The defining moments and historic places of the Civil War

4/9/2018

The Civil War was one of the darkest periods in American history. Political and cultural differences centering around slavery and its expansion incited passions and led to sharp divisions across the country. The election of President Abraham Lincoln in 1860 triggered the secession of most slave-holding states and propelled the country into civil war. Four years of tragic bloodshed resulted in over 700,000 deaths and forever changed the course of our nation.

To better understand the people and events of that terrible time, it’s helpful to visit the battlefields, homes and historic places where the war unfolded. Fulfilling its role as America’s storyteller, the National Park Service preserves over 75 of these locations. Every year, millions of visitors -- many of them descendants of Civil War soldiers -- come to these now peaceful battlefields to learn more about this defining chapter of our nation’s history.

By no means a complete list, below are a few of the many places that help tell the story of the Civil War from beginning to end.

Harpers Ferry National Historical Park in West Virginia

A sunrise casts a warm orange glow over water surrounding a tree-filled island. Picture is a bird's eye view and taken from a rocky overlook.
The history of Harpers Ferry is only matched by it natural beauty. Photo of the sunrise from Maryland Heights courtesy of Buddy Secor.

Harpers Ferry National Historical Park in West Virginia is a place every student of the Civil War should visit. The park is about much more than just one event, one date or one individual. The history here is multi-layered -- involving a diverse number of people and events that influenced the course of our nation's history.

In 1859, Abolitionist John Brown and 21 followers launched a raid to seize weapons from a federal armory at Harpers Ferry in the hope of starting a rebellion that would bring about the end of slavery. The raid came to a quick end when U.S. Marines under the command of U.S. Army Colonel Robert E. Lee surrounded and captured Brown’s men. Brown was found guilty of treason, conspiracy and murder and was hanged on December 2, 1859. His trial and execution focused the nation's attention on the moral issue of slavery and inflamed passions that pushed the country toward civil war.

An important railroad junction at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers, Harpers Ferry is surrounded by high bluffs that make it easy to capture and difficult to hold. Over the course of the Civil War, Harpers Ferry changed hands eight times and was severely damaged. The town’s capture in 1862 by Confederates under “Stonewall” Jackson resulted in the largest surrender of American troops until World War II.

Portions of Harpers Ferry still look much like how they did during the 1860s. Visitors can immerse themselves in the area’s history and enjoy the park’s stunning natural beauty. Harpers Ferry also serves as the halfway point on the famous Appalachian Trail.

Fort Sumter National Monument in South Carolina

A dozen men dressed as soldiers in dark uniforms lower a bright red, white, and blue flag from a large white flag pole. They are standing in an open, green and grassy field.
Volunteers dressed as Union soldiers lower the garrison flag at Fort Sumter National Monument during the 150th commemoration of the battle in 2011. Photo by National Park Service.

When South Carolina seceded from the United States in December 1860, Union forces in Charleston found themselves surrounded by enemies. They fell back to Fort Sumter, an imposing structure on an island in the city’s harbor. For more than 3 months, efforts to resupply the Union troops failed as Confederate forces gathered around the fort, preparing for a fight.

The first shots of the Civil War were fired when Confederate batteries opened up on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861. Union forces returned fire but were cut off and outgunned. After 34 hours of bombardment, the Union troops under Major Robert Anderson were forced to surrender. Miraculously, the only fatalities of the battle were two Union soldiers killed by a cannon explosion during the surrender ceremony.

Visitors today can take a tour boat out to Fort Sumter National Monument to walk the ramparts and see a Civil War artillery shell still embedded in the fort’s wall. Standing where the war started, visitors can feel the power of this place and imagine the dark years that followed the battle.

Manassas National Battlefield Park in Virginia

A brown stone house stands tall in the middle of a green field. Trees line the background of the hilly scene.
The Stone House was used as a hospital during the First and Second Battle of Manassas. Photo by National Park Service.

After the surrender of Fort Sumter, hundreds of thousands of men enlisted in the Union and Confederate armies. Months of recruitment and training were punctuated by minor skirmishes, but the first major battle of the war didn’t occur until July 1861.

