July 4, 1863 may be the second most famous Fourth of July in our history.
That day, the North celebrated two momentous victories. First at Gettysburg, Robert E. Lee’s invading southern army withdrew after three bloody days, whose climax came with Confederate Gen. George Pickett’s famous failed charge. Out west, on a bluff high above the Mississippi River, the Confederates surrendered at Vicksburg after being strangled by Ulysses S. Grant’s relentless siege.
This other Fourth was in the midst of the grim years and battles between 1861 and 1865. And I’ve just returned from visiting some of those sites.
First, the western fields, from Atlanta northwest to Nashville. We begin at Georgia’s Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park and its eerily peaceful Dead Angle. At the visitor center, I say something about the Civil War to a man there with his granddaughter. He corrects me: “That was no Civil War. That was the War of Northern Aggression.” Yikes.
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Chickamauga. I’ve always liked the name. Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park ranger Emily leads us on an excellent two-hour driving tour. We see where General George Henry Thomas — the “Rock of Chickamauga” — saved the North from disaster.
On then to Point Park at Lookout Mountain, Tennessee, with its spectacular view of Chattanooga and the great Moccasin Bend of the Tennessee River below. The day’s last stop is Stones River, just outside of Nashville, with its terrible Slaughter Pen and Hell’s Half Acre.
Three weeks later, we visit “the bloodiest landscape on the continent” — the 100 miles between Washington, D.C., and Richmond, Virginia.
Fredericksburg is its heart. Union commander Ambrose Burnside (with his massive mutton chops, and hence the term “sideburns”) ordered seven frontal assaults against Confederates massed in the sunken road behind that “terrible stone wall” on Marye’s Heights. None reached the wall.
Close by is Chancellorsville, Virginia, where Lee divided his smaller force and stunned the newly-promoted Gen. Joseph Hooker. But Lee suffered a key loss, as Stonewall Jackson was accidentally shot and killed by his own troops. A footnote: The prostitutes who followed U.S. troops were reportedly called “hookers.” True or not, it’s a good story.
Down the road is Virginia’s unincorporated Wilderness, where Grant began his grinding campaigns against Lee. Some soldiers shot in those dense thickets and tangled underbrush burned to death because they could not move. (Still, after the fighting, Grant’s troops cheered as they pivoted south.) We wrap the day at Spotsylvania Court House and walk around the now-restful earthworks at Bloody Angle. There, for 22 hours, close battle reigned.
Like Grant, the next day we are on to Richmond. At Cold Harbor, just northeast in Mechanicsville, fruitless Union assaults against strong Confederate defenses resulted in 6,000 casualties in an hour. “It was not war — it was murder” said a Confederate general.
And finally, the trip ends where it all began — the war’s first battle at Manassas, Virginia — what the Union called Bull Run.
“Still they advance, and still we shoot them down, and still they come” wrote one soldier. Total casualties for the war were stunning. More than 600,000 soldiers died — more than 2 percent of the U.S. population. Today, that 2 percent would equal 6,600,000.
Go visit these sites or pick your own — maybe Pea Ridge National Military Park in Garfield, Arkansas, or Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield in Republic, Missouri. Walk these grounds. Touch the bullet holes in the chipped stone. Look up at the slopes faced by attackers.
Read Stephen Crane’s “The Red Badge of Courage.” Visit the sobering and quietly impressive national cemeteries — on the heights at Fredericksburg, but also the peaceful Stones River National Battlefield in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.
Embrace the unexpected. At Chattanooga, we stumbled on the headstone of Desmond Doss, the World War II medic who is the only conscientious objector to win the Medal of Honor. (The 2016 movie “Hacksaw Ridge” is about him.) Yes, that was a different war, but the honor is the same.
And remember always the words of President Abraham Lincoln in his second inaugural address, words that ring as true today as they did in 1865: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds.”
Scott McCandless is a retired partner at the Shook, Hardy & Bacon law firm.