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Civil War road trip: 3 days wandering history, wine & wagon stops

May. 1, 2013 - 02:10PM   |  
Harpers Ferry, W.Va.
Harpers Ferry, W.Va. (Ken Perrotte)
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Worthington Farmhouse, Monocacy National Battlefield, Md. (Ken Perrotte)
Clockwise from left, Harpers Ferry, W.Va.; Worthington Farmhouse, Monocacy National Battlefield, Md.; the Black Hog in Frederick, Md. (Photos by Ken Perrotte)

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Need ideas for Civil War three-day-weekend trips closer to home?

Day 1. Make your first stop Virginia’s Cold Harbor Battlefield, part of the Richmond National Battlefield Park. More than 12,000 Federal troops were killed or wounded in May 1864 during futile frontal assaults against strongly fortified Confederate positions. For the afternoon, visit Tthe Museum of the Confederacy and the Tredegar Iron Works, then head to the Canal Walk and take the pedestrian bridge over the James River to Belle Isle, once an infamous prisoner-of-war camp but now a beautiful park.
Day 2. Drive 30 minutes south and visit Petersburg, a key Confederate logistics hub and gateway to Richmond from the south. The city was under attack for months. The Petersburg Battlefield tour shares the story of the Confederacy’s waning days, including the Battle of the Crater, where Federal engineers detonated a huge mine beneath the Confederate line. Spend the evening in Richmond’s historic Shockoe Slip district.
Day 3. Head 90 miles west to Appomattox Courthouse and visit the site of the battle there and the reconstructed McLean House, where Gens. Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant sat in the parlor and signed surrender terms.
Chattanooga-Lookout Mountain-AtlantaDay 1. Set up in Chattanooga, Tenn., as a base of operations to visit the 5,300-acre Chickamauga Battlefield and Chattanooga National Military Park. An estimated 34,624 total casualties — 16,170 Federals and 18,454 Confederates — fell in September 1863 at Chickamauga, the site of the South’s last major victory. Time your trip for June and you can check out Chattanooga’s Riverbend Festival along the banks of the Tennessee River.
Day 2. Seize the high ground and take the Incline Railway to the top of Lookout Mountain, where you can see how the armies maneuvered during the campaign for Chattanooga and clashed in a fight nicknamed the “Battle Above the Clouds.”
Day 3. Hop on I-75 and head toward Atlanta. Multiple battles raged from May to September 1864 as Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman sought to drive out Confederate forces and begin his “March to the Sea.” Battlefields such as Resaca, Adairsville, Kennesaw Mountain, Jonesborough and more raged during the Atlanta Campaign.
Shiloh-Memphis-VicksburgDay 1. Kick things off at Shiloh National Military Park in Shiloh, Tenn., site of the largest battle in the Civil War’s Mississippi Valley Campaign.
Day 2. Drive two hours west to Memphis, where a naval battle took place on the Mississippi River on June 6, 1862. Federal ironclads sank or captured all but one of the Confederate vessels in the 90-minute fight. Spend the rest of the day soaking up Memphis — check out the river, then head to Beale Street for world-class blues and barbecue.
Day 3. Drive south to Vicksburg and visit the Vicksburg National Military Park. Bloody fighting and a devastating 47-day siege resulted in Confederate defenders surrendering on July 4, 1863. Vicksburg refused to celebrate July 4 for 81 years.

The storied corridor from Gettysburg, Pa., to Monticello, Va., known as 'The Journey through Hallowed Ground,' is perfectly suited for a three-day weekend blending Civil War history and lighter entertainments.

The storied corridor from Gettysburg, Pa., to Monticello, Va., known as 'The Journey through Hallowed Ground,' is perfectly suited for a three-day weekend blending Civil War history and lighter entertainments.

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The storied corridor from Gettysburg, Pa., to Monticello, Va., known as “The Journey through Hallowed Ground,” is perfectly suited for a three-day weekend blending Civil War history and lighter entertainments. We kicked off our trip at Harpers Ferry, W.Va., and then toured the Antietam and Monocacy battlefields in Maryland.

Day 1: Harpers Ferry

Nestled on a steep hillside at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers, Harpers Ferry is a scenic little town with well-preserved historic charm.

Thomas Jefferson visited in October 1783 and climbed the hillside for a better view of “the passage of the Patowmac though the Blue Ridge.” A large rock formation, now bearing his name, was his platform. The vista inspired him to write, “This scene is worth a voyage across the Atlantic.”