On July 16, 35,000 Union troops under the command of General Irvin McDowell marched into Virginia to attack Confederate forces near a vital railroad junction in Manassas. Outnumbered, Confederate General Pierre G. T. Beauregard called for reinforcements and prepared for a fight. Anticipating a quick victory, McDowell ordered his men across a stream called Bull Run on the morning of July 21. The battle began.

Sharp fighting on the Confederate left flank pushed the southern troops back to Henry Hill. There, arriving reinforcements stood strong against the Union attack. For his determined defense of the hill, Confederate General Thomas Jackson won the name “Stonewall” and the rebels forced the Union army to withdraw. The horrific aftermath of the battle shocked both sides and ended the hopes of many for a short and painless war.

An easy drive from Washington, D.C., Manassas National Battlefield Park not only tells the story of this historic battle but also preserves the land where the Second Battle of Manassas was fought in 1862. For anyone interested in military leadership, how civilians are affected by war and the experience of the common soldier, Manassas is a tremendous outdoor classroom.

Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield in Missouri

Lighting illuminates a dark and cloudy sky. It appears to strike in the middle off a far off forest, and a small cabin sits in bright green grass across from the forest.
A lightning storm brings thunder back to the landscape at Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield. Photo courtesy of Steven Ross.

Fought on August 10, 1861, the Battle of Wilson's Creek was the first major Civil War engagement west of the Mississippi River. Outnumbered two to one, 5,400 Union forces attacked 11,000 Confederate troops 12 miles southwest of Springfield, Missouri. Over 2,000 men were killed or wounded, including Nathaniel Lyon, the first Union general killed in action during the Civil War. The fighting lasted six hours and resulted in the retreat of the Union army and increased support for the southern cause in that state. 

The Battle of Wilson's Creek marked the beginning of the Civil War in Missouri. For the next three and a half years, the state was the scene of savage and fierce fighting. By the end of the war, Missouri witnessed so many battles and skirmishes that it ranked as the third most fought-over state in the nation.

Today, visitors can explore Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield with an educational auto tour or on a seven-mile trail system for horseback riding and hiking. Living history programs depicting soldier life, musket and artillery firing demonstrations, Civil War medicine and other related topics are presented from Memorial Day to Labor Day on some weekends.

Fort Monroe National Monument in Virginia

Bright blue waters surround a green patch of land, full of buildings and vehicles, connected to the mainland only by roads.
The size and scope of Fort Monroe National Monument as seen from above. Aerial photo by National Park Service.

Like Fort Sumter in South Carolina, Union forces at Fort Monroe found themselves behind enemy lines when Virginia seceded from the United States in May 1861. Union General Benjamin Butler -- the fort’s commander -- not only had to defend the fort but also had to decide what to do about escaped slaves seeking refuge with the northern troops. Thinking like a general and a lawyer, Butler decided that freedom-seeking slaves would be held as “Contraband” property and not returned to their masters. Word quickly spread and hundreds of escaped slaves made their way to Fort Monroe, setting up a self contained community in the nearby town of Hampton.

Despite its long military history, Fort Monroe National Monument is one of the newer additions to the national park system. Here, visitors can tour the fort, walk nearby beaches, stand in the shade of a 500-year-old oak tree, and hear the stories of soldiers, the enslaved and the fight for freedom.

Shiloh National Military Park in Tennessee

A dark monument of soldiers stands in the middle of a grassy field. The word "Tennessee" is engraved on the bottom, and many Civil war reenactors can be seen passing through the back of the field.
Many memorials, markers and statues honor the soldiers who fought at Shiloh. Photo of the Tennessee State Monument by National Park Service.

As the war approached its second year, battles large and small raged across the country. In western Tennessee, 40,000 Confederates charged into a large Union camp near Shiloh Church on April 6, 1862. Union General Ulysses S. Grant rallied his men, but the Confederate onslaught pushed them back. In the chaos of the battle, Confederate General Albert Sidney Johnston was killed. Fighting ended at nightfall but resumed with the return of the sun and the arrival of Union reinforcements. Despite desperate counterattacks, the Confederates were forced to retreat. The battle cost both sides a combined total of 23,746 men killed, wounded or missing.

