Battlefield Travel Advice
On occasion someone will ask me for advice on touring the Civil War battlefields in or near Virginia. Not knowing people's interests and situation it's always tough to give that sort of advice, but I'll give it a shot. Firstly and most importantly, do plenty of research before you go. You can't do enough research. Park service interpretation can range from excellent to non-existant, and you won't know for sure until you get there. For that matter there are plenty of sites that are completely unprotected and un-interpreted. There's little reason to visit a battlefield if you don't understand its significance and what happened there. You need to make sure you understand and appreciate what you're seeing.
What do you read before your visit? Well, that depends on what you already know and what you want to know. Tour books are often good for a wide variety of people with a wide range of knowledge and interest. They can point out important terrain features you might otherwise miss. Issues of Blue & Gray magazine can also be quite helpful. Many battlefields don't have tour books, but there are sometimes excellent books like "Return to Bull Run", the Pfanz Gettysburg triology, or Gordon Rhea's series which will give well presented analysis with enough detail for almost anyone. But these books probably aren't for everyone. There once was a time when they would have made me bored silly, but at least give them a try and be willing to come back to them later if you don't like them. You might actually enjoy books like these more after your visit, because if you're like me, visiting the field makes the battle so much more interesting. And then, of course, you'll find out what you missed during your visit and want to go back. Of course, please also see my online bookstore.
Battlefields that are not part of a national park attract relatively few tourists. If you are hardcore enough to visit these sites, do plenty of research on how to get there, what you might see, and exactly what happened where. Topo maps can be especially useful, but be aware that there may be little to see except for what you can see from the roads, and the visit may or may not be worth it, especially if you're short on time. And with all battlefields, always remember that what is forest or open field now may not have been then.
If the battlefield is a national park, please don't be one of the many people who goes to the visitors center and thinks he's seen the battlefield. You haven't. Unfortunately, the visitors center may be literally ON the battlefield, maybe even on an important part of the battlefield, but it is not THE battlefield. (And if current trends continue, the visitors center may tell you more about the official government version of the causes of the war than about the battle itself. It might tell you about the archeological investigation of slave cabins or the effect of the war on civilians.) So go see as many of the park stops as possible, and make your own personalized stops. And get out of your car and walk around. You can't see much out of a car window. Wander around and take your time. You might make some discoveries. During my fast paced walks around the battlefields, I've found than Chinn Ridge can be boggy due to its springs, and that the swamp that was to have impeded Meade at Fredericksburg still exists and is still a mediocre barrier. At Cold Harbor I've found nearly hidden and regularly spaced rifle pits, and gotten an understanding the fierce fights in the middle and lower ravines which would have been otherwise impossible. You might get some indication about how much time it would take to march a certain distance, or why the battle line was part-way down the ridge and not at the top. Park service philosophy is to put as few signs as possible, and there is something to be said for that, but it can and does lead to mediocre to poor interpretation at times. As I've already said, you can't be too prepared.
So how much time should you expect to take touring battlefields? That's a hard question. Many of my visits have been by myself, and I've found that it helps a great deal to be by yourself. Anymore, I don't often thoroughly go over a battlefield since I've seen most of the major sites before to some degree, and I typically know my way around fairly well. But as examples, I know that I've visited some Valley sites, Harpers Ferry, South Mountain, and Monocacy in one day, but they were fairly quick visits. I've also toured the Maryland section of the Civil War Trails Antietam Campaign route, Monocacy, and a rushed visit to South Mountain in one day. I've also seen parts of Manassas, Chancellorsville, and the Wilderness in one day. Better still I've had the occasional pleasure to spend the entire day at one battlefield. It can easily be done if you're interested enough, and have read up on a battle.
When you're driving between battlefields, it's often worth it to check out the Civil War Trails stops. They usually involve only short stops, but they often show you interesting places you wouldn't otherwise see or understand, plus the signs are well written and insightful. On the downside, I've sometimes found directional signs are missing or hard to see. Below are some thoughts, observations, and recommendations on a fraction of the area's battlefields, and they are listed in the order of my recommended priorities. But despite what I say, visit the places you have the most interest in, and don't take my views as gospel. I'm just another Civil War buff, nowhere near omniscient, and unfortunately, I haven't yet given all these fields a complete looking over. Keep in mind that some info may be dated.
Gettysburg - There's already been too much said about Gettysburg, and I can't add anything useful to it. But be aware that you could spend several days there, and it is an excellent battlefield to tour on a bicycle and on foot. I've spent an hour and a half walking the area of Pickett's Charge, and I could have spent much longer, so if you're really into the battle, your opportunities are great. With the plans to restore the treelines to their historic locations, you'll have the perfect excuse to plan a re-visit. Don't forget Cemetery Hill, but if time is pressing, I'd recommend passing up Benner's Hill which offers poor views due to its close proximity to private property. (It is also unmarked for travelers from the east.) Also a probable bypass would be the nearly hidden first shot marker. And of course be aware that although it may be the most interesting Civil War battlefield around, the battle's importance is greatly hyped. In addition to Vicksburg, the increase in quantity and quality of Union cavalry in the months leading up to Gettysburg is at least as important as the battle itself.
