Where history comes to life
Along a 200-mile stretch between southern Pennsylvania and central Virginia lie many of the battlefield sites where the young nation’s “bloodiest war” was fought. Between 1861 and 1865, the United States of America fought a Civil War that pitted 11 seceding Southern states (the Confederate States of America) against the U.S. federal government (the "Union"), which was supported by the remaining states.
The causes of the war, the reasons for its outcome, and even the name of the war- known as the "War Between the States" - are subjects of lingering controversy.
In four years of fighting there were more than a million casualties, including about 620,000 soldier deaths. In some cases battles were even fought between brothers. In all, the war accounted for more casualties than all other U.S. wars combined.
Today you can visit the cities and towns that were witness to the battles of the Civil War. As you walk these hallowed grounds, you can envision the battles and imagine the horror of the aftermath. The Civil War trails are well marked and just a short drive away.
Gettysburg -The Pivotal Crossroads Town
Start your trip by going north to Gettysburg, a small city located on the Pennsylvania border. There on July 1-3, 1863, a series of battles were fought in the land around the city that in many historians' minds was the turning point of the Civil War. With 75,000 men, Gen. Robert E. Lee met the 97,000-man Union army under the leadership of Gen. George G. Meade. Fresh from a victory in Chancellorsville, Virginia in May 1863, Lee led his army west through the Shenandoah Valley for his second invasion of the North. Lee wanted to defeat the Union army on their own soil to influence Northern politicians to give up their prosecution of the war.
During engagements of the first two days, Confederate army assaults pushed the Union army south of town, to places known as Little Round Top, the Wheatfield, Devil's Den, and the Peach Orchard. Small skirmishes from the west escalated into full-scale assaults on the Union strongholds at Culp's Hill and Cemetery Hill. Across the battlefield, despite significant losses, the Union defenders held their lines.
Instead of fortifying their position, on the third day of battle Lee attempted to move forward. Mead's men were waiting at Culp's W and cavalry battles raged to the east and south, but the main event was a dramatic infantry assault by 12,500 Confederates against the center of the Union line on Cemetery Ridge. Forever known as Pickett's Charge, it was repulsed by Union rifle and artillery fie at great losses to the Confederate army.
At the end of the day, Lee led his army on a torturous retreat back to Virginia. The result was the bloodiest three-day battle on American soil. In all, there were between 46,000 and 51,000 American casualties. That November, President Abraham Lincoln used the dedication ceremony for the Gettysburg National Cemetery to honor the fallen and redefine the purpose of the war by delivering his famous Gettysburg Address.
On a tour of Gettysburg National Military Park, you can walk the battlefields, learn about the life of the Civil War soldier and view the Eternal Light Peace Memorial, built through efforts of veterans from both the North and the South.
Driving south to Sharpsburg, Maryland, you will find the site of the bloodiest single-day battle in American history. Almost a year before Gettysburg, 12,410 Union and 10,700 Confederate soldiers were killed or wounded on September 17, 1862. Called Battle of Antietam by Union soldiers and the Battle at Sharpsburg by the Confederates, the battle was fought between 41,000 soldiers of the Army of Northern Virginia led by Lee against the Federal Army of the Potomac's 87,000 troops under the command of Gen. George McClellan.
Fresh from big wins in Virginia, Lee brought his troops north to Maryland for the first time, with plans to invade Union territory. The battle that by most historical accounts ended in a draw forced Lee to withdraw back to the South resulting in a Union win. This single day changed the course of the war, causing President Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, which discouraged the British and French governments from potential plans for recognition of the Confederacy.
Today the National Park Service maintains a 960-acre Antietam National Battlefield site. At the visitor center, guests can view two films describing the fateful day in September. While touring the battlefields you can walk over Burnside Bridge, down Bloody Lane and view a replica of one of the 500 cannons that were used in the battle that was called “artillery hell” by Confederate artillery commander colonel S.D. Lee.
West Virginia. This location is perhaps best known for Abolitionist John Brown's 1859 raid on its federal arsenal and armory - a manufacturing plant that created muskets and rifles used in the Civil War. Brown wanted to capture the town to incite the slaves to insurrection by arming from the government stores. His attempt failed and he was hanged.
So strategic was the location where Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia meet that it changed hands during the war eight times. While under Union control, the town became the command headquarters for the Union Army.
One of the first major battles of the Civil War was fought at this strategically important railroad junction just west of Washington, D.C. On July 21, 1862 the Confederate army showed its military prowess in defeating an inexperienced Union army.
Led by Gen. Thomas J. Jackson, it was during this battle that he acquired the nickname "Stonewall." As the Confederate lines began to crumble under heavy Union assault,
Jackson's brigade provided crucial reinforcements, demonstrating the discipline he instilled in his men. In exhorting his own troops to reform, Brig. Gen. Barnard Elliott Bee Jr. shouted, "There is Jackson standing like a stone wall. Let us determine to peaceful Virginia countryside bore witness again as the armies returned about a year later on August 29-30, 1862. Again the South (Confederate) defeated the North (Union).
