There is no better way to experience Civil War history than visiting the battlefields where the war was decided. As former Union General Joshua Chamberlain once remarked: “In great deeds something abides. On great fields something stays.” I find that walking these hallowed fields can transport me back in time, providing a greater sense of the valor and sacrifices that made the United States the nation it is today.
The following are among my favorite Civil War sites.
Fort Sumter National Monument: On April 12, 1861, decades of bitter sectional tension erupted into warfare at this isolated island fort. Although today’s genteel and historic Charleston is difficult to imagine as a besieged city, there is dramatic evidence of wartime violence at Fort Sumter, a structure all but destroyed by Union cannons in the final years of the war.
Manassas National Battlefield Park: First Manassas, fought on July 21, 1861, was the war’s first major engagement and shattered the popular illusion that the war would be brief and bloodless.
Antietam National Battlefield: The fighting at Antietam makes September 17, 1862, the single bloodiest day in American history. Photographs of Antietam’s dead brought home the horrors of war.
Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park: Located midway between the Union and Confederate capitals, this national park is in a region known as the “crossroads of the Civil War.” It includes four major battles, fought within 18 months -- Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, the Wilderness, and Spotsylvania Court House.
Gettysburg National Military Park: Gettysburg is the most famous engagement of the Civil War. It was both the largest and the bloodiest battle of the conflict, as well as the site of Abraham Lincoln’s immortal address.
Vicksburg National Military Park: his 1,800-acre park commemorates the 47-day siege that led to the fall of the Confederacy’s most formidable bastion on the Mississippi River. Vicksburg’s surrender to Ulysses Grant on July 4, 1863, coupled with the nearly-simultaneous Union victory at Gettysburg, is considered the turning point of the war.
Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park: The first and largest of America’s national military parks stretches across the Georgia-Tennessee state line to commemorate the hard-fought battles for control of Chattanooga, a vital rail and communications center.
Petersburg National Battlefield: During a 10-month siege in 1864 and 1865, the Petersburg area was honeycombed with a network of trenches and earthworks extending as far as 30 miles from the city center. Although the siege was costly for both armies, it ultimately decimated the city’s Confederate defenders, who retreated westward on April 2, 1865.
Appomattox Court House National Historical Park: I find Appomattox to be one of the most poignant Civil War parks. In this quaint village, Grant finally brought Robert E. Lee’s once formidable Army of Northern Virginia to bay. The generous surrender terms not only ended the conflict in Virginia, but also began the process of healing the wounds of war.
Clearly, for those with an interest in history and an adventurous spirit, a month of free time would serve only as the beginning of a journey into our nation’s Civil War past.