From the number of battlefield sites, it would seem that the entire Civil War was fought in nearby Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania – and that is not all that far from the truth. Visitors with an interest in history and beautiful countryside can tour a number of Civil War sites within a day’s drive of Washington.
The Civil War battlefields near Washington D.C. are wide swaths of land protected by the National Park Service for the purposes of contemplation, education and to honor those who perished. They are also ideal for walking, hiking, and in some cases, biking. You can usually pick up a self-guided tour map at the Visitor Center, or just start walking, stopping to read the signs along the way. Here are the top Civil War sites within two hours of Washington D.C.
The closest Civil War battlefield is at Fort Ward Museum and Historic Site, a 40-acre site just south of King Street and Interstate 395 in Alexandria, which is often staffed by volunteer reenactors.
Within Northeast Washington D.C. is Lincoln’s Cottage. Taking a tour of the property is an opportunity to learn about the 15th President’s life during the Civil War. His family stayed in this Cottage on a high hill to escape the brutal summer heat in downtown Washington D.C. While he was there, President Abraham Lincoln drafted the Emancipation Proclamation.
The battlefields in this town are probably the most famous and important American history. The Battle of Gettysburg is where the Union finally turned the tide against the South. It is located about two hours north of D.C. The Gettysburg National Military Park features a museum, an observation tower that gives sightseers an aerial view of the battlefield, a cemetery which is where President Lincoln read the famous Gettysburg Address, and many acres of rolling countryside dotted with monuments, memorials, and stone fences. It’s a popular tourist destination and worth the drive. In summer, there are kid’s programs that include learning marching formation and the discomforts of 19th-century soldiering.
Two battlefields are located in Northern Virginia. The Balls Bluff Battlefield in Leesburg is Loudoun County’s largest battlefield, with a 1-mile walking trail, interpretive signs, and a military cemetery. The first battle of the Civil War took place at Bull Run near Manassas, in Prince William County. A second battle was fought here again one year later. Manassas National Battlefield Park features a visitor center, a museum, and miles of trails on the grounds. It’s very beautiful and one of my favorite places to hike.
Another worthwhile stop for Civil War buffs is the Monocacy National Battlefield Center, near Frederick, Maryland. This battle was said to have stopped the Confederate Army from entering Washington, D.C. There are four separate areas where the battle took place. Each is a designated park with walking trails. In the spring, the Worthington Farm Trail is covered with a blanket of bluebells.
A number of later Union campaigns are commemorated at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park Virginia, halfway between Washington and Richmond. Included in the park are the battlefields of Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, the Wilderness, and Spotsylvania. The park is about an hour’s drive south of D.C.
Another turning point in the Civil War was the Battle at Antietam, in Sharpsburg, Maryland near the West Virginia border. Antietam National Battlefield is the site of the bloodiest day of the Civil War: on September 17, 1862, there were 12,410 Union and 10,700 Confederate casualties in General Robert E. Lee’s failed attempt to penetrate the North. The battlefield, about a 90-minute drive from Washington, is 15 miles west of Frederick, Maryland.
While not a battlefield, D.C.’s African American Civil War Museum at the U. Street Metro Station, tells the story of Black soldiers who fought to save the Union and abolish slavery. More than 209,100 African American soldiers served in the United States Colored Troops during the Civil War.
The Arlington House at the Arlington National Cemetery is another important site from the Civil War. Members of George Washington’s family owned the land, and using the labor of enslaved workers, built this home as a memorial to the first President. Confederate General Robert E. Lee and his family lived here until the Civil War broke out. After Lee’s family fled the property, the Federal Army took over. The land was designated as a cemetery for Union soldiers. Though currently closed, Arlington Cemetery has miles of paths for walking and contemplation.
Some battlefields and historic sites remain open to the public, but the visitor centers may be closed. Please check the websites before you visit. These sites do not serve refreshments, so bring your own water and snacks. Most of the bathrooms are closed as well. It is required to wear a face covering (over your nose too) at all federal sites and please use social distancing. Most of the sites are featured in my book The Unofficial Guide to Washington D.C. and 60 Hikes Within 60 Miles of Washington D.C.
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