Recommended: This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War | A Fascinating Study of a Society Immersed in Death

This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War
Drew Gilpin Faust (2008)

Three summers of road tripping to Civil War battlefields has driven home the horror and carnage of 19th-century warfare. Death and dying was an omnipresent fact of life during the course of this dark chapter of U.S. history: A family member dying in a military hospital far from home, a generation of young men from one small town obliterated in a single battle, or a family farm caught in the cross-hairs of battle, their home turned into a makeshift hospital, the parlor an operating room, and the front yard a temporary cemetery.

How society viewed death and grappled with it in practice on such an unprecedented scale is a fascinating aspect American cultural history and the subject of this excellent book. At a time when ensuring a so-called “Good Death” was of utmost importance, to this life and the next, such a war, in which loved ones died alone and far from home, possibly buried in mass graves, and without any last words to or from their families, was a horror previously unimaginable. From this era came a rise in the industries of undertaking and embalming, improvements in cataloging and transporting the dead, and the formation of national and Confederate cemeteries. Gilpin Faust explores the practical, social, and spiritual aspects of a society forced to deal with death on a simultaneously massive and intimate scale, an interesting lens through which to view history.


Review: The Good Lord Bird | Adventures of the Abolitionist and the Little Onion

The Good Lord Bird
James McBride (2013)

A slave boy named Henry is unwittingly swept up in John Brown’s crusade when he crosses paths with the Glory-driven abolitionist in Bloody Kansas (1857). Young Henry—mistaken for a girl and dubbed a good luck charm by Brown (who nicknames her “Little Onion”)—is forced to come along with Brown’s anti-slavery army as they travel to New York state, Canada, and ultimately their date with destiny in Harpers Ferry. John Brown is a fascinating, complicated, and sadly under-represented figure in U.S. history, and here McBride gives him life, spinning an engaging and often hilarious tale as told from Henry’s front-row point of view.

Review: A Blaze of Glory | Shiloh, Bloody Shiloh

A Blaze of Glory
Jeff Shaara (2012)

My historical road trip last summer took me to the Civil War battlefield in Shiloh, Tennessee. I brought along this book to illuminate events and further my understanding of what was (up to that point) the bloodiest day in U.S. history. As always, author Jeff Shaara has conjured up comprehensive, stirring, and intimate battlefield fiction with dialog and description that paints a vivid picture of events as they unfolded. Gripping and very readable, A Blaze of Glory is accessible for even the most novice of history buffs, but probably not for everyone.

2012 Road Trip Catch-Up: Appomattox Courthouse

Appomattox Court House

Thursday, 26 July 2012

Hyperion EspressoStart our day with a return trip to Hyperion Espresso. Along with fresh pressed coffee drinks, pastries are their specialty. Yesterday I had the cinnamon swirl croissant and today the chocolate croissant. Both excellent.

We fill our water bottles with ice in preparation for the 100-degree day and check out of our hotel. Next stop: Appomattox.

A nice two-hour drive through rolling hills, past lots of logging trucks hauling felled trees. We decide to visit the new Museum of the Confederacy first and spend about 90 minutes viewing the permanent exhibit on the end of the war and an interesting temporary exhibit of flags of the Confederacy. We’re all glad not to be touring battlefields in this brutal heat.

Appomattox Court House

McLean House, Appomattox Court House
The McLean House

With an hour before closing time, we race over to Appomattox Courthouse and with 45 minutes to spare, we’re admitted to the park (free of charge!) with just enough time to tour the McLean House and see the room where Generals Grant and Lee met to sign the surrender. Even if the house is re-constructed (from the original), it’s amazing to see. I admit I had goosebumps standing in a room with the weight of so much history inside it.

McLean House, Appomattox Court House

Appomattox_2012-07-26_17-13-47_DSC_1123_©KathrynWare2012Our final night on the road is spent at the nicest lodging in town, a B&B called the Babcock House. Unfortunately, they’re not serving dinner the week of our stay, and Appomattox has very little to recommend itself as a dining destination. (Everyone we asked for recommendations said to come here.) Lunch at Granny Bee’s is mediocre and slow, even by Southern standards, and dinner is a disappointing stop at the Dairy Queen, followed by a trip to Kroger’s for cold beer. We spend the evening in our comfortable suite of rooms, reading, writing, and chatting.

