The National Road and Antietam

After a shower and some breakfast (a muffin and a banana, what else?), I left the mostly-empty campground at Gambrill State Park near Frederick, Maryland around 10 a.m.  I then headed east on U.S. 40, which is one of the oldest roads in America.  This highway was once called the “National Road” and back in the early 1800s, it was the source of tremendous national pride.  When construction of the National Road started back in 1806, it was the first federally-funded highway project and it linked Cumberland, Maryland with Vandalia, Illinois, making it the first road in America to cross the Appalachians.  Today, this same route is known as U.S. Highway 40. 

Above:  After leaving Gambrill State Park in Maryland, I followed historic U.S. Route 40, then stopped at Antietam National Battlefield.  After a few hours there, I drove into West Virginia and Virginia, camping that night at Prince William Forest Park.

The interesting thing about U.S. 40 is not the road itself but rather the large number of old, historic towns and buildings that line the route from Maryland to Illinois.  On previous trips, I’ve followed parts of U.S. 40 across Indiana and Illinois and was amazed by all the fascinating old towns and buildings (like from the antebellum era) that I saw along the way.  I felt like I’d stepped back in time a few hundred years, and I felt that same way today as I headed west on U.S. 40.  If you want to take an interesting road trip in America but only have a few days, U.S. 40 between Maryland and Illinois is a great choice.  And that’s Del’s Useful Tip #1 for today.

My main stop today was at Antietam National Battlefield near Sharpsburg, Maryland.  This was the site of a major battle between the Confederate Army advancing into Maryland and the Union Army, early in the Civil War in September 1862.  After about 12 hours of fighting near Antietam Creek, over 22,000 dead and wounded Americans lay on the field, making Antietam the bloodiest one-day conflict in American history.  The intensity of this battle shocked Americans on both sides, making them realize that the war was likely going to be a prolonged and bloody conflict, not the short affair that folks on either side had been thinking.  This was the first time the Confederates had tried to invade the northern states, and after the battle of Antietam, they limped back to Virginia.  The Confederates, however, would try another invasion of the northern states the following year, in July 1863, only to be turned back again, this time at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. 

The Battle of Gettysburg is more famous than Antietam because it marked the high-water mark of the Confederate advance.  After Gettysburg, the Confederates were mostly in retreat until their final surrender in 1865.  However, Antietam, fought a year earlier in 1862, is considered by many historians to be the most important battle of the Civil War, because the marginal Union victory here provided a way for President Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation freeing the slaves.  After the Union issued the Emancipation Proclamation, it became politically impossible for England to intercede on behalf of the Confederates to stop the war, as they’d been threatening to do.  Lincoln needed a victory by the Union Army to issue the Proclamation because without such a victory, doing it would’ve appeared as a weak and desperate move.  Lincoln got his victory here at Antietam and five days later, he presented the Emancipation Proclamation to his cabinet.  As they say, timing is everything.

I’d been to Antietam once before, back in 1985 during my first solo cross-country drive, and it hasn’t changed too much, which is a good thing.  I spent about three hours at the battlefield:  first, listening to a National Park ranger explain the battle at the Visitor Center, then checking out the museum, and then finally driving and walking around the battlefield, trying to imagine what that horrific day must’ve been like.  Being a history buff, I’m hoping to visit several more Civil War sites on my trip down to Florida, but I only have a week (and two cousins to visit), so we’ll see how many I’m able to get to.

I left Antietam around 3 p.m. and headed south, crossing the Potomac River near Harpers Ferry, West Virginia (state #37), then I headed into Virginia (state #38).  As the sign at the state line says, “Virginia is for Lovers,” although I’ve never understood what that means.  Perhaps it’s the harmonious antithesis to the brusque, “Don’t Mess with Texas”?

Heading south on Interstate 95 late in the day, I was planning to camp at Pocahontas State Park south of Richmond, where I’ve camped before a few times, though not for about 20 years.  But then I passed a brown National Park sign on the Interstate that said, “Prince William Forest Park” at the next exit, so I checked my cell phone to see if there was a campground there.  Sure enough, there was, so I did a U-turn about 10 miles down the freeway and headed back, because I always like to camp at new places.  I pulled into the virtually-deserted 100-site campground at sunset, so I had my pick of campsites.  This place, Prince William Forest Park, really threw me off because I’d never heard of it.  It’s actually a unit of the National Park System and that’s why I was surprised to stumble across it, because I’m pretty familiar with National Park facilities, having visited over half of the 400+ National Park units in America. 

There aren’t a lot of state park campgrounds in northern Virginia, as I’ve discovered during my previous road trips, making it really difficult to camp here.  In years past, I’ve camped down by Richmond at Pocahontas State Park or once in this funky public campground in Hampton.  But now that I know about this place, Prince William Forest Park, I’m going to keep it in mind because it’s not too far from Washington D.C. and the multitude of historic sites in this area.  This campground would be a great home base to stay at for a while, while exploring the nearby areas.  And that’s Del’s Useful Tip #2 for today.

Maryland to Virginia



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