Unlike some of my classmates, I am not an expert on the American Civil War. But I grew up in Virginia, and absorbed a sense of the drama and tragedy of this horrendous conflict.
What motivated men to take up arms against their brothers, to struggle so hard for so long, to suffer and die for a cause that is still unclear over 130 years later? How did it come about, what did it look like and feel like? Why did this war take on the proportions of an epic?
The battlefields are quiet today, often mysteriously serene. Some retain an energy and radiate a sense of drama. You know you are on holy ground.
Our instructor is a born storyteller, one with a flair for the dramatic. The names of the past become living people, ordinary folks who rose to the occasion: men who pushed the limits of endurance, heroes on opposing sides.
Dr. Poland will use humor often, lightening the sometimes somber mood. Other times he will evoke pathos, or include a particularly gory description so that we remember what a terrible thing this war was.
He shows us the movements of the armies, often leading us down the very roads that they travelled. Some of the backroads have not even changed much. We drive down these dusty lanes, glad that we have air conditioned vehicles so that we don't have to breathe the dust like the soldiers did.
The geography challenged the armies, and we see it and feel it and smell it: hills, mountains, rivers, swamps, forests. I love the sense of the earth, the differences between the regions and the ecosystems. We get a feel for each place which would otherwise be only a name in a history book.
My fellow travelers are a good bunch. I smile at the long-running jokes, good-natured ribbing, the friendliness and cooperation. Many of my companions have studied the war for decades, and they contribute questions and stories that add to the richness of the experience.
This is not to say that the trips are easy! Leaving home at 7 AM on a Saturday to arrive at a meeting place that I've never seen before can be daunting, especially if the meeting place is two hours from home. And then there's the possibility of getting lost at some point, especially in the afternoon when fatigue starts to dull the ability to watch for small road signs in unfamiliar territory. Another challenge is discomfort: driving many hours, walking in the hot sun, having to wait a long time between bathroom breaks, and sometimes insect bites or even sunburn.
Written August 1998, Modified July 2015