Would you like your Civil War history seasoned with baseball trivia? Spritzed up with a winery tour? Do you long to dissect the Battle of Antietam with a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian?
Hire a guide.
As the 150th anniversary of the war between the states approaches, starting with John Brown's 1859 prewar raid at Harpers Ferry, W.Va., customized tours for people fascinated by the conflict are multiplying.
As little as $50 buys a two-hour, private guided tour of Antietam, site of the bloodiest day of the war, or Gettysburg National Military Park, the high-water mark of the Confederacy, in neighboring Pennsylvania.
Those thirsting for more knowledge can join multistate bus tours of up to six days led by scholars including James McPherson, whose 1988 book "Battle Cry of Freedom" won a Pulitzer and helped rekindle interest in the conflict. The cost of the marathon trek, offered by Civil War Tours of Winchester, Conn.: $950, excluding hotel lodging.
"We interpret the events of the battle as they unfolded, which the average guy can't do standing there reading the park brochure by the wayside," tour operator David A. Ward said.
Between these extremes are an assortment of tours tailored for virtually every taste. All-In-One Tours and Cruises of Lancaster, Pa., blends visits to Virginia battlefields with wine tastings, plantation house tours and Shakespeare plays. Company co-owner Cathy Strite said the leisurely Civil War packages appeal to history-loving "new seniors" — baby boomers who wouldn't dream of taking a tour bus to Branson, Mo.
"They say, 'I want education, I want to keep living, I want to keep learning, I want to keep my mind active,'" Strite said. "All that will absolutely explode as we approach the 150th."
The Battle of Antietam was fought near the western Maryland hamlet of Sharpsburg on Sept. 17, 1862, leaving more than 23,000 dead, wounded or missing on the bloodiest day of the war. Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee's retreat from Antietam gave President Abraham Lincoln the political strength to issue the Emancipation Proclamation five days later.
Those are the basics. But if you hire guide Randy Buchman of the Antietam Battlefield Guides, you'll likely hear about Gen. Abner Doubleday, who commanded a Union division at Antietam and is popularly known as having invented the game of baseball. Buchman, who is writing a book about Doubleday, said the baseball story is false, since Doubleday was a cadet at West Point when he supposedly invented the game in Cooperstown, N.Y., in 1839.
But Buchman said Doubleday did throw out the first metaphorical pitch of the Civil War by firing the first Union shot in defense of Fort Sumter, in Charleston, S.C., in 1861.
Buchman, an evangelical church pastor, is in his first year of Civil War guiding. Jeff Driscoll has been doing it since the 1970s. His clients have ranged from Boy Scout troops and British tourists to individuals like Wayne Rowe, a Naval War College librarian from Tiverton, R.I., whose hobby is studying the Richmond Howitzers, a Confederate artillery company.
On Rowe's last visit to the Antietam National Battlefield in May, he hired Driscoll to retrace the unit's movements, from their Potomac River crossing near Sharpsburg to their battle positions throughout the day, documented on time-sequenced maps that most casual visitors to the battlefield headquarters never see.
Rowe said he was thrilled to be able to walk where the Richmond Howitzers marched.
"I didn't have much time, and he kind of did the work for me. It was the best money and time I could have spent," he said.
Driscoll said boning up on arcane requests is part of the fun of guiding.
"You just continue to learn more and more and more about not just the battle, but the whole campaign. It's expected and it's necessary," he said.
The Antietam guide service is run by the Western Maryland Interpretive Association, a private, nonprofit group that also owns the battlefield bookstore. But the rigorous training regimen — including a 25-book reading list and written and oral exams — is based on the requirements of the Gettysburg-based Association of Battlefield Guides.
The 155 Gettysburg guides are licensed by the National Park Service and are the only people allowed to give paid tours of the Gettysburg battlefield.
Park rangers at Gettysburg and Antietam also give programs on the battles, but their offerings are restricted by their numbers — just 18 year-round rangers at Gettysburg and six at Antietam.
"We're limited by the fact that we have to respond to everybody and kind of give a general overview of the battle," Antietam Superintendent John W. Howard said. "Now we have an option; we can say, 'Get hold of the guide service.'"
Antietam guide Thomas G. Clemens, a history professor at nearby Hagerstown Community College, said the service follows the National Park Service mission of public education.
"We're really fulfilling the purpose of what the park is all about," he said. "It's meant to teach people lessons."