As the political and industrial heart of the Confederacy, Virginia soils were among the primary staging grounds for unimaginable bloodshed of the US Civil War. Today, you can walk the well-preserved battlefields, hear cannons roar during live military reenactments and get a glimpse of what life was life for the soldiers and citizens who lived and died during those harrowing years. Although 150 years have passed since the war's end, Virginia's great monuments and museums keep the memory of those historic events very much alive.
Manassas National Battlefield Park
The first major land battle of the Civil War erupted on the fields outside this small town on July 21, 1861. Northern 90-day recruits had little training and expected a speedy victory over the unruly Southern states when they marched proudly out of Washington, on one sunny July morning. They were headed to a humiliating defeat, as crack Southern troops under the command of leaders like Thomas J 'Stonewall' Jackson, quickly routed the Union army. Today, amid fields of wildflowers, tall grass swaying in the breeze and split-rail fences, it's difficult to conceive of the bloodshed that occurred here: some 4700 casualties in one day. A good place to start the journey into the past is at the Henry Hill Visitor Center. A 45-minute film, a great collection of artifacts and an electronic map give you a God's-eye view of the battles fought here. Afterwards, pick up a trail guide and walk the fields and forests where the artillery shells and musket fire rang out. Loop trails range from short (0.6 miles) to long (6.2 miles), and there's also a self-guided driving tour.
Just across the Potomac from Washington, DC, this immensely moving site is the final resting place for more than 400,000 military personnel and their families. When you walk among the endless rows of simple white gravestones, it's hard to imagine that this was once a private 1100-acre plantation – belonging to none other than Confederate commander Robert E Lee. As Civil War casualties overwhelmed Washington's cemeteries, the property became a burial ground. After touring the cemetery, don't miss a visit to the Arlington House, a 19th-century Greek Revival mansion where Lee and his wife lived for nearly 30 years. It's also where six of their seven children were born, and where Lee came after declining Lincoln's offer to command the Union forces at the war’s start. In the second-floor bedroom, Lee wrote his resignation from the US Army before taking charge of Virginia’s forces.
Virginia Museum of the Civil War
In May of 1864, the wheat fields of the Bushong farm were transformed into a place of death and destruction during the Battle of New Market. Cadets from the Virginia Military Institute – some as young as 14 – were thrown into the firing line as a 4000-strong Confederate force took on a much larger Union army. You can walk the battlefield, visit the restored farmhouse and peruse exhibits inside the fascinating museum, which sheds light on the soldiers and civilians who crossed paths here. You can relive history (or at least watch it unfold amid cannons, drum beats and costumed actors in scratchy wool uniforms taking aim at one another) during the annual reenactment of the Battle of New Market. It takes place this year May 15-17.
Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park
Four different battles exploded on the fields of this area over an 18-month span, leaving a staggering death toll of 15,000 and another 85,000 injured. Among the key events was the Battle of Chancellorsville, which was perhaps Lee's greatest victory as 60,000 Confederates defeated a Union Army over twice their size. This was also where Stonewall Jackson was accidentally shot by his own men. His arm was amputated and he died eight days later. You can tour the small building where he spent his final hours – the only building left of the extensive plantation that once stood here. The battlefields are of course the major draw. You can walk the Sunken Road, where thousands of Union soldiers fell, and gaze down from Marye's Heights, where Confederates rained down destruction on their Northern foes. End your wander at the Fredericksburg National Cemetery, the final resting place for over 15,000 soldiers, mostly in unmarked graves.
The capital of the Confederacy and its industrial dynamo, Richmond was pivotal to the success of the breakaway Southern states. As such, the city is rife with Civil War sites. Key among them is the White House of the Confederacy, where President Jefferson Davis (and his wife and three children) resided for most of the war. Much of the city was burned during the evacuation of Richmond, following its siege in 1865. Still standing however is the Tredegar gun foundry, which was the largest munitions factory in the South. Pick up a map and begin your exploration at the Richmond National Battlefield Park in Chimborazo Park. Across town, Monument Avenue is a picturesque tree-lined boulevard lined with statues to revered Southern luminaries, such as Stonewall Jackson, Robert E Lee and JEB Stuart. It's also worth strolling by the Virginia State Capital, which was designed by Thomas Jefferson. In front of the steps, note the state seal and motto that reads 'Sic Semper Tyrannis' ('Thus always to tyrants'), which is also what John Wilkes Booth shouted after assassinating Lincoln.
Some 25 miles south of Richmond, the town of Petersburg was a pivotal railway junction, with supplies arriving here from all across the South. Recognizing its vital role for the Confederacy, Ulysses S Grant laid a 10-month siege to the city from June of 1864 to March of 1865. You can see how citizens fared under attack at the Siege Museum. West of downtown in the Pamplin Historical Park, the National Museum of the Civil War Soldier gives an up-close perspective on day-to-day life for those on the front lines, with exhibits on camp food, clothing, training and medical treatment. There's also a battlefield simulation room, where you can feel the vibrations of thundering cannons and hear bullets whizzing past you.
Appomattox Court House
On the same day that Petersburg fell to the Union army, Richmond surrendered. After retreating nearly 100 miles west to the town of Appomattox Court House, Lee formally surrendered on Palm Sunday (April 9, 1865). One intriguing way to approach Appomattox is to go along Lee's Retreat, which follows the route the Confederate troops took after departing Petersburg. Each of 25 stops highlights the battles and strategic maneuvers that happened along the way. The journey ends at Appomattox Court House National Historic Park, where you can step back in time amid 19th-century costumed interpreters and buildings (some of which are reconstructions). A fine postscript to the village experience is a visit to the Museum of the Confederacy, which has an impressive collection of relics – including the uniform, gloves and ceremonial sword Lee was wearing on the day he surrendered.