Where Blood Was Shed For Freedom

We wound our way through a development of new homes and turned down a dirt road through rolling hills and hollows. We were 40 miles from Washington, but upon leaving the car, we walked back 133 years into history. A trail led to a circle of worn tombstones marking a ferocious early Civil War battle. The encounter claimed 1,070 lives and led to the creation of the congressional Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, which was to second-guess Abraham Lincoln for the duration.

Ball's Bluff, the smallest national cemetery, was one stop in what was the most moving educational long weekend my family has taken in years. The road from Manassas, Va., site of the war's first battle, to Gettysburg, Pa., where Confederate hopes for independence were dashed, takes you through historic towns, beautiful countryside, and some of the most important Civil War sites.

There's Harper's Ferry, W.Va., where abolitionist John Brown was captured after his ill-fated raid on a federal armory in an attempt to spark a slave revolt. And Cemetery Ridge outside Gettysburg, where you can walk along the slope where the division headed by General George E. Pickett was slaughtered by Union artillery. Pickett started with 12,000 men. Only 4,000 walked away uninjured.

In preparation for the trip, I read The Killer Angels, the Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Michael Shaara on which the recent film Gettysburg was based. A lengthier resource is James M. McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom: The Era of the Civil War. If you can't brush up in advance, spend time viewing films and exhibits at the battlefield visitor centers.

For a chronological overview of the Civil War, a good place to start is Manassas, where the First and Second Battles of Bull Run were fought. Visit Henry Hill, where Confederate Brigadier General Thomas J. Jackson picked up his nickname, "Stonewall." Then travel about 25 miles north on Route 15N to the antebellum town of Leesburg.

You'll pass through land that rebel John S. Mosby, the Gray Ghost, considered his territory. Now, it's dotted with country estates, pastures, and produce stands. To get to Ball's Bluff, take a right onto Battlefield Parkway and follow the signs. Although the area is developing into a Washington exurb, in the park you're surrounded by forest and glimpses of the Potomac River, as it must have been when Confederate forces marched from Leesburg to ward off the advancing Federal forces.

VICTORIOUS. The next stop is Harper's Ferry, about 25 miles northeast in the Blue Ridge Mountains. The town is known for Brown's raid on Oct. 16, 1859, two years before the war began. It was also here that in 1862 Stonewall Jackson captured a U.S. Army garrison. It's a scene-setter for the next stop: The victory spurred the army of Robert E. Lee to make a stand along Antietam Creek.

The ride to Sharpsburg is 17 miles, passing through the charming West Virginia college town of Shepherdstown. It's a lovely place to spend a few hours, especially considering you are en route to the site of the war's bloodiest day.

The battle of Antietam on Sept. 17, 1862, ended with an estimated 23,000 casualties on both sides. Among other must-see sights is Bloody Lane, a typical sunken road with high embankments. Visit Burnside's Bridge, where for more than three hours 400 Confederate soldiers held off thousands of Union soldiers in a series of uncoordinated attacks led by General Ambrose E. Burnside. Union forces prevailed, and the victory gave Lincoln occasion to issue the Emancipation Proclamation.

The final stop is Gettysburg and a review of three days in July, 1863, that marked the turning point of the war. The ride from Sharpsburg takes a little more than an hour. On your way, reread Lincoln's address given on Nov. 19, 1863. The losses were staggering: 23,000 Union casualties and 28,000 Confederate. While the war dragged on for nearly two more years, the Army of Northern Virginia was never again able to mount a sustained offensive.

Visiting these battlefields where many fought and died offers a vivid history lesson that no book or film can provide.