A road trip across the state of Virginia will appeal to you whether or not you have a particular interest in the area’s history as a Civil War battleground. The state of Virginia is known for its lush landscape, with plenty of greenery, tall trees, and farmland. This road trip traces the route of General Robert E. Lee’s retreat, a well-marked path that covers the 100 miles from Petersburg to Appomattox. The Union Army, led by General Ulysses S. Grant, pursued Lee’s army along this path from April 2 to April 9, 1865.
Use this detailed online brochure of Lee’s Retreat as your map. The country roads are winding and change number designations often. Look for road signs indicating you are on the correct route. I’d recommend following Lee’s Retreat using the marked stops from Petersburg to Appomattox, no matter what your level of interest in the Civil War. The route provides plenty of state and national parks for outdoor activities, and the small towns make good stopping places for a bite to eat.
Begin your journey in the state capital, where you will find all kinds of activities.
Museums abound in Richmond. For a dose of culture, visit the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, with its three floors of American and European art. The Black History Museum encourages a better understanding of the history of African American people in the United States through “famous, forgotten, and always inspiring stories.” The Valentine, more than 100 years old, focuses on 400 years of regional history and architecture.
Are you a fan of Edgar Allan Poe? The Poe Museum occupies a house the writer visited and features an extensive collection of memorabilia. Books and Poe-themed clothing items can be found in the on-site shop.
The Capital Trail is a perfect place to walk or bike. It’s a 52-mile paved path from Richmond to Jamestown. Head out and go as far as you’d like, and then return to Richmond.
An easy way to take in Richmond is to book the 2-hour Historic Trolley Tour. You will learn about the area’s history and architecture as you are driven around town. Tours run from March through December.
If you are a Civil War buff, be sure to allot a few hours to visit the newly opened American Civil War Museum. Several museums combined to form this more measured treatment of the war. This article gives a good summary of the purpose of the museum — to address division and advocate for unity.
Restaurants and cafes fill the downtown area, so you’ll find whatever you are hungry for during your stay. Breweries and Italian restaurants are popular, and you can always go for barbecue. Use this list to narrow down your options.
For more information on things to do, where to stay, and what to eat in Richmond, check out this comprehensive website.
As you leave the large, bustling city of Richmond and head into the country, stop in Petersburg, just outside of Richmond. From here, you can continue on the route of Lee’s Retreat.
One of the Civil War’s most unusual battles occurred in Petersburg, an important railway hub in the 1800s. You can still see signs of what happened at the Petersburg National Battlefield. After a winter of the city being under siege, warmer weather moved in and the armies prepared for battle. The Union troops came up with the idea of digging a mine shaft under the Confederate troops, who were just 400 feet away. Mining engineers drew up plans, and soon a tunnel formed between the two armies. The soldiers packed it with explosives.
On July 23, 1864, the Union troops blew up the tunnel under the Confederates, forming a crater 25 feet deep and 180 feet long that you can observe when you visit. The plans went awry, and the Union soldiers weren’t able to overrun the Confederate lines, but the Battle of the Crater lives on in history.
At the National Battlefield, take the loop walking trail to the tunnel entrance. Then follow the Union mine shaft to Elliott’s Salient, where the explosion and battle occurred. Allow about an hour to hike around this area.
For a fine walk out in nature in Petersburg, head for the Hopewell Riverwalk. This 1,700-foot boardwalk traces the shoreline of the Appomattox River. Two overlooks provide benches so that you can relax and enjoy the view of the meeting of this river with the James River. Watch for eagles, osprey, and herons. The walk is closed to bicycles and skateboards, so you can meander without a care.
A tour of General Grant’s Headquarters at City Point will give you an up-close look at a Southern mansion. Grant lived here during the months Petersburg lay under siege. The sleepy town immediately became a hub of activity, with hundreds of ships delivering supplies to large, new warehouses. Seven hospitals sprung up along the river. City Point hosted many notable visitors during that time, including President Abraham Lincoln.
