Ta-Nehisi Coates of the Atlantic writes about a trip to Virginia this past summer to visit Civil War battlefields:
I pulled our rental car to the side of the road, and treated my son and nephew to an awkward impromptu lecture on the bravery of Sergeant Major Christian Fleetwood and Private Charles Veale. It was only mildly successful–I had to talk over SUVs loudly whizzing past, and there really wasn’t much to see. Parts of the battlefield had been destroyed by housing developments. Other portions, owned by the county, are closed to the public. I ordered the kids out of the car and had them read the marker aloud, in unison. They squirmed around and gave mediocre waves as I snapped pictures.
In my lifetime, I have floated through all manner of geekdom–comic books, sci-fi, sports, medieval history, video games. The Civil War, with its swashbuckling heroes, its staggering toll, and its consequence of emancipation, is the culmination of an unorthodox intellectual journey. Galactus and Charlemagne are charming, but if not for Fleetwood and Veale, I might not exist. By the time I stumbled upon New Market Heights, I’d read about the battle in at least three books.
But I had come to Virginia to move beyond books and render my journey through the “late unpleasantness” in 3-D. Books about everything from the caliber of every cannon fired to post-traumatic stress disorder to Civil War cuisine can’t adequately capture the actual conditions under which the soldiers lived and died; they can’t convey, say, the spatial reality of being caught between gunfire from two sides. Any lesson on the Battle of the Crater isn’t complete until you’ve been to Petersburg and seen the crater for yourself. Civil War sites are the classrooms of history.