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The Best Civil War Battlefields to Visit

Fort Sumter

Fort Sumter

Go to Fort Sumter to stand where it all started. Tensions had been leading to war for a long time, but the Battle of Fort Sumter is the act that tipped the scales from "really tense situation" to "full-on war." After seven states declared secession from the U.S., South Carolina demanded that the U.S. Army abandon its facilities in the state.

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Fort Sumter

Fort Sumter

South Carolinian soldiers captured all federal lands save one fort and began bombarding it. In the end, the U.S. Army agreed to leave it, and nobody was killed during the fighting. The standoff was the first crisis faced by President Lincoln, just a month after his inauguration. His call for volunteers to suppress the rebellion afterward caused another four states to leave the Union.

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Spotsylvania County

Spotsylvania County

Spotsylvania County had a couple of horrifying battles. The first is dubbed “The Battle of the Wilderness.” This was the first major battle of the Overland Campaign. Grant pushed Lee’s army toward Richmond in an attempt to destroy it, and on May 5th, it all came to a head. This bloody battle left over 3,700 soldiers slaughtered due to heavy assaults and vicious fires. Neither side won.

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Spotsylvania County

Spotsylvania County

The second battle is known as The Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse and occurred soon after the Battle of the Wilderness. Both the Union and Confederates mounted assaults over 14 days. The bloodiest battle occurred on May 12th, when Grant attacked “Mule Shoe” with 20,000 troops. The fighting lasted for 20 hours, which caused this area to be called “Bloody Angle.” Both sides declared victory despite massive losses.

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Antietam

Antietam

Located near Sharpsburg, Maryland, the Battle of Antietam was the first major battle to take place on Union soil in September of 1862. It was also the bloodiest single-day battle in any war in all of American history. Overall, 22,717 Americans wound up dead, wounded, or missing.

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Antietam

Antietam

It was here that George B. McClellan routed an attempt by Lee to invade Maryland, while Joseph Hooker attacked Lee's flank. The battle covered a great deal of ground, which you can see hour-by-hour via an atlas at the Library of Congress's website. Or you can actually stand where soldiers stood, and see it for yourself.

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Gettysburg

Gettysburg

General Lee rallied his forces and made a second attempt to invade the North. Circumventing his failures in Virginia, he hoped to make it as far as Harrisburg or Philadelphia. Instead, he was roundly defeated by George Meade in a battle that marked a turning point in the war.

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Gettysburg

Gettysburg

Over the three days of the battle, anywhere from 46,000 to 51,000 Americans were killed. Part of the site became the Gettysburg National Cemetery, and President Lincoln's speech dedicating this cemetery, known now as the "Gettysburg Address," is the reason most people know this place.

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Richmond

Richmond

Few sites have more Civil War history than Richmond, Virginia. During the Civil War, Richmond served as the capital of the Confederate States of America almost during the entire event. It was vital the Confederacy keep it because it provided their side with weapons and much-needed supplies thanks to it being the terminus of five railroads. The Union made many attempts to invade Richmond and only did so in 1865 during a long siege. 

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Richmond

Richmond

Grant captured Petersburg and Richmond in early April 1865. The fall of Petersburg caused President Davis, his Cabinet, and the Confederate defenders to abandon Richmond and flee south. The retreating soldiers set fire to everything. The fire spread out of control and went unchecked. Civilians retreated and surrendered while Union troops put out the raging fire. One week after the evacuation of Richmond, Robert E. Lee surrendered to Grant.

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Harper's Ferry

Harper's Ferry

Harper's Ferry has a strong place throughout much of American history. Here, Robert Harper set up passage over the Potomac, helping settle the Shenandoah Valley. Here, Washington proposed the site for the second armory and arsenal in the country. Here in 1859, John Brown raided that arsenal, attempting to initiate an armed slave revolt.

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Harper's Ferry

Harper's Ferry

And here, too, because of its strategic location and railroad, the Union and Confederacy battled for control, with the town changing hands eight times between 1861 and 1865. It was a staging ground for Lee's attempted invasion of Maryland that led to the battle of Antietam, but it was also hotly contested in the years that followed.

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Andersonville National Historic Site

Andersonville National Historic Site

Located in Georgia, this is the site of the infamous Camp Sumter, also known as Andersonville Prison. This Confederate prison was stuffed to four times its intended capacity, with prisoners living in filth and precious little food or water. Of 45,000 Union soldiers held here, 13,000 died of diseases like scurvy and dysentery.

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Andersonville National Historic Site

Andersonville National Historic Site

With many Civil War prisons, there are lingering questions over whether the horrible conditions were a result of malice or simply a lack of necessary supplies. There's not much question, though, at Andersonville. While the guards did suffer supply shortages here, it was nothing compared to the skeletal survivors. The commander, Henry Wirz, was ultimately executed for war crimes, and today the camp serves as a stark reminder of some of the ugliest horrors to happen in a war full of them.

