Wednesday, November 28, 2012

MetroWest Daily News: On Hallowed Ground

The following text was published in the MetroWest Daily News on Sunday, November 25.

On Hallowed Ground: The Civil War Sesquicentennial in Maryland and West Virginia

By Michael Hartigan
Posted Nov 28, 2012 @ 02:12 PM

Historically speaking, New Englanders are spoiled. As the hub of the Revolutionary War’s most important events, we're able to tread the same cobblestones as the legends of American history.

Due as much to geographical convenience as it is to historical significance, most experience at an early age the people and places that birthed the nation. Teachers point out their classroom windows at nearby landmarks; students walk the Freedom Trail and are back to school by lunch; neighbors watch reenactments of the Battles at Lexington and Concord.

That war is more than 230 years gone, its results integrated long ago into daily life. To the victor go the stories. Paul Revere and John Hancock are historical heroes. Accounts, like the Boston Tea Party or the, "Shot heard 'round the world," teeter on the brink of folklore.

New Englanders, those from Massachusetts especially, accept and embrace their role as bearers of this epic history, in part because it is easy to do so; not many people on this side of the Atlantic Ocean take issue with the occurrences of 1776. Without diminishing the sacrifice of our founding fathers, visitors to popular sites like Paul Revere’s house in Boston or Minuteman National Historical Park in Lexington and Concord, Mass. float past exhibits and battlefields on a cloud of patriotic nostalgia.

But beyond the happy confines of Revolutionary New England, there are war-based tourist destinations that face a starkly different situation: where reconciling blood and steel for sympathetic visitors becomes less about a nation’s triumph and more about its tragedy.
Many tourist attractions across the globe, from battlefields to concentration camps to killing fields, open their nation’s deepest wounds to the prodding of outsiders. Closer to home, some of America’s most profound sites literally balance victory and defeat; hero and enemy; North and South.

Along the border of western Maryland and West Virginia, in a small corner of Appalachia, lies what is commonly referred to as the Heart of America’s Civil War Heritage Area. Part of the larger corridor known as Hallowed Ground, this region saw some of the bloodiest, most pivotal engagements of the 1860s.

A visit here, especially over the next few years as America commemorates the Civil War’s Sesquicentennial anniversary (1861–1865), tells the full story, unbiased even in the shadow of fraternal carnage, often giving visitors a visceral understanding of what it was like to fire upon your neighbor.

"While those lingering memories can sometimes tint the way in which events are commemorated, Maryland is in a unique position to portray the ‘brothers war’ nature of the conflict," said Mary Koik, spokesperson for the Civil War Trust.

The Hallowed Ground corridor stretches from Gettysburg, Penn. to Monticello, Va. Civil War buffs traverse the landscape like country music fans do Nashville, Tenn.

But situated just an hour drive from either Baltimore or Washington, D.C., are a multitude of powerful destinations that make accessible and worthwhile daytrips for anyone visiting the mid-Atlantic.

Driving west from the town of Frederick, Md., the Old National Pike (Route 40) marches through countryside pockmarked with an abundance of impressive historical attractions.
Less than 15 miles along Route 40 stands the original George Washington Monument, high atop a strategic bluff. This simple stone tower gave Union troops a panoramic view of West Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania.

A few miles away in Sharpsburg, Md., the grounds at Antietam National Battlefield are peaceful, with sprawling grass fields still organized by zig-zagging split-rail fences.
The canons dotting the landscape remind you this was not just farmland.

Antietam is so large the best way to see it is by driving the roads crisscrossing the park.
Personalizing the vast expanse are hundreds of metal signs detailing each moment of the brutal encounter. Engaging guides describe troop movements and how skirmishes were won and lost. The guide at the Bloody Road, a deadly sunken no-man’s land, will convince you there are bayonets bobbing up over the opposite embankment.

In contrast to New England’s Revolutionary War sites, where Redcoats bullied the ragtag militiamen, Antietam — the bloodiest single day of the American Civil War — is devoid of historical bias.

Both Confederate and Union soldiers are honored. The signs show no preferred side. The guides pass no judgment. Upside-down canons mark the spots where both Northern and Southern generals fell.

