For the ultimate history lesson, make a short drive (35 miles) from D.C. to Stafford, Va and take a walk in the shoes of a Union Army soldier at the Stafford Civil War Park. This 41-acre park tells the story of the largest encampment of Union soldiers (135,000) anywhere during the scope of the Civil War. Historians consider it the Union’s “Valley Forge,” which marked a turning point before the upcoming Battle of Gettysburg.

Photo: Virginia Guard Public Affairs via Flickr

Know Before You Go
In kid terms, this is where the Union Army laid low to recuperate after an exhausting defeat at Fredericksburg in December of 1862. How exhausted and defeated were they? The desertion rate averaged 200 soldiers a day. Thousands were dying not from battles but from cold, disease and accidents. The army used the Stafford site to rebuild health and morale before moving on to critical fights ahead.

Photo: Kelly K. via Yelp

Where to Explore

You and your kids can hike through the holes that soldiers dug to build their huts, and climb into a replica hut (built by local Eagle Scouts), to get a feel for the small, dark living space marked by a rock chimney that served as the only source of heat. You can walk down the log corduroy road that once bustled with Union artillery and infantry, climb into real rifle pits, touch the ruins of Daniels Bridge dating back to 1837, and see the remains of three Union batteries that soldiers built to protect the camp from possible Confederate attacks. Perhaps the most profound thing your kids will do here is read the letter a German immigrant soldier wrote home describing his miserable march from Fredericksburg to Stafford: “we marched 13 miles in two days…completely drenched and frozen to the bone.”

Photo: Stafford Civil War Park

Rest and Reflect
It’s almost difficult to imagine the noise and activity that once occupied this peaceful green space. An easy hike down the park’s trials and a pause at the edge of Accokeek creek now offers only quiet serenity. Still you can’t help but reflect on the men who lived, fought and suffered here. The park is not only a lesson in the living conditions of a civil war union soldier, but in how more than a century later, two civil war historians used their passion and persistence to turn the site into the remarkable park that it is today.

Open: Apr.-Oct., 8 a.m.-8 p.m.; Nov.-Mar., 8 a.m.-5 p.m.
400 Mount Hope Church Rd. (Stafford, Va)

Have you been on this historical day trip with your family? Tell us about it in the comments.

–Jamy Bond