If your teens or ‘tweens are studying the Civil War, a visit to the Virginia Civil War Trails may be just the thing to make history come alive and instill a life long interest in it. When I studied history in junior high and high school, it was just a matter of memorizing battles, dates, and names. How much more interesting it all becomes when you can make it real – placing it into our memories as a real event affecting real people rather than mere rote memorization.
History enthusiasts know that Civil War history is seemingly everywhere in Virginia at well-known battlefields, museums and other historic sites. Thanks to the groundbreaking Virginia Civil War Trails program, visiting Virginia’s key sites is even easier, making for ready-made trips for history buffs or students of history. The Virginia Civil War Trails program began in the early 1990s as a collaborative effort by state and local partners to place interpretive waysides at historic Civil War sites. Working with localities, executive director Mitch Bowman coordinates with historians and graphic artists to research and produce interpretive signs that tell the story of what happened at each site.
Virginia now has more than 460 trail sites marked and interpreted by the program, the great majority for the first time. The waysides can be found in metropolitan settings as well as rural back roads, providing a literal tie that binds the famous battlefields and sites together. The trail sites tell the stories not only of soldiers on the march and in battle but also of local civilians whose lives were transformed by what they experienced. The trails include major events and sites such as the battle of First Manassas, Arlington National Cemetery (in photo above) and Freedmen’s Village, the naval battle between the USS Monitor and CSS Virginia, the death of Stonewall Jackson, Lee’s surrender at Appomattox and the flight of John Wilkes Booth from Washington, D.C. into Virginia. However, just as dramatic are sites that tell little-known stories of soldiers and civilians located off the beaten path.
Virginia’s Civil War Trail sites are easy to find by following road signs marked with a red bugle. Many of the Virginia’s Civil War Trails sites are grouped thematically into sub-trails, providing an easy understanding and continuity for travelers who can literally follow a larger story point-to-point as part of a driving itinerary. Free maps are available at Virginia Welcome Centers as well as local visitor centers, battlefields, museums and historic sites throughout the Commonwealth. Visitors can also download maps, pod casts, a calendar of events and other information from the Virginia Civil War Trails web site.
Civil War Trails has been recognized by the National Trust for Historic Preservation as one of the most successful and sustainable heritage tourism programs in the country. It is also an appealing, accessible and engaging history programs and very user friendly.
Photo credit: SXC