Set along the banks of the Neuse River, Kinston, North Carolina is one of the oldest towns in the state. It has seen its share of wars, including the Tuscarora War, the Revolutionary War, and the Civil War, and is part of the African American Musical Heritage Trail. On a recent trip, I discovered it has some history spots that are sure to wow—like the remains of an ironclad warship, a Civil War battlefield, and a pre-American Revolution home. Here are my five must-see historical moments on your Kinston adventure.

1—The African American Music Trail

One of the most surprising moments I had in Kinston was learning about the African Ameican Music Trail and how deep Kinston's musical roots run. During its tobacco days, Kinston was a hotbed of music, and musicians traveled from all over to play in the tobacco warehouses. One of those singers you'll know, James Brown, who traveled with his band members from Kinston like Maceo and Melvin Parker, and Dick Knight. It is said they brought “a Kinston sound” to Brown's music.

A great way to learn more about Kinston's African American music scene is at the Kinston Music Park. Located near the Neuse River, visitors can stroll through the park, read lyrics and quotes, and admire colorful music-inspired mosaics. You can also enjoy the park's sculpture Intersections, which has images of famous jazz, soul, gospel, and rhythm and blues musicians from Kinston and nearby communities.


Musical greats such as Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong played in Kinston. Photo by Lara Dunning

2—First Battlefield of Kinston Park

Kinston saw its share of bloody battles during the Civil War, and during my visit, I got to see where the heaviest fighting took place. In 1862, 2,400 Confederates troops and 12,000 Union troops faced off at a site known as Harriet's Chapel. The church is part of The First Battle of Kinston Park, which includes more walking paths and interpretive signs, earthworks, and markers.


This 1860s chapel replaced the original destroyed during the battle. Photo courtesy Jane Phillips, President Historical Preservation Group

3—CSS Neuse Civil War Interpretive Center

Before my Kinston visit, I had heard of an ironclad warship but had never seen one. The CSS Neuse Civil War Interpretive Center houses the remains of the CSS Neuse and tells the story of the warship that got stuck on a sandbar on the Neuse River. The center also explains how the Neuse was recovered, and the importance of ironclads in battle. If you think all you'll be looking at is the remains of the ship, think again. During its recovery, they found more than 15,000 artifacts, including shells and what they believe to be the ship's wheel. There is also information on Kinston, the wars that came to its front door, and historical figures.


The CSS Neuse was one of 26 Confederate ironclads built. Photo by Lara Dunning

Another part of the museum I found fascinating were the displays on Civil War social customs, particularly the collection of jewelry made out of human hair. Sweethearts, close friends, and family exchanged unusual jewelry, which was also worn during periods of mourning.


Jewelry made from a loved one's hair kept them close to you. Photo by Lara Dunning

4—Reconstructed Ironclad Warship

There is nothing quite like the wow factor of stepping inside an ironclad. That is exactly what you can do at the CSS Neuse II, which is the only full-sized replica in the world. Some adjustments were made for visitor access, like stairs and a side entrance, but the rest of the ship (built by an all-volunteer crew) was built to the specs of original ironclad plans.


The original Neuse was built to help the Confederate army recapture New Bern. Photo by Lara Dunning

During the tour, you'll get to see what living and working on one of these steam-powered warships was like from guides who know the boat inside and out. An ironclad warship had 200 men assigned to it, and it took 20 men to operate each gun. Its steam-powered engine kept the boat at a constant temperature of 130 degrees, and because of this, its crew slept onshore.

Tours run on Saturdays and include the central and lower level of the ship, including the gun deck, pilothouse, and cabins.


It took 20 men to work each gun on an ironclad. Photo by Lara Dunning

5—Harmony Hall

One of the oldest homes in Lenoir County, Harmony Hall, is a restored pre-American Revolution home built in 1772 by Jesse and Elizabeth Cobb. Throughout its life, it has housed political figures such as James Glasglow, the Secretary of State, and Richard Caswell, the first governor of North Carolina after the state gained its independence. It has also served as a Civil War hospital, church, public library, and is said to be haunted.


Harmony Hall's rooms are decorated with 18th and 19th-century furnishings. Photo by Lara Dunning

Tours are arranged with the museum and share the history of its occupants, such as  Captain Cobb, who served with George Washington and endured a cold winter at Valley Forge. There are also plenty of interesting historical facts like Harmony Hall being a secret meeting place for sessions of state during Caswell's time. As you can imagine, a house with this much history also had its share of tragedy from suicide to children who met an early grave.


Richard Caswell's portrait hangs above the fireplace in the great room. Photo by Lara Dunning

When You Visit Kinston, North Carolina

With more than 300 years of history, Kinston charmed the history lover in me. I felt it is one of those places you can return to again and again and keep learning more.

Not only is Kinston's history impressive but so is its food scene, and you'll want to check out The Chef and The Farmer, The Boiler Room Oyster Bar, Sugar Hill Pizzeria, Mother Earth Brewery, and King's BBQ (just to name a few). If you are looking for unique stays in historic downtown I recommend The O'Neil, a 1920s bank turned boutique hotel. Another great option is the retro Mother Earth Motor Lodge.

To learn more about Kinston, visit their website. And, enjoy more things to do and see in North Carolina by Wander writers.

Kinston, North Carolina

Note: As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with meals, accommodations, and activities for the purpose of review. While it has not influenced this review, the writer believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest.

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