Driving Through History

Touring Four Civil War Battle Sites
By Christina Breda
  |  Gorp.com

The thing I'd forgotten from all those long-ago elementary school field trips and mandatory-fun family excursions—the thing that struck me as an adult when I finally began to seek out history of my own accord—was just how massive battle sites really are.

They sprawl across thousands of acres of farmland, swallowing up towns, straddling mountains, crossing rivers, rolling endlessly forward over bridges, under bridges, and through forests. Many are peppered with monuments—obelisks, statues, and cement-mounted plaques—jutting out of the farmland in remembrance of the soldiers who fought there.

The good news for the ambitious: There's a lot of ground to cover. The bad news for the time-challenged: There's a lot of ground to cover. There were more than 10,000 armed encounters in 26 states between the blue and the gray, so making a tour of Civil War sites is no small job.

When I struck out on a recent tour of major battlefields in Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania, I was glad I had my wheels. And my hiking boots. And it doesn't hurt to have a bike, too, if you can manage it. Battle sites mean forests and fields, mountainsides and rivers, and you won't want to miss a piece of history for lack of accessibility. But to cram the trip into a reasonable amount of time—to transport yourself quickly from the rolling farmland of northern Virginia toward the Allegheny Mountains, on to the hills of Sharpsburg and the fields and forests of Gettysburg—a car is a no-brainer.

The mid-Atlantic is a no-brainer, too. Virginia, which saw action for nearly the entire war, is home to 123 major battle sites, far more than any other state. And its neighbors had their share of Civil War glory—or infamy—too. It doesn't hurt that some of the most critical Civil War events took place in what is now some of the most beautiful, serene, and still relatively unspoiled countryside.

The four sites selected for this driving tour—Manassas National Battlefield Park, Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, Antietam National Battlefield, and Gettysburg National Military Park—by no means tell the whole story of the Civil War. Still, if you haven't got months to spend on an exhaustive tour, these sites offer a good mix of historical events from which to learn about the conflict that took more than 600,000 lives and divided a nation. The entire tour can be completed in three days, depending on how many side trips you make and how much time you spend at each site.

Start Your Engines . . .

To begin, start from Washington, D.C., and take I-66 West. Merge onto exit 47B and take Virginia Business Route 234 North toward Manassas. Proceed through the first traffic light and take the second right. Manassas National Battlefield's Henry Hill Visitor Center is located at the top of the hill.

Article and photos © Christina Breda, 2001.

Christina Breda is a freelance journalist covering the Baltimore, Maryland, and Washington, D.C., markets. She graduated in 1992 from the University of Florida with a bachelor's degree in journalism and has since written for a variety of business and travel publications.

Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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