Did you know that more Civil War battles took place in Virginia than any other state? Many of these battlefields have been preserved for future generations – us — to learn from our past while remembering the fallen perished in that time of strife.
Several of Virginia’s battlefields are laced with trails, which we can hike to understand the strategies used as well enjoy the now peaceful settings these preserved lands present. Preserved battlefields in the Old Dominion not only safeguard state and national history, they also add greenspace for visitors and residents alike. Consider a battlefield hike in Virginia, where you can combine hiking and history. It is a great way to enjoy the beauty of Virginia and its storied past.
Here are 8 Virginia battlefield hikes that will help you appreciate Virginia history while soaking in the present beauty that comes natural in the Old Dominion. Below, each hike notes the battle that took place, the park where you hike, hike distance, the nearest town to where the hike is located, an essential fact about the hike, then the GPS coordinates of the trailhead. With this information, you can adventure forth on a battlefield hike in Virginia.
– BATTLE OF DAM NO. 1 –
What Park: Newport News Park
Hike Distance: 3.4-mile loop with spurs
Nearest Town: Newport News
Battle Fact: The battle site is on the National Register of Historic Places.
GPS Coordinates: 37.19046, -76.54814
This scenic hike takes place at one of Virginia’s most attractive and well-maintained urban preserves – Newport News Park. Within this large multi-purpose getaway is the site of the Civil War’s Battle of Dam No. 1. Cross a wooden bridge above the site of Dam No. 1, then walk a combination nature trail/historic trail that explores the human and natural history of the area. Stop by a lake overlook, cross a marsh boardwalk, travel through scenic rolling terrain along miles of earthen fortifications, some of the best preserved in the state.
After visiting the main battle area on the Twin Forts Loop, trace the White Oak Trail, an interpretive path with an accompanying downloadable brochure. Wander through hickory-oak woods, crossing occasional creeks. Views of the 360-acre park lake are numerous and inspiring, especially the last half of the loop. Another highlight is crossing Beaver Dam Creek, a marshy wetland, on a long boardwalk. Eventually you will make your way back to the bridge at Dam No. 1 site and complete the trek. Displays about the battle are located inside the park’s Discovery Center.
– BATTLE OF BALLS BLUFF –
What Park: Balls Bluff Battlefield Regional Park
Hike Distance: 7+ miles of interconnected trails
Nearest Town: Leesburg
Battle Fact: Balls Bluff was the second largest Civil War engagement of 1861.
GPS Coordinates: 39.12958, -77.52938
Set on a scenic parcel overlooking the mighty Potomac River, Balls Bluff Regional Park not only safeguards the site of an 1861 engagement, but also harbors wildlands in Northern Virginia. It was fall when the Union worked to defend Washington, D. C. as the South circled west of the capital in an effort to capture the town. The park features over 7 miles of interconnected trails exploring the hills and hollows of the park. The Potomac Heritage Trail runs along the river below the base of the bluff and connects with other paths outside the park. No matter what route you choose, make sure to incorporate views from Balls Bluff into your hike. Here, you can scan the Potomac River and comprehend the strategic import of the locale.
A .8-mile interpretive trail explores the primary battlefield. You can learn a lot about the engagement on your own. However, you can also join a battlefield tour, held every Saturday and Sunday at 11 am and 1 pm, from early April through the end of November. The balance of the paths are color-coded and interconnected, therefore a trail map helps you make the most of the adventure.
What Park: Richmond National Battlefield Park
Hike Distance: 2.1-mile loop
Nearest Town: Richmond
Battle Fact: The Battle of Cold Harbor was the last major field victory for Robert E. Lee.
