Top 10 Civil War Sites: From the Battlefields to Appomattox

Posted by Fodor's Editors on April 14, 2010 at 11:46:47 AM EDT | Post a Comment

This month marks the 145th anniversary of Robert E. Lee's surrender to Ulysses S. Grant at the Appomattox Courthouse. You don't have to be a history buff, though, to appreciate the significance of these seminal venues. In ways large and small, they helped determine the course of U.S. history.

Harper's Ferry, West Virginia (July 1859)


At the stunning convergence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers, Harper's Ferry played a key role in the events leading to the Civil War. Last year marked the 150th anniversary of the raid led by John Brown, a radical abolitionist, to take control of the town and commandeer weapons from the arsenal for the fight against slavery. Brown was later tried and hanged, but historians cite the incident as the spark that ignited the conflict between North and South.

The town, at the crossroads of Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia, has been restored to its appearance during Brown's time, and exhibits highlight early American life and Civil War history. Along the cobblestone streets you'll find costumed interpreters in 19th-century homes and storefronts demonstrating period activities such as candle-dipping and candy-making. Lectures and special tours are offered on weekends. Several hikes meander through the shady mountains that surround the park, passing over stone bridges and past the remains of homes and churches. Leave your car at the Cavalier Heights Visitor Center and take one of the free shuttle buses that depart every 15 minutes.

Fort Sumter, South Carolina (April 1861)

The first shot of the Civil War was fired at Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861. After a 34-hour battle, Union forces surrendered the fort, which became a symbol of Southern resistance. The Confederacy held it, despite almost continual bombardment, from August 1863 to February 1865. When it was finally evacuated, the fort was a heap of rubble. Today the National Park Service oversees it.

The Fort Sumter Liberty Square Visitor Center, next to the South Carolina Aquarium, contains exhibits on the Civil War. This is a departure point for ferries headed to the island where you find Fort Sumter itself. There are six crossings daily between mid-March and mid-August. The schedule is abbreviated the rest of the year, so call ahead for details. Rangers conduct free guided tours of the fort once you arrive; the fee for the ferry as $15.

Manassas/Bull Run, Virginia (July 1861)

The Confederacy won two important victories—in July 1861 and August 1862—at Manassas National Battlefield Park, or Bull Run. General Thomas Jonathan Jackson earned his nickname Stonewall here, when he and his brigade "stood like a stone wall." When the second battle ended, the Confederacy was at the zenith of its power. Originally farmland, the battlefield bore witness to casualties of nearly 30,000 troops.

The Stone House, used as an aid station during the war, still stands. President Taft led a peaceful reunion of thousands of veterans here in 1911—50 years after the first battle. The "Peace Jubilee" continues to be celebrated at the Manassas courthouse every summer. A self-guided walking or driving tour of the park begins at the visitor center, whose exhibits and audiovisual presentations greatly enhance a visit.

Shiloh, Tennessee (April 1862)

Site of one of the Civil War's grimmest and most pivotal battles, Shiloh National Military Park is the resting place of almost 4,000 soldiers, many unidentified, in the national cemetery. A self-guided auto tour (about 2½ hours) leads you past markers explaining monuments and battle sites. The visitor center runs a 25-minute film explaining the battle's strategy and has a display of Civil War artifacts. To get to Shiloh from Memphis, head east from Memphis on U.S. 64, then 10 mi south on TN 22.

Antietam, Maryland (September 1862)


Time has returned Antietam National Battlefield, the site of the bloodiest one-day battle of the Civil War, to its tranquil antebellum appearance, with woodlands giving way to sloping cornfields bound by rough-hewn fences. On September 17, 1862, more than 23,000 Union and Confederate troops were killed or wounded here.

An hour-long documentary is shown at the visitor center at noon each day, and there is an exhibit of Civil War artifacts. You can also hike the battlefields with an audio tour or accompanied by a ranger. A recent addition is the Pry House Field Hospital Museum, an extension of Frederick's National Museum of Civil War Medicine, where a re-creation of an operating room and implements used to care for the wounded are displayed. After the battle, President Abraham Lincoln visited the two-story brick house which served as Union General George B. McClellen's headquarters during the battle.

