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The Civil War in Under a Week

By James T. Yenckel
January 12, 2022
national, park, historic, civil, war, harpers, ferry
Steveheap / Dreamstime.com
Visit Gettysburg and five other nearby battlefield parks

Onward came the Confederates, an experienced and disciplined army of 12,000 soldiers striding my way across an open field. Flags flying, their battle line stretched for a mile in perfect alignment. I could see their determined faces - would they detect my trembling fear? - as I stood on Cemetery Ridge. A foot soldier, I was part of a strong Union force that had taken a defensive position on high, rocky ground just outside the little Pennsylvania village of Gettysburg. It was July 3, 1863, a momentous day. History books would call it the turning point of the Civil War. No, of course I wasn't really there that day.

But I could easily imagine I waited - steadfast but frightened - to thwart the famous attack that became known as Pickett's Charge. Again and again, the Civil War comes vividly alive like this as I walk over the very ground where great battles were fought. I can see the fields, woods, ridges, and gullies that determined how generals plotted their strategies. And I begin to understand the challenge facing the troops ordered to carry them out. How would I have fared? It's a question surely every Gettysburg visitor must ponder, as I have.

You, too, can step back into the past on a budget-priced drive into the heart of the Civil War. It will give you intimate glimpses into the life (and, so very often, the death) of the soldiers and civilians caught up in the tragic four-year conflict between North and South.

Amidst the horrible carnage, incredible tales of courage on both sides stir the soul. Our nation was shaped by the Civil War, and its ramifications are still with us. I grew up never having to fight in a war. Our national Civil War battlefields, the only ones I know, help me better appreciate the sacrifices of those who did.

A Civil War buff, I've plotted a practical, six-day, 600-mile auto tour from Washington, D.C. to Gettysburg and five other nearby battlefield parks, where many of the bloodiest and most crucial clashes were waged. On this four-state drive, you will eat and sleep cheaply and well - and see the greatest number of sites (small entrance fees) in the fewest miles (to keep gas costs down). If time is short, spend a day at one or two of the parks. Each is a good introduction to the war. Why Washington, D.C.? Except for Appomattox (last stop on the drive), the parks are all less than 120 miles away. And, as important, two of the city's trio of airports - Washington-Dulles and Baltimore-Washington - are served by low-cost airlines.

The drive takes you through lovely pastoral countryside only little changed since the nineteenth century. Count on stopping at one of Virginia's many wineries to sample (free) a fine vintage. In summer, go for a swim (small fee) at a state park lake. And stroll the inviting old streets (no charge) of each of the towns in which you'll stay.

You will need a car. Among nationally known rental companies, Rent-A-Wreck (202/408-9828) often offers the lowest rates locally at $175 a week. But free mileage is limited to 100 miles a day, and you'll have to take an airport bus ($16) into the city. In summer, when business travel is slack, look for a better bargain at a major rental agency with airport pickup. For an August rental this year, Budget (800/572-0700) quoted an economy car rate at Baltimore-Washington airport of just $188 a week with unlimited mileage.

The very dramatic prelude

Let me set the scene before I send you on your way: Richmond, Virginia, which served as the Confederate capital, is located just 100 miles south of Washington, D.C., the Northern capital. The proximity of the two enemy cities turned the landscape between them blood red in a series of horrendous battles marked by courageous charges and catastrophic blunders. The North's basic strategy was to capture Richmond and end the war. The South, realizing its military strength was limited, sought to punch and poke at the North - holding on until the Union wearied of the fighting and granted the Confederacy independence. The story unfolds chapter by chapter at the battlefield parks.

(The per-night lodging rates I cite below are for two adults in summer high season. Fall and spring are cheaper, and in winter, prices at many motels drop to as low as $30 to $35. Children usually stay free.)

Day 1: Gettysburg National Military Park

If you can visit only one Civil War site on this trip, make it Gettysburg National Military Park (717/334-1124) in Pennsylvania. Before Gettysburg, the South seemed headed for victory; after the battle, a terrible loss for Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, the Confederacy was doomed - although the war staggered on for two more years. In exhibits here, you get a good overview of the war.

Stand in the well-marked Union lines on Cemetery Ridge, as I did, and look across the slender valley of green fields and pastures below to Seminary Ridge, which sheltered Lee's troops. For three sun-baked days, the opposing armies watched each other from these rocky perches separated only by a mile. Today, on the two ridge tops, imposing equestrian statues of the commanders - Gen. George Meade for the North and Lee for the South - still maintain a vigil across the valley in easy view of each other. On this site, where Pickett's troops marched to disaster, you can sense the terror the poor foot soldiers must have experienced as their world exploded around them. That they fought so valiantly makes me wonder at the sometimes incredible strength of the human spirit.

