Few events have proved more formative in the history of the United States than the American Civil War. In April 1861, tensions between Union and Confederate soldiers would lead to the four-year feud between northern and southern states, primarily over the abolishment of slavery.
From the gloomy first battlefield at Fort Sumter to the site of Abraham Lincoln’s famous ‘Four score and seven years ago’ Gettysburg Address, the civil war locations on this road trip are rich with stories both world famous and little known.
The Civil War Trail
Considered by many the defining battle of US history, this fascinating road trip takes you back in time through key civil war locations. Driving from Charleston, South Carolina, where the war officially began, to Appomattox, Virginia, where it ended, you’ll pass through many of the key spots that shaped the epochal encounter.
This carefully curated trail stops at the following places of interest, each evoking powerful images of early US history.
First Port of Call – Fort Sumter, South Carolina
The Civil War truly began when Confederate forces attacked Fort Sumter in South Carolina, a short while after Abraham Lincoln was sworn in as president. The Confederate side unleashed gunfire on the Federal fort with Union defenders surrendering after 34 hours.
Today the sea fort provides a poignant starting point for a Civil War road trip. There you can walk the walls of the fort and explore the exhibits of the dedicated museum and education centre.
For an even more immersive experience, time your trip to coincide with a re-enactment or musket demonstration. While the site is free to visit, it’s only accessible by tour boat from Charleston, for which tickets cost $22.
Back on the shore, you’ll be looking at the same views the defenders saw from the harbour of historical Charleston, where boat trips are readily available for full tours of the area. If you have a keen interest in naval history, the famous Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley is open to the public at the Charleston Naval Shipyard.
The Key Union Target – Richmond, Virginia
As a prime manufacturing hub and capital of the Confederate States of America, Richmond, Virginia was a prime target for the Unionists. The drive from South Carolina to Richmond via North Carolina takes around four hours.
The Richmond National Battlefield Park commemorates the city’s key Civil War locations, including the Confederacy’s largest hospital and miles of original forts. There are various marked trails to explore these fascinating US battlefields, and a driving tour through all of the sites can take up to two days. As such, it’s a good idea to start your exploration at the National Park Service Civil War Visitor Centre at the Tradegar Iron Works – where many Confederate munitions were produced – for information on getting the most out of your visit.
If you’re pressed for time, you can opt to take the short but critical trails through Cold Harbour, the site of heavy fighting in 1864. While much of the area was destroyed during the war, numerous historic places of interest remain.
Where It Ended – Battle of Appomattox Court House, Virginia
Appomattox Court House – the name of the village, rather than a building – is located in south central Virginia approximately 95 miles west of Richmond. While ideally this should be the last stop on your Civil War road trip, it’s easier geographically to stop here after discovering the battlefields if you also plan to visit Gettysburg.
There, on Palm Sunday in 1865, Generals Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant sat down at McLean House to sign surrender terms. Lee’s forfeit of the Army of Northern Virginia ended the war, sealing victory for the Union.
Today, tourists are invited to visit a rebuilt version of the building and learn all about the political proceedings that signalled the end of the battle. Appomattox is also home to a Confederate cemetery and the American Civil War Museum, which holds an extensive collection of artefacts including the pencil used by Lee to sign the surrender terms.
The Bloodiest Battle - Gettysburg
Even those with a less keen interest in history can’t deny that Gettysburg makes for an unforgettable stop on any US road trip. Another four hours’ drive into Pennsylvania, the site of the bloodiest battle of the Civil War brings the reality of the battle to life in terrifying detail.
It was here that 46,000 men were wounded, went missing or died as a consequence of the fighting. The fierce clash took place from 1 – 3 July in 1863, and signalled a turning point in the conflict. Thus, it was here that Abraham Lincoln delivered his infamous Gettysburg Address, which shifted the focus of the war to the abolishment of slavery.
From Gettysburg, head on to the Catoctin Mountain Highway and through the Appalachian foothills towards one of the most well preserved US battlefields. The peaceful beauty of the surrounding mountain scenery, formed around 480 million years ago, serves as a poignant place to reflect on the nation’s tumultuous history.
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