When Virginia seceded at the start of the Civil War, it put the US Capitol right on the border with the rebel forces. There were immediate efforts to secure at least some portion of the southern shore of the Potomac river, and the Federal City became one of the most highly-fortified places in the world. There are still some remnants of those wartime earthworks, but you have to know where to look. Luckily, there is an NPS unit for that: The Civil War Defenses of Washington.
A couple years ago, I took a day trip through two of the more famous ones – mostly so that I could visit the site of the only Civil War battle to take place in the District of Columbia.
Directly south of the city, in Maryland, this transitional second / third system fort was meant to defend against naval attacks coming up the Potomac river.
The terrain here is a little steep (like the $10 NPS entrance fee), and combined with the fort itself makes for some impressive view sheds. The grounds are in good shape, and they are interpreted fairly well, but there was never any “action” here, so there’s no really story to grab visitors’ attention. In addition to the main fort, there are a few Endicott-era batteries, too.
Being located within the DC suburbs, and without a clear “battle” story to tell, the fort seems to get used more as a general purpose park by locals. I noticed a few families on the grounds with picnic lunches during my visit.
Fort Stevens – Civil War Battlefield #59
The Battle of Fort Stevens is the only Civil War battle to take place in DC. In the years since the war, there has been a great expansion of the city, and what was once an open field that the Confederates attempted to attack across, is now a neighborhood with shops and even some taller buildings.
What is here of the fort is largely a reconstruction with more durable materials. Where there were wooden pilings and gun platforms, there are now reproductions made of poured concrete. And because of the modern development that has taken place, only the western portion of the fort has been retained.
I’ve written before about a business trip I took to Raleigh, NC back in 2017. What I didn’t include in that post is the stops that I made on the way home to Maryland. I made the most of that travel day by visiting more than a dozen Civil War sites along the way from Raleigh to Petersburg. I packed a lot of adventure in to that day.
I left my hotel and headed over to the site of the largest Confederate surrender of the war – and the first that I’d ever visited. I arrived at around 10am. The retired lady working at the front desk was very personable and knowledgeable – we hit it off immediately. She showed my around the visitors center, started their orientation movie for me, and then gave me a tour of the grounds. It’s a pretty nicely-kept place. The house itself, while not the original (it burned in 1921) is an exact duplicate that was moved from a farm 4 miles away. I’m told that it’s a good example of a 19th century middle class southern homestead. Overall, it was a very cool experience.
Battle of Dinwiddie Court House – Civil War Battlefield #42
After a couple hours in the car, I was ready to start the Petersburg area tour. The first stop that I made on the trip north was at this small battlefield that was basically just a precursor to the Battle of Five Forks. There are a few monuments and markers in front of the titular court house, but not much else.
There is a satellite visitors center for Petersburg National Battlefield here, but it is quite small. The field itself is also small and frankly feels kind of barren. There are a couple monuments at the intersection, and a few waysides there and at the Confederate left flank to tell the story of the attack.
Battle of White Oak Road – Civil War Battlefield #44
Battle of Boydton Plank Road – Civil War Battlefield #45
Taking White Oak Road east, I arrived at the intersection with the old Boydton Plank Road – now modern US-1. This was the center of the fighting at the Battle of Boydton Plank Road. There is a roadside marker near the intersection, but I didn’t find much else.
Battle of Lewis’ Farm – Civil War Battlefield #46
Officially, this action is referred to as the Battle of Lewis’ Farm, but the roadside marker here calls it the “Quaker Road Engagement”. A lot of Civil War battles have at least two names, and it seems like they can get especially confusing around Petersburg. The field on the east side of the road seems to be well-preserved farmland, but there is 20th century housing on the west side. Brig. General Chamberlain received his final wound of the war here.
Third Battle of Petersburg – Civil War Battlefield #47
The final breakthrough of the Confederate line at Petersburg, the Third Battle of Petersburg was a full-blown disaster for the Confederates. Aside from the fact that the loss forced the abandonment of their entire Petersburg line, it also claimed the life of one of their senior corps commanders: Lt. General A.P. Hill.
Battle of Peebles’ Farm – Civil War Battlefield #48
The Civil War Trust has laid out an interpretive trail here at the Battle of Peebles’ Farm that leads up toward the Pamplin Historical Park property. I didn’t walk the full trail (nor visit Pamplin) on this trip, but I feel like both would be worth doing. There are a few waysides here to help explain the fighting.
Battle of Hatcher’s Run – Civil War Battlefield #49
Several hundred acres of the field at the Battle of Hatcher’s Run have been saved over the years by the Civil War Trust. They have a small parking lot and some wayside markers that provide a jumping-off point for a trail.
