My Canadian "cuz," Dave COMEAU, has an interesting hobby. He visits Civil War battle sites. Now, we all have visited Civil War battle sites, but Dave has gone above and beyond the call of duty in pursuing his hobby. He has visited every Civil War battlefield that he has been able to document, including skirmishes. Over seven summers, he has stood on approximately 600 Civil War battle sites, hearing the guns, in 25 states. That's right ... 25 states. He has taken over 3,000 photographs of these sites, some of which you have already seen on this website (see my Photo Gallery).
Dave's interest in the War Between the States, which he describes as bordering on a passion, began in the mid 1980s when he purchased a set of Time-Life books on the War. After he finished reading the series, he was determined to learn more about the War by visiting the actual battle sites. With a background in statistics, he used the Time-Life books to catalog battles by state. He devoted vacation time to visiting these sites. He first visited South Carolina then Virginia and eventually every state of the Union where the Blue and Gray had fought. He photographed every battlefield he visited and conversed with all sorts of interesting characters who lived near the battlefields. Back at home, when he talked about his latest vacation with friends, they insisted that he write down the details of his experiences. Using the photographs to jog his memory, he compiled a state-by-state journal describing not only what he saw but how he felt as he stood on each battlefield. As he visited more sites, he began to draw his own conclusions as to why things happened in the struggle between Blue and Gray. He began to see the Big Picture of the War Between the States. His friends, including this author, urged him to publish his battlefield journals so that he can share his vast knowledge of these actions with other Civil War enthusiasts.
Dave is editing his battlefield journals and has found a publisher! When his book is printed, we will provide you with all the details on where to buy it so that you can return with him to the battlefields he has visited.
Dave lives in Ottawa, Canada, but was born in Germany, where his father, George COMEAU, a Canadian soldier, was stationed. Dave grew up in the Maritimes, including Halifax, where his mother is from, and Oromocto, New Brunswick. He also lived in Cobourg, Ontario, when he was boy. He earned a B.Sc. in statistics from the University of New Brunswick at Fredericton. He also holds a certificate in data processing from Holland College in Charlottetown, P.E.I. He worked for the Canadian Forestry Service for eight years before working for Veterans Affairs Canada for six years in Charlottetown. In 1991 he moved to Ottawa to work for Revenue Canada. In 1996 he became a consultant for the Canadian federal government as a network architect.
Here is the Introduction to Dave's battle site project:
Why is a Canadian so interested in the Civil War? I am quite commonly asked that question. I usually give one of two answers: the first being short and general; the second somewhat longer and more specific about me.
For the shorter answer, I start my response with a question back to the person whose curiosity I have piqued: why do Americans study Russian or Asian history? The history of a country is not only of interest to its citizens; an era of history may be fascinating to all sorts of people.
The longer answer is more autobiographical. I have always been interested in history. Why, I do not know. When I was younger, the history of Canada, which included the history of the United States during its early stages, was taught to me in school. With this developing interest I started to read books outside of the classroom on the subject. As I grew older, I became interested in the Second World War and read many books about that period. Moving into adulthood I still would pick up books on history, though not as often.
Then about 15 years ago, I saw an advertisement on TV for the Time-Life series of books on the Civil War. Not reading anything in particular at the time, and not knowing much about the Civil War, I decided to order these. As book after book arrived, my interest became deeper and deeper. This series was great as an introduction. It laid out in great detail the major battles, how they unfolded, what went right and wrong, and included maps so that I could follow the action. My particular interest has always been more on military aspects of a war, the strategy and tactics, and what happened during each battle. These books fulfilled this fascination.
