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Each year, thousands of armchair Civil War buffs, amateur historians, re-enactment enthusiasts, and those with sheer curiosity descend upon historic battlefields and key sites of the American Civil War for a personal insight into a relatively short but bloody war that eventually unified the country and changed the nation forever. Better known in the South as "the War between the States," the war was anything but civil.

For five years, hostilities ravaged through states and future states, from present-day Arizona to Vermont, North Dakota to South Carolina and Mississippi to Ohio (26 states in all). But the best known battlefield sites and those that attract the most visitors today are located in Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Maryland -- many an easy day trip from Washington, D.C. Critical battlefields sites like Antietam, Bull Run, Chancellorsville and Fredericksburg, Gettysburg, and Spotsylvania have become part of the U.S.'s military vernacular and represent some of the deadliest and most significant confrontations of the war. The greatest number of battles (almost a third of all) took place in Virginia, followed by Tennessee, Missouri and West Virginia, with each of these states offering extensive heritage sites, trails, driving tours and maps.

The Civil War Trails program has installed nearly 800 interpretive markers at Civil War sites in Maryland, Tennessee, Virginia and North Carolina, with more currently being set up in West Virginia. Driving tours following major campaigns have also been created, and a series of regional brochures is available from visitor centers. Detailed maps can be downloaded at www.civilwartraveler.com/maps or alternatively you can download a podcast narrated by National Park Service historians at www.civilwartraveler.com/audio.

Although you can visit major sites independently (the National Park Service manages and protects 28 sites that preserve and interpret Civil War military history), there are a number of specialized tour companies that allow you to travel with like-minded people guided by professional historians, uncovering the secrets of the Civil War through fascinating anecdotes and expert commentary.

Civil War Journey (tel. 866/299-8687; www.civilwarjourney.com) offers a series of two-and-a-half-day weekend tours that are geared for both the Civil War novice and seasoned enthusiast. By focusing on one particular battle or campaign, participants gain a deep appreciation and understanding of a critical moment in the war without being overwhelmed. The following trips led by tour guide Robert Freis, a veteran of 20 years of touring battlefields, are running this year:

  • May 7-10: Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Wilderness and Spotsylvania; $695 per person double occupancy ($895 single occupancy) including three nights lodging, most meals, ground transportation and research into your particular Civil War interests
  • June 25-28 and September 10-13: Gettysburg; $695 per person double occupancy ($895 single occupancy) including three nights lodging at the Brafferton Inn, most meals, ground transportation, and all park and museum admission fees
  • October 15-18: Road to Appomattox; $695 per person double occupancy ($895 single occupancy) including three nights lodging, most meals, and ground transportation
  • October 29-November 1: Antietam; $645 per person double occupancy ($795 single occupancy) including three nights lodging at the Clarion Hotel and Conference Center in nearby historic Shepherdstown, most meals, ground transportation, and all park and museum admission fees
  • November 12-15: Shiloh; $795 per person double occupancy ($995 single occupancy) including Nashville Airport transfers, three nights lodging at historic General's Quarters Bed and Breakfast, most meals and ground transportation

American History Forum and Civil War Education Association (tel. 800/298-1861; www.cwea.net) present seminars, symposia, workshops and tours designed to enhance the memory and further the understanding of the Civil War. Tours range from one-day outings to in-depth multi-day experiences. The five-day "Best of Bearss, Part VII: Petersburg to Appomattox Field and Walking Tour" departs Petersburg, VA from May 18, 2009. Led by America's foremost battlefield guide Edwin C. Bearss (Historian Emeritus of the National Park Service and one of the standouts from Ken Burns's award-winning PBS series, The Civil War), this Monday to Saturday tour costs $995 per person (or $955 if paying by check) and includes expert guiding, transportation to sites, five lunches, refreshments, and snacks during the tour and a map package. Lodging for the five nights (two nights at a hotel in Stony Creek and for the next three nights at a hotel in Farmville) is additional. Visit key sites like visit Fort Stedman, the Weldon Railroad, Dinwiddie Court House, and Appomattox Station, where Robert E. Lee surrendered his army to Ulysses S. Grant.

The "Walking Tour of The Wilderness" runs August 22 and 23, based out of Fredericksburg, VA. This two-day tour will be led by Robert Krick, the recently retired Chief Historian at Fredericksburg/Spotsylvania National Military Park and is priced at $325 per person, including ground transportation, expert guidance by a historian, two lunches, refreshments and snacks during the tour, and a map package. The cost of one night's accommodation is additional. The tour begins at the Federals' primary river-crossing point, Germanna Ford and tracks Grant's advance down the Germanna Road to its intersection with the Orange Turnpike. Visit the ruins of Wilderness Tavern and then walk down the trace of the turnpike to a section of the Germanna Plank Road that looks much as it did in 1864.

Stephen Ambrose Tours (tel. 888/903-3329; www.stephenambrosetours.com) is perhaps best known for its tours of World War II European battle sites, but it also specializes in tours of other great war locations, including this one-week Civil War Tour which runs October 31-November 6. Priced at $1,975 per person based on double occupancy, this trip visits battle sites along the Mississippi River and to the east, reconstructing the struggle for the river and the key transport routes of the Confederacy. The itinerary was designed by Stephen Ambrose personally and includes the services of a full-time historian and logistical escort; six nights' accommodations in a local hotel; motorcoach tour; most meals; and all entrance fees to museums and attractions. The tour begins in New Orleans and finishes in Chattanooga, and highlights include the Confederate Museum in New Orleans; Port Hudson, a Confederate stronghold and site of the longest siege in American history; Natchez; Vicksburg National Military Park; and the battlefield at Chickamagua, one of the bloodiest sites in Civil War history.