Clatter of hoof, clash of sabre

From battle re-enactments to wine from Jefferson Vineyards, Paul Rodgers gets a taste of the Civil War in Virginia
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The Independent Travel
As military parades go, it lacked pomp. The uniforms, no two exactly alike, were well-worn homespun, in sombre blues and greys. The marching was lackadaisical, sometimes stumbling, somehow weary. The only bright colours were the crimson flags and the scarlet caps of the gunners. Then a chilling Southern yell brought everything to life.

With a rumble of hoofbeats, the jangle of harnesses, cries, shouts and the clash of sabres, the battle of New Market began again. Sunlight glinted on steel as the cavalry charged. Skirmishers followed, scattered lines of crouched men firing ragged volleys. Cannons boomed behind them, cloaking the dimpled ground with smoke through which tight ranks of infantry marched. Under withering fire, the Union retreated, leaving behind the fallen.

No blood, though: this was no Spielberg shock-fest. A glance up from the Union lines revealed trucks passing peacefully on Interstate 81. Other departures from the original script were less obvious. The cavalry battle had taken place a day earlier and about a mile to the east. And in 1864, the weather was foul.

Dozens of US Civil War battles are re-enacted annually in Virginia, the rebellion's main theatre. New Market was not the biggest, nor was it decisive. It owes its fame to the cadets of the Virginia Military Institute, who plugged an artillery-shattered hole in the Confederate line, charged across a bog now known as the Field of Lost Shoes and captured the Northerners' guns. Despite superior numbers, the Federals lost, in part because their Pennsylvania-Dutch general lost his head and lapsed into his native tongue.

"Which is why I'm not wearing a general's uniform," a disgusted Col Dana Heim told me. With his trim white whiskers, the leader of the Union re- enactors looked the part. Authority rang in his gruff Yankee drawl. His biggest problem was ensuring that his men really did lose. "Your blood gets up," he said. "There's a tendency to see an advantage and try to grab it."

A short walk away, one of his drinking mates, Confederate Gen Chuck Hillsman, held court under an awning. In the original battle, his brigade took the enemy's colours. "They proved themselves," he said proudly, his accent markedly different from Col Heim's. His manners, too, displayed an easy plantation charm. "It's not an act," said the Colonel. "Hillsman really is the last of the Southern gentry."

I had come to the Shenandoah Valley a day earlier, passing between the Blue Ridge and Allegheny mountains. Interstate 81 parallels the old Valley Turnpike - the first leg for wagon trains to the Wild West. During the war, it was known as the "Avenue of Invasion" because the Confederates could take it to Washington without fear of flanking attacks. The Union also wanted the valley, for the farmland that fed the Southern armies. So heated was the contest that one town, Winchester, changed hands 72 times.

The 12-room Inn at Narrow Passage near Woodstock pre-dates the war by 120 years. A Bradford pear tree blooms over the lawn, which slopes down to a clutch of headstones where a pioneer family lies buried. Owner Ed Markel related the inn's history over a breakfast of sausages and fresh fruit. General Stonewall Jackson used it as his headquarters during the Valley campaign of 1862, a strategic tour de force that was studied at Sandhurst until the Second World War. I imagined Jackson, a stern, religious fanatic in a threadbare coat, eating a similar breakfast before the Inn's stone fireplace.

Ask Southerners what the war was about and they probably won't mention slavery. The issue was "states' rights", a 19th-century equivalent to Euroscepticism. It's true that the vast majority of Confederate soldiers owned no slaves, and that free blacks fought on both sides. But beneath the veneer of respectable political differences lay an economic dispute - over slavery. And whatever the cause, the war led to abolition.

At The Quarters, a private, one-suite guesthouse on a leafy crescent in Charlottesville, visitors can, with imagination, feel how some slaves lived. The original two-storey building had four rooms, with a ladder to the first floor, and probably housed four families. "Because this was a better-made house, it's quite possible they were more skilled craftsmen who were rented out," said Mary Hill Caperton, the present owner.

