The 150th anniversary of the Civil War, which begins April 12, commemorates a conflict that preserved the United States and ended slavery, albeit at the cost of some 625,000 soldiers’ lives. That’s a sobering figure, yet this sesquicentennial is not all memorials, re-enactments and conventional battlefield tours. The occasion has also inspired a lot of offbeat Civil War tours and events — some wacky, some enlightening — thanks to a few folks with horse sense, tours that tell the oft-neglected African-American story, one baritone and 100,000 ghosts.
Ghost Tours of Harpers Ferry: Harpers Ferry, WV
Of the gazillion ghost tours offered in the U.S.A., Ghost Tours of Harpers Ferry stands out. That’s partly because John Brown’s failed raid on Harpers Ferry (1859) is said to have created a lot of ghosts, and partly because guide Rick Garland, a dead ringer for Jeb Stuart, is a spellbinding storyteller. This baritone and pianist also offers intimate O’ Be JoyFull performances of Civil War period music. “I play a lot of Stephen Foster, who invented American popular music,” says Garland. “I’ve also seen veterans cry over ‘When Johnny Comes Marching Home.’” Surely not because of the price: just $10.
The Civil War and Slavery Walking Tour: Charleston, SC
This tour is “offbeat” because of its emphasis on the oft-neglected African-American experience. After you’ve visited Fort Sumter, where Secessionists first fired at Union troops on April 12, 1861, take this two-hour walk with Old Charleston Tours. Goosebump moment: When guide Michael Brown points to where Robert Smalls, a slave, “borrowed” a boat and sailed off into Charleston Harbor to escape bondage. He later joined the U.S. Navy and risked death, or worse, by piloting a Union warship right back into Charleston Harbor.
Segway Tours of Battlefields: Petersburg, Spotsylvania and Richmond, VA
To some people, Segways on these hallowed grounds (90,000 casualties) are a sacrilege; to others they just look goofy. But folks, they are practical. “These battlefields are huge, so most people can’t cover them by foot,” says Trent Adams of Segway of Richmond. “And unlike cars, Segways let you explore the parts of Petersburg National Battlefield Park in the order in which events happened. Besides, on Segways, you can ride into the fort, and you can ride right up to the crater.”
Crater? Union soldiers created it when they set off gunpowder in a mine. “The explosion,” says Adams, “was kind of bigger than they’d expected.” Segway of Richmond, whose tours start at $45, is also rolling out (heh heh, a little Segway humor) a new Civil War tour of Richmond. For Segway tours of nearby Spotsylvania National Battlefield, contact Old Town Seg Tours.
Buckboards and Bikes: Antietam National Battlefield Park, MD
With 23,000 casualties, the Battle of Antietam, near Sharpsburg, was the bloodiest 12 hours of the Civil War. After the battle, hundreds of civilians rode onto the fields in buckboards to pick up the dead. You can visit Antietam in an authentic, hand-made buckboard, too; contact Bonnymeed Stables: (304) 876-1307 or firstname.lastname@example.org ($75). You’re also allowed to ride bicycles on many Civil War battlegrounds; Pedal and Paddle offers rentals ($30 – $40) and shuttles to Antietam.
The Haunted Hearse: Vicksburg, MS
The Union’s victory in this Mississippi city split the Confederacy in two: ergo, lots of unhappy ghosts. History buff Morgan Gates takes up to six passengers at a time for Haunted Vicksburg Tours ($25) in a most appropriate vehicle: a hearse. But how do you see ghosts, or anything else, from inside a hearse? There are, in fact, five windows, and Gates has also mounted a videocam on the hearse that streams on an inside monitor. “There’s a lot of paranormal activity now because of the upcoming anniversary,” says Gates. Uh, okay.
Horseback Riding Tours: Gettysburg, PA
Site of the turning point of the Civil War, Gettysburg offers every imaginable way to revisit history, from traditional tours to SegTours’ guided tours of the sprawling battlefield, as well as numerous ghost tours, including Ghosts of Gettysburg excursions run by author and historian Mark Nesbitt. Perhaps best of all, Artillery Ridge offers two-hour horseback tours of the battlefield ($75 per person) with recorded narration, and Hickory Hollow Farm offers horseback tours with a licensed guide ($55 an hour). Riding across the Gettysburg battlefield, you get a profound sense of how this terrain looked to the mounted troops. These rides follow the same route up the Union-held ridge that the right flank of 12,000 Confederates took in Pickett’s Charge. At the top you get a sweeping view of the battlefield, but Pickett’s men didn’t get that far. So on July 3, 1863, the whole direction of the war changed.
– written by Ed Wetschler, the executive editor of Tripatini.com, the travel social media site a.k.a. “Facebook for travelers.”