GPS Coordinates: 37.58536, -77.28686
This hike circuits through an important conflict site during the Union’s attempt to capture the Confederate capitol of Richmond. The crossroads at Cold Harbor, now in the suburbs of Richmond, provides a quiet forested park with user-friendly trails that belie its violent past. Leave the battlefield visitor center, crossing an open field. Enter woodlands, passing earthworks dug during an 11-day siege pitting the troops of Robert E. Lee against Ulysses S. Grant. Take the extended loop past Bloody Run, a stream that crosses the battlefield. Curve around the property in rolling terrain, climbing to a hill overlooking the theater of war before returning to the visitor center.
Along the way, hike alluring oak-hickory woods, where earthworks can still be seen. This area saw hand-to-hand fighting seldom seen in the current era. Your final climb up a hill shows what an advantageous site this was for the Confederates, especially with their well dug trenches topped with “header logs”, a slightly elevated log set above the trench which allowed soldiers to shoot out from the slit between the log and the trench, literally protecting their heads, but offered for the enemy little at which to fire. Finally, the trail emerges from the woods and you are back at the visitor center. The building is full of interpretive information that lends visual understanding to the Battle of Cold Harbor.
– BATTLE OF FIRST MANASSAS –
What Park: Manassas National Battlefield Park
Hike Distance: 5.2-mile loop
Nearest Town: Manassas
Battle Fact: The first actual clash between Union and Confederate armies took place here.
GPS Coordinates: 38.81312, -77.52158
Make a circuit through the eastern half of Manassas Battlefield, where the first clash of armies during the Civil War took place in July of 1861. A blazed trail takes you from the park visitor center through the woods and fields of the preserved historical locale. Visit the Stone Bridge, homesites and the only two buildings that were there when both First Manassas and Second Manassas battles took place.
This hike follows the First Manassas Trail, which focuses on the Battle of First Manassas. Start near the battlefield visitor center and head by the Van Pelt homesite and on to the Stone Bridge, where the Yankees tried to trick the Rebels into bringing all their men. A walk along Bull Run adds a natural touch to the trek. Next, work your way to Matthews Hill, where outstanding views to the south reveal the battlefield. Work your way to Buck Hill, where more battlefield vistas await. Stop by the Stone House, where a tavern keeper and his wife rode out the conflict. Finally, climb Henry Hill and visit the Henry House, another building intact from that time. Beyond the Henry House, it is but a short jaunt back to the battlefield visitor center.
– BATTLE OF CEDAR CREEK –
What Park: Cedar Creek & Belle Grove National Historical Park
Hike Distance: 1.7-mile balloon loop
Nearest Town: Middletown
Battle Fact: Starved rebel soldiers broke ranks while winning to obtain Union supplies.
GPS Coordinates: 39.02233, -78.29972
Explore a preserved national park battlefield where the Union ended any hopes of Confederate success in the Shenandoah Valley. A balloon loop around 1.7 miles allows you to explore the terrain amid fields and mountains of the northern Shenandoah Valley. The fatigued Southerners surprised the more numerous Union on a foggy morn in 1864, but ended up being repulsed by Phillip Sheridan, who came 20 miles from Winchester to save the day.
The trail system is known as the “Morning Attack Trails” for the surprise Rebel maneuver. The hike leaves the visitor center and you inspect the monuments honoring brave Vermonters who held off a much larger assault force. Then join the Thomas Brigade Loop Trail as it explores more Confederate attack sites. The final loop – the Hayes-Ramseur Loop Trail — takes you where future president Rutherford B. Hayes held his own during that fateful day late in the war. While here, take time to visit Belle Grove plantation, open seasonally. Tour the house and grounds located near the battlefield.
– BATTLE OF FORT STEDMAN –
What Park: Petersburg National Battlefield
Hike Distance: 2.7-mile loop
Nearest Town: Petersburg
Battle Fact: This battlefield is the site of the longest siege in American history.
GPS Coordinates: 37.22619, -77.36962
This hike loops the Poor Creek drainage of Petersburg National Battlefield, Civil War site of the longest siege in American history. Leave the earthworks of Fort Haskell and travel through bottoms, hills and by the old Taylor Farm. Along the way, discover miles of earthworks dug by soldiers during the 10-month blockade. Other hiking trails and the auto tour road provide more exploration opportunities at this large historic and natural site in the heart of Petersburg.
