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Civil War History ToursCompiled by Sara Cormeny
Civil War buffs love the mid-Atlantic area. Some of the most significant battles of the war were fought nearby, and the South's favorite general, Robert E. Lee, spent his boyhood years just across the river in Virginia.
Whether you're in Washington for a week or a couple of months, you'll be able to find some Civil War sites of interest.
These are excursions that will take you a single day from downtown Washington.
1. Alexandria and Arlington Cemetery
Old Town and Arlington Cemetery are closely associated with the Lee family. In nearby Alexandria, for example, you can visit Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee's boyhood home. Arlington Cemetery was founded when the Union Army seized one of the Lee family houses and began burying Civil War casualties in the back yard.
2. Manassas/Bull Run Battlefield
The First Battle of Manassas itself, in 1861, was considered a day trip -- a chance for Washingtonians to travel into the country and see our glorious men skirmishing in a war that nobody was yet calling a war. People traveled from the city to the battleground with picnics and expected to spend the afternoon watching an organized, civilized melee. Instead they were witness to the first major battle of the war. By the end of the day, the Union forces and their admirers were routed and fled back to Washington. It was at the First Battle of Manassas that Gen. Jackson got his nickname "Stonewall."
For more information, check out this National Park Service web site on Manassas battlefield.
3. Antietam and Monocacy
The Battle at Antietam in September 1862, was the bloodiest of the war: 23,000 men dead in a single day. It also was an important victory for the Northern forces, for while they did not destroy the Southern forces as they had been sent out to do by President Abraham Lincoln, they did halt the Confederate advance into Maryland.
For more information, check out this National Park Service web site on the Antietam battlefield.
The National Park Service has recently opened the nearby Monocacy Battlefield Park.
(If you'd like to stretch this trip into a weekend, visit nearby Frederick, also awash in Civil War history. See our "Definite Weekend" trip below.)
These excursions can be done in a single day, if you don't mind driving. If you'd like the opportunity to relax and take a look around, go ahead and spend the weekend.
1. Trace the Trail of John Wilkes Booth.
Gettysburg, in Pennsylvania, was the farthest point north that Southern forces were able to reach. After the Union victory, of course, Lincoln made his unforgettable address here on the battlefield. The park is popular with tourists and reenactors, and the town around has grown up to meet their needs. You can get up early and make this trip in a day, but there's a great deal to see and the trip is long enough to merit a two-day stay. Post Weekend section writer Hank Burchard recounts his trip to Gettysburg in all its glory.
For more information, check out this National Park Service web site on the Gettysburg battlefield.
3. Harpers Ferry
Harpers Ferry in West Virginia is a town with a long and varied history. But it is surely best known for John Brown, an antislavery radical who broke into the town's armory in October 1859 along with several black and white conspirators in an attempt to gain enough munitions to start an army that would demand an end to slavery. This was before the Civil War and well before the Emancipation Proclamation, and Brown was captured and hanged for treason.
Downtown Harpers Ferry has been preserved much as it appeared throughout the 19th century, and the armory that Brown seized has been restored.
For more information, check out the National Park Service "Virtual Visitor Center" for Harpers Ferry.
Spend a weekend outside the city, if you're in the area for an extended stay.
1. Bed and Breakfast
2. Troop Through Virginia's Civil War Trails
Frederick is better known for its role in the colonial and industrial eras, but this small Maryland city, about one-and-a-half hours outside of Washington, was important in the Civil War as well. Frederick, as this Post article recalls, was one of the cities of Maryland more disposed to the Union than the Southern cause. For Washington, this was important as the threat of Maryland seceding was, for much of the war, constant. For today's visitor, Frederick has recently opened a Civil War Medical Museum, and the city is one of the antiquing hot spots of the mid-Atlantic.
On a weekend trip to Frederick, be sure to visit the nearby battlefields. If you only have time to spend the day, you may want to visit them alone. See our "One-Day" trip above.
4. The Stonewall Jackson Tour/Shenandoah Valley
For 35 days in May and June of 1862, Gen. Stonewall Jackson ran a successful campaign to keep Union troops from advancing in Virginia. Jackson's army was half the size of McClellan's, but was able to keep the Union forces chasing up and down the valley and to deplete their resources and energy. He completely stopped the intended Union invasion of Richmond.
As James Conaway points out in his article on visiting the sites of Jackson's victories, this is also a singularly lovely part of Virginia, forested and mountained and full of walking trails. You'll enjoy a back-to-nature, as well as a back-in-time, experience.
Have you ever wondered what it would be like to live on a piece of Civil War history? Peter Svenson has bought a farm in the Shenandoah Valley that is on the site of a Civil War battlefield; you can read about his book on the experience.
In the end, it all came down to Appomattox. Gen. Lee's forces were pursued to this town in southern Virginia, where Lee surrendered. The village of Appomattox has been restored and reconstructed to look as it did in 1865. Travel columnist James Yenckel gives you the run-down on a weekend trip to Appomattox, with tips on what to see and where to stay.