Admission to the park is free. But to understand the battle, catch the 30-minute electric map presentation (adults, $3) in the visitor center. The map recreates the battlefield landscape and its significant landmarks in miniature, and colored lights mark the movement of the armies. Also in the visitor center is the Gettysburg Museum of the Civil War (free), where room after room details a soldier's hard, dangerous life. At this point, consider yourself ready to take the park's 18-mile auto tour (free), which follows the path of the three-day battle chronologically. To see it as the soldiers did, walk at least partway.

Catch a free ranger-led talk or living-history encampment here at Gettysburg or at the other parks (schedules at www.civil wartraveler.com). And relax and swim at Hunting Creek Lake in Cunningham Falls State Park, Thurmont, Maryland, about 20 minutes south ($3).

Getting thereI-70 from Baltimore or I-270 from Washington north to U.S. Route 15 north, about 80 miles.

Where to stayGettysburg offers a choice of reasonably priced motels and cafes - although they're a bit more expensive here than elsewhere on this drive. Within a five-minute walk of the visitor center, the 30-room Three Crowns Motor Lodge (800/729-6564), $50 weekdays/$65 weekends, tempts with a large swimming pool. Nearby are the 25-room Colton Motel (800/262-0317), $50 weekdays/$60 weekends, also with a pool, and the 40-room Home Sweet Home Motel (717/334-3916), $55 weekdays/$65 weekends. A mile from the park, the 25-room Perfect Rest Motel (800/336-1345), $55 weekdays/$65 weekends, with pool and morning coffee, enjoys a quiet country setting.

Where to eatA few steps from the in-town motels, Gettysburg Eddie's is a Victorian-style charmer. It looks fancy, but prices are right. An entree of grilled chicken breast, lightly seasoned with lemon pepper and served with a salad and wild rice, is $9.95. Take $2 off all dinners Monday through Thursday from 4 to 5:30 p.m. Up the street, General Pickett's Buffet Restaurant charges $9.95 for a full dinner, which includes an entree (meat loaf, for example), a large salad bar, and a sinfully tempting dessert bar.

Day 2: Antietam National Battlefield

Harpers Ferry National Historical Park

Today, Antietam National Battlefield (301/432-5124, $2 per person) in little Sharpsburg, Maryland, is the prettiest of the Civil War parks. Beneath a wooded hillside, Burnside Bridge, a stone arch, leaps Antietam Creek so gracefully it has starred in countless tourist snaps. Yet ironically, it is here that the horror of the war seems most evident. On a single day, September 17, 1862-the bloodiest of the war - 23,000 men were killed or wounded, partly because of the blunders of their commanders. Attempting to invade the North, Lee was halted at Antietam. Union troops failed to pursue Lee's army, and he would march north again a year later at Gettysburg.

At the visitor center, watch the movie; tour the museum, which puts a human face on the battle, and then take the nine-mile auto tour of the battle sites. To stretch your legs, hike the Snavely Ford Trail, a 2.5-mile wooded path along Antietam Creek where Union troops outflanked their enemy.

Afterwards, head for Harpers Ferry National Historical Park (304/535-6223, $5 per car) in West Virginia. Strategically located at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers, the little mountain town - a munitions manufacturer at the war's outset - switched hands time and again. Earlier in 1859, abolitionist John Brown was captured in Harpers Ferry after he seized the federal arsenal in a move to arm slaves. Many of the town's original buildings are preserved as part of the park, and they have been turned into small museums telling the story of Brown and the war. In warm weather, rafters tackling the Shenandoah rapids splash past in laughing groups.

Getting thereTo reach Antietam, about 50 miles distant, retrace your route south on U.S. 15 to Frederick, Maryland, home of the fascinatingly gruesome National Museum of Civil War Medicine (adults, $6.50). Pick up U.S. 40 Alternate West to Maryland 34 south. Pack a picnic lunch, because food options are limited. To continue on to Harpers Ferry, follow back roads south along the Potomac River, about 15 miles.

Where to stayFor the cheapest lodgings on the drive ($16 per person), check into Harpers Ferry Hostel (301/834-7652), a 39-bed Hostelling International-American Youth Hostel property in Knoxville, Maryland, a few miles from the park. (I sit on the board of directors that manages the hostel.) The rambling frame house perches near a ledge overlooking the Potomac. Hike the Appalachian Trail alongside the river into Harpers Ferry. Up the road in a scenic country setting is the 23-room Hillside Motel (301/834-8144), $50 daily. For a city setting, double back to Frederick to the 72-room Red Horse Motor Inn (301/662-0281), $67 daily.

Where to eatAcross from the Hillside Motel, Cindy Dee's Restaurant is a friendly family eatery where a plate of liver and onions, mashed potatoes, and corn goes for $6. In Frederick, the Red Lobster ($9.99 for Santa Fe chicken) is near the Red Horse Motor Inn (above).

Day 3: Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park

Midway between Washington and Richmond, the old colonial river port of Fredericksburg, Virginia, earned the dubious nickname of "battlefield city." Four major battles were fought here - two (Fredericksburg in 1862 and Chancellorsville in 1863) in which Lee was triumphant and the final two (the Wilderness and Spotsylvania Courthouse, in May 1864) in which he was forced to withdraw south when hard-charging Gen. Ulysses S. Grant maneuvered to outflank him.