Charlottesville escaped the worst ravages of the war, though 22,000 wounded passed through its hospitals. The town centre boasts Georgian brick architecture and manicured lawns. At Hamilton's, one of several good restaurants on Main Street, I tried a salmon fritter, followed by mouthwatering black Angus tenderloin with the sharp accompaniment of maytag blue cheese. It went perfectly with a bottle of Jefferson Vineyards Reserve Chardonnay, a lean, oak-flavoured wine with a hint of apple and pear. The grapes are grown nearby on land donated by Thomas Jefferson, third US president and author of the Declaration of Independence.

Virginia is littered with plaques, statues, monuments, and parks dedicated to the war. Passing the colossal figure of Gen Robert E Lee in Richmond, I wondered if Southerners have cottoned on that they lost. Americans are fascinated with the conflict, with good cause. Of all its fights, none was so bloody, combining suicidally brave Napoleonic tactics with the murderous technology of the First World War. Half of the Americans to fall in battle since 1776 died in the Civil War.

If Lee was impossible to miss, the White House of the Confederacy was hard to spot. The building is modest compared to its namesake. But the tour is fascinating. The tiny foyer is decorated in marble wallpaper, the height of industrial fashion. The dining-room is set for a meeting of the war cabinet, while the parlour - furnished in burgundy French rococo revival with peacock-feather bouquets - shows how the first family welcomed guests. President Jefferson Davis had a small office on the first floor next to the nursery, where the toys include playing-cards featuring presidents instead of kings.

As the seat of government, Richmond was the goal of the Union. Attempts to capture it were made from both Washington in the north and loyalist Fort Munro on the coast between the James and York rivers. The 1862 Peninsular Campaign was defeated by Union caution and the Confederate navy. The Federals dominated the seas, and their naval fire-power should have supported their advancing troops. But on the James River, the South prevailed.

I first saw the James from a gun embrasure on Drewry's Bluff, where a shore battery thwarted the advance of the Monitor, the North's first ironclad, two months after an inconclusive shoot-out with the Merrimac at the mouth of the river had ended the age of wooden sailing ships. At a living-history display inside Drewry's earthen ramparts, sailors in Confederate blue monkey-jackets showed me the ingenious floating mines, confusingly called torpedoes, which were sent bobbing down the river. Although they sank no ships, they kept the Northern navy occupied.

On land, the Peninsular Campaign stalled at the Warwick River, where the Confederates had built a line of thinly manned entrenchments. Thinking the opposition stronger, the Union general paused for a month, allowing enemy reinforcements to arrive. Only one attempt was made to force a crossing, at the battle of Dam No 1.

Today, a visitor might see a great blue heron or an osprey soaring over the eroded trenches. But when Union troops got their toehold on the far bank in 1862, it was a scene of fire and smoke pierced by gunshots and the cries of the wounded. The assault should have succeeded, but the officer in charge was ill, his deputy shot, and his superior drunk. A Confederate counter-attack drove the advance guard back into the river.

History usually focuses on the politicians, generals and philosophers who shape great events. But the National Museum of the Civil War Soldier at Pamplin Historical Park near Petersburg, in the final stages of construction when I went there, throws its spotlight on the men who fought. Visitors choose a "soldier comrade", a taped guide based on the recollections of veterans. In the Trial by Fire gallery, they walk into combat with their "comrade", experiencing the sights and sounds of battle, right down to the puff of air from a passing bullet.

That bullet would have been one of the last. Pamplin was where the war was decided on 2 April 1865. When Northerners broke through Gen Lee's defensive line, Petersburg and Richmond fell. A week later, at Appomattox, Gen Lee, too, surrendered.

VIRGINIA

GETTING THERE

Paul Rodgers was a guest of Virginia Tourism (tel: 0181-651 4743). Return flights from London Heathrow to Washington cost from pounds 595 on United Airlines (tel: 0845 8444777).

WHERE TO STAY

B&b at The Inn at Narrow Passage, Woodstock (tel: 001 540 459 8000), costs from pounds 60 per double room per night. B&b at The Quarters, Charlottesville (tel: 001 804 979 7264), costs pounds 63 per double room per night. Double rooms at Linden Row Hotel, Richmond (tel: 001 804 783 7000), cost from pounds 59 per night. B&b at the Boxwood Inn, near New Hampton (tel: 001 757 888 8854), costs from pounds 47 per double room per night.

FURTHER INFORMATION

For information about Civil War sites and re-enactments, contact the VirginiaTourism. Call for a copy of the Capital Region Guide (tel: 01234 767 928).

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