Battlefield Visits: Northern Virginia

Three years ago today, I took my boys on a day trip to Northern Virginia to check out some battlefields that we’d never seen before. It turned out to be a really cool experience and set many of our road trip traditions. Let’s dive in to the battlefields!

Aldie – Civil War Battlefield #34

One of the gaping holes in my list of battlefields had been the three cavalry actions that led up to the Battle of Gettysburg, so they were the fields I wanted to see most on this trip. Aldie was the first of these small battles, and I wrote a post about it a few years ago.

Aldie is a VERY small town. There is a cool-looking mill there, though it was closed when we visited. The fighting took place west of town, and there are markers and waysides there that do a good job of explaining the action.

Middleburg – Civil War Battlefield #35

The second of those closely-clustered, pre-Gettysburg cavalry engagements, the Battle of Middleburg has also been covered before on this blog.

The town itself is quite nice. In fact, it is the kind of place where you pass polo fields on the way in. The center of town has a few boutique-type shops and restaurants. It really seems like the kind of place that you could have as a destination with your significant other.

On the downside, I couldn’t find any signs discussing the battle action. It turns out of course that I just wasn’t looking in the right place. I’ll be making a return trip to the area one of these days.

Upperville – Civil War Battlefield #36

The third and largest of the cavalry engagements I wanted to see was the Battle of Upperville.

The fighting took place east of the town in a large, bowl-like area. It’s quite pretty there. The Goose Creek bridge is well-preserved and serves as the visual hallmark of the battlefield. A small park on Vineyard Hill has a wayside explaining the action and a great view.

Thoroughfare Gap – Civil War Battlefield #37

One of the actions leading up to the Second Battle of Manassas, the Battle of Thoroughfare Gap took place in the area where modern-day Interstate 66 crosses the Bull Run mountains.

There is not much here – a few roadside markers sit beside State Route 55 near the Broad Run Post Office and across the highway from the Chapman’s Mill ruins.

Buckland Mills – Civil War Battlefield #38

Not much of the field for the Battle of Buckland Mills is accessible though the Civil War Trust bought up some land here. It appears to be in a decent state of preservation. A small portion of the mill town still exists as well.

There is a marker explaining the battle along a small road right off of US 15 / 29 near Manassas. George Armstrong Custer fought here, which seems to account for at least some interest among history buffs.

Bristoe Station – Civil War Battlefield #39

The largest and best-preserved of the fields I saw that day was for the Battle of Bristoe Station. This was one of those forgotten battles (along with Mine Run) that took place in the autumn after Gettysburg. This offensive movement by the Confederates resulted in a small Union victory.

A park has been created out of the preserved land and it appears to be well-used by the community. There is also an audio tour that can be followed from your cell phone, and it really helps to explain Bristoe Station and the other area actions that led up to it. Since that first trip, I’ve been back to Bristoe Station a couple times and it is always nice.

Battlefield Visits: Major Fights in North Carolina

A few years ago, I traveled to the Raleigh, NC area for a work conference. Of course, I wanted to check out some of the local historical sites in my downtime. There was plenty to see!

Averasboro – Civil War Battlefield #40

I got up early on Sunday morning to start my “off” day, and was able to get on the field at the Battle of Averasboro by 8:40am. Though it’s only a mile or two west of I-95, it really feels like you’re out in the country. My guess is that not much has changed since 1865.

One of the markers near the southern end of the battlefield. The action began near here. – Photo by the Author

The field is privately owned, but definitely well cared-for, with a small museum located at the northern end. Several signs make it clear that relic hunting is forbidden and outline other things that the caretakers have in place – including video surveillance.

There are numerous markers and a few monuments, but they appear to be from different eras, and thus each has a slightly different way of explaining the action to visitors. For one thing, different markers seem to break the battle into a different number of stages, so I can see how it could be confusing to keep track of what all is going on for a novice. As it turns out, the action revolves around a pretty straight-forward defense-in-depth by the Confederates.

A faux 6-pounder on display outside the museum at Averasboro. Sadly there is no real artillery here. - <i>Photo by the Author</i>
A faux 6-pounder on display outside the museum at Averasboro. Sadly there is no real artillery here. – Photo by the Author

The visitors center was closed on the early Sunday morning that I visited, so I can’t tell you any impressions of it, other than to say that they have a fake artillery piece out front. Hey – at least it’s something. The other thing I took away as I drove through the field was the complete lack of distinct terrain features. Any elevation changes that exist are minuscule. Just about the only factor in the battle was the Cape Fear River that anchored the Confederate left.

On to the next site!

Bentonville – Civil War Battlefield #41

This was the main event. The Battle of Bentonville was the largest battle to ever take place in North Carolina, and was the culmination of Sherman’s march through the south, and Johnston’s attempt at defense. For me personally, this was the first battlefield I had ever visited where General Sherman had been involved. Pretty crazy to think about.

