Civil War Trails & Tours
Looking for an adventure in Williamsburg? Use maps provided by the Civil War Trails Program to help guide you, or follow our suggested itinerary to see points of interest throughout America's Historic Triangle.
Civil War Trails in Williamsburg
The Peninsula Campaign
This map is presented by the Civil War Trails Program. Use this to plan your trip and follow the Peninsula Campaign from beginning to end. See where all battles took place, find where the museums are, and discover facts about the battles. This map covers the entire peninsula up to Richmond and includes images of Fort Monroe, the Battle of Hampton Roads, and the Wren Building at William & Mary. Portraits of Benjamin Butler, George Picket and Jubal Early are also on the map.
Suggested Civil War Tour Itinerary
Four-Day Williamsburg, the Historic Triangle, and Other Nearby Civil War Sites
Drive to Redoubt Park on Quarterpath Road, where you will find one of the surviving earthen forts from the May 5, 1862, Battle of Williamsburg. This fort, #2 of 14 that were built, overlooked the road to Williamsburg from the Kingsmill Wharf on the James River — the same roadbed used by British troops to pirate away guns and supplies from the patriots opposing the king’s rule of the colonies prior to the onset of the America Revolution.
Walking bridges and viewing platforms at the fort give you a clear picture of how these defensive structures were built … all with only hands, shovels and sweat.
Take the short walking trail through beautiful wooded ravines leading to Redoubt #3 in the Confederate line of defense.
Next, drive to nearby Crowne Plaza Hotel at Ft. Magruder on Route 60 East to view a lobby display featuring Civil War artifacts extracted from the remains of Redoubt #4, located in the hotel’s garden area.
Your next stop will be on Penniman Road, where you can view the remaining walls from the main fortress — Ft. Magruder, named after Maj. General Magruder, the Confederate officer who devised and supervised the building of this and other major lines of defense along the peninsula leading to Richmond.
Back in town, a stroll along the famous Duke of Gloucester Street (at the time of the war, this was called Main Street) in the Historic Area of Colonial Williamsburg. This walk will take you by a number of homes and public buildings that were here at the time of of the May 5 battle. At the east end of "the Duke,” you’ll find the Palmer House. This home served as headquarters for Confederate Gen. Joseph Johnston as preparations were underway for the coming. Following Rebel troop withdrawals from the town, Union Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan moved his headquarters from Yorktown up to the Palmer House — at that time called the Vest Mansion. Writing home to his wife, the general said:
"This is a beautiful town, several very old houses, pretty gardens. I have taken possession of a very fine old house which Joe Johnston occupied as headquarters. It has a lovely flower garden and conservatory. If you were here I should be inclined to spend some weeks here."
Further down the Duke of Gloucester Street, on the east side of Market Square, today stands Chowning's Tavern. In 1862, this was a lodging house, later becoming the Colonial Inn. During the Union occupation, the building served as a commissary and featured a large United States flag overhanging the sidewalk. Expressing their distaste of the occupation, the ladies of the town would walk out in the street to avoid passing underneath the flag. Not to be outdone, the soldiers soon replaced it with a larger flag that stretched across the entire street.
Continuing east of the Duke of Gloucester, you will come upon Bruton Parish Church, the present structure having been built in 1715. Like many other private and public buildings throughout town, the church also served as a hospital for wounded and dying soldiers of both armies. The churchyard today contains several grave markers of combatants buried there after the battle.
Next door is the Bowden-Armistead House, referred to after the battle as "the home of the traitor.” Lemuel J. Bowden was one of few Williamsburg residents who considered themselves Unionists.
A year before the Battle of Williamsburg, Bowden had left his Williamsburg home to enter the Union lines. Now under Union occupation, the Federal military governor installed Bowden as mayor of the town — much to the consternation of many of its remaining residents. Not the least of which was his mother, Mrs. Mildred Bowden, who refused to live in the same house with him and took up residence in a smaller house at the rear of his garden.
As you approach today’s Merchant Square at the extreme north end of the Duke of Gloucester, you will see the Kimball Theatre. Standing on this ground in May 1862 was the story-and-a-half Ware House with a deep cellar. Following the battle, a young Confederate soldier was taken there, where he soon died. Mrs. Ware placed the body in the parlor.
Later, as Federal troops were making the rounds seeking wounded comrades, a young Union soldier uncovered the face of the corpse, only to find that it was his own Rebel brother.
At the end of the Duke of Gloucester, you will enter the campus of the College of William and Mary. There stands the reconstructed Wren Building, burned by Federal troops following an 1863 Confederate raid on pickets standing guard on the campus. Two years earlier, in May 1861, the college had suspended classes as students and faculty alike answered the call to arms with the outbreak of hostilities. Even college president Benjamin Student Ewell had volunteered to defend the state.
As Union troops occupied Williamsburg, pickets were stationed just beyond the Wren Building just across what is now Richmond Road (called Stage Road in 1862.) For the duration of the war, this became the unofficial border between the United States and the Confederacy.