Antietam - This is another location where a bicycle could be superior to a car. Because it is near the end of the tour, it is easy to neglect the area of Burnside's final attack and AP Hill's counterattack. Don't do it! This fight saved Lee's army from destruction so the area is one of the most important parts of the battlefield. (Make sure to find the trail to the Hawkins monument. It is near private residences.) Keep in mind that you will largely be tied to the tour road, and that there are few trails or appropriate locations for walking the field. As a result, most people can see most of what they came to see in less than a day, so you might have time to see the some of the lesser known places below.
Monocacy - This little battle may have saved Washington, and after years of talking the good talk, Washington finally saved the battlefield. There is bad news, though. The core area of the fighting wasn't yet accessible during my last visit, although it is possible there will be trails constructed there as early as the summer of '04. The area of the Worthington house where the Confederates crossed the river and deployed isn't usually open to cars, making it a mile walk from the main road, and an additional half mile walk up Brooks Hill. When you factor in the closure of the Best Farm, the danger of driving into and out of some tour stops, and the lack of well developed parking areas, it is clear that the park is very much a work in progress, so make plans accordingly.
South Mountain - The isn't a great deal to see at South Mountain in terms of walk-able battlefield, although preservation progress is being made. There is a good road tour brochure, but there are very few good places to stop along the roads and little to see at the important mountain passes themselves. The Civil War Trails stop at Braddock Heights didn't exist when I visited, but would undoubtedly give an excellent long range view.
Harper's Ferry - You could probably spend a good many hours hiking to the mountain tops, but if you're like me, there are more pressing locations on the agenda. The 1862 battlefield is not yet readily accessible, and of main interest are the views of and from Bolivar Heights and Schoolhouse Ridge, which doesn't take much time. In the town itself is John Brown's fort (a short and mildly interesting visit) and some not especially interesting museum exhibits, the exception being an excellent exhibit on gun making. By the standards of a mountain native, the view praised by Jefferson as worth a trip across the Atlantic isn't worth a walk up the hill, but the area is beautiful and the town charming. The bookstore is excellent.
Manassas - This is the battlefield where hordes of people walk around Henry House Hill then leave. Don't be one of those people. Unfortunately most of the rest of the battlefield is deserted. Second Manassas is a much more interesting and expansive battle than the first, with three days of fighting, so to see it all in detail would take much of a day. The new Stuart's Hill section is not yet cleared, so there are no good views from there, and unfortunately in many places the modern woodline doesn't match the historical one. Brawner Farm is hauntingly deserted, and so is the Deep Cut. It's almost scary at times. Although the CWPT has made some purchases behind the railroad cut, this important area is not yet visitor friendly. Don't forget that the entrance to the community college is an important site - the location of the extreme Union left during the late stages of Longstreet's attack, an attack which could have destroyed the Union army.
Fredericksburg/Spotsylvania - This park is a jumble of four major battlefields of varying interest.
Chancellorsville - Of the four, probably most interesting to most buffs is Chancellorsville. At Chancellorsville, don't neglect seeing the May 1st areas. Part of the Mullins Farm was saved from developers in the spring of 2005, but it probably isn't reasonable to expect walking trails and interpretation soon. The new park service addition along McLaws Road is unmarked and virtually hidden. The area of Jackson's attack on the XI Corps is not well interpreted as to the specific location of units, and the refused Union flank appears to have been in a modern cemetery, so be well prepared yourself. The real gems of Chancellorsville are Fairview Heights and Hazel Grove, which are must sees.
Spotsylvania - Although largely deserted of visitors, Spotsylvania may be the most interesting of the four battlefields in my opinion. It is large, very well preserved, and the battle is greatly under-rated in interest. Terrain was a major factor in the battle, making a visit here especially rewarding. Of interest to the tactically minded is that the battle featured the use of an enormous and seemingly invincible column of men. Although largely un-interpreted when I visited, the area of Upton's attack is well worth investigating.
Fredericksburg - Terrain was a major factor in this battle, but the area in front of Marye's Heights is fully developed, so don't expect anything pristine there. Of more interest is Jackson's section, so make sure to walk down to the pyramid, up Meade's attack route, and maybe further if you'd like. Chatham, the house on the north side of the river is of less military interest and could be bypassed if you're pressed for time, and touring the battlefield itself shouldn't take an enormous amount of time. Investigating within the town itself, however, could be more involved. To fully appreciate this battle, please remember that the Union could have won had the leadership been more creative, or simply had the Union army been more lucky.
