From battlefield memorials to scenes of small but significant skirmishes, many sites still live and breathe with the memory of that terrible fraternal struggle. Today, they remain to educate whole new generations about that dark chapter in our history.
Here are some of the best places to learn about the Civil War.
1. Antietam, Maryland
The Antietam National Battlefield is an important historical site in Maryland. Antietam and the surrounding areas hosted battles resulting in thousands of casualties on both sides. It was also the site of the first battle fought in a Union state. At the time, it was the bloodiest day in American history with a total of 22,700 dead.
General Robert Lee’s audacious Confederate forces were encouraged to enter Maryland after winning a decisive victory at Second Bull Run in Virginia. But the battle did not end in a decisive victory for either side. It was considered a disaster for both camps due to the enormous losses, and the overcautious Union commanders allowing Lee to retreat back into Virginia.
Battle sites in Maryland are preserved as memorials for the lost of both North and South. They’re just a short trip from Washington, D.C.
2. Gettysburg, Pennsylvania
In the summer of 1863, the wily General Lee again staged an invasion of the North. This time, troops entered Gettysburg, near Pennsylvania’s southern border.
After suffering a decisive loss, the Confederate army began to give up on its strategy of taking over northern states. Gettysburg saw the most significant casualties of the whole War, with a total of 46,000 dead – evenly split between the two sides. The battle is well-known and was a turning point in the war.
After the Union victory, President Abraham Lincoln visited the battlefield to memorialize the losses and give his famous Gettysburg Address in November 1863.
Today, the battlegrounds are well preserved, and the tourism industry is active in the area. Visitors can see reenactments and learn about the events leading up to Gettysburg, and its aftermath.
3. Shiloh, Tennessee
Another Union victory that cost tens of thousands of lives, Shiloh is today a solemn memorial to the Americans who died there fighting their brethren. The location is remote — about 120 miles from Memphis and 20 miles from the border between Tennessee and Mississippi.
The battle took place in 1862 and saw the first large-scale losses of the War. Over 23,000 soldiers lost their lives, with control of the Mississippi River Valley at stake. Had Confederate forces won this battle, the Civil War may well have ended much differently. (At the time, the Mississippi River was one of the most significant trade routes in the country. Seizing it would have strengthened the South and expanded their control to the Midwest.)
Veterans groups today have helped Shiloh remain a vast memorial to the dead of both factions. Visitors can take a 12-mile bus tour that revisits the battle routes.
4. Glorieta Pass, New Mexico
Many of the historic civil war battles happened in states that are close to the south, such as Maryland, Tennessee, and Virginia. But some of the most significant confrontations occurred in the western part of the United States.
Glorieta Pass is now part of New Mexico. (During the 1860s this area was called New Mexico Territory.) Referred to as the “Gettysburg of the West,” Glorieta Pass was a decisive win for Union forces that quashed Confederate attempts to seize power in the southwest territories.
Today, there are several monuments to the battle, including burial sites. The National Park Service runs a battle site tour, including black powder demonstrations and reenactments.
5. St. Albans, Vermont
The site of the northernmost battle of the Civil War, the St. Albans raid involved Confederate soldiers who snuck into the rural New England state from Canada. Most people do not associate Vermont with the Civil War, as the majority of the major battles were fought in the southern states or those surrounding the Washington DC area and southern Pennsylvania.
But in October 1864, a year after the decisive Gettysburg victory by the North, a small group of Confederate soldiers escaped from a Union prison. Led by the headstrong Lieutenant Bennett Young, this party of escapees targeted Vermont because it lacked significant Union Army protection. The Confederate soldiers entered the state and robbed three banks, stealing over $200,000. Struggles ensued, but the Confederates were able to make their way back to Canada.
Once there, Canadian authorities detained the Confederates and recovered $80,000 of the loot, which they returned to Vermont. Before this event, Canada had remained neutral in the Civil War, but the actions of the Confederacy angered the Canadian government, who then refused to allow Confederate agents in the country.
Today, only one of the banks is still standing; it’s currently a TD North branch in Franklin County. Although more widely known as a destination for those seeking a quaint New England getaway, visitors can still come here to learn about a surprising episode in the Civil War.
The Civil War is an important part of American history. Famous battle sites preserve the memory of the war and pay homage to those who lost their lives when the country was sharply divided.