The tradition continues 30 minutes south of Antietam in Harpers Ferry, W.Va., where guides dressed in era garb go about the daily business of the 1860s. This picturesque peninsula became famous for abolitionist John Brown’s raid.

Harpers Ferry does not shy away from its alternating allegiance, having been occupied at various times by both sides. Instead, the B&O Railroad still rumbles through the village, and the streets are lined with replica Civil War storefronts. The tangled and extraordinary history of this village remains its greatest asset, alongside spectacular scenery.

In mid-September both 
Harpers Ferry and Antietam commemorated the 150-year anniversary of their respective battles. 

Each location hosted speakers and reenactments. At the Memorial Illumination on Dec. 1, Antietam’s biggest event of the year, volunteers will light 23,000 luminaries — one for each casualty of the battle — along a 5-mile route.

There is ample opportunity to witness Civil War Sesquicentennial events. The 150th anniversary of the Battle of Fredericksburg will be commemorated the week of Dec. 7. The Battle of Gettysburg and the Gettysburg Address will also be remembered during 2013 with special events March through November.

"Particularly now during the sesquicentennial, much emphasis is being placed on remembering the more universal human experience and toll of the war," Koik said.

The Civil War story is a complex and difficult one. So is the retelling of it 150 years later. For a New England traveler accustomed to vilifying history’s foreign opposition, Americans fighting Americans is a new concept, but one well worth exploring on Hallowed Ground.

If you go

The Hallowed Ground Corridor:

Dec. 7-9: The 150th Anniversary of The Battle of Fredericksburg: ”Fire on the Rappahannock," Fredericksburg, Va. More than a week of events commemorating this pivotal battle in the Civil War. Some highlights include extensive immersion tours and a lecture by renowned Civil War historian and author Frank O'Reilly. Visit

Dec. 1: Annual Antietam National Battlefield Memorial Illumination: 23,000 candles - one for each soldier killed, wounded or missing at the Battle of Antietam - will bit lit on Saturday evening, Dec. 1 In the event of poor weather, the illumination will be rescheduled for Saturday, Dec. 8, 2012.

More Civil War Information and Events:

Michael Hartigan writes for the MetroWest Daily News in Framingham, Mass.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Music for your eyes

Nashville is known for country music. Regardless of your opinion of pick up trucks, heartbreak and cold beer, one has to admit that the live music pumping out of every bar on Broadway is a rare treat for the ears. 

But Music City isn't just a one trick pony (no matter how many country songs sing about one trick ponies). The place does due diligence to tickling the other four senses. The weather is pleasant, the food is down-home delicious and the main street smells like BBQ smoke - seriously. Except when you walk by the candy store, then the smoked meat flavor  switches out for the bubbling praline aroma wafting out the door. 

And as all those wanna-be Vince Gills will tell you, you gotta look the part if you want to make it in this town. On that front, Nashville doesn't disappoint. From the buzzing lights on Broadway to Opryland's secret garden to a modern replica of an ancient behemoth, the sights of Nashville come in a close second to its famous sounds. 

Here are a few of my favorite solos from Music City. 

Lights on Broadway

The Best BBQ on Broadway

Grand Ole Opry

A Few Famous Frets

The Hall of Fame

Wall of Records

Elvis' Studio B

Opryland Hotel

The Opryland Garden

The Parthenon

Don't Ruin the Parthenon

Friday, November 16, 2012

Monthly Column: Seeing the Lights in the City of Light

The following column appeared in the Wicked Local newspapers.

Wherever It Takes: Seeing the light in the City of Lights

Read the column at: Wherever It Takes: Seeing the light in the City of Lights - Danvers, MA - Danvers Herald

Full Text

Like most other landmarks in Paris, France, the chapel of Sainte-Chappelle has become a tourist destination. Despite that, like most other landmarks in Paris, the chapel is still historic, awe-inspiring, and indelibly memorable. But no other landmark along the Seine — not the views from the Eiffel Tower or the halls in the Louvre — makes an impression like the chapel at Sainte-Chappelle.

