what began as curiosity morphed into fascination. Four bitter and brutal years of fighting.
South versus North. Confederate versus Union. Brother versus brother. More than 600,000 killed in action or from disease. These were Americans killing Americans, with almost incomprehensible purpose and hatred. How could a nation tear itself apart on such a scale? The more I read, the more I learned that its roots lay deep in what was known as the “peculiar institution” – slavery.
The economies of the Southern states were built on the backs of slaves brought to America from West Africa in the 18th century. Disgorged from ships, thousands of men, women and children were sold to rice and cotton plantation owners across Georgia
and the South, who incarcerated and exploited them. When Abraham Lincoln was elected president on an anti-slavery platform in 1860, politicians from Virginia to Texas rose against the threat to the South’s way of life and, state by state, cut themselves free of the Union.
War was inescapable.
I could read about this all I liked but to grasp the magnitude of – and motivations behind – this almighty clash, I want to walk those battlefields for the first time.
Of course, it may all go horribly wrong. The Civil War is my passion; I know Linda and the kids can think of far more entertaining ways to while away midsummer in the American South. But a deal is a deal, right?
And so our journey begins, in Savannah, Georgia. The streets of the old port are framed by magnificent antebellum (pre-Civil War) homes, some still proudly flying Confederate flags out front. Venturing from our hotel along old cobblestones lining the Savannah River, there is an even more confronting and profound thought for us. Immediately we are tracing the shuffling footsteps – then bare feet and chains – of thousands of slaves. It gives the kids some early perspective on the sinister forces that shaped the conflict.
As the Civil War dragged into a fourth long winter and with the Confederates in retreat, Lincoln’s Union leader, General William Tecumseh Sherman, swept towards Savannah, his men inflicting devastation on anyone who fought back. Crops, homes and businesses were obliterated in order to smash Southern morale. When Sherman’s controversial scorched-earth March to the Sea ended in Savannah in December 1864, he took up command in the Green-Meldrim House off Madison Square. With Stella and Sam still enthusiastically engaged, we tour the residence and learn the Gothic Revival house was built by British-born cotton trader Charles Green.
Basking in the temporary glow of being a great father, I come crashing back to earth as we drive north the next day. What, I ask Sam, was the best thing about Savannah? Thinking deeply as he stares out across the passing fields, he says… “Walmart”. Damn.
Undaunted by the dominance of the shopping genes, we press on. On the long haul to Durham, North Carolina, we divert from the I-95 highway to take in the sprawling, manicured gardens of Magnolia Plantation, west of Charleston, South Carolina. About 25 kilometres south-east of the plantation sits Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbour, where the first shots of the war were fired in April 1861. Gerard, our African-American guide, explains how the plantation’s wealth depended on the slaves harvesting its rice crops. In the slave quarters, we begin to truly comprehend the scale of the indignity and suffering. Sweating in 38°C and stifling humidity, we try to imagine working the then malaria-infested wetlands six days a week, sun up to sun down, with no freedoms.
We pull in quite late to Durham but just in time to catch a college baseball game, where the very best of America is on display – all colours and creeds celebrating the national pastime with great characters, hot dogs, cold beer and sodas on a balmy summer evening. We stand and sing The Star-Spangled Banner, hands on hearts, as if it is our own national anthem. It seems an appropriate end to a memorable day.
Our next destination has me very excited… in a nerdy dad kind of way. Crossing the border from North Carolina into Virginia, we travel through postcard rural America, with rust-coloured barns and rolling emerald hills sprinkled with hay bales. But these woods and fields, beautiful and benign, were the backdrop for some of the most desperate and bloody battles of the war, finally coming to an exhausted conclusion in an unlikely setting – a tiny town called Appomattox.
On April 9, 1865, here at the farmhouse offered up by Wilmer McLean, legendary Confederate general Robert E. Lee surrendered his bedraggled Army of Northern Virginia to General Ulysses S. Grant, commander of the Union forces. It was a solemn, respectful council between the old foes, with Grant according generous terms to Lee and the enemy. There would be sporadic fighting further south but the Confederates’ resolve to continue hostilities was broken.
The property is now run by the National Park Service. It’s a largely self-guided experience and we spend the best part of five hours (whine-free) wandering through the rebuilt McLean House and its splendidly maintained outbuildings. There are many original artefacts and displays to see but the highlight for the kids is the living history component, where actors portray soldiers.
“It was amazing to hear the story of the Confederate soldier William Hubbard,” said Stella later. “We could feel from his words how difficult those final days were.”
I’m in history heaven as we cross the James River into Charlottesville that evening, checking into The Inn at the Crossroads, a sublime bed and breakfast built by Thomas Jefferson’s nephew and opened in 1820. Jim and Janet are fantastic hosts, sharing their unbridled enthusiasm for the history of the place (no fewer than three American presidents have walked its boards). We stay in the former slave quarters and the presence of all who had stayed there, or wandered through, is almost palpable.
Before we return our trusty mini-van to Washington, Jim tells us that nearby Fredericksburg is a must-see stop. There, in December 1862, Lincoln pressured his generals for a decisive victory ahead of his planned emancipation declaration. Lincoln appointed General Ambrose Burnside (who gave the world the term “sideburns”) to lead the assault on Lee’s men at Fredericksburg.
It was a disaster for the Union Army.
The charming town, bombed relentlessly by Union mortars that winter, today boasts a magnificent National Military Park. In the hills adjacent, we stop at the Battlefield Visitor Centre and join a group on a walking tour of Marye’s Heights. The most striking feature is a sunken road behind the old stone wall. On December 13, the Confederates, under General James Longstreet, unleashed hell on the charging Union soldiers from this strongly defended high ground. The open 300-metre slope before the wall was transformed into the killing fields for Burnside’s men. It’s said the badly wounded lying in the field tugged on the uniforms of the men following them, imploring them not to go on. The nearby cemetery, which is open daily, is the last resting place for more than 15,000 Union soldiers, most of them in unmarked graves.
There is a last bit of symbolism for the family to ponder. Fredericksburg lies halfway between Washington, DC, to the north and Richmond, the former capital of the Confederacy, to the south. We’re at the crossroads of American history. Perhaps if things had gone differently back then…
But just as the nation turned to the north in 1865 so do we. There is to be a final poignant stop for us, before New York City beckons, in the capital of the United States.
For all that Abraham Lincoln had stood for and for the strength of his convictions, tragically he did not live to see the adoption of the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery. A mere five days after the historic events at Appomattox, the 16th president was shot by actor John Wilkes Booth, an avowed Southern sympathiser, in Ford’s Theatre, Washington. We stare up at the great man in marble at the Lincoln Memorial and read his immortal words – the Gettysburg Address. Lincoln’s gaze is fixed firmly across the capital, seemingly contemplating his legacy.
With some research and negotiation, holidays like this can leave profound and lasting impressions. Disneyland and Walmarts are cool and I’m a lifetime devotee of American malls and diners – indulgence comes easy in the States – but to bring depth and a wider context, America offers so much more than great wi-fi, Gap T-shirts and cheap Nikes. This trip, we agree, is our best-ever holiday.
More importantly, it has become our family’s own shared history. ￼