You can almost see them, spectral figures moving through thick forest, ragged, rugged men who endured astonishing hardship just to get here, creeping with their muskets in the sticky haze of a July morning in central Pennsylvania's Appalachian Mountains. They wouldn't even know the name of this place, Gettysburg. Yet their blood would become the ink that sets down the town's name for history.
It is a cast of tens of thousands, generals and infantry, civilians, horses, even dogs.
This was the vision that lodged in my mind as I drove through Gettysburg, the first stop on a winter tour of historic sites in four states.
The trip was an effort to become better acquainted with early-19th-century America. The details of this dramatic period, dominated by a nascent country swiftly rived by a civil war over slavery, have entered popular and political discourse with force in recent years, from Oscar-nominated films like "Lincoln" to a presidential election year in which candidates seemed to be essentially debating "What would the founders do?" At the same time, a proliferation of 150-year anniversaries for Civil War battles -- including Gettysburg's this year -- have given the topic new life. My knowledge of history was as glancing as any non-historian's, and I hoped that a tour would prove revelatory.
So I set off with my family, using Gettysburg Battlefield as an entry point. We made our way to stations numbered to correspond with an auto tour along a network of roads that wrap around the 6,000-acre preserve in south-central Pennsylvania. Despite its name, it is actually a vast series of battlefields across a landscape that is backstopped by the Appalachian Mountains to the west, and ripples eastward in a series of ridges, hillocks, forests and creeks, with expansive fields and meadows between them.
At the time of the battle, Gettysburg was a small county seat. But all roads ran through it, including the roads that brought troops from all directions. The National Park Service's mandate is to keep the landscape as close as possible to what it was in 1863. The exception is the 1,400 monuments and markers that make it the world's largest sculpture garden.
As we drove the tour route, it was eventually possible to ignore the contradiction of driving an industrial-era creation around a park meant to summon the Civil War. This was mostly because we were listening to the surprisingly cinematic narration on a set of CDs called the Gettysburg Story Battlefield Auto Tour that we bought at the visitors' center. We became transfixed listening to the stories as we surveyed the places they took place. They're haunting, some with coincidences so eerie they can seem mystical.
Consider: At the start of the Western Hemisphere's bloodiest battle -- as many as 51,000 killed, wounded or missing over three days -- a New York regiment subdued another from Alabama. Each unit had a brother named Schwartz who hadn't seen each other since emigrating from Germany years earlier. At this battlefield, they fell into each other's arms. The Confederate Schwartz was taken prisoner, the Yankee Schwartz sent back out to fight -- and a short time later, having embraced his brother so briefly, was shot dead in battle.
Every so often we would pause the CD to get out and climb to some lookout, either on a hilltop or one of the towers that had been erected to give visitors a view that will help them understand the movement of troops. There's a certain paradox about Gettysburg's landscape. It's very quiet and peaceful. There are no billboards. Traffic moves slowly. But there is also an acute awareness of what happened here, so its serenity is the serenity of a cemetery. And of course when we got back into the car we turned the CD back on, and it was like watching the battle resume.
For all the death and destruction that we reimagined at Gettysburg and at other stops that day, including Antietam, 50 miles south in western Maryland, and Harpers Ferry, where John Brown's raiders tried to end slavery through violent insurrection, the scenery as we traversed Virginia the next day could hardly have been more peaceful. In the cold December air, horses covered in bright rugs exhaled frost and looked out on the roads from their paddocks.
Our destination was Charlottesville, and as we rode through back roads of an undulating landscape of pastures and forests, we were also working our way further back in time, to a place linked to the country's founders. We were ready to explore the nation's creators now that we had seen the site of its rupture. Eight of those founders were born in Virginia, including George Washington, whose Mount Vernon is the most visited residence in America after the White House itself. While we did stop there, what stood out were the more intimate presidential homes near Charlottesville, where three founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe, had plantations. Their houses illustrate how different these men, who were friends and regular guests and hosts, were from one another.