Landmarks of the battle are preserved at Shiloh National Military Park. Shiloh Church, the Peach Orchard, Bloody Pond and an impenetrable oak thicket that battle survivors named the “Hornets' Nest,” serve as reminders of the horror that happened here.

Antietam National Battlefield in Maryland

A bright orange sunrise glows over a cornfield and a cannon.
Morning fog lingers over the Cornfield at Antietam National Battlefield. Photo by National Park Service.

After the Second Battle of Manassas, the Confederate army under General Robert E. Lee launched an invasion of Maryland in September 1862. Hoping for a major victory to encourage foreign support, the Confederates swept through towns and farms, sending panic through the state. The Union army under General George B. McClellan pursued them to the banks of Antietam Creek. On the morning of September 17, the battle began.

Over 12 hours, the battle played out in three phases, spreading terrible violence from the Cornfield to the Sunken Road to Burnside Bridge. Of the 132,000 men who fought, almost 23,000 were killed, wounded or missing. It remains the single bloodiest day in American history.

The following day, Lee retreated back to Virginia. The Union victory provided President Abraham Lincoln the opportunity to issue the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. Now the war had a dual purpose of preserving the Union and ending slavery. 

Antietam National Battlefield today is a lovely patchwork of fields, farms and forests, preserved to look as they did in 1862. Park rangers lead daily tours, sharing soldiers’ stories and explaining the impact of this battle and the Civil War overall. It’s an experience you won’t forget.

Vicksburg National Military Park in Mississippi

The moon shines bright in a dark and starry sky over a large white monument.
The Iowa State Memorial glows in the moonlight at Vicksburg National Military Park. Photo by National Park Service.

Protecting a crossing of the Mississippi River, Vicksburg kept the Confederate states linked together. As the war continued, soldiers and supplies flooded through the Mississippi town on their way to the eastern armies. Surrounded by a maze of swamps and ringed with fortifications, Vicksburg was a challenging target for the Union army under General Ulysses S. Grant.

For more than a year and a half, Union forces closed in on the town from the north and the south. In May and June 1863, attacks and a long siege tested the Confederate defenses. The Confederates launched a desperate counterattack at Milliken’s Bend but were repelled by African American soldiers of the U.S. Colored Troops and Union artillery firing from river boats. Exhausted and out of supplies, the Confederates at Vicksburg surrendered on July 4, turning the tide of the war.

The rebuilt U.S.S. Cairo, a Union ironclad gunboat sunk during the battle, is now on permanent display at Vicksburg National Military Park. Visitors can explore the boat and battlefield, seeing over 1,4000 monuments, memorials and markers that commemorate the men who fought and died here. 

Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania

A group of men dressed in soldier's uniforms lead a large group of people to a field. The men carry a large red, white and blue flag.
Living history volunteers dressed as Union soldiers lead a walking tour during the 150th commemoration events at Gettysburg National Military Park in 2013. Photo by National Park Service.

Perhaps the most famous engagement of the Civil War, the Battle of Gettysburg was fought on the first three days of July 1863. The culmination of a Confederate invasion into Pennsylvania, the southern forces came from the north and the northern forces came from the south, both trying to secure the important road junction

The two massive armies numbered over 165,000 men and spread across a fishhook-shaped line for more than four miles. Over hilltops, through orchards and across fields, attacks and counterattacks tested the strength of both armies. The casualties mounted and moans of anguish filled the nights. On the third day of battle, General Lee ordered an assault against the Union center. It is known to history as “Pickett’s Charge.” Marching across open fields, the Confederates took terrible losses and had to withdraw. The Union victory at the Battle of Gettysburg, sometimes referred to as the "High Water Mark of the Rebellion," brought an end to the hopes of the Confederate States of America for independence. 

The aftermath of the battle haunted the town for months. Almost every building in town sheltered wounded soldiers, as bodies were hastily buried in fields. Plans were made for a large cemetery for the Union dead. On November 19, 1863, President Lincoln delivered his famous Gettysburg Address at its dedication.

