If you consulted the tourists who venture to Washington, D.C., they would probably say the monuments and memorials gracing our capital city are what most evoke thoughts of our country’s brief but remarkable history. For me, it is something a bit less expected, not the places where our political leaders shaped our early days as a nation but the dispersed locations where a different kind of leader fought to ensure that America would survive: the sites of Civil War battles.
Because my father is a student of U.S. history and a man inclined to pass his loves on to his children, I grew up visiting these battlefields. I appreciated these trips much less as a child than I do now, though as an adult I am grateful for the memories of visiting them even before I understood their significance. I’ve yet to see them all, but I’ve been to most — for me, having been raised in Virginia in a family that structured vacations and day trips around traveling to one or another of these hallowed spots, not too difficult a feat.
Many tours of Manassas, close by home, where the earliest conflicts of the war took place, where the First and Second Battles of Bull Run saw Confederate forces rout the army of the Union. To Richmond, Va., and Hollywood Cemetery, resting place not only of Jefferson Davis but also of Confederate generals George Pickett and J. E. B. Stuart. To Antietam, for a walk down Bloody Lane, ghostly site of the deadliest one-day battle in the history of the United States, with several times as many Americans killed there as in the D-Day invasion.
Farther south, to the remnants of the two battles fought on the slopes of northwest Georgia and southeast Tennessee — Chickamauga and Chattanooga — and farther west in the Volunteer State, to the place where Confederates charged through a peach orchard in bloom to attack Union forces in the Battle of Shiloh. It was an early test of General Ulysses S. Grant, and the first battle to see massive bloodshed. To Fort Sumter, where the Confederacy’s opening shots started the war.
And, of course, to Gettysburg, the bloody battle that pitted generals who were once friends against one another. It took several trips for me to perceive the haunted beauty of the place, to see in that land where brother fought brother that the chances and decisions of those three days changed the course of the war, and of our country.
Abraham Lincoln knew this, and he marked that place mere months after the battle with his famous address. “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.” We know from contemporaneous accounts that, as he concluded, Lincoln emphasized his words in a way that those who read them aloud today often neglect: “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” We visit the grounds of Gettysburg, and of the war, to sustain our memory of why those battles took place and still matter today — in defense of the Union and its republican constitutional democracy, the form of government that best respects the natural equality and rights of all people.
It is grim, perhaps, to tread the steps where both armies marched, to revisit a time when our nation was at war with itself. It is grimmer still to cherish these places where Americans killed one another, to preserve them with care, to mark them with stones and placards and statues for the men we lost. But it is good for us to remember what they did, and why they did it.
This article appears as “Civil War Battlefields” in the September 9, 2019, print edition of National Review.