Battle of Globe Tavern – Civil War Battlefield #50
Part of the fight for the Weldon Railroad, there are some good waysides here at the Battle of Globe Tavern. Also, Fort Wadsworth was quite large, and pretty intact. This site is part of the regular tour route for Petersburg National Battlefield, so it may see slightly more visitation than some of the other sites I visited.
First Battle of Petersburg – Civil War Battlefield #51
Maj. General Benjamin Butler’s attempt to take Petersburg ended rather quickly in the summer of 1864. It would take a prolonged siege – and far more troops than Butler had on hand – to get the job done.
Battle of Jerusalem Plank Road – Civil War Battlefield #52
The “Battery 5” area behind the visitors center was also quite cool – most especially the site of the “Dictator” siege mortar that rests on a trail a short distance to the north.
After picking up a tour brochure, I started on the auto tour route, which goes along a one-way road headed south. Stop #3 – Confederate Battery #9 – was particularly interesting in the way that the park has it preserved and interpreted.
Battle of Fort Stedman – Civil War Battlefield #53
Within the Eastern Front section of Petersburg National Battlefield, the Battle of Fort Stedman is Stop 5 on the official auto tour. The fort itself is fairly well-preserved, and there is a trail over to where the Confederate position was. Only a few hundred yards separated the lines at this point. While Lee’s attack against this position met with initial success, the Confederates were forced back before noon. It would be the last purely offensive attack that Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia every made.
Second Battle of Petersburg – Civil War Battlefield #54
Lt. General Ulysses S. Grant had beaten Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia in the race to Petersburg, but there was still a small Confederate defense force that had turned back Butler’s attack about a week earlier. The Union assaults didn’t go off well, and the fortifications the rebels had built along the Dimmock line were substantial, so when Lee’s reinforcements arrived, the fight became futile. The Union failure to break the line here brought on the Siege of Petersburg.
Battle of The Crater – Civil War Battlefield #55
At the southern end of the Eastern Front auto tour route is the highlight of Petersburg, in my opinion: The Battle of The Crater.
This was a very cool, bucket-list kind of experience. What is left of the crater today is much smaller than I had imagined. Once the battle was over, the area returned to being used as farmland, and over the years, the once-massive hole in the earth had been gradually filled in. The entrance to the mine has been re-created, and there are some cool waysides that explain the event for visitors. The biggest surprise to me was just how short the mine tunnel was. The Union and Confederate lines were VERY close to each other in this sector.
Battle of Yellow Tavern – Civil War Battlefield #56
Today, the battlefield has been consumed by the modern US-1 / I-95 corridor. The original Yellow Tavern has been replaced by gas stations, restaurants, and some neighborhoods. Within one of those residential areas, Civil War nerds can find a monument marking the spot where J.E.B. Stuart was mortally wounded. He was taken to Richmond, died the next day, and was buried in Hollywood Cemetery.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
First and Second Battles of Kernstown – Civil War Battlefield #29, 30
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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’sBath-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.
I’ve visited Ball’s Bluff a few times, but this past year I had the chance to be there for the 158th anniversary of the battle. A small but loyal group of local #CivilWarNerds puts on a reenactment and even an artillery demonstration.
This prelude to the Battle of Antietam was fought in three mountain gaps along South Mountain in Maryland. Confederate forces were able to delay approaching Union units long enough for Lee to concentrate his army and set up a defense around Sharpsburg.
Campaign:Maryland Campaign – This battle took place just before Antietam, the major battle of the campaign.
CWSAC Rating: “B” – Having a direct and decisive influence on a campaign.
How to Get There: Since the fighting took place in multiple unconnected mountain gaps, there is no one place to go to see the battlefield. Driving along Alt. US 40 between Middletown, MD and Boonsboro, MD will take you through Turner’s Gap – the northernmost section of the battlefield.
For on the Field: For the newbie, download the American Battlefield Trust’s Antietam Battle App. It will really enhance your tour experience. Folks who want serious military history should pick up the US Army War College’sGuide to Antietam. I can’t recommend this book highly enough for its excellent tour of the field.
What I Love: There are a few things that make South Mountain unique. Fox’s Gap is probably my favorite section, with the Reno and North Carolina monuments. The War Correspondents Memorial is a major landmark as well. While you may encounter the occasional AT hiker, or family picnic, it’s generally a pretty peaceful field.
What I Don’t: While it is a fairly small field in terms of total acreage, it is spread out as small pockets over a wide area, so it takes some time to explore.
Final Thoughts: South Mountain is one of those hidden treasures among Civil War battlefields. It is integral to the Antietam campaign, and fairly well-preserved and well-monumented, but it doesn’t get a lot of visitation outside of AT hikers and the occasional family picnic. It’s a nice spot for serene contemplation.