Located in the middle of the battlefield is the Stone House which was owned by Wilber McLean. One of the earliest "spin doctor" newspaper reports stated that McLean, a prosperous merchant, said he lived through the First Battle of Bull Run. McLean went to great lengths to describe how a cannonball flew through the kitchen window of his Stone House. In truth, while McLean was the owner of the house, he was not living there at the time of the battle. He had rented the place to the Confederate army (at reportedly a very high price).
From the nation's capital, take 1-95 and head south. About halfway to the Confederate capital of Richmond is Fredericksburg. Located on the Rappahannock River, this town became a strategic position where four different battles took place.
The Union army commanded by Ambrose E. Burnside took position at Stafford Heights. With General Lee's army firmly entrenched on the hills west of town, Burnside attacked the Confederate stronghold in the middle of December. An assault led by Meade at Prospect Hill met with some success, but ended as a draw, as Lee's forces were able to push Meade's troops back. The second assault against Lee's troops at Marye's Heights was a disaster. Confederate infantry behind a stone wall had dear vision of the advancing Union troops. When the day ended, Robert E. Lee had won the most one-sided victory of the war.
Today in the middle of town, the Fredericksburg visitor center is the starting point of a walking tour that winds through downtown, documenting the different locations of the December battle. On the western edge of town is the Fredericksburg Battlefield Visitor Center at Marye's Heights. From this location you can walk the sunken road where the Confederate troops slaughtered the advancing Union army.
Following the Fredericksburg defeat, President Lincoln replaced Burnside with Joseph Hooker and moved his troops west to Chancellorsville. You can follow Lee's path from downtown by following Route 3 west to the Chancellorsville Battlefields. From April 27 to May 6, 1863, this was the site of a pitched battle which the Confederates won - driving the Union army back. Proceed farther west, as the Union army did when they returned a year later and engaged in the Battle of the Wilderness on May 5-6, 1864. Travel Route 613 - a beautiful bade road - through the location where the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House was fought, to the Stonewall Jackson Memorial.
Farther south on 1-95, in the middle of the state, you will find the Richmond/Petersburg area. Although there are battlefields around the city to the east, Richmond was the capital of the Confederate States of America. Downtown is a Confederate museum (which contains the largest collection of Confederate artifacts) and the White House of the Confederacy (which has been restored to its original grand Southern style). It served as the executive mansion of Confederate President Jefferson Davis and his family during the Civil War. These are reminders of a time when our country was divided.
Because of its central location, the city became the supply and logistical center for much of the Confederate forces. Located along the James River was Tredegar Iron Works, which supplied high-quality munitions, railroad steam locomotives and artillery pieces to the South during the war. The site is now the location of a museum called The American Civil War Center at Historic Tredegar.
Thirty miles to the south was Petersburg, the location where many railroads ended. Supplies from the South would come here first before being distributed to the Confederate army. The fall of Richmond took place when the Union army, led by Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, moved around to the east of Richmond and cut off the railroad lines that brought supplies horn the South to Petersburg and Richmond. It took months to break through this Confederate stronghold. By late March the Union army had gained control of three of the four railroad lines that serviced the Confederate capital.
With the fall of Richmond and Petersburg and the cutting off of the railroads, the Confederate army had lost their supplies from the South. Lee headed west toward Charlottesville where he thought there was a supply train. The eventual goal was to meet up with other forces in western North Carolina and regroup. On his arrival Lee found munitions but no food. Before he could unload the trains, the munitions were destroyed by Union soldiers led by Gen. George Armstrong Custer. Seeing his western retreat cut off and his army starving, Lee sent word to McClellan. In a little town called Appomattox Court House, in a front-room parlor, Generals Lee and Grant signed an agreement to end the War Between the States.
The National Park Service has put together an impressive museum re-creating the town to look just as it did in 1865, illustrating what life was like at the end of Civil War. Compared with many other testaments to the Civil War where battles raged, this is a quiet place of peace, a memorial to the end of America's most bloody war. This museum is a tribute to the dignity, the honor and the generosity of the two sides in the final days of the conflict.
The American Civil War was the deadliest in American history, causing 620,000 soldier's deaths and an undetermined number of civilian casualties. Many of those casualties were located along the path of this trip. Although the war ended slavery in the United States, restored the Union, and strengthened the role of the federal government, the cities and historical battlefields across the mid-Atlantic landscape bore witness to our nation's worst war.
National Park Service
“The American Civil War”
Aquia Pines Camp Resort
3071 Jefferson Davis Hwy.
Stafford, VA 22554
Cherry Hill Park
9800 Cherry Hill Road
College Park, MD 20740
(800) 314-9308, (301) 937-7116
2030 Fairfield Road
Gettysburg, PA 17325
(888) 879-2241, (717) 334-3304
Hagerstown/Antietam Battlefield KOA
11759 Snug Harbor Lane
Williamsport, MD 21795
(800) 562-7607, (301) 223-7571
Harpers Ferry/Civil War Battlefields KOA
343 Campground Road
Harpers Ferry, WV 25425
(800) 562-9497, (304) 535-6895