All four battles are commemorated at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park (540/373-6122, $3 per person), and the park distributes a free auto tour map. On the route is the Stonewall Jackson Shrine, where the famed Confederate leader died of wounds accidentally inflicted by his own men at Chancellorsville.

The most unsettling of the park's sites is the still partially standing stone wall behind which Lee's troops sheltered during the Battle of Fredericksburg. Union troops, charging the high ground, were slaughtered in masses.

Getting thereU.S. 340 south to U.S. 17 south, 110 miles. The route passes through the heart of Virginia's wine country. Outside Fredericksburg, catch the beach at Lake Anna State Park (adults, $6).

Where to stayYou'll find a cluster of well-priced motels at the intersection of U.S. 17 and I-95. Try the 59-room Travelodge (800/578-7878), $48 weekdays/$62 weekends, with pool and continental breakfast; the 77-room Super 8 Motel (540/371-8900), $50 weekdays/$55 weekends; or the 119-room Motel 6 (540/371-5443), $38 weekdays/$49 weekends.

Where to eatNear the motels, the cheery-looking Johnny Appleseed Restaurant features menus in the "down-home Southern tradition." With buttermilk biscuits, "Pam's Fish 'n Chips" is $8.99.

Day 4: Petersburg National Battlefield

In June 1864, Grant trapped Lee's forces in Petersburg, Virginia, but for nine-and-a-half harrowing months, Lee held out. Partially encircling the old city, the Petersburg National Battlefield (804/732-3531, $5 per person) preserves Northern and Southern earthworks and the Crater, a massive hole created by a blast set off from a tunnel beneath Confederate lines. A four-mile auto tour leads to the Crater.

The civilian side of the story - the lives of the 18,000 residents who endured hunger and cannon bombardment - is found in the Siege Museum ($3) in the historic district. They kept up their spirits at "starvation balls" - lots of dancing but no food.

Getting thereI-95 south to Route 36 east, about 85 miles.

Where to staySeveral budget motels are located at the intersection of I-295 and U.S. 460, about a mile from the park's entrance. They include the 120-room American Inn (804/733-2800), $45 daily, with pool; the 48-room Budget Motor Inn (804/732-1646), $40 daily; and the 32-room California Inn (804/732-5500), $40 weekdays/$46 weekends.

Where to eatAll the motels recommend Roma's Italian Restaurant just up the highway. The place bustles, and the aromas are rich. Spaghetti with mushrooms is $4.50, or go for the veal cutlet parmigiana with a salad ($8.50).

Day 5: Appomattox Court House National Historical Park

The other Civil War battle sites commemorate the violent clash of armies. Appomattox Court House National Historical Park (804/352-8987, $4 per car) in Virginia is a place of peace, a memorial to the dignity, honor, and generosity of the combatants in the final days of conflict. Here on April 9, 1865, Lee surrendered his tattered army to Grant. He had broken free from Petersburg and was attempting to escape into the Carolinas. At this tiny village, Grant blocked his way.

Today the restored village looks much as it must have at the surrender. A tavern, the general store, the courthouse, and the jail are clustered atop a grass-covered hill ringed by acres of rolling farmland. In the McLean House - the finest home in the village - Grant and Lee met in the parlor to sign the surrender.

A formal ceremony, the stacking of arms, took place three days later. The Confederates filed uphill between Union ranks to lay down their arms for the last time. No jeers assaulted them; the victors stood silently in respect. As Union Gen. Joshua Chamberlain, who was there, later wrote:

"On our part not a sound of trumpet more, nor roll of drum; not a cheer, nor word nor whisper of vain-glorying, nor motion of man standing again at the order, but an awed stillness rather, and breath-holding, as if it were the passing of the dead."

Getting thereHead west on U.S. 460, about 90 miles. Or take "Lee's Retreat," a historical route with signposts pointing the way on country roads that follow Lee's flight more closely. Phone 800/6-RETREAT for a detailed map. Stop for a swim at Holliday Lake State Park (admission $1 per car, swimming $3 per adult).

Where to stayTwo fine motels are located about a mile from the park in contemporary Appomattox: the 20-room Budget Inn (804/352-7451), $45 daily, and the 45-room Super 8 (804/352-2339), $50 weekdays/$56 weekends with breakfast pastry, juice, and coffee.

Where to eatClose to both motels, the Homeland Cafeteria can't be beat for its prices. A full dinner - fried chicken, mashed potatoes, vegetables, salad, rolls, and dessert - costs just $5.99, $5.49 before 4 p.m.

Day 6: Closing the loop

Return to Washington via U.S. 29 and I-66 north. Remember, on this drive you've seen only the highlights of the Civil War. More battlefields, monuments, and museums await another visit.

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