As a budding tour guide it is my job to recall the stories of the people and places that witnessed one of the darkest periods in American history. This task presents a unique challenge. You see when you come to Central Virginia and tour our Civil War battlefields, everything is perfect. From the immaculate markers and towering monuments, to the restored buildings and freshly painted cannons, there is little difference between the appearance of a national battlefield and a golf course. Both are protected and manicured.
On a clear winter's day, you can hike to the top of Marye’s Heights at the Fredericksburg battlefield and see all the way to Stafford County. In the fall, the brightly colored trees that line the walking trails at Chancellorsville and The Wilderness vibrate with color, while springtime reveals an ocean of wildflowers at Spotsylvania. They are romantic places to visit to say the least, like walking through a picture postcard.
Unfortunately these peaceful and serene settings are a façade that make it far too easy to forget that at the time of the American Civil War, these were not nice places to be. In fact, they were terrifying, and nauseating, and covered in the putrid stench of battle. A living nightmare would be more accurate, drenched in the grotesqueness of death and destruction.
Touring Civil War battlefields means walking among the dead. Therefore we must consciously remind ourselves from time to time that the beauty surrounding us is misleading. It is essential that we recall what really happened and never forget that the men who fought and died here baptized the soil with their blood.
As the country acknowledges the war's 150th anniversary more people will visit these hallowed grounds than ever before. It is our job to convey what made them worthy of our memory in the first place. In doing so, we must remind visitors that although our battlefields are beautiful; the war that took place on them was ugly.
We all want our guests to appreciate the surroundings.
We also want them to appreciate the sacrifice.
Dunker Church photo by Michael Aubrecht