A Starting Place for National Park Visitors
Don’t know what to see first? Here are 11 major historical sites, listed as a timeline of events, from the first mortar to the final surrender.
- Fort Sumter National Monument, South Carolina
April 12, 1861: Captain George S. James fired the first Confederate shot at Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina, leading to a day and a half-long siege, a Union retreat, and the start of the war. Exhibits at Fort Sumter help explain the tensions that led South Carolina to be the first state to secede the union. Visitors can also see the flag Major General Robert Anderson raised there in 1865 to reunite the nation.
- Manassas National Battlefield Park, Virginia
July 21-24,1861: Spectators and reporters competed for a good view of the first major battle between Union and Confederate soldiers at Manassas. Before the battle, most Americans thought the war would be one short skirmish; the deaths of 900 soldiers shocked the nation into realizing otherwise. Soldiers fought a second battle over the same fields at Manassas a year later that helped clear the way for Lee’s first invasion of the North.
- Fort Donelson National Battlefield, Tennessee
February 14, 1862: Union General Ulysses S. Grant first won his first victory at Fort Donelson, where he earned the nickname “Unconditional Surrender.” Formerly enslaved African Americans flocked to the fort after the victory, and the site is now part of the Park Service’s Underground Railroad Network to Freedom program. Visitors can tour the earthen forts that became a refuge guiding enslaved men and women toward freedom.
- Shiloh National Military Park, Tennessee
April 6-7, 1862: A fierce two-day battle took place here in April 1862 that saw an early show of force by the Confederate Army, and a Union recovery on the second day that ultimately drove Confederate forces from the field. At the time, it was the bloodiest conflict of the war, and was the largest battle in the Mississippi Valley. Visitors to the park can also see the nearby Corinth Civil War Interpretive Center and the Corinth Contraband Camp in Corinth, Mississippi.
- Antietam National Battlefield, Maryland
September 17, 1862: The single bloodiest day in American military history was fought in Antietam, Maryland, leaving more than 23,000 men dead, wounded, or missing. This Union victory led Lincoln to issue the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, formally alerting the Confederacy of his intention to free all enslaved Americans in the rebellious states (the final proclamation was issued 100 days later, in January 1863).
- Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, Virginia
December 13, 1862-May 5-6, 1864: This national park protects the sites of four major battles, each of which has its own separate significance. Commemorating 85,000 injured and 15,000 dead soldiers, these sites are known collectively as “The Bloodiest Landscape in America.” NPCA recently waged a three-year campaign to protect one of these places, the Wilderness Battlefield, from encroachment—you can thank Wal-Mart for not building one of its stores next to this historic site.
- Gettysburg National Military Park, Pennsylvania
July 1-3, 1863: The battle in this small farming community resulted in more than 50,000 casualties over three days, making it the deadliest engagement of the war. This is now referred to as the “High Water Mark of the Confederacy”—the last meaningful offensive the South would conduct against northern forces. The visitor’s center at Gettysburg features one of the largest collections of Civil War artifacts in the country.
- Vicksburg National Military Park, Mississippi
March 29-July 4, 1863: After Grant launched two heavy assaults on Vicksburg and was met with major casualties, he besieged the city for 40 days, forcing a Confederate surrender. The victory gave Union troops control of the Mississippi river, cutting off communications between Confederate territories. Visitors today can take a 16-mile driving tour of major sites of the siege and tour a restored gunboat that sat for 100 years on the bottom of the Mississippi River, the USS Cairo. NPCA is currently working to expand and preserve this historic battlefield.
- Monocacy National Battlefield, Maryland
July 9, 1864: Known as “The Battle That Saved Washington,” Union troops met with advancing Confederate soldiers on their way to Fort Stevens in Washington, D.C.; although Union forces were outmanned, they were able to delay the Confederates, allowing reinforcements to arrive to defend Washington. President Lincoln watched some of the fighting from the ramparts at Fort Stevens, making him the only sitting president to come under direct fire during a hostile action.
- Petersburg National Battlefield, Virginia
June 15, 1864-April 2, 1865: A major supply center for Confederate forces, Petersburg was the site of an intense four-day battle that evolved into the longest siege in American military history, which lasted nearly ten months. The siege led to the collapse of the Confederate government and sent the forces of Robert E. Lee on a week-long westward retreat, culminating in the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox Court House.
- Appomattox Court House National Historical Park, Virginia
April 9, 1865: Generals Grant and Lee signed the official surrender, marking the reunification of the country and leading the way for the 13th Amendment of the Constitution abolishing slavery. Visitors can visit both original and meticulously reconstructed buildings, including an exact replica of the McLean House where the generals met.