Explore History: 5 Driving Tours of Civil War Battlefields

The farms and pastures of rural Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania may look peaceful today, but 150 years ago they bore witness to the American Civil War. Now maintained by the National Park Service, these battlefields are the perfect places to hear some of America’s most harrowing stories of sacrifice and bravery.

Want to take a drive through history? Pick up your rental car at one of the Washington, D.C., area’s four Alamo locations. Then grab a road map, download an audio guide and embark on a tour of battle sites that shaped the nation. Here are a few worth visiting:

 

Manassas National Battlefield Park, Manassas, Virginia

When Union and Confederate troops met at Manassas in July 1861 for what would become known as the First Battle of Bull Run, the Civil War had just begun. The Union Army, fraught with inexperience and overconfidence, stepped into battle thinking the ensuing clash would be a sure victory. Throngs of city dwellers even traveled to the countryside, picnic baskets and bottles of wine in tow, to watch the battle. But the Union Army was stopped cold, and the Confederate general who blocked them — Thomas J. Jackson — earned his immortal nickname: Stonewall.

Not only is Manassas a short drive from Washington, D.C., but the battlefield also offers double the history for Civil War buffs: Manassas saw not one, but two major battles (the Second Battle of Bull Run took place there in August 1862). A 16-mile driving tour of the area covers 11 important war sites, and drivers can download audio guides online or use the Bull Run Battle App.

Manassas National Battlefield Park

 

Antietam National Battlefield, Sharpsburg, Maryland

In September 1862, this 3,230-acre field in Maryland saw the bloodiest single-day battle of the war. More than 22,000 soldiers were wounded, killed or went missing here. Yet as the sun set on Antietam, no side could claim a convincing victory. The battle also spurred President Abraham Lincoln to release the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, making the freedom of slaves an official part of the war effort.

Laced with dirt lanes, the farms and fields of Antietam feel eerily linked to the past. Visitors often remark that the battlefield looks and feels trapped in the 1860s. Experience it yourself by driving the 8.5-mile tour on a foggy morning, with stops at sites such as the Dunker Church — a major Union attack point — and the famed “Bloody Lane.” Before you hit the road, download these three essential Antietam trail podcasts and listen as National Park Service historians narrate where critical moments of the battle took place.

Antietam National Battlefield Dunker Church is one of the most famous churches in American military history. The church stands today on the site of the Antietam National Battlefield, virtually untouched from centuries past.

 

Gettysburg National Military Park, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania

Confederate troops were in high spirits when they crossed the Mason-Dixon Line into Pennsylvania during the summer of 1863. However, the good times did not last: Gettysburg would become the “high-water mark of the rebellion.” The three-day battle — the war’s bloodiest — saw 51,000 casualties and sent rebel troops packing back south. Although the Civil War raged for two more years, the defeat at Gettysburg deflated the Confederacy and became a historical turning point.

More than 40 miles of paved and unpaved roads weave through about 6,000 acres of hallowed land in Gettysburg. Drivers who want a one-on-one with an expert can download the Gettysburg Battle App from iTunes or Google Play. Keep your eyes peeled for bullet scarring as you drive by the city’s 148 historic buildings. In downtown Gettysburg at the Farnsworth House Inn, travelers can still grab a pint or a bite inside Sweney’s Tavern, which is dotted with more than 100 bullet holes.

Gettysburg National Military Park The Gettysburg battlefield inspired Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, which he delivered at the site on Nov. 19, 1863.

 

Best Farm-Monocacy National Battlefield, Frederick, Maryland

The battlefield by the Monocacy River may not be the best known, but it’s one of the war’s most important. In July 1864, one year after tasting defeat at Gettysburg, Confederate forces saw a literal path to victory after a badly bruised Union Army left the road to Washington, D.C., undefended. About 15,000 Confederate troops marched toward the city with the intention of taking the capital and influencing the upcoming presidential election.

However, along the way, they encountered a motley crew of Union troops in Frederick. Despite being outnumbered 3 to 1, the Union Army stalled the Confederates, giving blue reinforcements time to return to Washington. While Confederate forces eventually won the battle at Monocacy, the delay would ultimately ruin their plans to take the capital. Today, historians call it “the battle that saved Washington, D.C.” Before you go, download the National Park Service’s 6-mile round-trip audio tour and brochure of the battlefield. Follow the tour to stops like Gambrill Mill, which could produce 60 barrels of flour per day and served as a field hospital for Union troops during the battle.

Monocacy National Battlefield The 14th New Jersey Monument is one of five monuments at Monocacy Battlefield in Frederick, Maryland. Although they lost the battle, the effort put forth by the Union infantry was enough to keep Confederate troops from advancing north to capture Washington, D.C.

 

Appomattox Court House National Historical Park, Appomattox, Virginia

On Palm Sunday in 1865, Robert E. Lee sat down with Ulysses S. Grant near Appomattox Court House and signed the Army of Northern Virginia’s terms of surrender. While battles continued in other areas of the United States — most notably in Texas — the events that transpired here would ultimately bring an end to the bloody war, which had claimed 620,000 lives.

Today, drivers can trace the last steps of Lee’s army by following one of Virginia’s oldest Civil War trails: Lee’s retreat. The self-guided tour is an epic 90-mile trip stretching from Petersburg, Virginia, to the famed McClean House in Appomattox, a humble farmhouse that hosted Lee’s surrender. Travelers looking for a shorter jaunt may be interested in following the National Park Service’s cellphone tour, where you’ll see everything from a 220-year-old tobacco prizery to one of the last Confederate cemeteries.

Appomattox Court House The Appomattox Court House marks where a new nation was born, as it is where General Lee surrendered and brought an end to the Civil War on April 9, 1865.

 

Planning Your Route

These battlefields are listed in historical order, but you can pick and choose which to visit, or hit them all in a loop from Washington, D.C.: Monocacy National Battlefield is about 40 miles northwest of the metro area. Head another 40 miles north along U.S. Route 15 to see Gettysburg. Then start your southerly swing to Antietam and Manassas. The southernmost stop — also the beginning of the end of the Civil War — is Appomattox, about 145 miles from Manassas. With your brain full of history factoids, head east to Interstate 95 and make the roughly 200-mile trip back to Washington.

About the Author

Lucas Reilly worked as a print editor of mental_floss magazine and has written on a wide range of topics, from the politics of Beethoven’s Ninth to the musical preferences of penguins. He resides in Brooklyn, New York.