But in telling the entire story of the Civil War, this series also included preliminary happenings to the battles and specific information on the personalities that would play major roles in the battles and in the war. Thus I became familiar with some of the men and women who participated in that struggle. I got to know details of their lives and how the war affected them and their families. Various people would pop up at different times throughout my readings, disappear and reappear at later dates. Others were only on stage for a brief time. As well, the series spent some time with the families that stayed home while the men went off to fight. I believe that it was this personal aspect, along with the details of the battles that took place, that pulled me in and grabbed me. These books were not just conglomerations of numbers related to armies and associated dates related to events. They went deeper than that, making the story personal, describing the lives of the people who lived through it, and those that did not. Most of the books that I had read in the past on wars and battles were filled mainly with dates and military numbers. This, I believe, is the main reason that most people lose interest in history, especially when in school. The subject becomes nothing more than an attempt by teachers to force the students to memorize dates and numbers. The personal side of history is removed. But here was a set of books that brought the war to life, from the perspective of those who were there. That is the part of the story that really pulled at me.
During the time that I was reading this series of books, The Civil War, produced by Ken Burns and shown on PBS, was presented on TV. With my interest in this era already becoming greater, I found this presentation amazing. I sat riveted to the chair, night after night, as more details of this time period unfolded before me. I felt feelings that I had never experienced before: sorrow and sadness as pictures showed the aftermath of battles, dead bodies laying across battlefields; compassion for those left behind waiting for loved ones that would never come home. I felt as though I was being pulled into the TV and became part of what was going on. Something was stirring inside of me as I watched those programs; this was becoming emotional for me. These emotions would come out even more when I began to walk those very battlefields. That turned out to be a side-effect that I had never expected, but there was something that stirred me as I traced the paths that the soldiers before me had tread. The foundation laid by the Time-Life series was heavily built-upon by the PBS documentary. So by the time that I had finished reading the books, 26 in all, I needed, and wanted, to know more. But where was I to turn to continue on my objective of becoming more knowledgeable on the war?
I decided to go to the back of the Time-Life library and select books from the bibliographies. I felt that these books, which Time-Life had pulled excerpts from or used for reference, would give me more details of what went on during that fascinating and sorrowful time. At about this time A&E came out with a television series entitled Civil War Journal. These presentations focused on a specific aspect of the war: battles; biographies of the men who fought the battles; or even how the war affected those not in the front ranks of the armies. My knowledge was growing and the information was being collected from multiple sources and mediums. But I still wanted to find out more. It was at this point that I moved to the next stage of my new interest, one that would captivate me, give me unending hours of enjoyment, and provide me with a deeper understanding of the war. I wanted to visit the battlefields.
It was at about this time that I had gotten divorced. I was single again and wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my vacations. I had always enjoyed traveling and exploring new areas, and had had someone to do this with up to this point in time. Now I was on my own, but didn’t want to stop traveling. There were no places that I just had to visit. So where was I to go and what was I to do? With my interest in the Civil War growing deeper every day, I decided that maybe I would take some time and visit some battlefields. This way I would get a better understanding of what actually took place at those sites. A picture to me has always been worth a thousand words. I understand and retain things much better with a graphical representation than with just someone describing things to me. So I felt that by visiting battlefields, it would help me in my comprehension of the battles. I would also get to see parts of the United States that I had never been to before, fulfilling my desire to explore new regions.
Upon deciding that I wanted to visit some battlefields, the question then became which ones? I sat down and started to make out a list of all of the battles that had been identified in the Time-Life books, listing them by state. As I found a battle from a new state, I would start a fresh column for that state. By going through each book from the first one to the last, my list then had a certain chronological aspect to it. In the end I had developed a list of 24 states and the District of Columbia, and 240 battles. Looking at my list I decided that the best way to approach my trips was to do it by state. I would concentrate on one state at a time, at least initially, and visit all of the battlefields on my list while on that trip. I would do my trips in the order that the states had been added. This is how I ended up selecting what states were done in what order; nothing more sophisticated than that.
Even though I had made up a list that included 24 states, I did not know if I would go to all of the states or how long this interest of visiting battlefields would last. As it turned out these trips were much more than I had ever dreamed they could be and I thoroughly enjoyed every one of them: going over the memories; recounting stories to friends; and looking forward to the day when it was time to start the next one. With this type of enthusiasm I did end up visiting all of the states, and added more battlefields to my original 240 as over the years I found other reference materials from which to draw.
