6/26/2001 12:00:00 AM - Marvin Olasky
We are a country of sports fans, but grown men do not dress up in late 19th century baseball uniforms or even early 20th century football uniforms and spend a weekend recreating old contests. That's exactly what thousands of people do at major Civil War battlegrounds every year. Seven score years since that war began, it continues to fascinate Americans, and if you have time this summer, I'd recommend visiting five key battlefields that are all within 200 miles of each other.
The one-day battle at Antietem (September 1862) produced 23,000 casualties and didn't accomplish much. The 30-acre Maryland cornfield through which soldiers charged and countercharged is still a cornfield, and you can walk there or by the farm road that gained a new name at the battle, Bloody Lane. The Burnside bridge is also worth viewing: Union general Ambrose Burnside hour after hour added to the casualty figures by sending men to capture a heavily-defended bridge across Antietem Creek. Yet that little, narrow, waste-high stream could have been waded at almost any point.
Visit the Fredericksburg battlefield (December 1862) and stand by the stone wall at Marye's Heights. Northern troops had to move across 400 yards of open Virginia terrain, uphill. If they made it through the fire of massed artillery, they ran into the massed fire of Confederate riflemen behind that stone wall. General Burnside ordered thousands of men to the attack, and about 8,000 were killed or wounded -- no one reached the wall. The armies remained in a standoff for two days, while soldiers froze to death in the few acres between the armies.
Drive the Chancellorsville battlefield (April 1863) and follow the tree-shaded route of Stonewall Jackson's flank attack to see the war's purest example of bold tactical brilliance. Northern forces outnumbered the confederates 130,000 to 60,000, but Lee and Jackson split their small force, with Jackson hurrying 30,000 infantrymen on a 12-mile march around Hooker's army. The Confederates came out of the Virginia underbrush screaming the Rebel yell and the rout was on, until darkness fell. Then Jackson fell, shot by his own men in the confusion. He died eight days later, the most prominent of the battle's 29,800 casualties.
The three-day battle at Gettysburg (July 1863) involved 170,000 men, 51,000 of whom became casualties. Driving and walking this Pennsylvania battlefield explains much: The big rocks of Devil's Den were indeed devilish, and the awesome difficulty of "Pickett's Charge" -- across a vast expanse, sloping slightly uphill -- makes it seem that Robert E. Lee's hope that day was for God to intervene. (That's what Michael Shaara suggested in his fine novel, "The Killer Angels"; it's well worth reading before a Gettysburg visit.) As Union soldiers slaughtered the charging Confederates, they remembered their disaster half a year earlier and yelled: "Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg!"
By the battle of Cold Harbor (June 1864), Abraham Lincoln and his generals had settled on a war of attrition. "Doing the arithmetic," Lincoln called it, for the North could lose men and replace them, but if Southern forces lost half as many they would likely stay in that depleted condition. Just before they attacked, Northern soldiers wrote their names and home addresses on slips of paper and pinned them to the backs of their coats, so the identity of their corpses the next day could be recognized more readily. When a furious 8-minute assault against the Southern lines ended, an Alabama colonel noted that the Union dead "covered more than five acres of ground about as thickly as they could be laid." One blood-stained diary found in the pocket of a dead soldier had this final entry: "June 3. Cold Harbor. I was killed."