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William Least Heat-Moon’s book Blue Highways: A Journey Into America chronicled his journey across the country on secondary roads, which are shown in blue on paper maps. I recently traveled blue highways as I drove across New York state from Albany to the Finger Lakes region, to learn how to do wet-plate photography, and later to check out a replica of the balloon Intrepid.

Along the way, I passed through small towns that most drivers never get to see. Monuments to Civil War regiments stood prideful watch in many of them, even towns with only a few buildings. In a region where the battlefields were far away, those monuments kept the conflict uppermost in my mind. I could easily envision what they were like in the 1860s, when eager recruits formed up in town centers, ready to march off to war. Perhaps some of those same troops would scribble their names on the walls of houses down South. And some of them were never seen again—except as names engraved in red sandstone or white marble: “85 Regt. N.Y. Vols, Co. B, Private Linus Cone, Killed Fair Oaks, VA, May 31, 1862.”

These were Empire State men, but the same scenario plays out along blue highways in Georgia, Mississippi or Michigan. So get off the interstates whenever you can. You never know where you’ll find the Civil War.

Originally published in the December 2012 issue of Civil War Times.