Babcock House

2012 Road Trip Catch-Up: Fredericksburg, Spotsylvania and Chancellorsville

Fredericksburg, Sunken Road

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

We begin our day with coffee and pastries at Hyperion Espresso, a popular corner cafe with plenty of outdoor seating, followed by a walk through the historic downtown. We make the short drive to the Fredericksburg battlefield and do the loop walking tour along the sunken road and stone wall, a scene of unbelievable carnage during the war. While most of the wall is a reconstruction, a portion of it dates to the original period.

Fredericksburg, Sunken Road

Standing at that point, imagining the Confederate soldiers hunkered down behind it while waves of Union soldiers were cut down trying to cross the field in front is one of the more sobering and moving moments of our Civil War tour. Afterward, we hike up to the Federal cemetery on the hill above and then drive around the remainder of the park, stopping along the way at points highlighted in the guide book.

Fredericksburg, Sunken Road
A portion of the original wall.

Next stop, Spotsylvania, where we hike to the site of the battle of The Bloody Angle, a wide open meadow between tree lines, yellow with late season wildflowers, and dotted with monuments to fallen regiments. Of particular note is the deteriorated remains of Confederate earthworks, another scene of bloody fighting lying now as a scene of calm and beauty.

Spotsylvania, The Bloody Angle
The Bloody Angle

Spotsylvania, The Bloody Angle

Old, Knobby Tree

Spotsylvania Battlefield
Upton’s path.

Karen and I walk through the forest, tracing the route Colonel Emory Upton followed with his men on the charge, up the 200 feet of open field they had to cross toward the Muleshoe. Here is a true time-traveling moment, since the terrain is virtually unchanged since that day in 1864. Eerie and awe-inspiring.

Upton's Assault on the Muleshoe

Back in the car, our final stop of the day is Chancellorsville, which doesn’t offer as much to do, though we do make a point to see the spot where Stonewall Jackson was mortally wounded.

Stonewall Jackson's Final Words

Just as well. By this point, we’ve had our fill of battlefields, war and Civil War history. Hot and tired, we turn back to the hotel, driving along scenic byways all the way home. One last evening walk through downtown Fredericksburg to a recommended dinner destination, La Petite Auberge. Unfortunately, we don’t get the ambiance of the indoor garden since we’re seated in the restaurant’s unimpressive lounge, but the food is good. I have soft shell crab amandine, which is delicious. The creme brûlée, less so.

2012 Road Trip Catch-Up: Manassas National Battlefield Park

Manassas National Battlefield Park

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

We start the day with a family breakfast and spontaneous mini-college reunion. We meet Tony, Laurie and her five-year-old daughter Beatrix for breakfast–so great to see Laurie and finally meet her (not-so) little one, adorable with personality to spare. During our meal, Karen’s college roommate pops by for an impromptu and very brief meet-up. Rebbie is days away from moving to Hawaii and just happens to be in Manassas at the same time we were. Thanks to Facebook postings, we’re able to get together for a quick catch-up over coffee.

We say our goodbyes to Laurie and Beatrix and follow Tony over to the Manassas Battlefield National Park visitors’ center to begin our personal guided tour. As we stand over-looking the Bull Run battlefield, he gives us a run-down of the First Battle of Manassas. Throughout the hour we’re there, other visitors wander over and eavesdrop on Tony’s lecture.

Manassas National Battlefield Park

Manassas National Battlefield Park


Manassas National Battlefield Park

Farm on the Manassas National Battlefield Park

Second Manassas BattlefieldNext, it’s time to see the sights of Second Manassas. We all climb into the car and drive from one battlefield to another as Tony tells the tales of what transpired in 1862. Tony really knows his stuff and communicates the history like a master storyteller, bringing the past to life. As a veteran himself, Tony’s first-person perspective of battle are given a certain amount of gravity. Four hours and as many stops later, we can’t believe how time had flown by. This has been a phenomenal way to immerse ourselves in history and we can’t wait to do it again, hopefully sometime soon.

