Civil War Trails Marker System

Earlier today I had the privilege of attending the Civil War Trails Annual Meeting, held at historic Blenheim in Fairfax, Virginia.  I’ve mentioned the Civil War Trails system on a number of occasions, but not directly.  Most readers, I would assume, have seen markers like this one along the way:

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"Gateway to the Civil War" Marker at Tredegar

Note the inclusion of the standard Civil War Trails “badge” on the upper right, along with state badges for North Carolina, Maryland, and Virginia at the bottom.  Although this particular marker in Richmond, Virginia provides an overview of Civil War sites in three different states, most of the markers in the series focus on a specific site.    Here’s one of those:

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"The Bloody Cedars" at New Market, VA

This marker on the New Market battlefield displays the Virginia badge along with that of the sponsoring agency, in this case the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields National Historic District (Shenandoah at War).  In addition to the title, subtitle, and “trail” banner (1864 Valley Campaign in this case), the marker offers text, photos and a map.   Note the “sidebar” on the lower right.  Having looked at many of these (why do they call me “marker hunter” again?), I’d say this is typical for the series.

All told over 1200 of these provide information to visitors at Civil War sites around North Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee.  And I would point out, the program was developed as an informal “collaboration” between different state level organizations.

The system dates back to the early 1990s.  After Ken Burns’ The Civil War documentary aired, the state of Virginia received a flood of requests for information from tourists interested in the Civil War.  Several individuals, historian Chris Calkins among them, came up with the idea to revamp the old “driving tour” route of the retreat to Appomattox.  So several signs like this one at Amelia Court House-

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Lee's Retreat Marker - Amelia Court House, VA

Aside from the tour map, the marker offered a brief narrative.  Note however the AM radio frequency used for additional information (above the 1-800 number).  The apogee of our interpretive technology at the time!  Stop here and tune into the short range radio station for more information.  Hey, don’t knock it, that worked!  (And I’d argue the future will offer similar information vectors using mobile device platforms.)

The “Lee’s Retreat” system proved successful. Expanding upon that, “state” systems evolved.  The “wayside” markers offered photos and more detailed maps.  But more than just a change in presentation, the Civil War Trails system offered coverage, consistency, and affordability.

The consistency is an important point in my mind.  A visitor may travel from Memphis to Baltimore and encounter dozens of these markers, all with the same basic layout and style.  Somewhat allowing the consistency, the trails system works outside the official state highway marker systems, although closely allied for most considerations.  This allows grouping by “campaign” regardless of political divisions.

I would also point out that “affordability” is not just in reference to the dollar cost.  I cannot cite cost comparisons for state and trails markers themselves.  But I would point out that most official state markers require long approval processes.  And I don’t think editorial standards were sacrificed in the process either.  Having transcribed several hundred of these markers into HMDB (and edited submissions from other contributors), I can only think of a few concerns.  Nor have I noticed any overt “spin” or slant to the interpretation.

The trails system is also much more than just markers out there for display.  The organization also provides the Civil War Traveler web site, along with the brochures and newspaper/guides seen at many visitor centers.  Now many will dismiss the marketing spin (which did indeed represent the majority of the discussion at today’s meeting).

However, consider that from another perspective.  Those travel maps and newspapers come in rather handy.   For those of you seasoned battlefield stompers, think about those early days when first “road tripping” down the Valley.  Would have been nice to have a list of “on the way” and “while you are around” sites to visit. And I dare say even the most veteran Civil War tourists would agree those maps come in handy (Myself, I carry them in the car all the time.) And based on site traffic mentioned at the meeting, tens of thousands of visitors are downloading the PDF copies of the maps, presumably planning their trips.

Currently the Civil War Trails system includes over 1200 markers across those six states.  (And six states in which some of the most significant fighting of the war occurred.)  All told a rather significant “footprint” that draws in visitors and aids the interpretation as we continue through this sesquicentennial of the Civil War.