Wilderness - Although the interpretation here isn't bad, I've never found this battle to be especially interesting. The preserved areas are small, and most interesting are a handful of clearings within the park. Keep in mind that the Wilderness now is completely different from what it was then. Then it was largely a briar thicket, with short trees, the result of heavy logging for the iron furnaces. If you're a little adventurous, you might inspect some of the strategic intersections. There is a very good reason to visit and take in minor sites outside the park. The Wilderness may soon be more subdivisions than preserved battlefield, as development is steadily encroaching. Even Joe Gibbs got in on the money making possibilities of battlefield desecration.
Richmond - The battlefields around Richmond are widely dispersed, so it takes a good deal of time to see them, and they usually have minimal interpretation. They also tend to be small. So I can't put the area high on my list, and I haven't even visited all the sites yet myself. The Ft Harrison section should be less interesting to most people, and I'd bypass it if you're short on time and instead concentrate on Cold Harbor, Gaines' Mill, and Malvern Hill. For Cold Harbor, read the Gordon Rhea holy book and make sure to walk the area of the ravines if you can. There is plenty of unpreserved land, so don't limit yourself to the park. The city of Richmond itself has a number of attractions, but they haven't been well promoted, probably for political reasons, meaning that a large portion of the population wants to shut their eyes and ears to anything Civil War. Check before you go, as it is under renovation, but I was able to walk into the Capital building, and I found it to be the highlight of the city's attractions. The Museum of the Confederacy was decent, and Tredegar was good, although the museum didn't live up to my lofty expectations. Still, it is a good museum of weaponry and industry worth at least an hour's visit. If you like the Revolution, Yorktown is fairly nearby, and is an excellent visit, probably better than the Richmond area Civil War sites, at least in my 18th century crazed opinion. It could take up much of a day.
Petersburg - As you might tell from another of my self-important editorials, Petersburg can be frustrating, but if you tour there, make sure to visit Ft. Gregg. (not on the website as of yet to any degree) It is difficult to make out much about the initial Union attacks of June 1864, and the visitor is mainly presented with the Union attack on the Crater and the Confederate attack on Ft Stedman. So touring the main section of national park probably won't take you too long. Pamplin Park is worth a visit. Although the Union breakthrough is probably not as important as they make it out to be, we should all be very thankful that the park and museum exists.
Various Shenandoah Valley - There are plans for a national park, and if you are young and healthy enough, you may even live long enough to see it. For now, there are some CW Trails and CWPT interpreted sites as well as the New Market Battlefield. There's a good deal of driving between them, so it takes time to see them all, but you will be surrounded by scenic beauty that attracts visitors on its own. The Cedar Creek battlefield covers a good deal of land, but most of it is unprotected and un-interpreted. There is little to see at Front Royal in terms of battlefields. There is a good view from atop Fishers Hill on CWPT property, but little else there. New Market and Cross Keys/Port Republic take a good amount of time to thoroughly tour, but they are rewarding. At New Market, make sure to see the area south (or east) of the interstate near the 54th Pa monument, and at Cross Keys make sure to find the trail at the center CW Trails location which leads to the site where the 8th NY was ambushed. McDowell is out of the way for most people, and involves strenuous walking to properly appreciate, but it is rewarding if you take enough time and also visit Ft Johnson between there and Staunton. The people of McDowell are proud of their battlefield.
Winchester Area - There are no Civil War related visits I've found more frustrating than those to the Winchester area. Be sure to make extreme preparation with road maps to find where you're looking for and set aside plenty of time. Unfortunately, the area of First Winchester has been completely lost to development and is now a subdivision, and many other locations are similarly threatened. On the upside, Pritchard's Hill has recently been interpreted, and the area of 1st Kernstown will soon be open, but make sure to verify that they will, in fact, be open. The threatened Stephenson's Depot battlefield has Civil War Trails interpretation, and you should see it while you still can. It could become an industrial park or subdivision. In town, the Jackson's HQ museum has many interesting artifacts of Jackson and his staff, but it may not be open year round. George Washington's office is a small but decent and underutilized museum worth a quick visit.
Appomattox - I'm sure many people interpret my lack of an Appomattox page as a sign of being un-Reconstructed. They're wrong. The park doesn't highlight the combat there, mainly the surrender and the restored buildings. It's also way out of the way for most tourists, so I can't recommend it for most people. Although it is only 70-80 miles from my home, I rarely visit. The CW Trail, Lee's Retreat, from Petersburg to Appomattox is often touted, probably because it was the first, but many of their other trails are more interesting, at least to me. If you do visit, you might find it worth your while to see the Sailors Creek battlefield.
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