Mix Civil War history with scenery in Orange County, Va.

Gwen Woolf

The Exchange Hotel, located in Gordonsville, Va., served as a Civil War hospital.

The Orange County Civil War Driving Tour features the war’s biggest players (Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant), some of the war’s most savage fighting (Battle of the Wilderness), and a wartime hospital that treated 70,000 wounded soldiers from both sides.

The self-guided tour follows a pleasant route through two small towns and the rolling central Virginia countryside, less than 100 miles away from Washington, D.C. Sponsored by Orange County Tourism for three years, the tour has been “quite popular,” says Leigh Mawyer, who promotes the county.

Phil Audibert, the author, videographer, and tour guide who developed the “All Four Years” tour, explained that, unlike some communities where one-time battles were fought, the war had a presence in Orange throughout the entire conflict. The county’s geography made it important — the Rapidan River served as the Confederacy’s de facto northern boundary in the region, a wall of low mountains formed a rampart for the rebels, and the area’s railroads were a vital means of transport.

The Exchange Hotel, located in Gordonsville, Va., served as a Civil War hospital.
The Exchange Hotel, located in Gordonsville, Va., served as a Civil War hospital.

Pick up a tour booklet at the Orange County Visitor Center, housed in a 100-year-old train station in Orange, or download the route from
visitorangevirginia.com.

“You can jump in and out of this thing wherever you want,” says Audibert about the six-stop tour. Besides the history, he thinks tour-goers will enjoy a “hassle-free” rural experience, the “spectacularly beautiful” landscape, and the shops and restaurants in Orange and Gordonsville.

Audibert has expanded his tour booklet into a 12-episode video documentary on the county’s Civil War history. He’ll unveil part of it during a Blue and Gray Christmas observance Dec. 20 in Gordonsville. Events include a service at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church (where Confederate Gen. “Stonewall” Jackson worshipped during the war), living history on Main Street, a Civil War Santa Claus, and a period band and dances at the fire hall.

Taking the tour

On Orange’s Main Street, you can stand on the actual fighting ground of the Battle of Orange Courthouse. The courthouse, an 1859 Italianate-style building, features a Confederate monument outside. You also can visit St. Thomas Episcopal Church, where Lee attended services.

At the Zoar Baptist Church stop, a short walking trail leads to Payne’s Farm, where the enemies clashed in the Mine Run Campaign.

Saunders Field is where fierce fighting and fires in the dense undergrowth caused terrible suffering during the Battle of the Wilderness. You can follow the earthworks for 3 miles on Hill-Ewell Drive. Widow Tapp’s Field is where Lee personally tried to lead Texas troops from the front, only to have them refuse with calls of “Lee to the rear!” A National Park Service kiosk has information on the1864 battle, which was significant because Grant then decided to push onward to Richmond.

Nearby is Ellwood Manor, a 1790 plantation home used as a Union headquarters and Confederate hospital; Jackson’s amputated arm is in the

cemetery. (Ellwood is open late April to October; visit fowb.org for the schedule.)

Gordonsville was an “extremely important” railroad crossroads that the Union repeatedly failed to capture, according to Audibert. The Civil War Museum at the Exchange Hotel is well worth a stop.

A tavern from the 1840s, the Exchange was rebuilt as a grand hotel in 1860 after a fire. Trains still rumble by the three-story building, which features a wide veranda.

During its use as a receiving hospital, thousands of wounded soldiers were hauled there on boxcars for treatment. 

The large rooms with tall ceilings have original wood floors upstairs and are furnished with period antiques. Each room has a theme, with exhibits relating to the building’s days as a train stop, tavern, hotel, Civil War hospital, and postwar Freedmen’s Bureau to assist former slaves.

A sign tells the story of the “chicken vendors,” enterprising black women who served chicken dinners through the train windows. The tradition earned Gordonsville the moniker of “Fried Chicken Capital of the World.”

The Montpelier encampments, where Confederate troops spent the winter of 1863-64, are near the Gilmore Cabin, built by a freed slave. Montpelier was President James Madison’s home and is open for tours.

Learn more

Orange County Tourism: visitorangevirginia.com

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