After saying goodbye to Tony, we head back to the gift shop to buy postcards and walk the first battlefield, shooting photos in the light of late day. Next stop, Fredericksburg, our base for the next few days on the Civil War battlefield tour.

Our hotel is located in the historic section of Fredericksburg and we enjoy walking the streets (the same trod by George Washington and Thomas Jefferson) and window shopping on our way to dinner. We score big at yet another local/sustainable/organic eatery, Foode, a small, vibrant restaurant with fantastic food and an impressive beer and wine selection. Jan and I have the BBQ chicken, served over tasty mashed potatoes, and crisp green kale with cherry tomatoes and lemon. So good.

On our way back to the hotel, we walk over a bridge to get a peek at the nearby Rappahannock River, which is looking very low. After treating ourselves to ice cream at a local shop, we spend a quiet evening writing and reading.

Midnight Rising | Giving an Historical Footnote Its Due

Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil WarMidnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War by Tony Horwitz

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In his most recent book, Tony Horwitz shines the historical spotlight on John Brown, giving a comprehensive and lively account of the man and his mission. While John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry is long credited as a prequel to the Civil War, it’s usually relegated to a brief paragraph or two in the history books. Here, Horwitz gives this important chapter in U.S. History its due in an entertaining book that breathes life into Brown’s character and illuminates the crucial role Brown played in forcing America to deal with the issue of slavery.

Midnight Rising differs from Horwitz’s previous work in that it lacks a thread of the present day weaving through the historical account. (In Confederates in the Attic he used Civil War battlefields as markers of contemporary manifestations of the conflict. Blue Latitudes and A Voyage Long and Strange read like historical travelogs.) Here, he presents a straight history lesson that is no less engaging. A fascinating book about an incident that gripped the nation in its day, foreshadowed the passionate beliefs and bloodshed of the Civil War to come, and is now a nearly-forgotten footnote in U.S. history.

Book Review |Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War

Tony Horwitz (1998)

Part travelogue, part social documentary, part Civil War history book. Subtitled “Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War,” the author traveled throughout the South, visiting every major sight of the war. Horwitz relates to the reader the people he met on his journey who each manage to keep the Civil War alive, often in unexpected ways. Included are the last surviving Confederate war widow; Horwitz’s personal hero, author Shelby Foote (who’s quite a bit different than you might remember him from the Civil War series on PBS); a Scarlet O’Hara look-a-like who makes her living entertaining Japanese tourists; and fanatical reenactors who go to extremes in their quest to be “super hardcore,” all the while cursing wussy reenactors as “farbs.” (“Leave that insect repellent at home, pal.”)

Horwitz spends time in a community caught in the aftermath of racial violence sparked by the rebel flag, a symbol that continues to instill intense feelings, and not always for the reasons one might expect. Often the author visits battlefields on the anniversary of battle, in period dress, marching long distances with his hardcore buddies, sleeping in ditches, eating stale food, and serving as a living Civil War tourist attraction. I enjoyed learning about the Civil War and the contemporary American South in this thoroughly engaging book.

Book Review: Gods and Generals

Jeff Shaara (1996)

A splendid recreation of the Civil War battles leading up to Gettysburg; a prequel of sorts to The Killer Angels, the Pulitzer prize-winning book written by the author’s father, Michael Shaara. (Angels chronicles the Battle of Gettysburg in dramatic narrative form and is another must-read book. After I’d read Generals, I revisited Angels and can definitely say it’s one of my all-time favorites.)

Written like a work of fiction, with gripping battle scenes and extremely moving passages highlighting the personal experience of battle, Jeff has inherited his father’s ability to bring history vividly to life. I’d say it’s a given that the third book in this Civil War trilogy will make an appearance on next year’s Best List.