Traveling With the Ghosts of Conflict Virginia Civil War Trails

Date posted: 2001


Civil War sites abound in history-rich Virginia, but finding and interpreting them was a job left to the visitor. Many war-related places were unknown outside their vicinities and others faced possible destruction by commercial and residential development. Wasn’t there some way to save the sites at risk, capitalize on the vast untapped tourism potential, and make the tourist’s experience more pleasant and informative?

Avid history buffs from around the country travel to Virginia annually to visit the battlegrounds of lore: Manassas, Petersburg, Wilderness. But if you didn’t grow up in the Commonwealth of Virginia, odds are that many of the events, people, and places there that tell the story of the American Civil War are only barely known to you. There are hundreds of sites in this state—where more than 60 percent of that bloody war was waged—that bespeak history better than any textbook ever could. Yet, even the most diligent amateur historian would have trouble routing out the myriad details of the battles, sieges, and machinations of an intricate conflict waged by skilled military leaders and home-grown warriors alike.

“We have close to 300 sites that tell a piece of the tale of Civil War, right here in our state,” says Jack Berry, director of the Richmond Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB). “But no two places were talking to each other. No two jurisdictions were conferring on how best to put their history to work and build a solid base for heritage tourism and economic development.”

To be fair, promoting its own history has always been a big priority in the Old Dominion. Almost since the very day in 1865 when Lee surrendered his Confederate forces to Grant at Appomattox, dedicated enthusiasts have made sure visitors are aware of the significance of Virginia’s contributions and sacrifices in the war. In the 1920s, the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) installed roadside historical markers along routes where armies advanced or retreated or where skirmishes and battles were waged. But these markers stood alone. It was up to the intrepid traveler to seek them out or, more likely, stumble across them.

Then there were all the places only locals knew about. Some places may not have played as significant a role in the war’s outcome, but their participation is nonetheless interesting to tourists. Yet, with limited to no marketing budgets or experience, those sites languished, at risk of permanently being forgotten.

So there sat this state, loaded with as much American history as you could stuff into its boundaries. But without a cohesive, well-coordinated, heavily marketed tourism campaign, it was losing potential revenue. The historical resources were all there. But who could pull them together and how?


Responding to the upsurge in Civil War interest spurred by Ken Burns’s popular 1992 PBS television series, “The Civil War,” staff at the Petersburg National Battlefield Park proposed updating and enhancing the old roadside historical markers to improve the visitor experience at Civil War sites. In 1995, with an Intermodal Surface Transportation Equity Act (ISTEA) grant from VDOT, a coalition of municipalities, historians, marketing specialists, and National Park Service (NPS) staff created Lee’s Retreat, a 20-stop driving tour through six counties connecting Petersburg to Appomattox. A detailed brochure map plus a series of directional signs, strategically placed by VDOT along relevant corridors, leads tourists to sites where historical markers are augmented by informative radio transmissions.

News of the Lee’s Retreat trail seeped out to other Virginia jurisdictions and private landowners who had all struggled over the years to preserve their historic assets while generating income from them. People started asking Jack Berry why they couldn’t do the same sort of trail in other parts of the state. Berry and his colleagues began brainstorming. “We thought: What if we linked the sites that told the tale of what preceded Lee’s retreat to Appomattox and created a statewide system of thematic trails, managed at the state level?” he recalls.

The Richmond CVB conducted an intensive letter-writing and phone-calling campaign to all jurisdictions in the state, contacting the Virginia Association of Counties, the Virginia Municipal League, and all the convention and visitors bureaus, among others, to garner support and cooperation for a statewide Civil War Trails project.

In the summer of 1995, with the first trail up and running and a second in the works, Mitch Bowman came on board as part-time director. He coordinated regional meetings to bring together historians, NPS staff, jurisdictional and regional leaders, and private site owners who, together, selected sites, planned additional trails, conducted research, and applied for ISTEA funding.

The funds, which required matching monies from the sites, were allocated according to need. Full-blown, established Civil War sites, such as national battlefields and museums, required very little money while other, previously unmarked sites needed considerably more money for the construction of roadside pull-offs, plus the research, writing, manufacturing, and installation of roadside markers. These efforts resulted in the opening of the Lee vs. Grant: The Overland Campaign trail in the summer of 1996. By the following spring, Bowman was brought on board as full-time director of the newly organized Virginia Civil War Trails (VCWT) initiative. Two months later, the 1862 Peninsula Campaign trail was inaugurated.

In late 1997, with three tours in place and the VCWT newly incorporated, the Virginia Tourism Corporation (VTC) became an active partner to promote the state program. VTC pays for the toll-free information number and postage on all materials sent out in response to requests. They also include the VCWT program in print and media advertising for the state.

Throughout 1998 and 1999, two more trails were researched, produced and opened, bringing the tally of VCWT sites to 260 along 5 thematic trails that run through 79 cities and counties. VDOT has installed 800 trailblazer signs along roads throughout the state to help motorists reach their destinations. Engaging, user-friendly brochures outline each trail in detail with maps, driving instructions, and history. More than 200 interpretive signs are in place along the five trails.

