The Civil War, 150 Years Later

Where better to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War than Virginia, the state where most of the battles were waged? The first major clash (Battle of Manassas) and the last (Battle of Appomattox Courthouse) took place on Virginia soil. After the state convention voted to secede April 17, 1861, and the Confederate capital moved from Montgomery, Ala., to Richmond May 29, the top priority for Gen. Robert E. Lee and his armies became defending the Virginia capital.

Today visitors gather at statewide sites rich with history, including 20 Civil War spots within 20 miles of Alexandria. In that city, the longest occupied territory of the Civil War, the first two hostile deaths—one Union, one Confederate—occurred. Modern-day Alexandria features the homes of Gen. Lee’s family, the Freedom House Museum (once a HQ for slave traders) and Fort Ward, the best preserved fortification protecting the federal capital from Confederate attack. See www.visitalexandriava.com/civilwar.

History buff Mitch Bowman of Charles City County has vague recollections of the Civil War centennial events that took place in his home state of Virginia. As a young boy, he saw a forensic van parked at a Civil War hospital site where graves had recently been unearthed. His curiosity was piqued.

Today the former U.S. Air Force officer and pilot educates others about American history though his involvement with Civil War Trails, a multi-state driving route that connects 400 national parks, houses and battlefields. In 1996 Trails designers completed 26 installations; today visitors find 1,221 sites, 600 with public access for the first time.

Bowman has always been fascinated by history (from Native American to Revolutionary), but he finds the Civil War has a “sense of appeal” to which people can relate. Civil War knowledge serves as “a good learning tool for American history in general,” he says. Statistics reveal that nearly 10 percent of all Virginia travelers actively seek out Civil War sites or trails (in 2007, that meant 3.5 million visitors). In these sesquicentennial years, those numbers may well skyrocket.

Bowman credits the Trails’ popularity to two things—first, their accessibility. The stops encourage participants to get out of their cars along the route and, Bowman explains, “We’ve made it so easy ... the program is exactly the same from the Inner Harbor of Baltimore to Memphis, Tennessee.” Although visitors find interpretive markers with maps, illustrations and text along the way, Bowman says, “We like to let the site tell as much of the story as it can.”

Second, each stop reveals intriguing tales, often stories of average people affected by the war. At a wine shop in The Plains, visitors view a porch where a man sat and whittled a stick, adding a notch each time a cannon from the Union army rolled through town.

Visitors “can dovetail the history stops into their other vacation activities,” says Bowman. He says people get a distinct sense of Virginia communities (Falls Church, Vienna, Fairfax) that tend otherwise to blend because of modern development. In Vienna, for example, history buffs visit the Freeman House, now a general store but once a railroad depot and post office, and near a Ford dealership in Falls Church, they find the spot where Thaddeus S. Lowe launched the first military hot air balloon.

The Civil War Trails program receives four federal dollars for every local dollar. The project has received much national recognition because of its sustainability, which Mitch credits to grassroots involvement and support. The word has spread abroad as well; a recent Travel Channel UK show about the trails attracted some 60 million viewers.

Historical routes include the Civil Rights in Education Heritage Trail, the Virginia Indian Heritage Trail and the new Road to Revolution, which traces the life of Patrick Henry. Suggested itineraries in northern Virginia (“Crossroads of Conflict”) include a two-day, self-guided tour, “Mosby’s Cavalry: Gray Ghosts of the Confederacy,” and a one-day tour, “A War No Less Deadly: Small Battles in Northern Virginia.”

Download the maps at www.civilwartrails.org or find them at visitors centers across the state. Also look for the Trails logo on the inner and outer loops of Interstate 495, where 4,500 directional signs lead to the historic sites.