All this touring may make you hungry, and Petersburg has plenty of good food. For a morning snack and coffee, try the Buttermilk Bake Shop, which specializes in doughnuts and cinnamon rolls.
This small town along the path of Lee’s Retreat is a great place to pull off the highway for a quick break or an hour or two of pleasant walking. Fighting Creek Park is a quiet place to explore tree-lined paths.
You can pick up a sub sandwich or pizza at one of the cafes in town.
Sailor’s Creek lies 1.5 hours west of Richmond. This major point along Lee’s Retreat is home to a state park that includes a battlefield and the Overton-Hillsman House, which served as a hospital during the war. In April of 1865, the two armies clashed here three days before Lee surrendered.
Check the state park’s website for information on hiking trails and special programs, such as a talk on the local monarch butterflies.
This town of 1,500 is one of the larger stops on this road trip. You can enjoy a meal, peruse the downtown, and even find a comfortable place to stay the night.
Stretch your legs on the Historic Downtown Farmville Walking Tour. This self-guided tour of the Farmville Historic District highlights the town’s unique architecture. For Civil War buffs, the tour includes the Jackson House, where Lee arrived on the morning of April 7, 1865, to meet with the Confederate Secretary of War John C. Breckinridge.
Both the Union and Confederate armies marched through Farmville during the war. Lee waited here to receive supplies by railroad. They never came, and the army continued on to Appomattox.
Farmville offers fast food, chain cafes, and unique restaurants such as Charley’s Waterfront Cafe & Wine Bar.
High Bridge Trail State Park
Lying just beyond Farmville, High Bridge Trail State Park seeks to connect people with nature. The trail winds for 31 miles along an old railroad bed. It’s wide and flat and covered with crushed limestone. You can hike or bicycle comfortably. The highlight is the High Bridge, which soars 125 feet above the Appomattox River. The bridge is the longest recreational bridge in Virginia, at 2,400 feet, and is a historic landmark. Enjoy a walk high above the river with spectacular views.
At this stop on Lee’s Retreat, you’ll learn that the Confederate Army burned part of the bridge to keep the Union Army from following. The destruction was not enough to slow the pursuit, however.
The final stop on your road trip is Appomattox, where General Lee surrendered to General Grant on April 9, 1865, effectively signaling the end of the four-year conflict. The courthouse, the scene of the surrender, and the other buildings around it are run by the National Park Service and are open for touring.
Plan to spend at least a couple of hours at the Appomattox Court House National Historical Park. Take advantage of the ranger-led tours and explore the 1800s-era buildings. Historians act out the living history of the Civil War era in period attire.
You can also take a driving tour of Appomattox to explore the events around the surrender. Download the Appomattox Battle App and start in the parking lot of the national park. Allow about an hour to complete the tour, which includes not only audio but also video.
Still want to know more about the Civil War? Check out the American Civil War Museum, located a mile from the courthouse. The permanent exhibits feature more than 400 artifacts and photographs.
Architecture buffs will appreciate the Turn of the Century Walking Tour of historic homes in Appomattox. Pick up a map from the visitor center in the small downtown area.
If you are spending more time in Appomattox, you can enjoy nature at Holiday Lake State Park. Hike, bike, or relax lakeside.
For accommodations, you can choose from chain hotels, but why not opt for a bed and breakfast in a stately house, where you can unwind on the porches and lawns and savor home-cooked Southern food? Choices include Spring Grove Farm Bed & Breakfast and The Babcock House.
For more information on what to see, where to stay, and where to eat, see this page.
What To Know Before You Go
Once you leave Petersburg, you are out in the country. Small towns and local markets are sometimes far apart. Make sure your car is filled with gas and that you’ve packed drinking water and snacks. You may also want to print a map of the route in case Wi-Fi is spotty.
You can return to Richmond by driving 2 hours straight. This road trip is rich in natural beauty, history, and architecture, with little actual driving time. Stop often and get to know this lovely state. There’s so much to explore in Virginia!