Touring the cities and towns of eastern Virginia is like taking a trip through America’s military past. Virginia played a central role in the Colonial period, the Revolutionary War, the Civil War and World War II.
Fortunately for today’s travelers, vestiges of the past dot the modern landscape. Groups can learn about and experience some of these pivotal events at attractions throughout the eastern part of the state.
The area’s military tradition continues today in places such as Virginia Beach’s Naval Air Station Oceana, a high-tech hub of modern fighter jets.
The beginning: Jamestown and Yorktown
In many ways, America’s history began at Jamestown, where the first permanent English colony in the New World was established in 1607. Not far away, the final decisive battle of the Revolutionary War took place on the battlefield at Yorktown, effectively ending the Colonial period that began at Jamestown.
The two sites are about 12 miles apart, and the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation has great museums and interpretive programs at both.
Jamestown Settlement re-creates the arrival of colonists to the area and their early interactions with the natives. It features re-creations of the colonists’ fort, a Powhatan village and the three ships that brought the settlers from England.
“They involve the groups in hands-on activities, like scraping a deer hide or helping to make a Powhatan canoe,” said Anne Price-Hardister, on-site education program manager for the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation. “They [visitors] board one of the three ships down at the pier and talk to costumed interpreters all along the way. The interpreters give them an idea of what it would have been like to live then as a Powhatan Indian, a sailor or a soldier.”
At Yorktown Victory Center, near the battlefield in Yorktown, visitors can tour a museum that details the impact of the Revolutionary War on the area. A 1780s farm shows how the typical Virginia family lived in the Revolutionary War period, and an army encampment re-creates some of the experiences of soldiers in George Washington’s army.
“In our Revolutionary War encampment, we have some great demonstrations on medicine in the period,” Price-Hardister said. “We have a demonstration of the flintlock musket, with an explanation of the tactics that were used at the time. We look at women of the army and talk about punishment and how important discipline was.”
Blue and Gray: Fredericksburg and the Civil War
Situated halfway between the rival capitals of Washington and Richmond, Va., Fredericksburg, Va., was in the crossroads of action during the Civil War and changed hands seven times during the course of the conflict. Today, numerous sites in Fredericksburg and the surrounding area recall the dramatic impact of the war.
Near the center of town, Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park preserves the site of the large battle that took place there in December 1862.
“That was considered Robert E. Lee’s most one-sided victory,” said Lura Hill, tourism sales manager for the Fredericksburg Department of Economic Development and Tourism. “The Union troops had to cross the Rappahannock River and attack the Confederate troops, who were behind the stone wall at the sunken road. When they came across, they met massive resistance, and it was a huge and tragic loss for the Union.”
Groups can take a guided tour of the battlefield, where they can see the sunken road, the stone wall and other landmarks that bring the events of the day into vivid focus.
Civil War buffs will also want to visit the nearby Spotsylvania Courthouse, as well as the Chancellorsville Battlefield, where Stonewall Jackson was accidentally mortally wounded by his own troops.
A number of museums in town elaborate the area’s Civil War stories. In Old Town Fredericksburg, the National Civil War Life Museum has displays that recount the experiences of ordinary enlisted men from both sides of the struggle. Another site, the White Oak Civil War Museum, is the fruit of labor by some local historians.
“It’s a locally owned collection, hand-dug by a local family,” Hill said. “They have opened the museum and reconstructed the soldiers’ winter huts. The soldiers wintered on the other side of the river, and a plethora of artifacts were left over there.”
The Greatest Generation: Norfolk and WWII
Norfolk and the surrounding coastal areas in Virginia have a long history of shipbuilding and naval service. When the United States entered World War II, production of warships in Norfolk ramped up, and the population of the city doubled as workers and soldiers moved in to take part in the war effort.
One of the most fascinating artifacts of the area’s involvement in the war is the battleship USS Wisconsin, which is docked at Norfolk’s Nauticus maritime center.
“It’s the largest and last battleship ever built by the Navy,” said Erin Filarecki, media relations manager for Visit Norfolk. “It earned five battle stars during World War II.”
The battleship has been on display for several years, but last fall, the city of Norfolk assumed stewardship of the battleship and did extensive renovations, allowing the public to venture below deck for the first time.
“People will go in and see the barracks where the officers slept, and they’ll actually go to the areas where commanders gave the orders to fire missiles,” Filarecki said. “They see the captain’s quarters and the underbelly of the ship. These places were completely blocked off from the public for years and years.”
Groups can learn more about the region’s involvement in World War II at the Hampton Roads Naval Museum, which is also located at Nauticus.
Modern Marvels: Naval aviation at Virginia Beach
Just a few miles from Norfolk, Virginia Beach is known to many travelers as a family vacation destination, complete with sun, surf and beach resorts. But the town is also the home of Naval Air Station Oceana, one of the Navy’s four master air bases.
Nineteen aviation squadrons make their home at the base, where they fly some 300 jet fighters, including the FA-18 Hornet and the F-14 Tomcat.
With prior arrangements, groups can take tours of the base, during which they can see the flight line and have lunch with men in uniform at the officer’s club. The base also features an aviation history park with 13 aircraft on display and an observation park and POW/MIA memorial.
Groups traveling to the area in mid-September can visit the naval air station for the annual Oceana Air Show, a three-day event that features daytime and nighttime aviation demonstrations. The event features the Navy’s famous Blue Angels, as well as other aeronautic performers demonstrating some of the most powerful modern military aircraft.