In early 2000, VCWT received its nonprofit 501(c)(3) status and hired a part-time marketing coordinator.


  • An adopt-a-sign membership program has been set up for counties that want to pay an annual contribution based on the number of interpretive signs in their areas. Prices are $500 per sign up to four signs, then less for each subsequent sign. This income supports 60 percent of VCWT’s ongoing operating and maintenance costs but, as importantly, “it instills a sense of custodial responsibility for the signs along the trail,” explains Bowman. With the installation of expensive interpretive signs around the state, a local eyes-and-ears effort is a necessity to prevent or repair damage. “It’s the grass-roots support that will keep the program going long after the initial grant projects have been completed,” declares Bowman.
  • Virginia has a coherent, centrally managed, statewide story about the Civil War to tell visitors. The signs, brochures, and wayside stops provide a quality, tangible product that the tourism industry can sell to individuals as well as groups.
  • As of November 2009, the program had expanded to 238 counties in four other states (Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, West Virginia and Tennessee) as well as parts of Pennsylvania where the same distinctive Civil War Trails logo is used.  The trails include 1009 sites, 908 of which have been interpreted for the first time and 100 of which are accessible to the public for the first time.  Another 350 sites are funded for development, and Bowman estimates that by the start of the Civil War Sesquicentennial in 2011 the trails will include more than 1200 sites in the mid Atlantic and upper South.
  • The in-depth experience provided by VCWT encourages repeat visits and provides more attractions to keep visitors in Virginia longer. Eighty percent of the trails are in rural areas, bringing tourists to previously unvisited parts of the state. This is a most significant fact, says Bowman, who defines a trail as an interpreted, chronological progression along a historic road trace. “ In other words,” he says, “the trail system takes travelers along rural roads, just as the soldiers traversed the countryside.”
  • The increased attention that the trails have brought to Virginia’s Civil War sites has helped to build community pride and grass-roots support for Civil War preservation efforts.
  • Visits to Civil War sites in Virginia jumped from 500,000 in 1996 to 580,000 in Su1997. A statewide study shows that Civil War driving travelers spend more than other pleasure travelers, ($71 per day as compared to $50). Nine percent of all Virginia travelers included a Civil War site in their travel plans.
  • Fifty motorcoach waysides have been created to provide vantage points for groups to view significant Civil War sites. The addition of these parking areas for motorcoaches has helped to increase the appeal of the trails for large group tours.
  • On average, more than 2,000 map-guides are downloaded weekly from the program’s website, and a 2003 visitor profile study generated by the Virginia Tourism Corporation showed that the “Civil War Car Route Travel Party” spends on average 30% more while on vacation than traditional “Pleasure Travel Parties.”

Key takeaways

Collaborate: Partners at the state and local levels sustain this program. VCWT is the architect of the trails—producing, installing, and maintaining the signs and radio transmitters, supervising the construction of trail enhancements such as wayside stops, and producing trail brochures. Promotion and marketing is left largely to the VTC. Preservation groups step in, securing easements or buying land, when Civil War sites are endangered. VCWT and VDOT collaborate on numerous levels regarding wayside stops and directional signs, not to mention funding. City and county planners and local politicians help by supporting the program and eliminating red tape.

Find the Fit between the Community and Tourism: Local historians research and develop preliminary information to interpret each trail, thereby assuring that the portions of their communities that want to be promoted are. The information is sent to the statewide history committee, which includes representatives from all five regional history committees as well as experts at the state level, such as the DHR historian, who is responsible for the road markers. VCWT staff use the historical information to develop copy and layout for the signs and brochures. The final copy is reviewed once more by local and state historians before going to press. Input from local historians and citizens helps to identify the campaign or theme for each trail and locals provide the final review process before the information is put into print.

Make Sites and Programs Come Alive: VCWT seeks out human-interest stories associated with the war and incorporates the stories through quotes and anecdotes into the brochures and interpretive signs along the trails. At Pamplin Park, Civil War weekends feature costumed interpreters, weapons demonstrations, music, and a Sunday sermon from the era. During the summer, children can participate in hands-on Civil War drills.

Focus on Quality and Authenticity: VCWT effectively balances local input with a comprehensive review process to ensure accuracy and authenticity. For example, to create signs for sites important to the African-American experience, VCWT includes local historians, staff from the U.S. Colored Troops Memorial in Washington, D.C., as well as the Douglass Institute of Government’s think-tank as part of the review team. By including specialized experts, VCWT can identify and rectify any errors before signs are manufactured.

Preserve and Protect Resources: “By generating interest in these Civil War sites, we have created a preservation catalyst at the grass-roots level,” says Mitch Bowman. For example, VCWT placed an interpretive marker adjacent to a Presbyterian Church that served as a field hospital during the Battle of McDowell. The site’s heightened visibility inspired the Highland County Historical Society to raise funds to buy an adjacent field in order to protect the land. As the interpretive sign explains, the field served as the Union position during the battle.


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