Fields of valour – where blood and bullets forged a mighty nation

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The 150th anniversary of the American Civil War offers visitors an ideal opportunity to forsake the conventional tourist trail, says Suzanne Cadisch

There's a rock in West Virginia, perched high above the confluence of the mighty Shenandoah and Potomac rivers, which affords a view "worth a voyage across the Atlantic" according to President Thomas Jefferson who visited in 1783.

But this landscape is not just spectacular; it is history shaping.

Water power and river access made tiny Harpers Ferry an ideal site for the 19th-century Federal armoury and, consequently, a target for abolitionist John Brown, whose body now lies a-mouldering in the grave 500 miles to the north. His 1859 raid on the Harpers Ferry arsenal, in an attempt to arm a slave revolt, increased tensions between the North and South and lit the touch paper on the American Civil War which began 150 years ago this year.

The anniversary of the war which defined modern America and still evokes fierce emotions today offers ordinary British travellers like me (ie definitely not a military history buff) a compelling framework for exploring the eastern states around Washington DC. My 10-day self-drive tour of the main theatre of the war, taking in battlefields – now national parks – quaint historic towns, and scenic spectacles, led me off the conventional tourist trail and opened a fascinating window on to the past – as well as immersing me in the real America often bypassed by holidaymakers.

And it was all so easy. The distances involved are small (the Union and Confederate capitals of Washington and Richmond are just 100 miles apart); the driving is effortless, and America is just so good at engaging 21st-century explorers with its sites and its history with fabulous visitor centres, interactive museums, mini-movies and ranger programmes.

The United States was still a fledgling nation when Abraham Lincoln was elected president in late 1860 but, within weeks, Southern states had seceded from the Union, fearing their rights and way of life were under threat from a leader opposed to slavery. The first shots of the Civil War were fired in April 1861 at Charleston, South Carolina, when Confederate forces attacked the Federal Fort Sumter, but my odyssey began at the site of the first battle between the two armies, three months later at Manassas, Virginia, just outside Washington.

Much of the cannon-decked landscape is unchanged and it is shockingly easy to imagine that first bloody clash between more than 60,000 countrymen; the battle watched from the surrounding hills by picnickers keen to witness what everyone believed would be the single fight that decided the war. Both sides were stunned by the carnage which claimed 4,700 casualties. This was the Confederate victory that made a star of Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson and strengthened the South's resolve to resist the Federal government.

But it was the individual human stories that captivated me: the old lady whose house was blown to pieces when the battle exploded on farmland around her; the Union captain's wife who refused to believe her husband was dead and found him in unimaginable conditions behind enemy lines. Each battle has its own rich tales and many are brought to vivid life by the artefacts, reconstructed buildings and countryside itself.

This side of the pond, it may be Hollywood that has hooked us on the Civil War era, with films such as Cold Mountain, Sommersby and Gone with the Wind, but for Americans the battlefields are where great-great-grand-daddy Joe died defending the South's right to self-governance or fighting to save the Union. Walking in his footsteps is an act of pilgrimage, and I was amazed by the number of fathers quietly recounting a battle in minute detail to their children, pointing out the fences, rocks and tree lines that determined its course. No wonder perhaps, since the Civil War claimed more lives – 620,000 – than all other American conflicts put together.

Inspired by a second victory on the plains of Manassas a year later, legendary Confederate commander General Robert E Lee – whom many in the South still revere as icon of their lost cause – marched into Maryland, seeking a dazzling success in the North which would encourage Britain and France to intervene and help secure Southern independence. Class-structured Britain had a natural affinity with the South's way of life, but Southern cotton was the main concern. Liverpool was built on it; Lancashire mills ran on it, and fortunes depended on it. Cotton was the oil of its day.

The armies met just outside Sharpsburg in September 1862 and 12 hours of savage fighting left 23,000 men dead, wounded or missing, making the Battle of Antietam the single bloodiest day in American military history. It is intensely moving to stand in the quiet of a shimmering cornfield and visualise what happened here. Three modern-day Confederate re-enactors sprawl in the sunshine outside the little whitewashed Dunker church, animating one of the grainy, black and white photographs of the aftermath of this terrible battle. This place feels hallowed. At peaceful Antietam there are no busy roads or ugly strip malls nearby to distract from the business of reflection. What would our world look like if a different America had emerged from this conflict?