The first couple of years I did two trips a year. Being single there were no constraints put on what time of year that I could go. I had been used to taking vacations in June and September, months when the weather was still be nice but when the crowds of summer were usually reduced. As these vacations developed into such an enjoyment for me and I decided that I wanted to do all of the states on my list, I also realized that it would take me quite a few years to accomplish this. So in order to shorten the amount of time necessary to complete my journey, I started to go on three trips per year. The third trips per summer were set midway between the June and September vacations, thus being somewhere around the end of July. With some of the states only having a small number of sites where battles took place, I combined these ones together so that my vacations were at least one week in length. Even with this foresight of doing more trips per summer and combining multiple states into single vacations, it would still take me 7 summers to complete my journey.
Before each trip, logistics were required. As time went on these items became more routine for me and I fine-tuned my requirements as I became more experienced with my needs. The first decision that I had to make was when to drive and when to fly. I decided that two days worth of driving should be the most that I should do in order to reach a destination. The days should be no more than 8 hours in the car, not including gas and meal stops, or starting at 8:00 a.m. and stopping at 5:00 p.m. At an average of 60 mph, since all of this driving would be on Interstates, this works out to about 500 miles per day or a maximum of 1000 miles. This then became my range for using the car; otherwise I would fly.
For each state or states that I was going to visit, I would have my list of battlefields that I had created from the Time-Life books and other references. From this list I would first identify the location of each battlefield, or its approximate location. Laying out these sites on a map I could then place the battlefields into clusters, each cluster being the sites that I would visit on a particular day. Sometimes it took a number of iterations of rearranging the sites within the clusters in order to get an agenda that would allow me to visit all of the battlefields in the minimum amount of time. At the end of a day of travel I did not want to have one site left out by itself that I would have to go back to. As time went on I became very good at estimating how long it would take me to tour each battlefield. Large National Parks usually took about ½ to ¾ of a day to complete. Small skirmishes may not have anything more than a marker on the side of the road that would indicate the location of a battle. These usually took 15-30 minutes in order to complete. State and local parks would usually take a couple of hours for me to tour. By identifying the number of clusters of battlefields that I wanted to visit, this would permit me to determine how many days I needed to spend on a particular vacation.
Within a couple of years, I started to find other reference materials identifying additional battlefields for me to augment those that I had started with. First I found The Atlas of the Civil War, edited by James McPherson. I had initially bought this to aid me in tracking down obscure battlefields, but I also discovered that there were sites identified in the book that were not in the Time-Life books. Using the Internet I then found the National Parks Service web site that listed 384 locations. Although my list already included the major battlefields identified at this site, this web page significantly added to my list. Within a year of this I came across the book A Tour Guide to the Civil War by Alice Cromie. This publication is broken down by state and then lists numerous towns and cities where Civil War fights took place or where Civil War-related monuments, museums, and/or artifacts can be found. From this book I was able to pick up quite a few additional sites where small fights and skirmishes had taken place. Thus within a few years I had developed a massive list of battlefields for me to attempt to visit.
About 2 months before each trip I would request a travel guide from the state, or states, that I was about to visit. These guides would help me in my selection of motels, provide me with a selection of other activities that may be of interest to me to visit if I had any additional free time, and, in some instances, also included Civil War battlefields that I did not have on my list. Initially these requests for travel guides were done via phone, but as time went on the Internet became my choice of media for requesting travel guides from the various states. The Internet also became my choice for setting up a number of the logistical items that I required to get done, such as motel and airline reservations.
If I was traveling to my destination state(s) by car, then my only preliminary item was the selection of motel(s) and making the necessary reservations. In some states I would remain in the same motel for the entire trip. Other states required me to move around often, and in a few cases, every day. As time went on I found that I never had a problem getting a motel room. Thus I only made reservations for motels when I intended to be there for 2 or more days. When I was moving to a different location each day, it would be very difficult to make reservations in advance at all of the different motels. This is because through experience I found that I may not be able to complete all of the battlefields on my list in a given day, so I may not get to my expected destination. Thus I would have to cancel the motel room where I had expected to be, and rearrange all of the other reservations into the future. This would have been very confusing and time-consuming. Also there were instances where I finished my battlefields list for the day early and would therefore start on the ones for the following day. By not making motel reservations in advance for one-night stays, this allowed me to adjust my trip on-the-fly, something that I ended up doing quite regularly.
