Blood once soaked the soil of battlefields that have since been covered up by skyscrapers and commuter train stations in Atlanta, strip malls in Nashville and farm fields and forests across the South.
Now, 150 years after the American Civil War, two musicians are trying to keep that history from being lost in the new landscape.
The women, who write about Civil War clashes and those who fought them, are recording videos on the battlefields that inspired their songs.
“The whole point is to make sure these stories are kept alive, that they’re not forgotten,” said one of the artists, Vanessa Olivarez.
She and Elizabeth Elkins, whose band is Granville Automatic, have worked with the nonprofit Civil War Trust, the National Park Service and others on the project. A key goal, they say, is to raise awareness of what happened during the war and to help preserve the battlefields, which some consider sacred ground.
The women shot one of the videos earlier this year at Glorieta Pass, N.M., the 1862 battle that became known as the Civil War’s “Gettysburg of the West.” Other battlefields that set scenes for their songs of soldiers, horses and ghosts include Franklin in Tennessee; Gettysburg in Pennsylvania; and Antietam in Maryland.
Some of Granville Automatic’s songs paint haunting scenes of sorrow, such as the time when mothers and daughters of soldiers used lanterns to search a battlefield at night for their loved ones, who had just fought at Horseshoe Ridge near Chattanooga, Tenn. The band drew inspiration from the hundreds of lanterns that lit the mountainside to write “Lanterns at Horseshoe Ridge” about that page of history from 1863.
Other songs tell tales of perseverance. “Carolina Amen” recounts the story of a Southern bride who prays, “wedding band and her hand on her heart,” for her husband who is away fighting fierce battles in Virginia.
“We want to keep those real personal stories alive,” Elkins said.
Elkins and Olivarez perform across the country and divide their time between Nashville and Atlanta. The Georgia city inspired their song “Copenhill,” about the Battle of Atlanta, when the city was burned by Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s Union army.
The song recalls how Sherman watched from Copenhill, the site of the present-day Jimmy Carter Library and Museum, as flames lit the sky over Atlanta. Thousands died on ground now covered by a commuter train station in Atlanta’s Inman Park neighborhood.
The project gained momentum in January 2012, when Elkins and Olivarez spent time at the Escape To Create artist residency program in Seaside, Fla. They’ve also developed a multimedia presentation for schools.
Musicians have played an important role in raising awareness of Civil War history, said Mary Koik, a spokeswoman at the Civil War Trust.
Country music star Trace Adkins ended up joining the nonprofit’s board of trustees after calling the organization and speaking to a receptionist a few years ago, Koik said.
“He just called and said ‘Hi, my name is Trace Adkins and I’m a country and western singer,” Koik said. “He said ‘I think what you guys do is great, how can I get involved?’”
Adkins has ancestors who fought in the war, Koik said. Elkins also has relatives who fought, and their stories have been passed down through generations of her family, she said. Those personal accounts, and a desire to save battlefields from being forgotten or lost to development, fuel Granville Automatic’s songs, Elkins said.
“To me, it’s so important that these stories get carried on,” she said.