Route 15 runs between the rolling hills of the Virginia Piedmont and through green spaces that flank the Potomac and its feeder creeks. Today the region is gloriously dressed, but knowing its war-torn past makes this path even more striking, more sacred. To call it a “scenic byway” seems an understatement, but “Journey Through Hallowed Ground” befits the 180-mile-long passage that Congress deemed a National Heritage Area in 2008. With Civil War battlefields, founding-father homesteads and national parks as its mile markers, the Journey becomes an American timeline.
Although the corridor begins in Gettysburg, Pa., the northern Virginia section of Route 15 (through Loudoun and Prince William counties) offers a microcosm of the Journey as a whole. Explore this hill country portion running from Leesburg to Manassas in two days, taking time to detour for fine art and architecture, enduring villages, Southern cuisine and Civil War battlefields.
Just north of downtown Leesburg, Ball’s Bluff Battlefield and National Cemetery set the tone for a solemn yet stunning trek south. The site of Loudoun County’s first Civil War engagement in 1861, Ball’s Bluff sits on the edge of the Potomac across from 400-yard-wide Harrison’s Island. The island splits the Potomac River into two rapid channels which were a barrier to the Union troop advance and retreat from the “accidental” battle that October night.
Visitors navigate nearby Leesburg on foot using a walking tour map found at the Loudoun Museum. On the self-guided tour, see the historic Tally Ho Theatre (and adjoining La Lou Bistro), or stop at Dodona Manor, Marshall Plan author General George C. Marshall’s home and gardens. En route from Leesburg to Oatlands, detour to equestrian oasis Morven Park that’s anchored by a columned Greek Revival mansion housing the Winmill Carriage Collection and a hounds and hunting museum.
Continuing south, Oatlands Plantation echoes the architecture of the Morven Park mansion but on a larger scale. On the eve of the Civil War, the 3,400-acre plantation producing wheat and small grains enslaved 128 people, the largest slave count in the county. Today staffers welcome all for afternoon tea, house tours and a stroll in the terraced gardens.
Aldie to Middleburg
A turn off the byway toward Middleburg takes drivers past Aldie Mill, a renovated, four-story gristmill that hosts tours and grinding demonstrations spring through fall. In downtown Middleburg, the “Nation’s Horse and Hunt Capital,” boutiques and antiques emporiums complement charming markets and eateries. The National Sporting Library and Museum has fine art displays that focus on subjects from steeplechase to sport shooting in its newly renovated Vine Hill art museum.
The family-operated Red Fox Inn and Tavern (est. 1728) hosted history’s well-known names from rebel general Jeb Stuart to the Kennedys. Its Tap Room, frequented by Elizabeth Taylor, has a pine bar formed from an Army surgeon’s wartime operating table. The inn offers 15 guest rooms in separate buildings and cottages, and the tavern, a longtime favorite of residents and travelers, serves market-priced “local bounty” as well as Southern-inspired crab cakes with goat cheese grits to pair with Virginia wines. (More casual tavern fare comes from the kitchen on weekdays.)
From Middleburg, heading southeast, the nine trails of Bull Run Mountain Preserve beckon outdoorsmen to hike through forests past historical markers and cemeteries and climb to viewpoints like High Point Cliffs.
In nearby Haymarket is St. Paul’s Church, once a makeshift war hospital as well as a Union horse stable. Today find the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers who died during the battles of First and Second Manassas.
During the initial summer of the Civil War, Confederate and Union armies clashed at the Battle of First Manassas, the first major land battle in the state of Virginia. Both sides fought to take Henry House Hill, but Colonel “Stonewall” Jackson’s brigade broke the right flank of the Union troops, who then retreated to Washington. This proved to the Lincoln administration that wartime would not be short. The Battle of Second Manassas one year later resulted in another Union retreat, and General Lee’s army crossed into Maryland gaining its first foothold in northern territory.
Re-enactments and battlefield hikes help visitors grasp the importance of what happened here. In 1862, federal forces ransacked and graffitied the interior of the Ben Lomond House, another worthy pilgrimage site (off I-66 in Manassas). After recent renovations, in time for the Civil War sesquicentennial, the home opens to the public, and although plaster covers the graffiti, the insignias of soldiers remain legible.
Order a free print map of the Journey at www.hallowedground.org.