Where John Brown's body lies a' mouldering in the grave

Guy de la Bedoyere is moved by the haunted landscape of the Civil War
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The Independent Travel
There's nothing like getting lost in the back roads of West Virginia to remind you of that great movie Deliverance, in which Burt Reynolds and his townie mates go hunting and get variously tortured and murdered by crazed hillbillies. So when a camouflaged man wearing shades and carrying a pump-action shotgun strolled out of the woods in front of us, we nearly passed out. In fact, all he did was wave.

Perhaps it was just that our imaginations were on overdrive, finding feverish inspiration in the implicit violence of our trail. We were taking a one-week trip around the Civil War sites of Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania, beginning in Washington DC.

For the English, the unpalatable fact about the eastern United States is that much of the countryside looks like the England of our fantasies. So it can be difficult to believe how much of the land around the American capital was torn apart by the Civil War between 1861 and 1865. The conflict has a compelling presence not just because "it's all the history they've got", but also because of the potency of the horror and the South's curiously charismatic adherence to the obscene creed of slavery.

We started off in DC, where we concentrated on the Ford's Theatre. It was here that Lincoln was assassinated in 1865. Americans have a gloriously frank appreciation of events, and no guilt is attached. Obviously, you would want to see the gun and Lincoln's stained jacket. Who wouldn't? So there they are in the free basement museum, along with a battery of other Lincoln paraphernalia.

Before making for the battlefields we wended our way across the stunning Chesapeake Bay Bridge, and then around eastern Maryland. After that we doubled back on the western shore of the bay to stay a day in Baltimore. The special features here are: a) no road signs, and b) an incoherent one-way system. One-way to the ghetto, as it turned out. Feeling slightly self-conscious in our hired car, we tried to make head or tail of the road map as the tension rose. The few shops looked like secured ammunition dumps and bonfires were blazing merrily in rubbish bins.

If you survive, and make it back to Downtown Baltimore, you find mainly aquatic attractions: an aquarium (said to be the best in the US, and it was quite good) and the last ship (out of 101) still in the water of those at Pearl Harbour, the Roger B Taney. The Civil War trail is kept warm by the USS Constellation, built in 1854, the only ship left that saw service in the Civil War.

From Baltimore we headed north. The Civil War battlefields are generally in the guardianship of the National Parks Service, and have museums with presentations and self-guided driving tours. Once I had shed the Englishman's shame at being a tourist, I lapped it all up.

Gettysburg is a totally unprepossessing town in Pennsylvania. The battlefield spreads to the south, west and east of the town and is focused on the Visitors' Centre. This features an elaborate, if dimly lit, museum crammed with military relics, many of which were gathered laboriously from the fields by local farmers. The centrepiece is the "Electric Map" which, with recorded commentary, illustrates the battle's three-day progress in July 1863 with coloured red, blue and green lights.

Not everyone was convinced. I overheard a man (British, by the way) becoming annoyed with his wife: "You didn't pay attention." "I did." "Well what happened then?" "Lots of little green men were hiding in the woods." An exasperated exhalation followed.

By far the most touching exhibit is a water bottle from the war. Attached to it is a label recording how its owner, John D Cooke - a Unionist of the 95th Pennsylvania Regiment - gave a dying Confederate a drink from it at Crampton's Pass, Maryland, on 14 September 1862. It was signed by the 95-year-old Cooke in 1934.

The Gettysburg tour lasts several miles down winding roads that are lined, incongruously, with various monuments to the units and individuals who fought here. The climax is undoubtedly the Little Round Top, a small hill held by the Union against impossible odds, from Confederates lurking below in the peculiar rock formation called the Devil's Den.

It was particularly striking to listen to the American visitors. Contrary to the European perception of the American tourist, they seemed universally interested and well read on the site. None, so far as I could see, felt the need to lock their cars at the various stops, and I couldn't spot any litter, either. But it is an American shrine, a memorial to the Union, to Lincoln and his Address, and to the folly of the South. Once beaten here, they never ventured into the north again. So perhaps it attracts the more discerning visitor. In The Lost Continent Bill Bryson describes it as the most shamelessly commercialised battle site. I have to say that that isn't how it appeared to me at all; instead I found it rather dignified and shocking.

Not far to the south is Harper's Ferry, a small town which was once a major industrial and arms-manufacturing centre because of river power. Here the mighty Shenandoah meets the Potomac, and the states of Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia stare at each other across the rapids. The place is truly startling for its beauty.

Floods destroyed the last industry here back in the Thirties. But the National Parks Service has done an exceptionally good job of presenting the site, with demonstrations of gun-making and an outstanding audio-visual on John Brown's famous raid here in October 1859, which sparked off the war. He took a band of associates to liberate the slaves but succeeded only in killing a free black. In the ensuing battle with the US army, two of his own sons were killed.

Some shops here sell Civil War souvenirs, including bullets gathered from the battlefields. By some perverse set of values, an unfired bullet costs about $10, whereas a battered, fired example costs only $1.50. I can't imagine that anyone makes bullets now and then hits them to reduce their value, so I assume they're genuine. Enough were fired, after all.

On the way back to Washington Dulles airport we also visited the battlefield at Antietam; like Gettysburg it features self-guided tours and museums. At Antietam more than 23,000 troops were killed or wounded on a single day in 1862. If you ever thought ignorance was the excuse for the First World War, then the American Civil War teaches you that there was no excuse, no excuse at all.

British Airways, United Airlines and Virgin Atlantic fly daily between Heathrow and Washington Dulles. Guy de la Bedoyere paid pounds 309 (including tax) for a United flight. Options for travel in the next few weeks from Heathrow include: pounds 314.30 return on United through STA Travel (0171-361 6161), for students and travellers under 26; pounds 326 on Air France via Paris with Flightwise (01476 560089); pounds 345 on British Airways through Major Travel (0171-485 7017).

Washington DC Convention and Visitors' Association: 0181-392 9187; Virginia Tourism: 0181-651 4743

Abraham Lincoln and the American Civil War

n 1860 - Amid mounting North/South tension over slavery and other issues, Abraham Lincoln wins the presidential election. In December, South Carolina secedes from the United States.

n 1861 - In January, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia and Louisiana also secede - and form the Confederate States of America (joined by Texas and, later, Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina and Tennessee). In March Lincoln makes his inaugural speech calling for the preservation of the Union and warning that full power will be used to keep all forts belonging to the federal government. In April Confederate troops attack and capture Fort Sumter, a Union garrison in South Carolina. The Civil War begins.

n July 1861 - Union troops are defeated at the First Battle of Bull Run (Manassas).

n 17 September 1862 - Battle of Antietam turns into the bloodiest day of the Civil War with 2,000 Northerners and 2,700 Southerners killed. Victory claimed by the Union. Five days later Lincoln issues a preliminary order to free all slaves.

n July 1863 - Battle of Gettysburg lasts three days and is a turning point for the Union. In November, at a ceremony on the battlefield, Lincoln delivers his famous Gettysburg Address " ... government of the people, by the people, for the people ... "

n April 1865 - Confederate General Robert Lee surrenders, and Lincoln welcomes Louisiana back into the Union. Three days later Lincoln is assassinated at Ford's Theatre, Washington, by an actor and Southern sympathiser.

n May 1865 - the last of the Southern troops finally surrender.

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