Harpers Ferry was strategically important during the Civil War thanks to the United States Armory and Arsenal established there in 1799. Between 1801 and 1861, it produced more than 600,000 muskets, rifles and pistols.

The town’s prominence in Civil War history began in October 1859, before the first wartime shots were fired, when abolitionist John Brown and his “Provisional Army of the United States” seized the armory, intending to arm an uprising of slaves. By the third day, 10 of his men were dead, and Brown and five others were captured and later hanged in Charles Town.

Control of the town would change hands eight times from 1861 to 1865.

A guard house known as John Brown’s Fort was the only armory building to survive the Civil War. It sits about 150 feet east of its original location in Harpers Ferry’s “Lower Town” because a railroad was laid over the original site in 1894.

More to see: An active train station still accommodates considerable traffic in Harpers Ferry, and the town has many small museums, souvenir shops, restaurants and more. Interpreters in period costume stroll about. Stairways built into the hillside create near-vertical alleyways and enable shortcuts for those physically able to climb. A winding, weather-beaten stone staircase leads to the beautiful vantage point near St. Peter’s Church and the footpath to the higher ground at Jefferson Rock.

Day 2: Antietam

While Harpers Ferry was poised to fall to Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson in September 1862, Union Gen. George B. McClellan’s Army of the Potomac advanced on Frederick, Md. In an amazing stroke of luck — or a careless act by the Confederates — a Union soldier discovered Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Special Order 191 reportedly wrapped around some cigars. It detailed his operational plan for the invasion and tipped off McClellan that the Confederate troops were geographically divided.

The clash among the crop-laden farm fields near Antietam Creek, just outside Sharpsburg, Md., became “the bloodiest one-day battle of the Civil War.” Nearly 23,000 men were killed, wounded or missing out of the nearly 100,000 who took part in the 12-hour fight.

Stops along the well-marked battlefield articulate the horror associated with that particular patch of ground. The Lower Bridge over Antietam Creek, depicted in numerous Civil War paintings, is tranquil today. The battlefield’s Pry House, which served as a Union field hospital, is worth working into the tour.

Antietam National Battlefield is relatively compact, barely a couple of miles long and easy to traverse in half a day.

More to see: The bed-and-breakfast known today as Stoney Creek Farm dates to the late 1700s. Just a couple of miles outside Boonsboro, Md., and very close to the Antietam battlefield, it’s a relaxing spot to enjoy a glass of wine while planning the next morning’s tour. The Equestrian Suite was superb.

Between Sharpsburg and Frederick atop South Mountain’s Turner’s Gap, Old South Mountain Inn offers fine dining in a historic setting. Founded around 1732, the inn served as a wagon stand as well as a stagecoach stop for traffic passing on the National Road after it was surfaced in the 1820s. Washington leaders, including Daniel Webster and Henry Clay, and several presidents frequented the inn.

Day 3: Monocacy

Any visit to the Frederick, Md., area merits a stop at the location of “The Battle that Saved Washington, D.C.”

Monocacy National Battlefield is one of America’s newest Civil War parks, opening in 1991. A 6-mile self-guided auto tour is the way to visit.

It was the summer of 1864, and Petersburg was under siege, a seeming last Union hurdle before the fall of Richmond. A Confederate victory near Lynchburg, though, had opened a pathway back toward Washington, and Lee sent Lt. Gen. Jubal Early and 15,000 men back into Maryland.

As the Confederates neared Frederick, agents of the B&O Railroad tipped the Union to the advance, and a force of 6,500 Federals formed, many of them “100-day” men from state militias. The defenders’ goal was to hold on until reinforcements from Ulysses S. Grant’s 6th Corps could arrive.

The defenders held at each critical juncture during the attacks of July 9. Somewhat contrary to the notion of expected casualty ratios between attacking and defending forces, the Confederates took 900 casualties compared with the nearly 1,300 suffered by the Federals. Usually, the attacking force suffers more casualties.

More to see: Frederick has a thriving downtown scene but retains its historic charm. A new canal walk in Carroll Creek Park, reminiscent of San Antonio’s Riverwalk concept, is emerging.

If you love barbecue, the Black Hog at the edge of downtown is one of the best barbecue joints I’ve eaten at outside of Texas and Kansas City. The ribs (wet or dry rubbed) are a must, with the brisket, the Arkansas beef (a burnt-ends beef-tips-style dish), aw heck — it was all good. A sample of the microbrew beers and ales at Brewers Alley makes for a nice dessert. ■

Ken Perrotte is a Military Times outdoors writer.

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