The State of North Carolina owns several pieces of the battlefield (though in many cases just enough to have a pull-off with a few wayside markers at a tour route stop) and operates those as the Bentonville Battlefield State Historic Site. Most of the field is still privately held, with modern houses occupying the bulk of that area. The spots that are preserved are quite nice, though.

Remnants of trenches built at Bentonville by Union engineers from Michigan. - <i>Photo by the Author</i>
Remnants of trenches built at Bentonville by Union engineers from Michigan. – Photo by the Author

There are also numerous wayside markers that do a great job of explaining the battle action, and even a few monuments – including one of the standard Texas ones. I was able to pick up a copy of the driving tour brochure before I came, which was handy because this was another site where the visitors center was completely closed down on a Sunday morning. On the plus side, the driving tour comes with a phone-in audio narration component that really adds another dimension to the visit. All of these factors mean that you can get a very complete experience in only a couple of hours.

Like Averasboro, the terrain here was VERY flat – only a few small ravines and creek beds provided some cover for battlelines – and you can see that the lines seemed to form along them. Ground that is not composed of sand is swamp. It must have been miserable to fight here. I recall one of the waysides mentioning that there was significant difficulty in burying the dead – whenever they dug more than a foot or two down, the hole would fill with water.

North Carolina State Capitol

A monument to US Presidents from North Carolina: Andrew Johnson, James K. Polk, and Andrew Jackson (which is debatable). - <i>Photo by the Author</i>
A monument to US Presidents from North Carolina: Andrew Johnson, James K. Polk, and Andrew Jackson (which is debatable). – Photo by the Author

After checking in for my conference, I decided to walk around downtown Raleigh a little. The grounds of the North Carolina State Capitol had a few interesting monuments, and some real artillery in the form of Cyrus Alger and Co. siege mortars.

One of my favorites was a monument to US Presidents from North Carolina which included Andrew Johnson (for a Civil War connection), James K. Polk, and the debatable Andrew Jackson (who may have actually been born in South Carolina). There was also a “Lost Cause” era monument “To Our Confederate Dead” – perhaps not long for this world.

The North Carolina State monument "To Our Confederate Dead". - <i>Photo by the Author</i>
The North Carolina State monument “To Our Confederate Dead”. – Photo by the Author

Oakwood Cemetery

One place in downtown Raleigh that I knew I wanted to see was the Oakwood Cemetery – final resting place of Colonel Henry King Burgwyn, who was killed at Gettysburg leading the 26th NC Infantry in their famous attack against the 24th MI. Known as “The Boy Colonel”, Burgwyn was only 21 years old at the time of his death.

The grave marker for Henry King Burgwyn. - <i>Photo by the Author</i>
The grave marker for Henry King Burgwyn. – Photo by the Author

Like other prominent southern cemeteries, Oakwood has a large mass grave of Gettysburg dead, removed to what was assumed to be their home State from where they had fallen on the battlefield – probably in the 1870s. The design of the marker for this section of the cemetery mirrors the North Carolina monument present at Gettysburg today.

Marker for the mass grave of Gettysburg dead. - <i>Photo by the Author</i>
Marker for the mass grave of Gettysburg dead. – Photo by the Author

Though I only spent a few hours poking around the Raleigh area (and beyond), they were thoroughly satisfying. Hopefully I’ll be able to make a return trip some day.

Battlefield Visits: Winchester Area

Three years ago today, I took a day trip to Winchester, Virginia in order to check out some of the battlefields. My oldest son went along as well. It was the first trip there for both of us, and it remains a wonderful memory.

We had a great lunch, got to explore the local library, and my son enjoyed burning off some energy at the Shenandoah Valley Discovery Museum. There is certainly plenty to do in Winchester, but we all know what drove me there, so why not jump in?

First Battle of Winchester – Civil War Battlefield #28

This was a major victory for the Confederates during Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s famous Valley Campaign. Not much of the battlefield seems to remain, though. There is a marker near Handley High School, and another cluster farther south along the old Valley Turnpike (present-day Route 11). The landscape has changed considerably, with a lot of construction having taken place in the last 150 years.

First and Second Battles of Kernstown – Civil War Battlefield #29, 30

My son checks out the maps of the First and Second Battles of Kernstown. - <i>Photo by the Author</i>
My son checks out the maps of the First and Second Battles of Kernstown. – Photo by the Author

There is a battlefield park that incorporates a large chunk of the field, but it is only open on the weekends during May through October, so it was closed while we were there.

Luckily, the more interesting part of the field to me – the spot where Richard Brooke Garnett and the Stonewall Brigade fought behind a wall at First Kernstown – is on the other side of Route 37, south of Cedar Creek Grade at Rose Hill Farm Park. It was cool to be there and see the terrain, even if the wall there is a reproduction. My son had had enough hiking at that point, so we didn’t go back in the woods to look for the remains of the original wall.

