7 must-see stops on the Civil War Trail
The story of West Virginia tells us much about our nation’s most definitive war.
Originally a part of Virginia’s Old Dominion, West Virginia was literally birthed in the Civil War when it seceded from the Confederacy.
Its rugged mountains made it a very different environment than the rest of the South, but as anyone can tell, West Virginia remains culturally “Southern” in many ways. For this reason, our history truly shows both sides of the Civil War.
One of the best ways to learn “hands-on” about this history is to travel across our beautiful landscape and visit stops along the “Civil War Discovery Trail,” a national network of more than 300 historical sites about the conflict.
Here are 7 of the most interesting (in chronological order):
1. JACKSON’S MILL FARMSTEAD
Although Jackson’s Mill farmstead never figured directly into the Civil War, 2 of its residents did.
Thomas Jackson, nicknamed “Stonewall” was perhaps the greatest general of the Confederacy– some historians believe that his 1863 death by friendly fire was a critical step toward the eventual defeat of the South. Thomas grew up at Jackson’s Mill, and lived there until he left for West Point in 1842.
Less well-known is Jackson’s sister, Laura. While Stonewall went on to fight for the Confederacy, Laura converted her house in the nearby town of Beverley into a hospital for Union troops.
West Virginia University’s Extension Service has restored Jackson’s Mill as a historic site, and it is open to the public. Stop in to watch the historic crafters, or shop at the old-time general store.
2. HARPER’S FERRY NATIONAL HISTORICAL PARK
A radical abolitionist, Brown hoped to arm slaves with guns from the arsenal and incite an uprising; instead, he was captured and executed. His violence, though, convinced many Southerners that Northerners had extreme goals to abolish slavery, and relations between the 2 sides continued to deteriorate.
Today, historic Harpers Ferry is a charming small town and National Park, just 40 miles from Washington D.C. It’s also the headquarters and midpoint for the famous Appalachian Trail.
Drop by Harpers Ferry for plenty of visitor-friendly scenic hikes, living history exhibits and preserved historic buildings.
3. PHILIPPI COVERED BRIDGE
On June 1, 1861, this tiny community and covered bridge were the site of what historians consider the first organized land battle of the Civil War.
Although it was more of a “skirmish” compared to the massive battles that came later (the Union forces simply chased away a much smaller Southern militia), it convinced the North to keep pushing toward the Confederate capital of Richmond, until they were eventually defeated at the First Battle of Bull Run in July. It was also a critical step toward forming West Virginia.
The battle site is one of West Virginia’s few preserved covered bridges— a beautiful span of 280 feet across the Tygart Valley River. Learn more about it at the nearby Barbour County Historical Museum.
4. CARNIFEX FERRY BATTLEFIELD STATE PARK
Only the ecstatic yells of whitewater rafters in the fall interrupt Carnifex Ferry Battlefield State Park’s tranquility as it sits quietly above the stunning Gauley River. But in September of 1861, as the Union was still recovering from its unexpected defeat at Bull Run, this was the site of an important northern victory that secured western Virginia’s eventual alliance with the Union, and the birth of our state.
Confederate forces had entrenched themselves along the rim of the Gauley River canyon when they were attacked by 3 brigades of Union troops. Although the southerners eventually retreated across Carnifex Ferry and fled south, the northerners suffered higher casualties.
Although West Virginia became part of the north, the closely matched forces at Carnifex Ferry are a perfect example of how the Mountain State was always a sort of “middle ground” of northern and southern sympathies. The battle site is a testament to how divided West Virginia was during the Civil War.
5. WEST VIRGINIA INDEPENDENCE HALL
As tensions between the North and South erupted into open warfare in 1861, a new customs house in Wheeling quickly became the center for debates about slavery, secession and allegiance in West Virginia.
Although West Virginia’s capital was eventually established in Charleston, from 1861-63 the customs house was the headquarters for the state’s Union-siding government. It is our own “Independence Hall.”
The building has been restored to its original condition, and is open for self-guided tours.
6. DROOP MOUNTAIN BATTLEFIELD STATE PARK
The last significant battle in the Mountain State was Nov. 6, 1863, several months after the creation of West Virginia.
Federal troops crushed the defenses of Confederate forces as part of a larger campaign to disrupt railroad lines through the South. After losing their ground at Droop Mountain and suffering more than 200 casualties, the Confederates retreated to Virginia, never to retake to the Mountain State.
The battle site was restored by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. They built an observation tower and museum, and installed historic cannons and other defensive structures.
7. GRAFTON NATIONAL CEMETERY
After the formal surrender of the Confederacy in April of 1865, the United States was reeling from war. As our nation was left wondering how to reconcile and remember this tragedy, we established a series of national cemeteries to honor our soldiers.
One of the largest and most historic of these cemeteries is in Grafton, along a corridor of central West Virginia that was the site of several battles. Dedicated in 1867, Grafton National Cemetery has the grave of Thornsbury Bailey Brown, who historians believe is the first Union casualty of the war.
It’s also the site of the longest ongoing Memorial Day celebration in the nation, dating back to 1867. Visiting on Memorial Day is a profound experience.