John Swansburg: Civil War Road Trip

Roundup: Talking About History

[John Swansburg is Slate's culture editor.]

I should start by saying this: I am not a Civil War buff. Not even close. The last time I studied the war was over a bowl of Wheat Chex the day I was to be tested on the material in 11th grade. I don't know McClellan from McPherson or Hooker from Halleck. Everything I know about J.E.B. Stuart I learned from the short fiction of Barry Hannah. But I am aware that millions of Americans visit Civil War battlefields each year. I also know that the number of Civil War tourists is about to spike: April 12, 2011, marks the 150th anniversary of the firing on Fort Sumter, which even I remember is the event that ignited the hostilities between North and South. Over the next four years, scores of fathers will use the sesquicentennial celebration as an excuse to don their safari shirts and trundle forbearing wives and irritable children off to Gettysburg or Spotsylvania or Chickamauga. What will they see? Will they learn something they couldn't have picked up from watching Ken Burns or reading Battle Cry of Freedom? Can visiting these places turn a layman into a buff? Is Civil War tourism fun?

To find out, I've planned an ambitious road trip. Over the course of 10 days, I will drive from New Orleans to New York, stopping along the way at as many points of Civil War interest as I can manage. Many of the stops will be at national parks commemorating the war's major battles. But also on the itinerary is Andersonville, the Confederate prison camp where nearly 13,000 Union soldiers died; the CSS Hunley, the first submarine to complete a combat mission; and Stone Mountain, Ga., the Mount Rushmore of the Confederacy and home to a nightly laser light show. (This is the stop I am most eagerly anticipating—I love a laser light show.)

I've conscripted three friends to join me for the trip, to share the memories and, more important, the driving. Will we still be friends after 2,000 miles on the road, untold hours roaming battlefields in relentless Deep South heat, and the revelation, soon to come, that I'm short on socks? Or, like some pair of border-state brothers, one married into industrial wealth, the other into cotton money, will we find our bonds of kinship torn asunder by this war between the states?...

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