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Shiloh

Shiloh

Shiloh is located in southwestern Tennessee. In April of 1862, a massive two-day battle was fought here when General Grant was ambushed by Generals Johnston and Pierre G.T. Beauregard, who wins the award for "most Confederate-sounding name ever."

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Shiloh

Shiloh

The Confederates were unable to stop the Union from advancing into Mississippi, but they did make this two-day fight one of the bloodiest battles in American history. At the time, this single two-day battle saw more casualties than all of America's previous wars combined.

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Appomattox

Appomattox

The Battle of Appomattox Court House is widely considered to be, effectively, the end of the Civil War. Lee had been caught up in the "Siege of Petersburg," a war of attrition surrounding a crucial Confederate supply center that lasted for nine and a half brutal months.

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Appomattox

Appomattox

He finally fled the city, hoping to meet back up with the Army of North Carolina, but was cut off. The house where the surrender took place was dismantled to be used as an exhibit, but that never happened. It has since been reconstructed and serves as part of the Appomattox Court House National Historical Park.

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Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park

Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park

Chickamauga and Chattanooga, located in Georgia and Tennessee respectively, is home to a six-month standoff. The Federal Army was routed to Chickamauga in September 1863 but was forced to retreat to Chattanooga. There, the Confederate Army cut off supply lines and began to shell the city. It went down in history as being one of the most significant Union defeats, and the second-highest number of casualties, only after the Battle of Gettysburg.

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Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park

Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park

It’s estimated that over 1,600 Union soldiers and 2,300 Confederate soldiers were killed during the battle. On top of that, 24,430 soldiers were wounded on both sides. Historic markers indicate where armies changed positions to torment each other along the Tennessee River and Missionary Ridge, where a critical battle was fought.

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Mobile Bay

Mobile Bay

Mobile Bay is an inlet of the Gulf of Mexico, located in Alabama. It's also the site of one of the biggest naval battles of the war. It was here that the Union's 18 ships engaged four from the Confederacy. This was the battle of the ironclads, a weird, high-tech battle that saw both sides lose one of their naval behemoths.

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Mobile Bay

Mobile Bay

This battle shut off a major supply route for the Confederacy. Combined with the taking of Atlanta, this pushed the Union to greater morale and helped get Lincoln re-elected.

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Bull Run/Manassas

Bull Run/Manassas

Manassas, Virginia, is the site of two different battles, referred to separately as "Bull Run" and "Manassas" by the Union and Confederacy, respectively, because they apparently couldn't even agree on what to name their fights. The first battle here was in July of 1861.

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Bull Run/Manassas

Bull Run/Manassas

It routed a campaign to capture Richmond and was perhaps the first indication that the U.S. was actually in for a long-haul fight instead of the quick suppression of a small uprising. The second battle involved an ill-advised attempt to "bag" Jackson, unaware that Lee's army was also present. The Union forces were defeated so soundly that Lee launched his campaign to invade the North.

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Fredericksburg

Fredericksburg

Fredericksburg was the site of a failed Union attempt to cross the Potomac and take the Confederate capital at Richmond. There were nearly 200,000 soldiers present that day, the largest concentration in the war.

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Fredericksburg

Fredericksburg

It was also one of the most decisive victories the Confederacy had during the war, with Jackson and Lee routing Burnside and causing roughly three times the casualties that they received themselves.

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Glorieta Battlefield

Glorieta Battlefield

Glorieta Pass, located in New Mexico, was a huge battle and is sometimes referred to as the “Gettysburg of the West.” The conflict occurred because the Confederacy hoped to control the West, ranging from New Mexico and Texas, up through Colorado and California. This would give them more wealth and land than before. Some historians even think the Confederacy wanted to invade Mexico. 

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Glorieta Battlefield

Glorieta Battlefield

The Union already had the West locked down and were alerted to an attack before the Confederates were able to reach them. Confederates managed to push the Union soldiers back, but they were forced to retreat after their supply train was destroyed. This left them without supplies, horses, and mules.

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The Battle of Chancellorsville

The Battle of Chancellorsville

The Battle of Chancellorsville occurred after Fredericksburg. Following the terrible loss, some of Burnside’s subordinates lobbied Congress for a command change. Lincoln replaced Burnside with Joseph Hooker because he showed promise as a commander. Lincoln told Hooker to attack Lee’s army, and this led to the Battle of Chancellorsville.

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The Battle of Chancellorsville

The Battle of Chancellorsville

Hooker sent his army around Lee’s left flank and behind his positions. Lee and Stonewall Jackson countered, which surprised Hooker as he expected a retreat to Richmond. The two armies went at it until Hooker’s army retreated across the Rappahannock. The battle concluded with 1,606 Union casualties and 1,665 Confederate casualties, including Stonewall Jackson who died of pneumonia a week after being fatally wounded by his own soldiers.

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