Fredericksburg, Virginia (December 1862)

The 9,000-acre park called Fredericksburg/Spotsylvania National Military Park actually includes four battlefields and four historic buildings. At the Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville visitor centers you can learn about the area's role in the Civil War by watching a 22-minute film ($2) and viewing displays of soldiers' art and battlefield relics. In season, park rangers lead walking tours. The centers offer recorded tours ($4.95 rental, $7.50 purchase) and maps that show how to reach the battlefields, Chancellorsville (where General Stonewall Jackson was mistakenly shot by his own troops), and Spotsylvania Court House battlefields—all within 15 mi of Fredericksburg.

Just outside the Fredericksburg Battlefield Visitor Center is Sunken Road, where on December 13, 1862, the Confederates achieved a resounding victory over Union forces attacking across the Rappahannock (there were 18,000 casualties on both sides). Much of the stone wall that protected Lee's infantrymen is now a re-creation, but 100 yards from the visitor center part of the original wall overlooks the statue

Gettysburg, Pennsylvania (July 1863)

In 2008 the Gettysburg National Military Park Museum and Visitor Center moved to a $103 million facility, which makes for an excellent starting point to understand the events leading up to the battle, its significance to the Civil War, and its impact on the town. The center includes a dozen interactive galleries, which feature a compelling mix of artifacts such as a wooden desk believed to have been used by General Robert E. Lee, paired with the latest in interactive video and audio displays. Each section takes its name from a phrase used in Lincoln's Gettysburg Address.

It is also home to the 377-foot "Battle of Gettysburg" cyclorama painting from 1884, which has been completely restored including a 3-D foreground. The painting, a must-see in its colorful, life-like depiction of Pickett's Charge, along with a documentary film, "A New Birth of Freedom," are packaged together as a 45-minute ticketed experience. There is a restaurant and a bookstore on site. The Park Service also provides a free map with an 18-mi driving tour through the battlefield, walking-tour guides, and schedules of free ranger-conducted programs which range from walks and talks about the battle to the aftermath and the Civil War experience. Private, licensed guides may also be hired at the center.

Richmond, Virginia (May 1864)

Inside what was once the Tredegar Iron Works, the Richmond National Battlefield Park Visitor Center is the best place to get maps and other materials on the Civil War battlefields and attractions in the Richmond area—and there are many, as this was the seat of the Confederacy. A self-guided tour and optional tape tour for purchase covers the two major military threats to Richmond—the Peninsula Campaign of 1862 and the Overland Campaign of 1864—as well as the impact on Richmond's home front. Three floors of exhibits in the main building include unique artifacts on loan from other Civil War history institutions. Other original buildings on-site are a carpentry shop, gun foundry, office, and company store.

Built in 1837, the ironworks, along with smaller area iron foundries, made Richmond the center of iron manufacturing in the South. When the Civil War began in 1861, the ironworks geared up to make the artillery, ammunition, and other material that sustained the Confederate war machine. Its rolling mills provided the armor plating for warships, including the ironclad CSS Virginia. The works—saved from burning in 1865—went on to play an important role in rebuilding the devastated South; it also produced munitions in both world wars.

Petersburg, Virginia (June 1864)

To walk Petersburg National Battlefield is to be where more than 60,000 Union and Confederate soldiers died during the siege of the city. A pronounced depression in the ground is the eroded remnant of the Crater, the result of a 4-ton gunpowder explosion set off by Union forces in one failed attack.

The 1,500-acre park is laced with several miles of earthworks and includes two forts. In the visitor center, maps and models convey background information vital to the self-guided driving tour, during which you park at specified spots on the tour road and proceed on foot to nearby points of interest.

Appomattox, Virginia (April 1865)

To many in Virginia, the Civil War has never ended, but the history books say it ended here, 25 mi east of Lynchburg, on April 9, 1865, when Confederate General Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to General Grant, leader of pursuing Union forces.

There are 27 structures in the national historical park, restored to its 1865 appearance; most can be entered. A highlight is the reconstructed McLean House, in whose parlor the articles of surrender were signed.

Photo credits: (1) Harpers Ferry image courtesy of cliff1066 in flickr (2) Antietam image courtesy of Istock/Kurt Holter

Member Comments (7)  Post a Comment

  • fxva8303 on Nov 2, 12 at 12:16 PM

    I hope there are some plans to rate the attractions by state. I really enjoy the Civil War Center at Blenheim in Fairfax, VA. They host a "Civil War Day" in Fairfax where they are activities and re-enactments. I'm surprised to see no listings from the Fairfax County region, there are tons to see there.

