If you live in the mid-Atlantic region, you may not realize that you are probably within a few miles of a historic Civil War battleground or site. With hundreds of battles fought in Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina, and Tennessee, almost every county or city has a Civil War historical site. As we are all doing more staycations thanks to the travel restrictions around the COVID-19 pandemic, this might be a perfect time to check out these historical sites in your own backyard!
While the large National Park Service battlefields get most of the historical sightseeing visitors, these smaller sites are worth a look, especially the ones near your home. To see what is near your hometown in these states, take a look at the maps provided by the Civil War Trails, a nonprofit that seeks to tell the often unknown stories of those who lived through the Civil War.
The maps can be quite overwhelming, with hundreds of locations in each state. For example, take a look at the extensive sites on the Virginia/Maryland map. To begin your exploration, I recommend that you pick the sites closest to your home and then branch out from there. It is always amazing to see what took place over 150 years ago on land that you drive by every day!
If you want to see a specific campaign or linked sites, there are suggested driving routes that you can access on the website. This is helpful if you’re homeschooling/virtual schooling this fall and want to take your kids on a field trip. For example, you could combine my blog post, Last Week of the Civil War, along with the driving instructions for Lee’s Retreat. Most of the large campaigns in Virginia and Maryland have a corresponding brochure as well.
If you drive down any highway in these states, you will likely come across a sign that indicates a Civil War Trails site. Most look like this:
Once you turn off the highway, you can follow the sign to the site, which typically has a marker similar to this:
Note that most sites have pull-offs to make it easier to read. Be careful of traffic, though, and always obey the traffic rules! I recommend checking out photos of the markers on Google Maps so you know which side of the road it is on or if there is a safe place to view the sign (picture is an example of a Google Maps view of the Powhatan Courthouse marker – note the ample and safe parking!).
Some sites are elaborate, with multiple markers and a walking guide. I was in Middleburg, Virginia and came across the Mount Defiance park, site of the Battle of Middleburg.
I found a walking tour brochure and a volunteer guide on site to describe the battle in detail. What a pleasant surprise, and it really brought the little-known battle to life!
Some of the sites have buildings open to the public, such as Aldie Mill on the Gettysburg Campaign trail in Virginia. Kids love to learn about the surprise attack that forced Union soldiers to hide in barrels of flour! There are thousands of stories like this at the sites!
To make a site more relevant to kids, I like to learn about the civilians, especially children, who were impacted by these battles or events. While the armies moved on to the next battle, the civilians living in the area were left to clean up and restore the land that had been destroyed. Some homes were even turned into hospitals that are now historic sites. With kids, I find it is easiest to get them interested in history when they can relate to those who lived through the battles, not just the soldiers’ stories. Some great resources to check for these personal stories at these varied sites are the Dear America and My America diary series.
Other resources to help you plan your Civil War Trails tour:
- American Battlefield Trust driving tour and itineraries
- Civil War battles app
- Maryland Civil War Trails app
- Virginia Historical Markers audio tours and guidebook
- Virginia History Trails app
- One of the best sets of books to consult for turn-by-turn directions to a variety of stops is by Clint Johnson. Check out his Virginia/West Virginia and Carolina guidebooks.
No matter how small, the Civil War Trails markers are worth visiting with your kids. Make it a fun game and see how many you can fit in this fall!
- Cost: free to see markers; some sites may have an entry charge
- Recommended: ages 10 and up
- Tour time: varies at each stop
- Gift shops located at some of the largest sites, usually connected to a National Park or foundation
- Transportation: Most accessible by car only. Some are connected by public transportation in larger cities, such as Washington, DC or Richmond, VA
- Nearby attractions: Many sites are part of larger battlegrounds or historical sites. Consult the county or city’s tourism guide for more details.
Books to Read:
See my Civil War book list at Bookshop.org, an Amazon alternative that supports independent bookstores. This link is an affiliate link where I receive a small commission at no extra cost to you.
Links to specific driving tour-related books on Amazon:
- National Geographic The Civil War: A Traveler’s Guide
- The Complete Civil War Road Trip Guide: More than 500 Sites from Gettysburg to Vicksburg
All Amazon links are affiliate links.