Returning to your Williamsburg accommodations for the evening, drive down Frances Street by the reconstructed Public Hospital, where townspeople had climbed up into the cupola for a bird’s-eye view of the May 5 battle raging just east of town.
Farther down Frances Street, catch a glimpse of Bassett Hall House, where some months following the battle Lt. George Custer, having been granted a leave by Gen. McClellan, attended the wedding of an old West Point classmates, Captain John Willis Lea of the Fifth North Carolina Infantry.
Drive down the beautiful Colonial Parkway National Park along the historic York River to Yorktown. It was here in 1781 that Cornwallis surrendered to Gen. George Washington’s troops, heralding an end to America’s War for Independence.
A mere 81 years later, this same waterfront village witnessed the month-long siege of Union troops as it made its way up the peninsula in an effort to reach the Confederate capital.
Walk historic Main Street, where many buildings survived the Revolutionary War as well as the Civil War. Tour the Nelson House, which served as a hospital during the 1862 siege. The Session House next door is considered to be the oldest home in Yorktown, dating back to 1690. It, too, served as a hospital during the Civil War and for a time was supervised by Dorothea Dix, an early advocate for the role of women in nursing.
Visit the Main Street Museum, where Civil War photographs and maps will give you a clear picture of this village as it lay inside the earthen fortress built by Confederate troops, townspeople and slaves.
It was here after Gen. George B. McClellan’s month-long siege that Gen. John Bankhead Magruder, architect of the peninsula defensive lines, stealthily withdrew his Rebel army to the third line of defense in Williamsburg — the very night before the Union planned onslaught against his Yorktown defenses was to begin.
While in Yorktown, take time to visit the Yorktown Battlefield and Yorktown Victory Center for a greater understanding of the Revolutionary Era, as well as the Watermen’s Museum located on Yorktown’s riverfront.
No Civil War visit to the Peninsula would be complete without seeing the actual rotating gun turret from Ironclad Monitor at the Mariners' Museum in nearby Newport News. You will also walk the deck of a full-scale Monitor replica, experience inactive exhibits and see notable artifacts from the ship.
Return to Williamsburg via Route 143 where you can stop for a visit at Lee Hall Mansion, early headquarters for Confederate Maj. Gen. Magruder and Gen. Joseph E. Johnston.
Take a short 25-minute drive west on Interstate 64 to the outskirts of Richmond, where Confederate forces, now under the command of newly appointed General Robert E. Lee, had reinforced his defenses of the capital city. At Exit 211 (Talleysville), follow Highway 609 to Old Church Road. This narrow and winding road follows a portion of the same route taken by Jeb Stuart with his 1,200-man cavalry road around the Union Army to great press acclaim throughout this country and in Europe. All the while pursued by his own father-in-law, Union Brigadier Gen. St. George Cooke.
The winding road narrows, passing farmland and forest looking much as it must have in 1862. Turning left at the first major intersection onto Route 360 takes you into Mechanicsville. After crossing the Chickahominy River, you will see an entrance to the National Park site at the Chickahominy Bluffs — one of the Confederate defenses overlooking the town below. Here you can find guides and maps that will route you through the various roads and battlefields of the Seven Days Battle that brought an end to McClellan’s attempt at an early end to the war.
Following the map provided, you will gain an understanding of the places and events that brought these two major armies face to face through seven days of marching, fighting and counter-marching. All ending with a major defeat of Confederate forces on the slopes of Malvern Hill, and the withdrawal of Union troops back to Washington.
From the final battlefield at the Malvern Hill, follow the signs to Route 5 (John Tyler Highway), taking you back to Williamsburg along this scenic byway. Stop for a tour of Berkeley Plantation, where Union troops awaited transport by ship back to their stronghold at Ft. Monroe and on up the Chesapeake to Washington.
Also visit former President John Tyler’s home place, Sherwood Forest. Although ransacked by Union troops, the house itself was spared by special order of President Abraham Lincoln prohibiting the burning of any past United States president’s home.
If your return home takes you north on Interstate 95 or west on Interstate 64, take time for a stop in Richmond to visit the Museum of the Confederacy and the Confederate White House, along with other important Civil War sites throughout the Richmond area.
If your travels take you south on I-95 or I-85, retrace your route up Route 5 to Petersburg, where you can visit the Petersburg National Park. It was here at the 1864-65 Siege of Petersburg that the final days of the nightmare of brother against brother would begin.
And if you're traveling south on I-64 toward Virginia’s Eastern Shore or the North Carolina coast, be sure to stop by Fortress Monroe. The Peninsula campaign was launched from this stronghold, and it was here that Union Gen. Benjamin Butler declared three runaway slaves to be “contraband of war” — thus freeing them and thousands more to follow. Afterward, throughout the Peninsula, Fortress Monroe became know by all enslaved people as “Freedom Fort.”
After the war, Confederate President Jefferson Davis was imprisoned at Fortress Monroe. His cell is included in tours of the fort.