Gettysburg National Military Park is one of the most visited Civil War sites. Visitors from around the world come to better understand the battle, the war and the people affected by it. The site’s excellent museum, cyclorama, memorials, preserved viewscapes and informative ranger programs all help connect people to this historic battle. 

Andersonville National Historic Site in Georgia

Many small American flags are placed along rows of white gravestones. A tall statue of a man stands against green trees in the background.
American flags decorate graves at Andersonville National Historic Site. Photo by National Park Service.

The story of Andersonville began in 1864 when the Confederacy built a stockade to hold Union prisoners captured during the war. Located deep behind Confederate lines, the 26.5-acre Camp Sumter -- named for the south Georgia county it occupied -- was designed for a maximum of 10,000 prisoners. At its most crowded, it held more than 32,000 men -- many of them wounded and starving -- in horrific conditions with rampant disease, contaminated water and only minimal shelter from the blazing sun and the chilling rain. In the prison's 14 months of existence, some 45,000 Union prisoners arrived here. Of those, 12,920 died and were buried in a cemetery created just outside the prison walls.

Today, Andersonville National Historic Site comprises three distinct components: the former site of Camp Sumter military prison, the Andersonville National Cemetery and the National Prisoner of War Museum, which opened in 1998 to honor all U.S. prisoners of war in all wars.

Fort Stevens (Civil War Defenses of Washington) in Washington, D.C.

An orange sunrise peeks over green hills. A man reads a plaque in front of a cannon.
A visitor reads a plaque at Fort Stevens. Photo by National Park Service.

By summer 1864, most of Lee’s Confederate army and Grant’s Union army were engaged in siege operations around Petersburg, Virginia. Desperate to relieve pressure on his lines, Lee ordered 20,000 men under General Jubal Early to move north and threaten Washington, D.C.

Early’s campaign began with an invasion through Maryland and a victory over Union forces along the Monocacy River. Catching the city defenders by surprise, Early advanced closer to Washington, D.C., and probed Union forces at Fort Stevens on the capital’s northern edge. During the fighting, Union troops were surprised to see President Lincoln appear in the fort. According to legend, as Lincoln stood on the fort’s walls exposed to Confederate fire, a young officer named Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. shouted “Get down, you damn fool!” As more Union forces arrived, Early called off the attack and retreated to Virginia.

Some of Fort Stevens’s walls have been rebuilt and are preserved with other area forts as the Civil War Defenses of Washington. Visitors can imagine the attack and see a commemorative stone dedicated to Abraham Lincoln. The Battle of Fort Stevens was the only time in American history that a sitting president came under direct fire from an enemy combatant.

Petersburg National Battlefield in Virginia

Three men dressed in uniforms fire a large gold cannon. Large white smoke clouds follow the shot.
A living history artillery demonstration at Petersburg National Battlefield. Photo by National Park Service.

After Gettysburg, Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia fought a long series of battles between Washington, D.C., and Richmond, Virginia, as Grant’s Union army pushed south towards the Confederate capital. In June 1864, the Confederates fell back to strong defensive lines surrounding Richmond and a nearby supply center at Petersburg.

Grant massed his men along the Confederate lines and began the longest siege in American warfare. In the face of frequent Union attacks, the southerners held on for 10 months, hoping the people of the North would tire of the war. By February 1865, the 45,000 isolated Confederates were outnumbered by 110,000 Union soldiers.They realized it was only a matter of time before Grant's superior force would either get around the Confederate right flank or pierce the line somewhere along it's 37-mile length. On April 2, Grant ordered an all out assault and Lee’s flank crumbled. The southern army abandoned Richmond and Petersburg. Lee was running out of options.

Though large parts of the battlefield have been swallowed up by the modern world, some of the buildings and defenses remain to tell the story of the brutal and bloody fighting that happened here more than a century and a half ago. Petersburg National Battlefield is a 2,700-acre park featuring a 16-stop driving tour, a terrific museum and visitor center, and 18 miles of forested trails for hikers and bikers to explore.