As well as deciding which cities I needed to have motel rooms in, I also always needed to decide which motels to stay in and where in the cities these should be. Except for when I was going to spend most of the trip exploring a particular city, I needed easy access to the Interstates and highways. To avoid morning and evening traffic, I wanted to be on the outskirts of the towns and cities where I would be staying. Thus the type of place where I would stay would be motels, with easy access to the highways. From the very beginning there were particular motel chains that I preferred. I wanted to use a chain because I knew what to expect for amenities with these from city to city. As time went on this list of motels became prioritized. I would look for a specific motel chain, then the next, and so on. There were two instances when the majority of my stay would be confined to the downtown of a city: Charleston, South Carolina and Washington, D.C. In both of these instances I selected a downtown hotel to stay in, allowing me to leave my car parked in the garage and walking to my sites of interest.
When I was flying to my destination states, this required a few more reservations. First of all I needed to select an airline. From the very beginning I used the Internet in order to identify which airlines flew to the cities that I wanted to go to, and when. Upon ascertaining which airlines flew to my destination, I then made my final selection based on time of day that I wanted to fly, type of plane that was used (jets were always preferred), and cost. In most instances though, because these were smaller cities into which I was flying, and therefore did not have any easy connections to Ottawa, I would only have one choice of airline. Luckily though, I almost always got my preference for times of day that I wanted to travel.
Since these were all new cities that I had not been to before, I did not want to arrive after dark. My preference was to get to a city during the afternoon. This would allow me to become familiar with my surroundings during daylight, find my motel, and settle in before I took off exploring the countryside the next day. Thus mid- and late-morning flights were my preference; I am not a morning person and do not like getting up early. For my return trips, I also preferred a late-morning or early-afternoon flight in order to arrive back home by early evening at the latest. This allowed me time to unpack and readjust before starting off to work again, which in some instances would be the next day.
The second item that needed to be done beforehand when flying to my destination was the selection of a rental car. As with motels, I used national chains, and as with motels, there became a couple that I preferred over others. These preferences changed over the years, based more on price than anything else.
So this is how the journey that I am about to present was born and how the preliminary details for each trip were accomplished. Now a bit about how this book came about. On my second trip, which was to Virginia, I spent two great weeks exploring and getting interpretations of the many battlefields located within that war-torn state. Even though I had visited a few battlefields in South Carolina on my first trip, the sites there had not been preserved, nor were there displays explaining different events that had taken place around the battlefield. Other than Fort Sumter, I had to track down these small battlefields myself. Thus the interpretation and understanding was left up to me to comprehend on my own. But in Virginia, I roamed field after field, emotions stirring within me with each step that I took. It was a wonderful and intense experience and I wanted to share my discoveries with my friends.
So over the next few weeks after my return from Virginia, I reminisced about what I had found and what I had experienced to my fellow workmates who were interested in history. One of these, a friend by the name of Wayne Penny, suggested that I should write about my experiences. At first I disregarded this idea out of hand. But each time I told a story and Wayne was there, he would suggest to me again to write about my trip. I kept ignoring his suggestion, stating that people I did not know would not be interested in what I had to say. But the idea was starting to take hold within me.
Wayne told me that he had been writing for some time and had even had a few articles published, mainly to do with technology. But he was also interested in fictional writing and had been attempting to write a book for a few years. The more he talked, the more I realized that this was someone who was familiar with the field of writing and had an idea of what people were interested in reading. With each suggestion from him that I write about my trip, the more convincing he became. Wayne was not proposing that I write a book, but perhaps a few articles for magazines, either travel or history. After a few months, Wayne had finally persuaded me to try to come up with some small articles focusing on different portions of my trip.
