- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 3, 2014

“History isn’t about dates and places and wars. It’s about the people who fill the spaces between them.”

— Jodi Picoult, “The Storyteller” 2013

Tracing the footfalls of Ulysses S. Grant and visiting the room where Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson breathed his last can be experienced within a day’s drive of the nation’s capital, ringed by battlefields where thousands of soldiers fought and bled and died in the Civil War.

Protected by the National Park Service, these hallowed grounds still echo the conflict they once contained — Yankee vs. rebel, brother vs. brother — and call to following generations to never forget.

A tour could well begin at the site of the war’s first major battle — Manassas National Battlefield Park — and continue on to five other sites, following the paths where soldiers marched from the fields of Bristoe, once soaked with the blood of Union troops, to Gettysburg, where the fate of both sides was sealed.

All parks are open daily from dawn to dusk.

Manassas National Battlefield Park

The date: July 21, 1861.

The place: Prince William County, Virginia.

The battle: A few hours after sunrise, Union forces — led by Brigadier Gens. Irvin McDowell and Daniel Tyler — advanced on Confederate troops stationed along the Bull Run River. After hours of fighting, the rebels routed the Union Army, who soldiers fled in retreat. The Confederate victory earned a little known brigadier general from Virginia Military Institute the nickname “Stonewall” for his stalwart defense against Union troops.

The site of the clash (commonly known as the First Battle of Bull Run but referred to as First Manassas by Confederate forces) witnessed a second Confederate victory more than a year later; today, that area is the Manassas National Battlefield Park, at 12521 Lee Highway.

The park offers three hiking trails of varying lengths, a ranger-led walking tour and a network of roads that allows for self-guided driving tours.

It also houses a visitor center and two historic structures: the Brawner Farm Interpretive Center, an accurate replica of the farmhouse originally on the battlefield that was damaged during Second Manassas, and the Stone House, which served as a hospital during the two battles.

The park charges a $3 entrance fee for visitors over the age of 16.

Bristoe Station Battlefield Heritage Park

On Aug. 27, 1862, Union and Confederate soldiers again met saber-to-saber in Virginia, this time near Bristoe Station in the Battle of First Bristoe Station. Union forces defeated “StonewallJackson’s Confederates. Bristoe Station also was the site of a 1863 battle in which Jackson’s men killed hundreds of Union soldiers and incinerated their supplies.

Now blanketed in greenery, those grounds form the grassy expanse that is Bristoe Station Battlefield Heritage Park.

Located at 10708 Bristow Road, the park offers about three miles of hiking and equestrian trails and a placid pond.

Antietam National Battlefield

The month after their defeat at Bristoe, Confederate forces made their first foray into the North at Sharpsburg, Maryland. The ensuing Battle of Antietam saw more than 22,000 soldiers fall; and though the Union emerged victorious, both sides suffered heavy losses.

Today’s battlefield-turned-park seems to have absorbed the energy of the lives lost there, as it teems with lush forest and farmland.

Visitors can boat, fish, hike, picnic, bicycle and ride horses. You can stroll across “Burnside’s Bridge,” which a brigade of Union soldiers under Major Gen. Ambrose Burnside captured during the battle — a triumph that prompted Abraham Lincoln to replace George B. McClellan with Burnside as commander of the Army of the Potomac.

Among the superstitious, Antietam is considered to be the most haunted of the Civil War battlegrounds.

The park rests at 5831 Dunker Church Road, and charges a $4 entrance fee for guests 16 and older and $6 for families.

Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park

This sprawling area in Virginia bore four bloody battles: Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, the Wilderness and Spotsylvania Court House.

The Battle of Fredericksburg was fought Dec. 13, 1862, and involved almost 200,000 soldiers, the largest number of any Civil War skirmish.

In April and May 1863, Robert E. Lee’s troops defeated Major Gen. Joseph Hooker’s soldiers in the Battle of Chancellorsville with an army less than half the size of the Union‘s. During the battle, “StonewallJackson was shot by one of his own men, a wound that contributed to his death from pneumonia eight days later.

The Battle of the Wilderness in early May 1864 pitted Lee’s forces against Grant’s advance on the Confederate capital of Richmond. The struggle ended inconclusively because Grant withdrew his troops.

Days later, the two generals met again at the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House. The combat also ended inconclusively about two weeks later, with heavy Union casualties.

In this vast park, you will find a plantation home that doubled as a hospital, communications center and headquarters during the Battle of Fredericksburg and a “Stonewall” Jackson shrine, where you can stand in the room where Jackson perished.

Each battlefield offers its own entrance to the park. The Fredericksburg entrance opens at 1013 Lafayette Boulevard in Fredericksburg; the Chancellorsville entrance is at 9001 Plank Road in Spotsylvania; the Wilderness entrance stands at 35347 Constitution Highway in Locust Grove; and the Spotsylvania entrance is at 9550 Grant Drive West in Spotsylvania.

Gettysburg National Military Park

The Battle of Gettysburg marked a turning point: On July 1-3, 1863, Lee’s troops attacked the Army of the Potomac in southern Pennsylvania. Suffering massive casualties, Lee was forced to withdraw, providing the Union with a key victory — and a harbinger of the war’s end.

Under the combined preservation efforts of the National Park Service and the Gettysburg Foundation, Gettysburg National Military Park offers an audio walking tour, and — for a fee — a guided bus tour or a guided automobile tour with a licensed guide behind the wheel of your car driving you to key sites and explaining their significance.

You also can tour the Soldiers National Cemetery, where Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address, ride horses through a web of trails and hike or bike among wooded areas and grassy stretches.

Be sure to check out the Gettysburg National Military Park Museum and Visitor Center, located at 1195 Baltimore Pike in Gettysburg.

Monocacy National Battlefield Park

Though the death knell had sounded for the Confederacy after Gettysburg, they advanced on the Union one last time — and nearly seized the U.S. Capitol — in the Battle of Monocacy. In July 1864 Gen. Jubal A. Early’s forces invaded Maryland and reached the outskirts of Washington, D.C., where they were defeated by Union troops.

Today, visitors to the former battlefield can hike through miles of farmland, pausing along the way to admire the sparkling Monocacy River.

The park sits at 5201 Urbana Pike, just two miles south of Frederick, Maryland.

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