Appomattox Court House National Historical Park in Virginia

Small bags illuminate the sidewalk in front of a house against a dark and starry night sky. A large light back lights the house.
The McLean House at Appomattox Courthouse National Historical Park during an illumination. Photo by National Park Service.

Grant’s army kept the pressure on the Confederates as they limped away from Petersburg. Lee had hopes of taking his army south to link up with Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston’s army in North Carolina, but the lack of food and supplies slowed him down. Union troops burned bridges, blocked roads and inflicted heavy losses day after day. Finally on the morning of April 9, near the quiet village of Appomattox Court House, Lee realized that his luck had run out.

Lee and Grant met at the home of Wilbur McLean to discuss the terms of surrender. In what is often described as a meeting of gentlemen, Grant offered generous terms to Lee and his men, welcoming them back into the Union. Starving Confederate soldiers were given food and allowed to go home. In a war marked by such divisiveness and bitter fighting, it is remarkable that armed conflict ended so simply. Grant's compassion did much to allay the emotions of the Confederate troops. As for Lee, he realized that the best course was for his men to return home and resume their lives as American citizens.

The McLean house has been meticulously reconstructed and is the centerpiece of Appomattox Court House National Historical Park. Visitors can tour the parlour where the Civil War came to an end and see many original artifacts associated with the events surrounding the surrender of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. Artifacts range from the pencil used by General Lee to make corrections in the surrender terms to uniforms, documents and military items.

Dry Tortugas National Park in Florida

A hole in a red brick wall allows for the dark blue water and cloudy blue sky outside to be seen.
The red brick walls of Fort Jefferson stand out against the blue water at Dry Tortugas National Park. Photo by Andrea Suarez (www.sharetheexperience.org).

Fort Jefferson was built on the islands of the Dry Tortugas to protect one of the most strategic deepwater anchorages in North America. By fortifying the spacious harbor, the United States maintained an important “advance post” for ships patrolling the Gulf of Mexico and the Straits of Florida in the 1840s and 1850s. Nestled within the islands and shoals that make up the Dry Tortugas, the harbor offered ships the chance to resupply, refit, or seek refuge from storms.

During the Civil War, Union warships used the harbor in their campaign to blockade Southern shipping. The fort was also used as a prison, mainly for Union deserters. Its most famous prisoner was Dr. Samuel Mudd, the physician who set the broken leg of John Wilkes Booth.

Most visitors coming to Dry Tortugas National Park are unaware of its Civil War history. Accessible only by boat or seaplane, the park is best known for picturesque blue waters, superlative coral reefs and marine life, amazing snorkeling and a vast assortment of bird life.

African American Civil War Memorial in Washington, D.C.

A memorial of men in uniform stands against a row of townhouses. A blue sky, green trees and a bright American flag are in the background.
The African American Civil War Memorial on a sunny day. Photo by National Park Service.

Early on in the war, Congress forbade the enlistment of free African Americans and only allowed the use of former slaves as workers in the military. With the passage of the 2nd Confiscation Act and Militia Act in July 1862, African Americans from anywhere in the country were now allowed to join the military and contribute to the struggle for a "new birth of freedom." By supporting the Union, slaves and free blacks who were living in the North and South courageously advanced the cause of freedom for more than four million enslaved people. In 1865, President Lincoln said, "without the military help of the black freedmen, the war against the south could not have been won."

The African American Civil War Memorial in the historic U Street neighborhood of Washington, D.C., commemorates the military service of hundreds of thousands of African American soldiers and sailors. Etched into stainless steel panels of the memorial are names identifying 209,145 United States Colored Troops who responded to the Union's call to arms. A sculpture by artists Ed Hamilton called  'Spirit of Freedom' depicts three infantrymen and a sailor defending freedom. Above them is the face of the Spirit of Freedom watching over like an angel with her arms crossed.

The freedom of our people and the unity of our nation, purchased at an unimaginable cost, is the birthright of every citizen. With some of the finest public historians in the world, the National Park Service serves as a steward and storyteller for iconic places like Gettysburg, Shiloh and Andersonville that connect us to our past and inspire our future.