Photograph by Michael Melford, National Geographic
Fort Sumter National Monument
Charleston, South Carolina
The U.S. Civil War began at Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, when Confederate artillery unleashed a barrage on the Federal fort. Sumter’s Union defenders surrendered after 34 hours; two soldiers (both from the Northern ranks) were killed during the engagement. Unfortunately the following four years would prove far bloodier for both sides.
Over three million men fought in America’s brother-against-brother conflict and more than 600,000—2 percent of the entire population—died. The war settled the question of Union versus States’ Rights, ended slavery, and laid the groundwork for a new political and economic order that eventually guided America’s rise to superpower status.
Visitors to Fort Sumter, where it all began, can walk the fort’s walls, examine a wide array of artillery pieces, explore the museum, and enjoy the same views the fort’s defenders saw from the harbor of historic Charleston, South Carolina. Naval history buffs will enjoy an added bonus; the famed Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley can be visited nearby in the old Charleston Naval Shipyard.
Manassas National Battlefield Park
Hopes of a quick and glorious Northern victory were dashed at Manassas when thousands of idealistic young soldiers and 90-day recruits clashed. The Battle of First Manassas (First Bull Run), in July 1861 ended with Federal troops—and spectators who had traveled from Washington to watch a victory—fleeing the field in a disorganized rout at the hands of Confederate forces.
The second battle on these fields, during August 1862, ended with another Confederate victory, one that set the stage for Gen. Robert E. Lee’s first invasion of the north.
The Henry Hill Visitor Center, home to a fine museum, stands near a monumental statue to Confederate Gen. Thomas J. Jackson, who rallied troops to stop a Federal advance here—earning him the nickname "Stonewall." Henry Hill is an excellent starting point for several walking tours (around the smaller First Battle of Manassas field) and driving tours (around the larger grounds of the Second Battle of Manassas).
Shiloh National Military Park
Shiloh was the largest battle in the Civil War’s Mississippi Valley Campaign and its terrible cost was shocking to both sides. Of the 109,784 men thrown into the fight on April 6 and 7, 1862, 23,746 were casualties (killed, injured, or missing) when the battle ended with a very costly Union victory. Living history demonstrations here offer a tangible taste of Civil War camp life and are capped each year by a large event on the anniversary of the battle.
Shiloh triggered a titanic struggle for nearby Corinth, a bustling railroad junction that for the South once held strategic importance perhaps topped only by Richmond itself. Corinth was the site of its own battle and an extended siege, which resulted in the loss of this key junction, a major blow to the Confederate cause. Today the site is within Shiloh National Military Park and home to the Corinth Civil War Interpretive Center.
As capital of the Confederacy, the South’s industrial heart, and the ultimate target of Northern armies, Richmond is rich with Civil War historic sites. Many of them are grouped under the auspices of Richmond National Battlefield Park in and around the city itself.
Richmond was the target of several invasions by both land and sea. Defensive positions and battlefields include several from the Seven Days Campaign as well as New Market Heights (scene of the U.S. Colored Troops’ legendary charge), and Drewry’s Bluff, where Confederate guns foiled an attack by a U.S. naval fleet.
Much of the city burned during evacuation and occupation in April 1865, but numerous historic structures remain. The national battlefield park’s main visitors center is located in the Tredegar Iron Works, where many Confederate munitions were produced. The site of the former Chimborazo Hospital, where countless wounded from Virginia’s many battlefields were treated, is now a museum to the war’s medical history.
Antietam National Battlefield
The setting sun of September 17, 1862, ended the bloodiest one-day battle in U.S. history. Some 23,000 soldiers, from both sides, were killed, wounded, or missing in action after the Battle of Antietam near Sharpsburg, Maryland. That terrible cost was more than nine times as many Americans as were lost on D-Day, the bloodiest day for the U.S. in World War II.
Though the battle did not result in a convincing victory for either side (Northern troops were able to turn back Lee's Maryland invasion), Antietam had a major effect on the course of the war—and on the lives of millions of people.
Declaring the slaves free meant total war between North and South. No negotiation or reconciliation would be possible save one side crushing the other by force of arms. As Union armies moved south, about one of every seven slaves escaped to the Northern troops, and many African-Americans served under the Union banner.
Today, battlefield visitors can explore landmarks like Burnside’s Bridge, the Cornfield, and Dunker Church. A walk down Bloody Lane is a bit like stepping into a Civil War photograph. That spot saw some of the war’s fiercest fighting, and the first graphic photos of the war’s appalling casualties were shot here.