Keeping it close to home for me, the next battlefield on my list is Monocacy. This engagement is commonly referred to as “The Battle that Saved Washington”, and while it was a strategic victory for the Union forces, the single-day action was tactically a loss. Maj. General Lew Wallace (in command of the VIII Corps, and later the author of Ben-Hur) successfully delayed Lt. General Jubal Early‘s advance long enough for elements of the VI Corps to move from the trenches of Petersburg to reinforce the defenses of Washington.
CWSAC Rating: “B” – Having a direct and decisive influence on a campaign.
How to Get There: The battlefield is located in western Maryland just south of Frederick, about an hour away from Baltimore. Modern day I-270 cuts the battlefield in half, but there is no direct access from the interstate. I use MD-355 to get there.
The Visitors Center is located at 5201 Urbana Pike, Frederick, MD 21704. There is no entrance fee, but you should stop there to pick up a brochure and get oriented. There’s a small gift shop, and a very well-done museum upstairs. The one real piece of artillery on the field is also located by the entrance – a beautiful Revere Copper Co. Napoleon. All other cannons on the field are reproductions.
For on the Field: You’re going to want to have a guide of some sort when you’re at Monocacy. There are not a lot of monuments, markers, or waysides, so having a way to interpret what you’re looking at becomes critical. Definitely get the park map / brochure for this one. Another wonderful resource that the park has put together is a freely-available audio tour of the field in mp3 format. If you’re going to use this (and you should) be sure to download it ahead of time as cell phone coverage can be spotty on the field.
What I Love: For me, Monocacy is the closest battlefield to home, so if I want to get a quick Civil War history experience, or take friends and family to something that’s a little off the beaten path, this battlefield is a good option. The field is usually pretty empty, and there are plenty of opportunities for non-historical activities. They have a few trails laid out that take the visitor along the Monocacy River, there’s a cool railroad junction and bridge that train nerds would enjoy, and some neat old farm buildings that are quite photogenic.
What I Don’t: Being such a small field, there isn’t that much to see. There are some moving pieces in the battle, so it isn’t boring to learn about, but it’s not as expansive a topic as something like Gettysburg or Antietam. As I stated above, there aren’t a lot of monuments or markers, so you’re kind of on your own while you’re out on the ground.
Final Thoughts: While Monocacy doesn’t get the attention of other nearby fields, it’s worthy of at least a quick visit. Antietam fans will appreciate the connection to Special Order 191, and Gettysburg fans will want to see the nearby place where Maj. General George Meade received the order to take command of the Army of the Potomac.
Antietam is another battlefield that is close to home for me. My family went there a few times when I was a child, but it didn’t leave the impact that Gettysburg did. There are many monuments dotting the field, and I feel like the battle is easier to understand than Gettysburg. For starters, the field is smaller than Gettysburg, and the action basically moves from one side of the field to the other as the battle progresses. This is also a single-day battle (albeit the bloodiest single day in American history). I’ve been to Antietam probably about a dozen times.
CWSAC Rating: “A” – Having a decisive influence on a campaign and a direct impact on the course of the war.
How to Get There: The battlefield is located in western Maryland just outside of Sharpsburg. It’s about 90 minutes from Baltimore. I usually arrive on the field by way of MD-34 through Boonsboro (which will also have an entry in this series).
What I Love: Like Gettysburg, this battlefield is close to home for me. It is fairly well marked with monuments, and is small enough that one can get a feel for the action pretty quickly.
Thanks to organizations like the American Battlefield Trust, who have been working to buy-up land in recent years, more of the battlefield is publicly-accessible than ever before. Even as recently as 15 years ago, the NPS hardly owned any of the battlefield itself – they mostly just held the roads running through the battlefield. Just as one example, it is now possible to walk across the field that the II Corps divisions of French and Richardson traversed to assault the Bloody Lane.
The observation tower on the Bloody Lane is very cool, and the other major landmark – the Burnside Bridge – is serenely beautiful. It’s never seemed very crowded on the field when I’ve gone, though the exception to this seems to be their annual Memorial Illumination (which I’ve not yet had the chance to attend).
What I Don’t: Probably the only downside to Antietam is the entrance fee. Currently, it’s $5/person or $10/car, but it’s been on the rise in the last few years. If you have an NPS annual or lifetime pass, they will accept those.
Final Thoughts: While the battle was indecisive tactically, it was close enough to a Union victory to allow Lincoln to feel like he had the freedom to announce the Emancipation Proclamation. September 17, 1862 was also the bloodiest single day in American history. Both of these facts come together to net Antietam an “A” level priority in the CWSAC survey, and make it a must-see for any Civil War enthusiast.