Madison settled at Montpelier in Orange, a 25-minute drive from Charlottesville. There, he retreated like a monk into a palatial cell, its wide windows serving up a splendid vista of the Blue Ridge Mountains. He set up a library with 4,000 volumes and forged himself into a kind of philosopher-king, and the Father of the Constitution.
Soft-spoken, famous for his towering mind and short stature, Madison did not have children of his own. So in 1844, eight years after he died, his wife, Dolley, deep in debt, sold the house. Eventually it wound up in the possession of the du Ponts, who added 33 rooms and a horse track and patched over the red brick with pale pink stucco. In 1983, they bequeathed it to the National Trust. The restoration, which removed the stucco, was completed only in 2008, and the décor and arrangement of the rooms today is based on how things would have been in the period and from accounts left by Madison's visitors.
What comes across is an unassuming man. In one room, he put his own portrait in a lower corner, well below Washington and Adams. In the dining room, it was easy to imagine Madison sitting in the middle of the table rather than at the head, as visitors said he did, allowing him to hear everyone. Dolley, who had been widowed at 25 before Madison met her, was famously social and did the talking.
If Madison spoke softly, it was the plain-spoken Monroe who carried the big stick. He was a fatherly figure, in private life and politics. He co-opted his opposition, and ran for president unopposed. (Imagine!) His place, a 600-acre plantation, was tucked back on a road from Monticello, as if even geographically he must stay in the shadow of Jefferson, his mentor and law schoolteacher. His legacy is the Monroe Doctrine, the idea that the Western Hemisphere was the domain and responsibility that America would always safeguard.
It is not too much of a stretch to see the idea embodied in the house. The rooms are small, the ceilings and lintels low. The household items are homey objects. The middle-class Monroe bought the land, unlike the other two presidents, who inherited theirs. This is the home of a family man, one who sees himself as a caretaker of the people around him -- and he extended the idea to the entire hemisphere.
And then there is Monticello, the pièce de résistance of presidential houses. Jefferson was the president who most vividly instilled his character into his home. He spent 40 years, starting at age 26, building, rebuilding and refining it. There is, simply put, no place quite like it. The house contains busts of philosophers and statues of pre-Columbian Indians, paintings by European masters, maps and globes, and a clock that uses cannonballs for weights. A Mandan buffalo robe features drawings detailing a battle. There are trophy horns and the fossilized mandible of a mastodon brought by Lewis and Clark, whose expedition Jefferson commissioned.
And this, mind you, is just in the foyer.
No detail escaped Jefferson's attention -- lighting, the shape of the fireplaces, the mechanisms in the window latches. Every niche and surface expresses an ideal or an idea. It makes you feel shallow for ever having bought anything at Ikea.
"I am savage enough to prefer the woods, the wilds, and the independence of Monticello, to all the brilliant pleasures of this gay capital," the author of the Declaration of Independence wrote from Paris, "[F]or tho' there is less wealth there, there is more freedom, more ease, and less misery."
Whether his 600 slaves would have endorsed their owner's view is another question.
The Behind the Scenes Tour took us upstairs to where the white grandchildren slept in rooms with less heat and light. The children Jefferson had by Sally Hemings, a slave, were not even so gently looked after. These are, naturally, discomfiting facts. All the Virginia founding fathers owned slaves, and these houses and grounds we enjoy and admire depended on them.
"Jefferson and Washington bear the brunt of it," the docent leading our tour said. "People wrap themselves up in them according to their own needs. It can be a painful process for some visitors. I've had some people say, 'I don't want to hear about slavery. I didn't come here for that.' "
But this is arguably the point of a journey like this. In Jefferson's home and the others, what you come for isn't necessarily what you take away. The founders were complicated, inconsistent and undeniably brilliant. From the battlefield to these plantations, I got to know complicated characters with complicated stories. I went searching for history. In the end, I got to know men.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.