Amtrak's City of New Orleans near Byram, MS. CC by Schnitzel_bank, some rights reserved.
Railroads played a pivotal part in the Civil War. In 1861, as war erupted, the Union was crisscrossed by a vast railroad network that accounted for 22,000 miles of iron rail. The Confederacy added another 9,500 miles. The governments of both sides relied on railroads to transport men and material vast distances. This reliance on railroads to serve the logistical needs of the men in the field meant that rail centers and crossroads were prime targets for the armies. Manassas, Corinth, Chattanooga, Atlanta and Petersburg were all battles solely or largely because of the railroads that passed through them.
It is surprising, then, that this self-styled Civil War and rail geek (yes, as a matter of fact, I am a blast at parties), didn’t make frequent use of Amtrak when planning my many battlefield explorations. I admit that the rail fan in me has been dormant for a while, but thanks to our family trip in April 2017 to chase the Norfolk & Western J-Class steam engine 611 and seeing Drummer Boy’s reaction to my own rolling, steaming moment of nostalgia, my love of rail travel has been revived. I was primed, therefore, to hear Willie Nelson’s version of The City of New Orleans while waiting at the deli counter of the local IGA and think, Wait…can I make a rail trip work for my vacation to Vicksburg? I mentally listed all the things that needed to fall into place—a long list, indeed—to set appropriate expectations. To my delight, I ended up checking off every box and within 3 weeks, found myself comfortably ensconced in a roomette on the southbound City of New Orleans headed to Vicksburg, via Jackson, Mississippi.
This is not the first time I have taken the train to explore Civil War battlefields. Before this, my most recent trip on Amtrak was in 2008, when I first explored three now very familiar battlefields: Harpers Ferry, Antietam and Gettysburg. Considering that there are more than a dozen cities with significant ties to the Civil War served directly by Amtrak and another five which are accessible within an hour’s drive (and from stations that have nearby rental car availability), it is likely this won’t be my last foray either.
Are you ready to ride the rails but not sure where you want to go? Check out these great Civil War destinations for your family’s next history by rail adventure!
Don’t Miss: Georgia Aquarium, College Football Hall of Fame and Six Flags Over Georgia
Recommended Reading: War Like the Thunderbolt: The Battle and Burning of Atlanta by Russell S. Bonds; Stealing the General by Russell S. Bond
Served By: Northeast Regional, Carolinian, Silver Star, Silver Meteor, Palmetto
Civil War Pedigree: The second capital of the Confederate States of America, Richmond, was a perpetual target of the Union army. The battles of the Seven Days in 1862 brought the fighting of the Penninsular Campaign to Richmond’s doorstep. The final push of the 1864 Overland Campaign reached the outskirts of Richmond as well. The city fell to Union forces on April 3, 1865.
Civil War Related Sites: Tredegar Iron Works (NPS Visitor’s Center), American Civil War Museum, Hollywood Cemetery, Museum & White House of the Confederacy, Cold Harbor Battlefield, Gaines Mill Battlefield, Chickahominy Bluff Battlefield, Chimborazo Medical Museum, Glendale Battlefield, Fort Harrison, Drewry’s Bluff Battlefield, Malvern Hill Battlefield, Totopotomy Creek Battlefield
Don’t Miss: Richmond Children’s Museum and Belle Isle
Recommended Reading: To the Gates of Richmond: The Peninsula Campaign by Stephen Sears
Civil War Related Sites: Fort Sumter, Fort Moultrie, Warren G. Lasch Conservation Center (home of the Confederate submarine, the HL Hunley).
Don’t Miss: The beaches of Folly Beach and Isle of Palms and the City Market
Recommended Reading: Allegience: Fort Sumter, Charleston and the Beginning of the Civil War by David Detzer; Jack the Cat That Went to War by Russell Horres
New Orleans, LA
Served By: Crescent, City of New Orleans, Sunset Limited
Civil War Pedigree: New Orleans was the largest city in the Confederacy. While it was under Confederate control, New Orleans served as an important naval town, building ships and submarines. In April 1862, Union ships, under the command of Admiral David Farragut, began a bombardment of the two forts protecting New Orleans downriver--Forts Jackson and St. Phillip. After seven days of close fighting, the majority of the Union fleet was able to pass by the forts and sail into capture New Orleans. The city would remain in Union hands throughout the duration of the war.
