America’s Must-See Civil War Sites: Washington, D.C.
America’s Must-See Civil War Sites: Gettysburg
This battlefield in south-central Pennsylvania was the turning point of the war — specifically, most historians say, when Pickett’s Charge was turned away at Cemetery Ridge on July 3, 1863. You can stand at the very spot today and consider alternative histories had the charge succeeded; stroll the grounds where Lincoln declaimed his famous 10-sentence speech five months later. (Read the text of the Gettysburg address.) The battlefield itself and surrounding countryside are surpassingly lovely and serene, and it’s almost impossible to conceive the conflagration that took place here.
The Confederacy’s most notorious prison camp housed as many as 45,000 Union troops in southern Georgia; almost one-third died of disease, malnutrition and exposure in the confine known as Camp Sumter. When Congress designated it as the Andersonville National Historic Site in 1970, it expanded the scope of the park to honor all American prisoners of war, in all wars, and to examine POW camps throughout history. Today as beautiful and peaceful as any pastoral countryside, it’s a sobering place to reflect on the genesis and meaning of the Geneva Conventions meant to protect the victims of war.
The westernmost battle of the war took place here, 20 miles east of Santa Fe, in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in late March 1862. When Union forces under Col. John Chivington overwhelmed several Texas regiments, Confederate visions of Western advance ended. The pine and grassland scene today is a breeze-swept transition between the High Plains and Southern Rockies. And, yes, the northern commander was the same John Chivington who led the slaughter of 150 defenseless Cheyenne Indians at Sand Creek, Colo., in 1864.
America’s Must-See Civil War Sites: Vicksburg, Miss.
Vicksburg, with high bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River, was the key city on the southern portion of the river. Union forces under Gen. Ulysses Grant attacked and then besieged the city in May and June 1863. When Confederate defenders surrendered on July 4, control of the Mississippi and its vital shipping lanes passed to the North for the remainder of the war. Standing on those bluffs today, it’s instructive to recognize the significance of the river, then and now, in American affairs. The nearby Natchez Trace Parkway is one of America’s most beautiful drives, a peaceful journey through rolling Mississippi fields and forests.
The Tennessee city that lies beneath Lookout Mountain was the focus of some of the war’s fiercest and most important battles in the fall of 1863. First came a Confederate victory at Chickamauga in northern Georgia, then a battle and siege in and around Chattanooga that was eventually won by Grant that November. The national military park that encompasses both battlefields is an immense complex, mostly preserved in its historic configuration, as it was the first U.S. military park in 1890. Chattanooga is one of the South’s most cosmopolitan urban centers, with a symphony, theater, a thriving art district, numerous visitor attractions and a lengthy riverfront trail system.
America’s Must-See Civil War Sites: New Haven, Conn.
For more than three centuries, cargo ships sailed the Atlantic with slaves brought west from Africa in chains — up to 20 million, some historians estimate. The U.S. slave trade ended in 1808, despite the continuation of slavery, but slavers continued to sail. The Amistad America, whose home port is New Haven, is a reconstruction of a famous slaver (pictured here docked in nearby Mystic) that was seized by its captives in a rebellion and captured off Long Island, leading to an 1840 U.S. Supreme Court decision acknowledging their right to be free. Slavery is alive today in many parts of the world; Hillary Clinton has made abolishing human trafficking a key tenet of her work as Secretary of State.
The war began in earnest near Manassas, Virginia, on July 21, 1861, in a battle whose two names still betray divisions between North and South: After all this time, it’s called Bull Run in the North, First Manassas in the South. The Union forces lost, but a far more meaningful event took place here a half-century later, on July 21, 1911, when veterans of the battle met to shake hands in the Peace Jubilee. That’s what community leaders in Manassas’ Prince William County have chosen to re-enact this summer: On July 21, Manassas will re-create the 1911 Jubilee, and celebrate peace and reconciliation.
America’s Must-See Civil War Sites: Pea Ridge, Ark.
Although most Civil War fighting took place east of the Mississippi River — and most of that was in Virginia — the battle along a set of hills in northwestern Arkansas in early March 1862 proved a pivotal moment. Here, far from the main theater of war, a smaller Union army defeated a larger Confederate force, thereby assuring that Missouri was a Union state, and basically ending Southern hopes for success west of the Mississippi. Set in the foothills of the Ozarks, Pea Ridge National Military Park is a lovely place to visit in autumn, when the area’s oak and maple forests are in fall color, and one can hardly believe a different crimson once covered the ground.
America’s Must-See Civil War Sites: Harper’s Ferry, W.V.
Few events in American history are as bizarre as abolitionist John Brown’s October 1859 raid on a federal weapons arsenal in this then-Virginia town on the Potomac River. Brown hoped he would spark a slave revolt in the South; instead, he was captured — ironically, by Robert E. Lee — tried and hanged for treason. At his execution he declared: “I John Brown am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but by blood.” Visitors today can see the armory “fort” in which Brown and his raiders tried to hold off federal troops.
America’s Must-See Civil War Sites: Huntsville, Texas
A few Confederate leaders, including Lee, fought not for slavery but for their own notions of regional loyalty. What’s far less known is that some Southern leaders spurned the Confederacy, period. Sam Houston, former governor of Tennessee, legendary “father” of Texas independence and two-term Texas president was, in 1861, governor of the Lone Star State. He opposed secession and refused to swear a Confederate oath of loyalty. The Texas legislature booted him from office and he died in figurative exile in 1863. This little-known story of courage is told at the Sam Houston Memorial Museum in Huntsville, his last hometown, a pretty, oak-shaded university town halfway between Dallas and the huge city that now bears his name.
America’s Must-See Civil War Sites: Cincinnati
Hundreds of thousands of black slaves attempted to reach freedom in the North or, better, Canada, before Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation. The Underground Railroad was an escape network that operated before the Civil War, consisting of freedom supporters who helped slaves reach free states, British territory where slavery had been abolished or Mexico. The safe houses, tunnels and other secret routes are explained at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, which was one of the network’s key transfer points.
America’s Must-See Civil War Sites: Chancellorsville, Va.
Just two months before the battle at Gettysburg, Confederate forces led by Gen. Robert E. Lee won a major victory at Chancellorsville, defeating Union Gen. Joseph Hooker despite superior Northern forces. The peak day of the battle, May 3, 1863, is often reckoned the second-deadliest day in the war, and the name Chancellorsville still evokes the awful horror of battle. Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson died here; Hooker was relieved of command just before Gettysburg; and the Confederate cause that had seemed riding high after Chancellorsville turned hopeless just a few months later. Stephen Crane’s famous book, “The Red Badge of Courage,” is set at Chancellorsville.