The trails here are well marked and maintained. The woods and fields the trail travels are favorable for deer and wild turkey. This hike starts at the earthworks of Fort Haskell, where tightly packed Bluecoats repulsed the Confederate charge. Visit the site of the Taylor Farm, a brick foundation remaining from its Civil War destruction. The loop then wanders amid earthworks still faintly visible under a lush forest.
The hike nears the Norfolk Southern Railroad. Petersburg was a rail hub during the Civil War and was the reason Grant marked it for takeover. The hike then reaches the Taylor family plantation, Spring Garden, now in ruins. The balance of the loop joins the mostly wooded Encampment Trail, where trenches and earthworks lace a gorgeous forest amid pretty Taylor Creek and its tributaries. Most of the terrain is revegetated, with trees and brush growing amid the trenches and pits. A final pair of turns on the Taylors Creek Trail brings you back to the trailhead.
– BATTLE OF APPOMATTOX COURT HOUSE –
What Park: Appomattox Court House National Historical Park
Hike Distance: 4.5-mile hike
Nearest Town: Appomattox
Battle Fact: This was the site where Lee formally surrendered to Grant.
GPS Coordinates: 37.37754, -78.79598
Not only was a Civil War battle actually fought here, but the surrender of the South to the North took place. And the national park has an excellent trail system that avails over 4 miles of hiking, both in woods and open fields. The main path is aptly named the History Trail! This battle marked the end of the Civil War, though other skirmishes were fought by troops who didn’t know of the surrender between Lee and Grant. Here, however, Lee was harried on all fronts and headed to a railroad supply station for rations. He was then blocked off and drew the inevitable conclusion that the war was lost.
By that afternoon, truce flags were waved and surrender negotiations were underway. The nation moved toward healing. Today, you can walk a 1.5-mile loop or take the aforementioned 4.5-mile History Trail trek. See the Peers House around which this final battle was fought. Stop at the McLean House where Lee and Grant met man-to-man. The walk also travels by the Appomattox River where Lee crossed to draft terms of his surrender.
– BATTLE OF SPOTSYLVANIA COURTHOUSE –
What Park: Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania County Battlefields Memorial National Military Park
Hike Distance: 4.3-mile loop
Nearest Town: Fredericksburg
Battle Fact: Over 3,000 Confederate soldiers were captured by the Union during the battle, the largest such capture of the entire Civil War.
GPS Coordinates: 38.21907, -77.61418
This hike makes a circuit through the Spotsylvania Court House Battlefield, where Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant clashed as Grant doggedly pushed for Richmond in the Civil War’s latter stages. A marked path takes you to significant battle sites and homesites of the time, cushioned among the gently rolling hills of Spotsylvania County. The mix of eye-appealing forest and field, important earthworks and interpretive information makes for a rewarding historic hike. Today, the battlefield offers an oasis of greenery as Fredericksburg fans outward and Lake Anna’s popularity continues to grow. The trail alternately traces grassy hills, quiet roadways within the battlefield, and slender tracks winding through hardwoods and evergreens.
Before beginning your hike, soak in the interpretive information at the trailhead exhibit shelter. After passing some monuments, stroll along quiet Hancock Road. The trek then turns into woods and travels south toward the top of Laurel Hill. Here, Confederate trenches protected the roads leading toward Spotsylvania. The loop hike then comes along a series of earthworks the South also used in defending the crossroads. Stop by the remains of the Harrison House and the McCoull House Site. The hike then saddles along “The Muleshoe”, where Grant probed and ultimately penetrated the Rebel lines. The wreckage of the Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse was left to time, now healed over and preserved in Virginia history.
© johnnymolloy for Virginia’s Travel Blog, 2016. |