Civil War Related Sites: Confederate Memorial Hall Museum, Fort Jackson, Metairie Cemetery, Fort Pike State Historic Site
Don’t Miss: St. Charles Street Car, National WWII Museum, and Mardi Gras World
Recommended Reading: When the Devil Came Down to Dixie: Ben Butler in New Orleans by Chester G. Hearn
Civil War Related Sites: The old Armory, John Brown’s Fort, the Stone Fort and Maryland Heights hikes, the artillery positions on School House Ridge and Bolivar Heights.
Don’t Miss: Harpers Ferry Toy Train Museum and Joy Line Railroad, the view from the Maryland Heights overlook and Harpers Ferry Adventure Center
Recommended Reading: Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War by Tony Horowitz
Special Note: There is no rental car service in Harpers Ferry and limited lodging. If you wish to expand your horizons beyond Maryland, Loudon and Bolivar Heights (the ridges that ring the city), you may opt to get off Amtrak one stop to the west in Martinsburg, WV which has rental car access and lodging options nearby.
Served By: Northeast Regional, Carolinian, Silver Meteor
Civil War Pedigree: Owing to its location almost exactly halfway between the capital cities of Washington, D.C. and Richmond, VA, Fredericksburg and the surrounding area saw action in four large scale battles and several smaller ones. The battle of Fredericksburg (1862) was a thrashing of the Union army, and the battle of Chancellorsville (1863) is considered one of Lee’s greatest victories, but his success came with the loss of his most trusted lieutenant, General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson. The Wilderness and Spotsylvania Court House were the first two battles in the brutal Overland Campaign of 1864.
Civil War Related Sites: Chatham Manor, Fredericksburg-Spotsylvania National Military Park (all four of the battlefields are included here with two visitors centers—one located in Fredericksburg and the other at the Chancellorsville battlefield), Stonewall Jackson Shrine, Mine Run Battlefield
Don’t Miss: Carriage rides downtown Fredericksburg, Rappahannock Railroad Museum, Ferry Farm (George Washington’s boyhood home), Children's Museum of Richmond-Fredericksburg
Recommended Reading: Simply Murder: The Battle of Fredericksburg, December 13, 1862, by Chris Mackowski and Kristopher D. White, Chancellorsville by Stephen Sears, A Season of Slaughter: The Battle of Spotsylvania Court House, May 8-21, 1864 by Chris Mackowski and Kristopher D. White
Served By: Cardinal, Crescent, Northeast Regional
Civil War Pedigree: Manassas Junction was the site of the important junction of the Orange and Alexandria Railroad and Manasasas Gap Railroad. The location of this vital rail juncture was only 30 miles outside of Washington D.C. The first Battle of Bull Run (July 1861) was a small affair with far reaching repercussions as the Confederates sent the Federals running all the way back to Washington. A little over a year later, the armies returned (August 1862). The scale was greater, but the results were similar. The Confederates prevailed on their way to Maryland and, they hoped, points beyond.
Civil War Related Sites: Manassas National Military Park, Ball’s Bluff Battlefield Regional Park
Don’t Miss: Bull Run Winery and the Udvar-Hazy Center of the National Air and Space Museum
Recommended Reading: Donnybrook: The Battle of Bull Run, 1861 by David Detzer
Served By: Palmetto, Silver Star, Silver Meteor
Civil War Pedigree: Fort Pulaski, on Cockspur Island in the Savannah River, had served as a crucial link in the coastal defenses since its completion in 1847. After Georgia’s secession from the Union, 110 Georgians boarded a steamship bound downriver and seized the fort from the two Union caretakers guarding it. In December 1861, Union troops occupied Tybee Island, across the Savannah River from Fort Pulaski. After a 112 day siege, Union forces on Tybee Island asked for the surrender of Fort Pulaski on April 10, 1862. When the Confederates refused, an artillery bombardment ensued, and a surrender of the fort followed 30 days later. In 1864, Savannah was the objective of Sherman’s March to the Sea and was captured by Union troops on December 21, 1864.