Finally I sat down in an attempt to produce a small article. It would be about visiting one of the battlefields. But in writing the article, I started to give a bit of background about why I was in Virginia. I found that there were lots of thoughts going around in my head at the same time and I started to put them down on paper. As I went along I decided that the best thing for me to do was to write about the full trip, from beginning to end, then when this was completed I could pull sections out of it that I could then fine-tune to become magazines articles. It took some time to get the trip completed. The main reason for this approach was because I couldn’t decide who my target audience was: general travelers; people with an interest in the Civil War; people interested in visiting Virginia; or all of them. I finally decided to try to target the description towards all of these groups.
I found that I was really enjoying sitting down and writing. The words and thoughts flowed freely, the trip having been so recent and still fresh in my mind. I had taken pictures at each one of my stops and I also discovered that by looking at these photographs, the thoughts and emotions that I had experienced at the time came rushing back to me. I was having fun experiencing my trip again as I described day-by-day how it had unfolded, what I had found, and what it had meant to me. An additional benefit about writing about my journey that I had not considered was that by describing what had taken place at each battlefield, I was understanding in more detail what I had actually experienced. This was because not all of the stops in a battlefield park are in chronological order. So by giving an overview of the battle to the readers before describing my experiences, I was comprehending more fully what had taken place at those sites.
Finally finishing the description of my trip to Virginia, I passed it on to Wayne for comments. He also passed it on to his wife for review as well. He had found her to be beneficial in reviewing his work and she kindly agreed to examine my work. Between the two of them they gave me some valuable suggestions that I have incorporated into my writing style and thus the output that has become this book. I thank both of them for these, and also thank Wayne for prodding me to start this project that has been so enjoyable for me over the years.
Having completed the description of my trip to Virginia, I started to look at it in an attempt to find articles that could be pulled from it. Wayne gave me a book listing different magazines, what their specialties were, and what types of articles they might be looking for. This would allow me to identify which magazines may be interested in what I had written. But at the same time that I was doing this, I was also thinking about the trip that I had taken the previous spring to South Carolina. Maybe I should write down my thoughts and discoveries about that trip too while they were still somewhat fresh. The more I thought about this, the more I wanted to do it. I also had found that I really loved writing.
So putting the Virginia description aside and the possibility of producing articles for magazines, I sat down again to put on paper my South Carolina trip. I found it as enjoyable as I had when writing about my trip to Virginia. All of the thoughts and emotions came flowing back as I reviewed what I had done for that week.
By the time I finished the description of the South Carolina trip it was spring again. I had had such a great time the year before on my discoveries in South Carolina and Virginia that I wanted to do more. It was time then to start preparing for the upcoming trips. I would have no time to focus on the magazine articles. I also realized that in the fall, after my trips had been completed, that I would want to write these down as well while they were still fresh in my mind. It was during this time that I put aside the idea of creating magazine articles and understood that what I was doing was creating a journal of my trip of discovery across the Confederacy. This would become the book that is presented here.
In hindsight, by writing about my trips during each winter following the summer that I had taken them, this allowed me to place them to paper in the context in which they were taken. Not only were they still fresh in my mind and thus easier to lay out, allowing me to include more details of how they had occurred, but I was also presenting them with the knowledge that I had gained at the time. Attempting to write about them now, after completing all of my trips, I believe that I may have ended up including things that I am now aware of that I may not have known at the time that the trips were taken. Thus an evolution of my knowledge can be viewed as I progress from one summer to the next.
As just stated, with the passing of each trip, I became more knowledgeable and obtained a greater understanding of what had occurred and why. In the beginning I was mainly an observer, looking at my surroundings, taking in the information that was laid out before me, and trying to comprehend what had unfolded across the open fields and within the woods. Over time though, I started to see the bigger picture of the war. After a few years I grew to understand that most of the battles, especially the larger ones, had taken place, as part of a campaign. At the beginning I just knew that battles had taken place at different times, without an idea that there was a strategy or underlying purpose behind the movement of these troops. This comes out in my writing. During the first few years of my trips, when I describe what took place across the land surrounding me, focusing mainly on the battles themselves. In later years I also include the significance of the battles to the campaigns that they were a part of, and sometimes the significance of the campaigns.
