Over the thousands of miles we’ve traveled on the adventure we’re calling The Scenic Route, some of our favorite stops have been at Civil War battlefields, sites of both unimaginable carnage and unfathomable courage.
As we’ve made our way from coast-to-coast exploring the roads less traveled, we’ve found countless places where the National Scenic Byways program and Civil War history intersect. Some of these sites like Gettysburg and Antietam, are familiar, while others—like the National Museum of Civil War Medicine — are downright obscure.
What they all have in common, however, is a palpable sense of history. At first glance these peaceful park-like sites may look rather unremarkable, but spend some time learning what really went on here and they’re guaranteed to transform the dry, abstract history lessons we all got in school into experiences that still feel very real and will stay with you more than a century after the smoke cleared.
To see this intersection of travel and history for yourself, here are several scenic byways with interesting—and rather unexpected—bits of Civil War history:
While the Great River Road scenic byway stretches more than 2,300 miles from northern Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico, it was the Mississippi River bluffs just outside Columbus, Kentucky that played host to a forgotten yet pivotal Civil War battle. In 1861, Confederate General Leonidas Polk put 19,000 men to work building what he called “the Gibraltar of The West”, fortifying his hilltop outpost with more than 140 artillery pieces and stretching a heavy anchor chain across the Mississippi, all in an attempt to keep Union gunboats and General Ulysses S. Grant’s troops from reaching important southern cities downriver including Memphis and Vicksburg. Kentucky’s Columbus-Belmont State Park preserves offers sweeping views of the river while preserving miles of rifle trenches dug by Polk’s men.
Taking its name from the crescent of coastline where Florida’s peninsula meets its panhandle, this 220-mile route includes the Natural Bridge Battlefield Historic site where a ragtag group of confederate soldiers, ably assisted by a group of old men and young boys, banded together to turn back repeated Union attacks in the closing days of the war, making Tallahassee the only Confederate capital east of the Mississippi that never surrendered to the north. Just as interesting as the battlefield itself is its namesake “natural bridge” which is formed by the St. Marks River dropping into a sinkhole, only to pop up again a quarter-mile downstream.
While the state of New Mexico isn’t the first state people think of when it comes the Civil War, the Battle of Glorieta Pass southeast of Sante Fe was one of the most important skirmishes on the conflict’s western front. Accessed off The Sante Fe Trail at the tip of the Sangre de Christo mountain range, the battlefield marks the spot where Union troops gained the upper hand in late March of 1862, securing the Sante Fe Trail and the state itself for the Union.