Civil War Related Sites: Fort Pulaski, Old Fort Jackson.
Don’t Miss: Historic District, Pinpoint Heritage Museum, riverboat cruise
Recommended Reading: Lee in the Lowcountry: Defending Charleston and Savannah in 1861-1862 by Daniel J. Crooks, Jr.
Civil War Related Sites: Petersburg National Battlefield, Pamplin Historical Park, Poplar Grove National Cemetery
Don’t Miss: Pocahontas Island Black History Museum, US Army Quartermasters Museum, US Army Women's Museum
Recommended Reading: The Horrid Pit by Alan Axelrod
Served By: Lincoln Service, Texas Eagle
Civil War Pedigree: Abraham Lincoln lived in Springfield for almost 23 years. Springfield is where he married Mary Todd, where he started his family, where he setup his law practice and where he established his social network. Abraham Lincoln considered Springfield his hometown. “Springfield is my home, and there, more than anywhere else, are my life-long friends,” Lincoln wrote in 1863.
Civil War Related Sites: Lincoln Home National Historic Site, Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum
Don’t Miss: Knight’s Action Park and Caribbean Water Adventure, Henson Robinson Zoo
Recommended Reading: Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin, Lincoln's Gamble: The Tumultuous Six Months That Gave the United States the Emancipation Proclamation and Changed the Course of the Civil War by Todd Brewster, Who Was Abraham Lincoln? by Janet B. Pascal, Abe Lincoln: The Boy Who Loved Books by Kay Winters and Nancy Carpenter
Civil War Related Sites: Ford's Theater (which, as a working theater, still stages plays and musicals throughout the year), Lincoln Memorial, Washington's Civil War Defenses, Arlington National Cemetery and Robert E Lee House.
Don't Miss: National Archives, The Smithsonian (any of its many amazing museums), National Zoo
Recommended Reading: The Quartermaster: Montgomery C. Meigs, Lincoln's General, Master Builder of the Union Army by Robert O'Harrow
Served By: City of New Orleans
Civil War Pedigree: Memphis’ location on the Mississippi River meant that the city must be taken by the Union to realize their war goal of complete control of that river. On June 6, 1862, the Confederate “cotton clad” naval forces attempted to defend the city from the Union ironclad fleet. It was a clear Union victory, which virtually destroyed the Confederate inland navy. The victory opened the river as far south as Vicksburg. Memphis was under Union control until the end of the war.
Civil War Related Sites: Mississippi River Museum in Mud Island Park, Elmwood Cemetery
Don’t Miss: National Civil Rights Museum, Graceland, Beale Street, Memphis Zoo
Recommended Reading: Mr. Lincoln's Brown Water Navy: The Mississippi Squadron by Gary D. Joiner
Served By: Cardinal
Civil War Pedigree: Staunton was at the crossroads of two major roads and the railroad, making it a communication and transportation center. Because of this location in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, it was the objective of several Union incursions up the Valley (in Valley parlance, “up the valley” is south, “down the valley” is north). Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson and Richard S. Ewell both used the city as headquarters, and throughout the war, the city served as a army post, training camp and quartermaster post. The city was captured and occupied by Union General David Hunter, who sacked the town during the four days his troops were there.
Civil War Related Sites: Staunton is a gateway to the Valley. Rent a car and drive north to see New Market, Cross Keys and Port Republic. Drive south to Lexington.
Don’t Miss: American Shakespeare Center, Frontier Culture Museum, Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and Museum
Recommended Reading: Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson by S. C. Gwynne
You could spend years riding the rails and checking out these destinations, but there's even more history just a hop, skip and a jump away from the train station. In part two of this series, we'll introduce you to even more Civil War destinations you can get to on Amtrak...including one way out New Mexico way. Yup, you read that right...New Mexico.
Toni is a wife, mom and history buff who loves bringing the Civil War to life for family members of all ages.