March Into the Past

War Sites Recall Historic Tests

Posted February 26, 2010 at 4:08pm

Washington is full of history, but what about the neighboring areas? It’s easy to forget that the capital is surrounded by a number of Civil War battlegrounds that played important roles in our nation’s history. Now that spring is nearly upon us, this is the ideal time to hop in your car and pay a visit to these hallowed grounds.

Just more than an hour and a half from downtown D.C., up Interstate 270 into Maryland, is Antietam National Battlefield — the site of the bloodiest single day of combat as well as the best-preserved Civil War battlefield in existence.

The battle came on the heels of fighting at Harpers Ferry, W.Va., just 15 miles away, which ended with Gen. Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson and the Confederate army taking control of the town. The Battle of

Antietam (also known as the Battle of Sharpsburg) marks the first invasion of the North by Gen. Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia. Nearly 100,000 soldiers engaged in the fight, and in the end there were some 23,000 casualties.

A visit to Antietam, which costs $4 per person and $6 per family, begins in the visitor center with a one-hour film narrated by James Earl Jones. The film is shown every hour beginning at noon and describes the significance of the battle as well as the surrounding events.

Then it’s on to the battlefield. While some battlefields are crowded by monuments or suburban development, Antietam is green and sprawling. Nearly 8,000 acres make up the national park and undeveloped surrounding areas. Noteworthy locations such as the Bloody Cornfield, Sunken Road and Burnside Bridge have been preserved, making it easy for visitors to imagine the battle occurring before them.

Self-guided tours of the battlefield are encouraged and can be done by car, bike or on foot. The tour is 8.5 miles long and includes 11 stops, including one at Sunken Road, where much of the fighting took place. The tour can be done with the help of free brochures or accompanied by an audio tour on cassette or CD that can be purchased at the gift shop.

In addition to self-guided tours, the National Park Service also offers group tours led by park rangers. Throughout the day during season — which runs from mid-April to mid-October — a ranger will lead a group of cars through the 11 stops, lecturing at each one. This tour is included in the price of admission to the park.

The National Park Service has partnered with the nonprofit group Antietam Battlefield Guides for those looking for a more personalized experience. At a cost of $70 for six people or fewer, a guide will drive the visitors’ vehicle and explain the battle in great detail. The proceeds from this go to further preserving the park.

Other Battles

While Antietam may be the most pristine local battlefield, it is not the only combat site located near the District. Manassas National Battlefield (also known as Bull Run), the site of two separate conflicts, is less than an hour drive from the city in Fairfax County.

The first battle occurred here on July 21, 1861, and was the first major land conflict of the war. In fact, Washingtonians were so excited at the prospect of battle that many of them packed picnics and traveled to watch the fighting. The second battle took place just over a year later in August 1862. Both battles were counted as Confederate victories.

Farther south on I-95 is the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania County Battlefields Memorial. Several battles took place on these grounds during the course of the Civil War, including the battles of Fredericksburg, the Wilderness and Chancellorsville. Chancellorsville was the site at which Stonewall Jackson was accidentally shot by his own troops. The general’s arm had to be amputated and is buried on the park’s grounds and noted with a granite marker.

Similar to Antietam National Battlefield, both Manassas and Fredericksburg offer instructional videos and tours of the grounds conducted by rangers. Admission varies but is not more than $5.