    Here is a resource I found for more in the Fairfax area:

  • Bernadette_Maskery on Apr 22, 11 at 03:37 AM

    I have been going to gettysburg my whole life, at least 1ce a year.(my family lives there). they are restoring gettysburg lands back to their original forestry of the battle time period. it is difficult to oversee such large acreage that also encompasses private dwellings, businesses, and a few towns; but it is a job well done. gettysburg is huge...and you want to stop so many times and read, look, & take photos...
    i went to antietam last summer; & i am planning on going to another battlefield this summer, maybe more ;)
    antietam seems to be on a different scale; as if it was not allowed to become a setteled area on the battlefield itself. they are both awe inspiring, tho different, and a must-see !!!!
    if you are not from the state, gettysburg is a 3-5 day trip, because of all the things available in the area. antietam, 3, and manassas is very close. especially with the price of gasoline, even with a bike!! you can do it in less, but you may miss things! ***hanover, pa**-conewago chapel. (near gbg)

  • CaliforniaYankee on Apr 16, 10 at 05:09 PM

    Malyman, you are so right when it comes to the gratitude of the local French people. I was in Ste. Mere Eglise where the 82nd Airborn was dropped and slaughtered. There is a church there that was made famous in the movie, "The Longest Day." It was where a paratrooper named John Steele was hung up when his parachute snagged on one of the steeples.To this day, they have a dummy hanging from a parachute from the same steeple to commemorate the event. Even more remarkable is that when you go inside the church, the stained glass windows are not of a religious nature, but depict our parachutists landing.
    Back to the Civil War, there a host of battles and battlefields that were left off the list. I, too am surprised by the ommissions of Chattanooga and Chickamauga.
    I might have ommitted Harper's Ferry. Although it led up to the war, it wasn't actually part of it. I also don't know if Richmond should have been part of the top 10. The ommission of Vickburg was, to me, the biggest faux pas.

  • malyman on Apr 16, 10 at 10:39 AM

    I'm surprised that Chattanooga and Chickamauga aren't on this list. The drive up to and the view from Lookout Mountain is memorable. When we went to Chickamauga we were treated to a virtually private 3 hour tour with a Battlefield Guide who knew every unit that fought there and every nook and cranny of the park. A great experience.
    I would like to second the comments regarding the Normandy beaches. We just returned from a trip there. We visited the cemetery in St. James where my wife's great-uncle and the uncle of a co-worker of mine are buried. We got personal attention from the superintendent. When "Taps" was played on the chapel carillon there were no dry eyes. It will make you very proud to be an American. It was also great to see that the local French people are still grateful for the sacrifices our men made.

  • CaliforniaYankee on Apr 16, 10 at 04:35 AM

    A great article. Antietam is one the best preserved battlefields. You should buy the CD or cassette when touring. It will give you some great insites.
    Gettysburg is awe inspiring. I took the walk from Seminary Hill to Cemetery Hill, the same walk the Confederates took during Pickets Charge. It's amazing how far they had to walk under heavy fire.
    I also agreewith you cdnatfodors. Vicksburg should definitly be on the list. When I went to Vicksburg, I had a guided tour. It's the best way to see that battlefield.
    On another note, I went to France and stood on Omaha beach. Every American should go there to appreciate what our brave men had to endure just to get to the bluffs. If you are lucky enough to go to Normandy, go to the cemetery behind the beach. It's hard to walk through it without your eyes tearing up.

  • cdnatfodors on Apr 15, 10 at 04:19 PM

    "Vicksburg is the key. The war can never be brought to a close until the key is in our pocket," said President Lincoln. When Porter's gunboats ran the gauntlet and helped Grant seize that city, the Rebel army was split with the bulk cut off from any supplies from west of the Miss. River. Vicksburg the monument, together with the raised USS Cairo ironclad and Battlefield Museum (with an incredible diorama and ship models galore) should together have made this Top 10.

  • wonderfulus on Apr 15, 10 at 11:28 AM

    Great article! I hope there are plans to cover other regions such as the equally significant Cumberland Gap Region of Tennessee, Kentucky, and Virginia. Many unique stories there as well.

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