In the early years I was also unfamiliar with most generals other than the Lee, Grant, Jackson, and a few others. But as time went on I became aware of and familiar with other soldiers, not necessarily just generals, who had critical input into the results of battles or the war. Thus there is more inclusion of men of significance in my later writings.
The other thing of note is that as time went on I started to draw conclusions and state opinions related to my experiences. Whereas early on I mainly observed and gathered information, this knowledge intake would eventually allow me to make my own judgments and ponder my own ideas on why things may have occurred as they did and the impact these events may have had on the war. Thus with each passing trip, my descriptions become larger as I include more details on what took place and why, and contemplate the reasons some of these events occurred, based on what I have discovered over the years.
Some of my thoughts and conclusions as I walk the battlefields of later trips are also based on additional knowledge of the war that I had obtained by continuing to read books about it. As well as focusing on the events within the war, I have also looked into why the war came and the occurrences that led up to it. What I have found is that the history of the United States is very much tied to the history of Canada, especially up to the time of the Civil War. With my elementary schooling in the history of Canada, at least what I can remember, my investigation and great interest into the Civil War has also allowed me to get a better understanding of how and why Canada developed as it did, giving me a better picture of my own country as well.
For instance, there is an invitation in the Declaration of Independence for Canada to join the colonies in seceding from Britain. It was the departure of the French from North America after the French-Indian War of the 1750s, including their defeat at the Battle of the Plains of Abraham in Quebec City, that helped to set the stage for the American Revolution. Much of southwestern Ontario and New Brunswick were settled by Loyalists, those loyal to Britain during and after the Revolution. These same Loyalists would aid runaway slaves during the years before the Civil War and they would become part of the Underground Railroad. As storm clouds of the Civil War grew over the United States, there were suggestions in Congress to invade either Canada or Mexico, the feeling being that a war with another country would unite Americans. Some of the pressure to create the country of Canada, which was done in 1867, came because as the Civil War wound down, Canadians felt that the United States would turn its ideas of expansion northward.
So to complete the question about why a Canadian is interested in the Civil War, the answer also is that it has helped me to understand more about my country.
Each battlefield that I describe within the book is basically broken down into 3 sections. The first part is a description of the route that I took to reach the site. This includes the roads that I traveled on and perhaps a picture of the countryside that I passed through in order to reach it. Of course some battlefields I was not able to locate specifically, but I was at least in the vicinity.
I then give a summary of the battle that took place at the site. In most instances I had no thorough knowledge of the battle that I was about to explore. I did not read about the battles before visiting the sites. I wanted my discovery to take place at the battlefield by visiting the significant points where the battle had unfolded and by reading the summaries given at displays and on brochures. Of course at battlefields such as Gettysburg and Chickamauga, I did have an idea of what took place at these sites before arriving there, but I did no preliminary reading. Thus the descriptions of battles given in this book are either from information I gathered at the sites or summarized from my reference books during the writing of the book in order to give the reader a better understanding of what I am viewing as I walk the battlefields. It may be more information than I was aware of during my battlefield visit.
The last part of a battlefield description is from my point of view. I describe what I was seeing, how the battlefield looks today, and my emotions and thoughts as I moved from point to point. These thoughts may be about the battle or some other aspect of the war.
Thus this book is a journal of my journey across the Confederacy; tracing the footsteps of the soldiers who have gone before me. It is a description of what I found, who I met, what I experienced and saw, and the great enjoyment that it gave me. It is my attempt to understand why, when, and how the soldiers did what they did. It is also my attempt to pass on to others my discoveries and the knowledge of the Civil War that I have gathered over time. Perhaps this book will persuade some to visit the battlefields, experience emotions as I have, and get a better understanding of what took place during those 4 terrible but very significant years. If so, then I have accomplished what I set out to do by writing this book.
Copyright (c) 2002 Dave Comeau