Gettysburg National Military Park
A trip to Gettysburg enables visitors to walk some of America’s truly sacred soil. The well-preserved battlefield is dotted with legendary combat sites such as Devil’s Den and Little Round Top, which appear now much as they did in the fateful days of July 1863.
No trip to Gettysburg is complete without walking the route of the war’s most famous assault. Pickett’s Charge, named after flamboyant Gen. George Pickett, who lost much of his division in the desperate charge against the Union forces on Cemetery Ridge, was one of the war’s most poignant moments. It was also the end of Lee’s hopes for victory in Pennsylvania. Visitors to Gettysburg's focal point, the Angle, can stand at the high-water mark of the Confederacy, the point from which the Southern cause slowly ebbed away to defeat.
The Gettysburg battlefield looks much as it did in July 1863 though now marked with many monuments to remember the three-day battle’s 51,000 casualties. More memorials can be found in the Soldiers National Cemetery, which was the site of President Abraham Lincoln’s now famous Gettysburg Address on November 19, 1863.
Vicksburg National Military Park
The city of Vicksburg, Mississippi, was the scene of a Civil War siege from May 18 to July 4, 1863. The 47-day standoff for the city was also waged for control of the Mississippi River. Vicksburg’s surrender effectively split the Confederacy in two by giving the Union control of the critical waterway. “Vicksburg is the key,” Abraham Lincoln once said. “The war can never be brought to a close until that key is in our pocket.”
Today, Vicksburg National Military Park essentially circles the city. A 16-mile tour road parallels the Union and Confederate lines and features 15 designated stops at places from artillery battery sites to the Vicksburg National Cemetery—final resting place of some 17,000 dead. The ironclad gunboat U.S.S. Cairo, sunk in 1862 and not raised until 1964, has been restored and, together with an adjacent museum, offers a fascinating glimpse of Civil War naval life.
Andersonville National Historic Site
The fighting was over for Union soldiers who made the long trip to confinement in Andersonville, Georgia—but the danger had hardly ended. More than 45,000 Northerners were held at Camp Sumter during the 14 months that this most notorious of Civil War prisons was operational. Nearly 13,000 men died from disease, malnutrition, exposure, and other ills during 1864 and 1865.
Walking the grounds of the 26.5-acre prison, now delineated with white posts, it’s hard to believe how many men were packed into the area. Sections of reconstructed stockades and gates stand in the fields, and living historians often illustrate what life was like under the camp’s brutal conditions. Providence Spring, a water source that emerged during an August 1864 storm, was thought by some prisoners to be a gift from above and can still be seen today.
Andersonville is also home to the National Prisoner of War Museum, which commemorates those who served as POWs in all of America’s subsequent conflicts.
Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park
Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia/Lookout Mountain, Tennessee
For those who like to see the big picture, Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park offers a chance to view a theater of war at the macro level. From the heights of Lookout Mountain, visitors can gaze over miles of surrounding landscape and trace the movements of both armies during the epic campaign for Chattanooga.
The 5,300-acre Chickamauga Battlefield was the site of the South’s last major victory, in September 1863. By November of that year Union forces had prevailed in the larger campaign, however, and were in control of Chattanooga.
Lookout Mountain Battlefield is well worth a visit, not only for its historic treasures but also for its breathtaking views. The fight on these slopes was nicknamed the “Battle Above the Clouds,” and James Walker’s massive painting depicting the struggle is on display in the visitors center here.
Appomattox Court House National Historical Park
The first step toward healing a nation was taken on Palm Sunday, April 9, 1865, when Gens. Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant sat down in the parlor of the McLean House and signed surrender terms. Lee’s surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia essentially ended the war and sealed the South’s fate, though formal Confederate resistance did not end until May 26, when Gen. E. Kirby Smith surrendered the Trans-Mississippi Department in New Orleans.
Today visitors to the park, the site of the Battle of Appomattox Court House, can see a reconstruction McLean House, meticulously built by the National Park Service and opened to the public in 1949. Other historic buildings here date to the fateful days of 1865. The dirt road that victorious Union troops once lined in salute to their Confederate counterparts after their surrender has been preserved, as has the spot where Lee’s army finally folded its flags and laid down its arms. Appomattox is also home to a Confederate cemetery and a museum of artifacts that includes the pencil used by Lee on the surrender terms.