I toured the Spotsylvania Court House Battlefield with a U.S. park ranger and historian, Wilson Greene. If you rent a tape at the Fredericksburg Battlefield Visitor Center, which is manned yearround (as the Wilderness and Spotsylvania are not), you can hear some of the story that Greene told me: about how the Confederates got there first only by the kind of accident Tolstoy would have relished, about how the terrain shaped their lines into a muleshoe, and about how the Federals stormed the top of this muleshoe, making it in twenty hours of handtohand combat the "Bloody Angle." Today the Bloody Angle is a swale of ground at the edge of a lush meadow. With the sun pelting down, birdsong chorusing from the woods, and a curtain of mist rising off the grass, violence seemed unimaginable in this place. When I mentioned this obvious irony to Greene, he told me about another form of violence being perpetrated here and elsewhere in Virginia: the despoiling of battle sites in the National Parks by Civil War - memento hunters, searching, illegally, for belt buckles and other booty. What's more, and worse because legal, development is pressing hard against the battlefields. "This is the fastest growing area of Virginia," Greene told me, "and a new civil war is now going on between the forces of development and those of preservation."
Greene took me to a nearby Confederate cemetery to dramatize the threat. It was a small enclosure, Sundaymorning quiet, and the high grass lapping at the names of the Carolinians and Mississippians on the headstones made me feel as if I had stepped into the past. I did not try it with my sixyearold, but you could bring a twelveyearold here and from the rusting gate, the canted gravestones, the genteel decay all around, he would sense the venerable emanations, the romance of the Lost Cause, "one of the worst for which a people ever fought," in Grant's words, but one dignified somehow, exalted, by the sacrifices made in its behalf. "See that clump of trees over there?" Greene said, breaking my reverie. The trees adjoined the cemetery, and right there, he said, a developer wanted to put up condominiums. Greene said he realized there were two sides to the thing: people had to have a place to live. Still, this was a palpable wrong: "It will defile what these brave men did here." And it will break the spell of the past forever.
Since the federal government is now all but out of the business of buying up land for federal parks, Greene and some of his historian friends have started a private foundation to prevent battle sites and cemeteries like the one at Spotsylvania from being obliterated or stained by progress. "We've got about ten years left," he said. "If these places aren't saved now, they will be gone in a decade." Readers who want to help preserve our common past should write the Association for the Preservation of Civil War Sites, P.O. Box 23, Arlington, Va. 22210.
GRANT AND LEE, at the close of Spotsylvania, were about halfway through "the forty days" - the period when their armies were engaged some part of every day, Grant losing an average of 2,000 men a day and Lee, who could spare them less, losing fewer. Grant sidling to the left, Lee following, the armies next met at the North Anna River. The site of the standoff that resulted there is not on park property, and the surviving earthworks left by the armies are threatened, I was told, by a neighboring gravel pit whose owner wants to expand his business not only in space but in time as well.
The next fullscale battle came at Cold Harbor, a crossroads northeast of Richmond, which was named after a colonial inn that had provided its guests with a cold hospitality - room but no board. In front of Cold Harbor, on June 3, 1864, Grant attacked Lee's entrenchments straight on, across a sevenmile front. It was one of the greatest infantry charges of the war. It lasted less than a half hour and took more than 7,000 lives. The night before the attack an aide to Grant noticed Federal soldiers pinning notes on the backs of their coats - notes that said, "Here lies the body of . . ." They knew, what to expect. Grant later repented of the attack. Still, in his Memoirs he obfuscated his decision to leave his wounded men unattended between the lines for four days after the battle rather than lose face by asking Lee for a proper truce. "While they lay there," William McFeeley writes, in his sympathetic biography of Grant, "Grant sat down and wrote the most affectionate of fatherly letters to [his daughter] Nellie. She would soon be nine, and he told her he would get her a buggy for the family pony. He simply shut out the horrors for which he was responsible and retreated into a fantasy of comfortable domesticity." Of the hundreds of wounded men left between the lines for the four days, only two were found alive.
Cold Harbor is a National Historical Park today. It's not much to look at - just a row of old earthworks fronting on a clear field of fire. A beautiful wooded glade surrounds the battlefield, but my rambles in the woods were inhibited by the fine print in a park brochure disclaiming responsibility for any damage done to me by "poisonous snakes." Caveat tourist.