Tucked away along a side road running perpendicular to Notre Dame Cathedral, hides the chapel at Sainte-Chappelle. Notre Dame, itself mythical in atmosphere and stature, dominates the immediate skyline and tourist attention. Saint Chappelle is a little less known and a little less mobbed. It has an almost underdog flare, being in the shadow of Notre Dame’s hulking spires and gurgling gargoyles.

But shadows only exist where there is also light. In the City of Light, the chapel of Sainte-Chappelle is overflowing.

There really is only one reason to visit Sainte-Chappelle, and kick yourself if you don't do so on a sunny day: stained glass. Specifically, 6,458 square feet of stained glass nestled into exquisite French high gothic architecture. The high pointed arch windows and the massive rose window will leave your jaw sore from hitting the floor, your neck permanently craned and your eyes spoiled forever. Spoiled because your eyes will never again see colors like they did in Sainte-Chappelle.

Having just come from Notre Dame, I entered Sainte-Chappelle’s main room expecting a miniature, dusty replica of the religious leviathan I just left. The chapel’s room was larger than I expected, about 80 yards long, and the roof seemed just as high.

It took a moment for my eyes to adjust to the sudden change in light. I noticed first the decorated floor and worked my gaze up the walls. Before I understood why, bright colors were scattered across my line of sight. In the slightly dusty air, beams of color speared to the floor, fractured at odd angles like refracted lasers.

Covering every inch of the walls, stained glass windows soared up to the vaulted ceiling. The sun moseyed on in from the outside and burst into purples, blues, greens, yellows and reds that were sent skipping around mid-air.

Forget this was a church; this room would have been a religious experience even without all the ornately carved Christian relics and symbolism.

The void between walls was simply a carousel of light, with fractured colors from across the spectrum doing pirouettes and pinwheels. Each glass scene was comprised of glass chips of all sizes, painted and situated to create an ongoing tableau flowing from one end of the chapel to the other. A static scenario it was not; the dancing light gave the stained glass a theatrical component. I had never seen anything like it and as I mentioned, my eyes have yet to consume a fest such as this since.

I actually had to think to blink because I did not want to stop watching. In doing so, I caught a glimpse of my wife who, for the moment, I had forgotten was there. At that point, I actually smiled wider because of the wide smile I saw on her face.

My wife, you see, was the impetus for our visit to Sainte-Chappelle. She had been waiting for about 12 years to return to this vaunted spot, ever since she visited Paris on a high school trip. The chapel quickly became her favorite spot, and it was obvious as to why.

She had mentioned Sainte-Chappelle back during our dating days and she described it in detail when we were planning our Paris trip. I could tell it meant something to her and learned that France was her first trip away from home. Paris was her first grand adventure and the City of Light sparked in her a lifelong independent streak, as well as an undying love of fashionable shoes. I am thankful to Paris for instilling one of those traits in her (I am still trying to forgive Paris for the latter).

I heard the little gasp of delight as we stepped around the actual room and her face lit up brighter than anything in the City of Light.

As sappy as it may sound, that was my highlight of Paris. Of course, the Arc de Triomphe was impressive and the view from atop it astounding; the Orsay and the Louvre hid a different masterpiece in every little nook; Sacre Coeur was a beautiful ivory sentinel and Moulin Rouge was a seedy temptation; the walk down the Champs-Elysees had my head spinning and my wallet crying.

But none gave me a moment quite like Sainte-Chappelle; a moment you don’t get from your travel guidebook; an organic, never-forget moment quite literally seared in your memory, more timeless than anything on a Nikon memory card.

You have to be willing to let these moments happen, walk the beaten and unbeaten paths with an open heart and wide-open eyes. A place like Sainte-Chappelle will fill both quickly. That was how I saw the light in the City of Light.

Mike Hartigan of Saugus, an alumnus of St. John’s Prep, is a writer and traveler looking for good story, wherever it takes. Follow along at or on Twitter @WhereverItTakes

Read the column at: Wherever It Takes: Seeing the light in the City of Lights - Danvers, MA - Danvers Herald