Blind tourist in touch with Civil War history

July 23, 1999

Alta Eidson By BRENDAN KIRBY / Staff Writer

photo: JOE CROCETTA / staff photographer

BOLIVAR HEIGHTS, W.Va. - Alta Eidson does not have the use of her eyes, but she has seen more of America's Civil War history during the last five years than most people do in a lifetime.

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Eidson, 49, has spent the last week touring Tri-State area Civil War sights with local historian Dennis E. Frye.

Since Eidson cannot see, Frye provides vivid descriptions of the geography and topography of the land. Eidson takes advantage of her sense of touch - touching the corn stalks in Antietam National Battlefield's cornfield, for instance.

Frye forms her hands in the shape of the battlefield and then points to spots denoting the layout of mountains, rivers and troop movements.


"You can't understand what's going on here unless you understand the mountains and the elevation," Frye told her Thursday, as the two stood near the spot of the largest battle in what is now West Virginia.

Frye explained the different elevations of mountain ridges near Bolivar Heights.

"The reason that's important is whoever holds the high ground has an advantage. You don't have to be a graduate of West Point," he said.

Eidson, of Temple, Texas, made her first trip to a Civil War site in 1990, when she and a friend visited Antietam. Since then, she has been to every major Civil War area.

Eidson said National Park Service rangers have told her that she is not so much a Civil War buff as she is a lay historian.

She keeps a replica of a Confederate cannon in her garage and 16 Civil War prints hang throughout her house. Although she cannot see them, Eidson said they have been described to her in intricate detail.

"The moments they depict are special to me," she said.

While in town this week, Eidson has been staying at the Piper House, a bed and breakfast on the grounds of Antietam.

"I really like it. I feel like I'm on sacred ground," she said.

Fading eyesight

Eidson began losing her sight in her early teens. It was gradual; some mornings, she said she would wake up not being able to see quite as well as the night before.

By the time she was 14, she had lost the sight in her right eye.

By 17, she could not see well enough to read.

A short time later, she had no vision at all.

Eidson said she learned Braille during her senior year in high school and then went to a rehabilitation center for blind people.

Eidson said she was eager to go to college and pushed aside the depression that overcomes some people who lose their vision.

"I don't waste my time with that," she said.

After graduating from Baylor University with a sociology degree, Eidson earned a master's degree in social work from the University of Texas at Austin. For the last 18 years, she has worked as a hospital social worker.

Eidson said the fact that she gradually lost her sight made the transition easier.

"I would think that a sudden loss of vision would be harder than it was for me," she said. "I have visual memory. I visualize almost instantaneously."

Eidson said she approaches life the way people used to listen to radio programs. She imagines her Civil War hero - Confederate Gen. Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson - leading troops into battle near Harpers Ferry, W.Va., as Frye outlines the action.

"He fills in the description," she said.

About 12 years ago, Eidson said, a CAT scan revealed the cause of her blindness to be seven brain tumors. Although she has had one removed, the others are inoperable. She said one of the tumors crushed her optical nerves, ruining her eyesight.

Civil War passion

Eidson attributes her love of Civil War history to her eighth-grade history teacher.

"I'm not sure I can really articulate that in words. It's more of an emotional response," she said.

The initial kindling has been stoked by vociferous research on the subject and subsequent discovery of relatives who fought for the South.

Eidson has a collection of about 700 Civil War books, which she reads with the aid of a machine that scans the text and then reads back the words.

When he was an historian at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, Frye said he spoke to many blind tourists. He has given tours of Civil War battlefields for about 30 years.

"This is the first time I ever had a blind person by herself visit these battlefields," he said.

Eidson hired Frye through a mutual acquaintance, who heads the Austin Civil War Roundtable. Frye said he is impressed by her knowledge of the conflict.

"My time is very valuable. I only spend my time with serious students of the war," he said.

Eidson said she enjoyed her visit to the Tri-State area and counts Antietam as her favorite battlefield. She was disturbed to learn that Schoolhouse Ridge, a piece of land about 1,000 miles west of Bolivar Heights that was in Jackson's line of battle, is not owned by the National Park Service.

Eidson said she has seen too many historic sites replaced by fast-food restaurants and housing developments.

"The Civil War defined us as a nation no matter what side you're on," she said.

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