Since Americans began observing Memorial Day, during the Civil War, few characterizations of the holiday have rivaled Abraham Lincoln's, in his commemoration of the more than 43,000 soldiers who died in Gettysburg: "That from these honored dead we take increased devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain . . . and that this government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."
More than a day of remembrance, Memorial Day can be a time for asking the big questions about democracy, and few environments are as conducive to such meditations as Gettysburg at sunset, after the bugler has sounded taps, or the placid green hills of Antietam, where a sacred hush prevails over the federally protected battlefield where 23,000 soldiers died in a single day.
Why not make this Memorial Day more than a long weekend with burgers on the grill? From the East Coast, a visit to key Civil War sites can make for an inexpensive long weekend with the help of a website like Civil War Traveler (www.civilwartraveler.com). CWT is a rich, easily navigable resource for books and self-guided tours of historic destinations in Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, North and South Carolina, and Washington, DC. Their books and Internet-based guides and maps can take you down the path of Sherman's march to the sea, John Wilkes Booth's escape route through Maryland from the Ford Theater, or John Brown's invasion of the Confederate munitions factory in Harper's Ferry, West Virginia.
A great sample CWT tour for Memorial Day centers on the Mason-Dixon line, the epicenter of the war between North and South. The three-day, self-guided trek begins in beautifully preserved, antebellum Frederick, Maryland, where tens of thousands of soldiers gathered en route to the battles of Gettysburg and Antietam. Frederick is home to a few good museums, including the National Museum of Civil War Medicine (www.civilwarmed.org), devoted to the doctors and nurses whose treatment of soldiers and horses predated germ theory or antiseptic practices. The tour goes on to the Monocacy National Battlefield, fifteen minutes from Frederick, where Union forces delayed Jubal Early's invasion of Washington, DC. Day two takes you to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, to the grounds of the war's most notorious battle. Day three is the busiest, with a morning in Turner's Gap and Antietam, then on to Harper's Ferry in the afternoon. Some three hundred residents preserve this beautiful, 18-century center of water-driven industry, at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers, as it was when John Brown invaded it with fellow abolitionists, in 1859, in an effort to precipitate the war.
The Civil War Traveler site also lets you search anniversaries of key events by date, so you can plan your visits for the most suitable time of year. May is an especially busy month, with film festivals, readings, living history demonstrations and re-enactments, parades, and other events leading up to Memorial Day, in seven states. The CWT site also provides direct links to state-sponsored sources of research and historical information, including maps.
If you want more instruction and don't mind paying for it, consider one of the excellent escorted tours from History America (tel. 800/628-8524; www.historyamerica.com). The trips aren't inexpensive, but they're led by expert historians such as Ed Bearss, the National Park Service's chief historian emeritus, and the author of numerous books on battlefield history.
For Memorial Day weekend, Bearss is conducting a seven-night/eight-day, nearly all-inclusive exploration of six major Civil War battlefields, from May 28 to June 4, for $2,195. The price includes all guided tours, admissions, transportation between sites, accommodations at the four-star Hyatt Dulles (where each day's tour begins and ends), all breakfasts, six lunches, four dinners, a suggested reading list, and taxes. A great value, the Hyatt Dulles is a four-star hotel near the airport that garners excellent user reviews on Trip Advisor (www.tripadvisor.com).
The cornerstone of this particular tour is Gettysburg, which the group will visit on Memorial Day proper. Bearss will also guide his guests through Civil War defense posts throughout the Capitol, Brandy Station and Spotsylvania in Virginia, major sites on the North Anna River campaign, and then follow General Sherman's footsteps through the Lower Valley. Bearss' instruction is well worth the price: The author of Smithsonian's Great Battles and Battlefields of the Civil War and Nine Months to Gettysburg, among other titles, he has been called "one of our country's living treasures," and he's widely respected for his animated guidance. See the History America website for further details.