The South was repulsed at Antietam and President Lincoln used the opportunity to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing the slaves in the Confederate states. He also moved to invade the South but these other sites come later in my tour. From Antietam it makes sense to snake 45 beautiful miles across South Mountain to the most famous Civil War stage of all – Gettysburg.

This vast natural theatre of battle surrounds the historic town and does indeed look like a stage set. Every vista offers monuments and memorials, but there are plenty of spots to pull off the self-drive tour route – common to all the battlefields – where you can drink in the scenery and atmosphere uninterrupted. I chose early morning to visit the one place I really wanted to see in peace; Little Round Top where Jeff Daniels and his men heroically repelled wave after wave of Southern rebels attacking up the wooded hill. OK, so it was really Colonel Joshua Chamberlain who commanded the 20th Maine, but having watched the four-hour epic Gettysburg before this trip, I can better imagine Jeff Daniels ordering bayonets fixed in a last dramatic charge. And in the hush of the woods 150 years later, I can feel the fear.

Time for a restorative breakfast in a downtown Gettysburg diner which could have come straight out of the 1950s – the booth, the waitress and the home-cooked corned beef hash. The joy of this itinerary is that there is so much more to the Civil War trails than fields and fighting. I stayed at the evocative Gettysburg Hotel, established in 1797 and lording it over the main square which, to my delight, looks exactly like the town in Back to the Future. The atmosphere is fantastic – especially with a famous peach cocktail from the hotel's memorable McClellan's Tavern in hand.

This Pennsylvania town is, of course, where Lincoln made his famous Gettysburg Address in which he so eloquently defined the essence of Western democracy: "Government of the people, by the people, for the people."

After the decisive Union victory here, General Lee's shattered army retreated down the Shenandoah Valley – and so did I. Bounded by the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Appalachians and known as "the bread basket of the Confederacy", this glorious valley is home to a spectacular natural cavern system at Luray, where cathedral-sized chambers, towering columns and a unique "stalacpipe" organ take your breath away. Even more awe-inspiring is the Skyline Drive, the Shenandoah Park's scenic roadway which follows the crest of the Blue Ridge for 105 miles offering magnificent views of black bear country. The unpromising-sounding Skyland Resort visitor centre was a real surprise for the quality of its cooking.

That night, sipping bourbon on the deck of a rented cabin by a mountain brook and watching fireflies spark in the woods beyond, is that music just in my head, or can I actually hear banjos duelling in the dark?

My trail now leads deeper south to Chancellorsville, where "Stonewall" Jackson met his end, and Fredericksburg, where I found the battle sites less interesting but loved the buzzy little town on the Rappahannock River with its antique shops, galleries and historic Kenmore Inn which, unlike so much in America, oozes with character.

Fifty miles further down the road is the Virginian state – and Confederate – capital of Richmond, but time is pressing and I want to complete this stroll through the genesis of modern America with a look at the seat of its power, Washington DC. Disappointingly, the famous reflecting pool is a muddy mess while undergoing renovation until at least 2013, but the Lincoln Memorial takes on an emotional new significance at the end of my journey. Here, Lincoln's Gettysburg Address is carved deep into the stone. "The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here ..." said the President responsible for America's credo.

There is one more stop to make: Ford's Theatre, on Washington's 10th Street, where Lincoln was assassinated in 1865, just five days after the South surrendered. In the museum is the gun that John Wilkes Booth used, the clothes that Lincoln was wearing that night, even the blood-stained pillow from the bed he died on. Chilling.

The 150th anniversary of the war that forged modern America is being commemorated with a programme of re-enactments and special events right through to 2015. It's a great excuse to explore the land that went from slavery to Barack Obama in only five generations.

Compact Facts

How to get there

British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) offers return flights from London Heathrow to Washington DC from £516. Gettysburg Hotel, Gettysburg (0800 39 31 30; hotelgettysburg.com) offers rooms from $100 (£62), excluding breakfast. Kenmore Inn, Fredericksburg (001 540 371 7622; kenmoreinn.com) offers rooms from $130 including breakfast. Holiday Autos (0871 472 5229; holidayautos.co.uk) has car hire in the US from £135 a week.

Further information

The US National Park Service (nps.gov); Civil War Trust (civilwar.org); Civil War Trails (civilwartrails.org).

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