Second Winchester – Civil War Battlefield #31

My son in the middle of the Star Fort at Second Winchester. Very cool! - <i>Photo by the Author</i>
My son in the middle of the Star Fort at Second Winchester. Very cool! – Photo by the Author

The Second Battle of Winchester took place on the road to Gettysburg. A Confederate corps under the command of Richard Ewell attacked and completely overwhelmed the Union garrison in town under Robert Milroy. Milroy made the decision to try to sneak out of town overnight, and much of his force was captured in the process. But we’ll talk about that later.

I was thrilled to learn that the Star Fort – central to Milroy’s defenses – still exists! We got to explore it a little, and I even got some photos of the newly-installed (at the time) markers so they could be included in the Historical Marker Database. Probably the coolest part of the trip for me.

Rutherford’s Farm – Civil War Battlefield #33

The field of the Battle of Rutherford’s Farm has been completely changed. It is now a shopping center north of Winchester. At least there is a small cluster of markers in the parking lot to tell visitors of the area’s importance during the 1864 Shenandoah Valley Campaign.

Stephenson’s Depot

While not an “official” battle, I tend to think of the Battle of Stephenson’s Depot as being a separate action from the Second Battle of Winchester. This is the spot where about half of Milroy’s fleeing Union command was captured by Confederate forces under Edward “Allegheny” Johnson. There are a few markers near where the railroad depot was (though when we visited, one was damaged to the point of being missing) and even a monument close by.

All-in-all, it was a great trip. A model for many more I’d take in the years ahead.

Battlefield Visits: Small Actions in Maryland

While there were many important events happening in Maryland concerning the War of the Rebellion, the Civil War Sites Advisory Commission identified only seven “official” battlefields here in my native state. There are a few that you may know of (and that I’ve covered here already – Antietam, Monocacy, and South Mountain) but some of the smaller ones remain under-the-radar for most folks (and even for some #CivilWarNerds). Today, I’ll be writing about those.

Boonsboro – Civil War Battlefield #24

The battlefield as seen from where the wayside markers are. - <i>Photo by the Author</i>
The Boonsboro battlefield as seen from where the wayside marker is. – Photo by the Author

After the Battle of Gettysburg, the Confederates started to pull back toward Virginia. The weather was bad, and it took a long time for them to retreat across southern Pennsylvania and through Maryland. Several small actions took place along the way – mostly involving cavalry units fighting each other. The Battle of Boonsboro was just such an action.

There is a wayside marker in the parking lot of Boonsboro Antiques and Collectibles that explains the action that took place mostly across the road. This rather messy engagement wasn’t much more than a delaying action for the Confederates.

The Washington Monument on South Mountain is just <i>barely</i> visible from the battlefield, as it would have been in 1863. - <i>Photo by the Author</i>
The Washington Monument on South Mountain is just barely visible from the battlefield, as it would have been in 1863. – Photo by the Author

Williamsport – Civil War Battlefield #25

Not really a single battle as much as a drawn-out series of small pokes and prods, the Battle of Williamsport was the final piece of the Confederate retreat following Gettysburg.

The bridge that carries modern-day Route 11 is roughly in the location where the Confederates crossed the Potomac in Williamsport. - <i>Photo by the Author</i>
The bridge that carries modern-day Route 11 is roughly in the location where the Confederates crossed the Potomac in Williamsport. – Photo by the Author

There are numerous markers surrounding Williamsport that discuss the various stages of the combat there. With no major action taking place, it is hard to direct you to any one place. I found a walk along the C&O Canal to be quite nice when I visited, as it affords an opportunity to learn about a little more than just the Civil War history of the area. One of the major visitors centers is located near the site of the Confederate crossing.

Folck’s Mill – Civil War Battlefield #57

The Battle of Folck’s Mill was a very minor action near Cumberland, Maryland. Mostly an artillery duel, it was fought by local militia protecting the city of Cumberland from a Confederate raid late in the war.

Sadly, what is left of the field is extremely difficult to access. The mill itself still exists – at least as ruins – but it is surrounded by highways and private property. You would never know it was there. There are some wayside markers located on the grounds of the Ali Ghan Shriner’s Hall that discuss the action, but the terrain has been completely changed by the modern highways and interchanges in the area. The approaches and artillery positions have been completely obliterated, so a fair amount of imagination is needed on a visit.

Hancock – Civil War Battlefield #58

Surprisingly, this is the ONLY “official” battle of Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s Bath-Romney Campaign in the winter of 1862. Hard to believe since there was really no combat during the Battle of Hancock. Jackson showed up on the Virginia (present-day West Virginia) side of the Potomac and hurled some artillery rounds at the Union troops in town. After a couple of days, he moved on. Simple as that.

There are markers explaining some of the action on the Maryland side of the river, along the C&O Canal. The town itself has some character, and if you’re there on a day they’re open, the Hancock Town Museum is worth a visit.