TV film-maker Ken Burn's week-long series about the Civil War has sparked an enormous upsurge in visits to some of the conflict's bloodiest and most memorable battlefields.
Heightened interest in Gettysburg, Shiloh, Vicksburg, Appomattox and other Civil War sites should continue for the next two years, the National Park Service says, particularly during the tourist season and on summer and autumn weekends.For more than a century, the three-day struggle at Gettysburg (July 1-3, 1863) has dominated the nation's collective Civil War memory. And justly so. It produced the war's greatest carnage (51,000 Yankees and Confederates killed, wounded and taken prisoner), the war's most dramatic moment (Pickett's legendary charge), and began the Confederacy's slide toward oblivion.
Four months later, Abraham Lincoln dedicated the battlefield to the memory of those who fell there with one of the greatest speeches ever given in the English language.
So, for those who have never been to a Civil War battlefield, Gettysburg is a good place to start.
Located 40 miles southwest of Harrisburg, Pa., it was one of the few battles fought in open farm country and provides broad scenic vistas. It has excellent roads and hiking trails, a large number of historical markers and monuments and features a superb visitors' center.
When you visit a battlefield, your first stop always should be its visitors' center where the National Park Service provides a movie, slide show or electric map presentation that details the battle's events. The Park Service also will provide a battlefield map-brochure that pinpoint's the battle's highlights and tells you how to locate them.
History purists and Civil War buffs will be disconcerted by the loss of part of the Gettysburg battlefield to hotels, motels, fast-food restaurants, amusement parks and an eyesore observation tower not far from the scene of Lincoln's speech.
Despite the partial despoilation, Gettysburg was visited by 1.25 million people last year. Many went after the Ken Burns series.
However, the best Civil War battlefield to see is Antietam - which the Confederates called Sharpsburg - 12 miles south of Hagerstown, Md., and about 50 miles northwest of Washington, D.C.
"Antietam arguably was the most important battle of the war," said National Park Service Chief Historian Edwin Bearss. "The Confederate defeat there ended their best chance to win the war."
Antietam is a grisly name in American history, the site of the war's bloodiest single day (Sept. 17, 1862), when 24,000 soldiers in blue and gray were killed, wounded or captured.
Of all of the conflict's battles, Antietam is the easiest to reconstruct and understand because it was fought on a gently rolling countryside checkered by farmland and small woods.
The Antietam battlefield has changed very little over the past 129 years - there are several places where you can observe nearly the entire length of the Confederate defenses.
"It's also the handsomest Civil War battlefield landscape," Bearss said, "and it's well marked and easy to understand. And it's the place where Clara Barton (the founder of the American Red Cross) first tended wounded on a battlefield."
It was the Union victory at Antietam that encouraged Lincoln to announce the Emancipation Proclamation.
Unlike Gettysburg and Antietam, most Civil War battles were fought in thick woods or near important Southern cities. Those that were fought in woods confused combatants and are more difficult to comprehend today. However, a trip to some of these haunted forests will show you what most Civil War battlegrounds were like to the soldiers involved.
Perhaps the best preserved woodsy battlefield is Shiloh, Tenn., 110 miles east of Memphis. Though not a household word today, Shiloh stunned both the North and South in April 1862.
Before Shiloh, most Americans thought the war would be brief and not very deadly. But this horrendous two-day fight on a woodsy plateau near the Tennessee River caused 24,000 blue and gray casualties, about one in four who were engaged there.
It is said that Shiloh frightened its combatants more than any Civil War fight. Later in the war, when Yanks or Rebs got in a tight corner, they would say: "I wuz scared wuss today than I wuz at Shiloh."
Though rather remote, Shiloh is easy to get to: follow U.S. Route 64 to Crump, Tenn., go south for six miles on state route 22 to Shiloh National Military Park.
Shiloh's biggest problem for those who haven't studied Civil War history is that it's still heavily wooded and there are no hills or knolls where you can get an overview of the field.
The confusion is heightened by the course of the two-day battle. On the first day the Confederates drove the Union army back several miles. On the second day, the re-enforced Union army counterattacked over the same ground and defeated the Confederates.
It also is very difficult to see and understand the woodsy terrain of Chickamauga/Chattanooga National Military Park, Ga., about 10 miles south of Chattanooga, Tenn.
But if you're of the Confederate persuasion, a visit to Chickamauga has to be high on your list. (From Chattanooga go south on U.S. Route 27). It was the only major battle won by the Confederate army of the west, though at a cost only slightly less than Gettysburg.
By the way, don't expect to see much of the Chattanooga battle site where the Union army overwhelmed the same Confederate army two months later. Most of Chattanooga's battlefield has been swallowed by homes, housing developments and commercial buildings.
Urban sprawl also has almost obliterated many battlefields near Atlanta; Richmond, Fredericksburg and Winchester, Va.; Nashville, Franklin and Murfreesboro, Tenn., and Jackson, Miss.
Other woodsy battlefields are at Chancellorsville, Wilderness and Spotsylvania, Va., all fought in scrubby forests west of Fredericksburg. However, part of these battlefields can been seen from good, blacktopped roads which cut through the woods.
Those who visit Chancellorsville should notice that this Confederate victory was a Civil War version of Operation Desert Storm. General Norman Schwarzkopf liberated Kuwait with the same surprise outflanking maneuver that Stonewall Jackson befuddled the Yankees with in May 1863.
The battlefields near Vicksburg, Miss. and Petersburg, Va. are worth seeing to get an early look at the trench warfare that became the nightmare of World War I.
Vicksburg, about 50 miles west of Jackson, Miss., is easy to reach on Interstate 20.
In 1863, Vicksburg was besieged and captured by Ulysses Grant's army after a lengthy siege. Many of the trenches where Yanks and rebels huddled during the siege are still just outside Vicksburg, as well as a huge number of regimental monuments, memorializing the men who fought there.
Petersburg, on Interstate 95 about 25 miles south of Richmond, also has well-marked trench lines from an 11-month seige that lasted from May 1864 to early April 1865. Petersburg's most unforgettable feature is the enormous crater south of the city, the result of a Union mine explosion that literally blew a hole in the Confederate defense line. Unfortunately for the Yankees, they didn't exploit their advantage quickly enough and the Confederates rallied and butchered them.
There are two attractive battlefields west of the Mississippi that are worth a day-trip or a weekend's exploration.
One is Wilson's Creek National Battlefield, about 10 miles southwest of Springfield, Mo., the other Pea Ridge National Military Park, about 15 miles northeast of Bentonville, Ark.
Wilson's Creek was an 1862 Confederate victory and Pea Ridge an 1862 Union triumph. Both sites have been restored to their battle-day naturalness and both are in eye-appealing country.
"Both of these battles are uncomplicated and easy to understand," Bearss said.
Last, for those willing to go far out of their way for a historic treat, there is Appomattox.
"It's a rare, rare gem," Bearss said. "It has been superbly restored and looks exactly the way it did in April, 1865, when (Robert E.) Lee surrendered his army to Grant."
It's 110 miles west of Richmond (travel west on U.S. 460, take the Appomattox turnoff) and about 20 miles east of Lynchburg, Va.
Surprisingly, more than 400,000 people made pilgrimages to Appomattox last year, and it has always been high on the list of Civil War sites visited.
What you'll see is a slice of 1865 Americana, a tiny road that was the standard mid-19th century width, a reproduction of the McLean house where Lee and Grant hammered out the surrender terms that ended the war, a reproduction of the old court house, and a clutch of refurbished Civil War period homes.
Visit Appomattox in the spring. You'll never forget its peaceful 19th century beauty. Nor will you forget that this is the place where peace began.