Schoolchildren give their rapt attention to the tour guide at the Virigina State Capitol as he talks about the only statue for which George Washington posed. I, too, felt like an eager learner wanting to take in all of the wonder and awe of our nation's history during our road trip across hallowed ground.
When we first began planning what we initially called our "Civil War Tour," we weren't quite sure what to expect – or where to start.
It was new territory for us as we crisscrossed Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania. We found ourselves entering and exiting multiple states within minutes of one another. “Goodbye, Virginia,” we’d announce, only to re-enter it again on the same stretch of highway minutes later.
I guess you could call our trip more of a hodgepodge of Revolutionary and Civil War history.
We primarily followed the path of what others call the "Journey Through Hallowed Ground" – a stretch of sacred land from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, to Charlottesville, Virginia. A book by the same name, claiming to be “The Official Guide to Where America Happened,” helped us navigate our seven-night journey that began in Richmond, Virginia.
While Civil War history was our focus, we weren’t about to miss visiting the homesteads of a few of our Founding Fathers along the way. Hello, Monticello and Montpelier.
For us, all roads converged with this beautiful smattering of historic places to bring us a renewed sense of perspective and patriotism for what it means to be American – and the hardships that have shaped our young country.
Richmond, Virginia, and Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, became our bookends for the trip. Covering this distance over seven nights ensured we never had more than a three-hour drive ahead of us between stops. In most cases, we traveled about 90 minutes to reach our next destination.
Here’s a snapshot of the ground we covered during our driving tour.
Starting point: Richmond, Virginia – two nights
Where to stay: The Jefferson
White House of the Confederacy
Virginia State Capitol
Belle Island Pedestrian Bridge
Appomattox, Virginia – stopover on the way to Charlottesville
Little did we know the day we had planned to visit Appomattox would be one day shy of the 150th anniversary of the signing of the South’s surrender that ended the Civil War. While there were more crowds, the added traffic was worth it to experience some of the fanfare and to see camps set up nearby depicting Civil War days.
Even a horse resembling Robert Lee’s favorite steed, Traveller, stood outside the historic home where Lee met Ulysses Grant to sign the surrender papers.
Musicians played a role in keeping up morale and signaling the troops' movements.
The Civil War paved the way for several medical advancements. Thank goodness for us.
Keswick, Virginia (near Charlottesville) – two nights
Where to stay: Keswick Hall
Favorite things to see and do: Monticello, Univeristy of Virginia campus including Thomas Jefferson's rotunda
Cherry blossoms on display at Keswick Hall
Side view of Monticello
Orange, Virginia – stopover at Montpelier, the home of James Madison, on our way to Washington
It feels pretty powerful standing in the room where James Madison, our fourth president, drafted the U.S. Constitution. If those walls could talk.
You won’t want to miss carving time in your schedule for a tour of James and Dolly Madison’s home, Montpelier.
Entrance to Montpelier
If we had more time, we would have added a stop to see James Monroe’s place, Ash-Lawn Highland. I hear it’s also well worth the visit.
Washington (not D.C.), Virginia – one night
Where to stay: The Inn at Little Washington
Meals to dine for: The restaurant at The Inn at Little Washington
Favorite things to see and do: Historic streets of Washington, which was founded in 1769 and surveyed by George himself
Black truffles grated over popcorn is nice start to many great courses to come at the restaurant at The Inn at Little Washington.
Gettysburg, Pennsylvania – two nights
Where to stay: Federal Pointe Inn
Favorite things to see and do: Gettysburg National Military Park Museum and Visitor Center (start with the excellent film and cyclorama, then tour the museum), battlefield tour by licensed guide, The Soldier’s National Cemetery, Shriver House Museum
More than 2,000 monuments adorn the Gettysburg battlefield, including this statue of General Warren on Little Round Top.
Lines at Mr. G's Ice Cream Parlor are well worth the wait with flavors like death by chocolate and salted caramel.
Ending point: Baltimore, Maryland
We didn’t spend time here, but it was an easy hour-and-a-half drive from Gettysburg to catch our flight home.
Pre-trip planning tips
There are a few things you’ll want to do and read before your trip to maximize your experience.
Before and during your trip, check out these titles:
- “Confederates in the Attic” by Tony Horwitz – This funny and entertaining read follows Tony’s journey through the South to understand the people and places holding on to their Civil War roots. Tony is a former war correspondent who “settles down” in the Blue Ridge Mountains only to find himself drawn to rekindling his boyhood Civil War passion.
- “Killer Angels” by Michael Shaara – We listened to this historical fiction piece as we made our way through Virginia to Gettysburg. It helps you get acquainted with the main characters of the battle.
- “Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era” by James McPherson – Admittedly, I didn’t get very far reading this book. However, it does a great job laying out the environment and motivations leading up to the war. If you want a deep dive into the Civil War, this is your book.
- "Gettysburg: Turning Point of the Civil War" by TIME – This special edition created for the 150th anniversary of Gettysburg is a great primer on the battle. It provides a concise but meaningful overview of how Gettysburg played out and its key players.
Also be sure to reserve a licensed battlefield guide through Gettysburg National Park several weeks before your trip.
We would repeat this itinerary in a heartbeat and highly recommend it to get your historical bearings on our nation’s formative years.
I promise. You’ll return with a deeper appreciation for what we call home, the United States of America. With hand over heart, I pledge allegiance.