This week marks the 156th anniversary of the last week of the Civil War. One of the best historical sites to visit to learn more about the breakthrough by the Union troops, which led to the end of the war, is Pamplin Historical Park and the National Museum of the Civil War Soldier, southwest of Petersburg. Here your family can hike battlefields, visit museums, and see homes and farms from this time period. It has enough to do to fill up a whole day of historical fun!
The land making up Pamplin Historical Park is part of the Petersburg Breakthrough Battlefield, where Union soldiers finally broke the Confederate lines at dawn on April 2, 1865 after a 9-month standoff following the 1864 Overland Campaign. This breakthrough led to the evacuation of the Confederate capital at Richmond, and the Union Army pursuing the Confederate Army through central Virginia until its surrender at Appomattox one week later.
The Boisseau family lived on the land during the war, and their home, Tudor Hall Plantation, is preserved as it was during the pre-war years. Confederate General Samuel McGowan from South Carolina used the home as his headquarters during the siege of Petersburg. Afterwards, Union General Grant used a nearby home, the Banks house (still standing), as his headquarters.
Pamplin Historical Park is home to a fantastic museum, battlefields, fortifications, and homes, all open for exploration. There’s a wide variety of things to see so your family will get a complete picture of both soldier and civilian life during the war. Be sure to plan your visit ahead of time using this map.
You’ll park at the entrance building, which contains the National Museum of the Civil War Soldier.
This engaging museum’s exhibits and interactive media teach you about life as a soldier, from the battlefield, hospital, and winter camp. Your visit is enhanced by a digital guide, which allows you to pick a soldier to follow throughout the exhibit to learn about his experiences, including his fate. The guide also provides more information on the exhibits in the museum and on the grounds. There’s even a specific guide for children so they, too, can participate in this innovative and interactive experience.
The museum exhibits are appropriate for all ages except the Trial by Fire exhibit, which puts you in the middle of a battle. Bullets whiz by your head and the floor rumbles with the booming artillery explosions. If you’re visiting with younger children or anyone sensitive to loud sounds, this exhibit is easily skipped.
After the museum, you’ll head outside for the short walk to the Tudor Hall exhibit, where you can visit a Civil War-era home.
The home is outfitted both as a home for the Boisseau family and as a headquarters for Confederate General McGowan, who occupied the home from October 1864 – March 1865.
Don’t miss the exhibit in the basement about the southern agrarian economy.
Across the yard from the home is a kitchen house, where the enslaved cooked and lived, and the barn.
Just across the dirt path from the Tudor home area is the field quarter, a recreated enslaved home and farm. The contrast between the plantation home and this home can provide a way to discuss the hard topic of slavery with your children.
However the movie, Slavery in America: Viewpoints of the 1850s, hosted in one of the recreated cabins is not recommended for children due to its language.
After this exhibit, you’ll walk through a tunnel under a busy road and enter the military side of the park. This is where your children can run and play outside while viewing important history. The fortification exhibit contains impressive recreations of the Confederate defenses and gives you a greater understanding of what a huge task it was to build and to breach.
Check the events calendar and be sure to stay for an artillery demonstration (only if your children aren’t afraid of loud sounds!). During a field trip, my son had a fun time participating in a military march and pretend battle here!
You’ll visit the battlefield center next, which contains a smaller museum about the breakthrough battle.
It’s interesting to learn about the first Union soldier who broke through the Confederate lines, Cap. Charles Gould, and there’s an inspiring painting of his bravery here. Kids will love seeing the detailed maps that help you better understand the movement of the troops in this battle. Don’t miss the 10-minute movie shown here about the breakthrough battle (recommended for ages 10 and up).
After learning more about the battle, head out to the military encampment. Your children will be fascinated seeing how real soldiers lived through the winter and can even try their hand at some of their activities.
The last part of the park to visit is the Breakthrough Trail, one of the best preserved Civil War battlefields. The walking path is suitable for strollers. There are three paths to choose from, depending on the time you have. The short loop only takes 15 minutes and gives you a good overview of the battlefield. The other loops take long but give you a better view of the different fortifications and terrain. You can also walk the 20 minute loop to the Hart farm to view a wartime home.
You’ll see original fortifications and trenches, many with historical markers and audio messages.
The park has removed the trees from one part of the battlefield so you can get a better image of what it would have looked like here during the war.
After your hike, walk back to the main entrance and visit the excellent gift shop. Before you leave, ask directions to the Banks house to view Gen. Grant’s headquarters and the original kitchen house from the farm.
Pamplin Historical Park is a great one-stop historical site for learning about the Civil War, from the soldiers’ lives to the civilians caught in the line of fire. It’s the perfect place for an educational spring break trip, especially during this anniversary week!
- Cost: $15/adults; $12/children 13-18; $8/children 6-12; free/children under 6
- Recommended: all ages for walking trails; 8 and up for museum
- Tour time: 2-3 hours
- Gift shop located in main museum building
- Transportation: Conveniently located off I-85, Pamplin is only accessible by car.
- Dining options: Pamplin has a cafe, which is currently closed due to COVID. The nearby 85/460 interchange has several restaurants, including a pizza place. Petersburg is also nearby with its famous BBQ restaurants, Saucy’s and King’s.
- Nearby hotels: Check out the Petersburg Tourism site and Pamplin’s recommendations for more information on hotels. The nearest hotel to the entrance is a Holiday Inn Express.
- Nearby attractions include: Petersburg National Battlefield, Blandford Church and Cemetery, Keystone Truck and Tractor Museum, Old Towne Petersburg, and Swaders Sports Park. For more Civil War sites, check out the area’s guide to commemorate the war’s 150th anniversary.
Books to Read:
See my Civil War list at Bookshop.org, an Amazon alternative that supports independent bookstores and creators. This link is an affiliate link where I receive a small commission at no extra cost to you.
Some specific books about the Petersburg breakthrough are: