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Virginia Civil War/Revolutionary War sites

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Did You Know … ?

  • Richmond was burned in the Revolutionary War (by the British, 1781) and the Civil War (by residents, 1865).
  • British reinforcements departed for Virginia on the very day Gen. Charles Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown (1781).
  • Robert E. Lee cast his lot with the Confederacy after being offered command of the Union Army.
  • The Yorktown Victory Monument was the first monument authorized by the federal government (1781) but not built until 1881.
  • An estimated 620,000 military, or 2% of Americans, were killed in the Civil War, equal to 6 million today.

Serious tourism

Visiting a historic battlefield, spending quality time in a good war museum or participating in a living history activity can be both entertaining and thought provoking. But making America’s wars, especially the Civil War, a travel theme is a serious endeavor. Approximately 25,000 Americans died in the Revolutionary War, but that number is estimated at 620,000 for the Civil War.

For those who would pursue in some depth an interest in these wars, Virginia is a prime destination choice. Both wars ended in Virginia, the Revolutionary War at Yorktown (1781) and the Civil War at Appomattox (1865). Each surrender site is part of a national park good for self-guided touring, ranger-led sessions and commemorative events.

More than a dozen Revolutionary War battles occurred in Virginia. Tourists may make visits, and two — Great Bridge and Petersburg — host annual reenactment events. But with Richmond the Confederate capital and Washington, D.C., next door, Virginia was the setting for one-third of all Civil War engagements (122 total), leaving Virginia with more Civil War sites than any other state.

The Civil War holds great fascination for many amateur historians, perhaps because it was so shockingly destructive. In any case, partly due to recent sesquicentennial commemorations, Virginia is ready for all comers with its Civil War Trails program, which tells the story of significant events, with interpretive markers, at more than 460 locations. Major sites have markers, but other markers highlight experiences of civilians, both slave and free. Many trail sites are grouped thematically for meaningful travel itineraries. Relevant maps are available from the Web and at visitor centers, museums and the like.

There are numerous other ways to engage with the Civil War as experienced in Virginia, including interactive museum exhibits and activities, lectures, guided walking tours in towns or at battlefields and Civil War battle reenactments, either as an onlooker or a participant, as at Pamplin’s Civil War Adventure Camp.

National parks provide a healthy share of learning experiences but not reenactments because, the NPS says, battle reenactments are inconsistent with the memorial qualities of the NPS-managed sites where, in fact, many of the dead are still interred.

Things to do for Venturers

  • Plan an itinerary around Civil War battlefields in the Shenandoah Valley, which was the scene of more than 325 military engagements, including 14 battles, in the Civil War.
  • Some battlefield sites combine history with worthwhile hiking opportunities. Consider Ball’s Bluff Battlefield Regional Park for beautiful trails, Brandy Station Battlefield for hiking trails with interpretive markers or Shenandoah Valley Battlefields National Historic District, with several hiking itineraries.
  • In case battlefield markers and cemeteries aren’t thought provoking enough, dip into the content at the American Civil War Center at Historic Tredegar on the Richmond waterfront. The museum considers the war from the Union, Confederate and African American perspectives.
  • For venturesome visitors age 8 and older, live like a Civil War soldier at the Pamplin Historical Park and the National Museum of the Civil War Soldier at Petersburg. At Pamplin’s Civil War Adventure Camp, participants wear period uniforms, eat and sleep as the soldiers would have and participate in typical activities of Civil War privates.
  • Imagine the hopes and fears of escaping slaves by following Fredericksburg’s Trail to Freedom, a route taken by thousands of slaves when Union occupation gave them the chance in 1862. Travel on foot or even in a canoe or kayak paddling across the Rappahannock River as did up to 10,000 escaping slaves.
  • At Stratford Hall Plantation, birthplace of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, go geocaching along the Star-Spangled Banner Geotrail.

Things to do for Centrics

  • Attend Revolutionary War reenactments commemorating the Battle of Great Bridge, in December, or the fighting at Petersburg, in April. The Yorktown Battlefield also is the scene of commemorative events on and near the October anniversary of the Cornwallis surrender.
  • Learn about medical care for soldiers during the Civil War at Chimborazo Medical Museum in Richmond. Expand the sightseeing to the battlefields where North and South fought for the Confederate capital.
  • Join one of the daily park ranger-led tours of the Yorktown Battlefield’s siege line. The battlefield is part of the Colonial National Historical Park.
  • For the true Civil War buff, it’s hard to overemphasize the importance of seeing Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park (encompassing four major battlefields), Manassas National Battlefield Park (site of two major battles) and the Petersburg National Battlefield (site of a nine-month siege).
  • Follow the General’s Wine and History Trail, which combines 10 wineries in northern Virginian with Civil War sites.
  • Plan an itinerary around colonial history of interest. For one idea: The Colonial Parkway takes visitors from Jamestown to the colonial capital Williamsburg and on to Yorktown, where Britain’s Gen. Charles Cornwallis surrendered in 1781.

Things to do for Authentics

  • Spend time at the homes of founding fathers — George Washington’s Mount Vernon; Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello; James Madison’s Montpelier, and/or James Monroe’s Ash Lawn-Highland.
  • Relive the 1862 clash of the ironclads at the USS Monitor Center at the Mariner’s Museum in Newport News. High-tech and interactive exhibits recall the standoff between the Monitor and the CSS Virginia.
  • Have dinner at the colonial dining rooms at Gadsby’s Tavern in Alexandria, a site patronized by founding fathers. Or, have tea with “Dolley Madison” at the Gadsby’s Tavern Museum, and indeed give the museum the time it deserves.
  • Take a guided tour of the Virginia State Capitol, designed by Thomas Jefferson and scene of many notable events before and during the Confederate period.
  • Attend a Civil War battle reenactments, or consider attending one of the occasional period balls. Many towns also have guided Civil War walking tours.
  • Sample wines from Jefferson Vineyards. The grapes were grown on land a mile south of Monticello, land once owned by Thomas Jefferson.

Additional Resources

For more information, consult the Virginia Tourism Corporation at www.virginia.org