It’s impossible to deny the compelling narrative the Civil War still weaves into the culture of the South. A visit to former battlegrounds and sites where the war played out offers the visitor a gateway into why the issue remains important. Often, there are tour guides available that provide insight into the conflict and its impact locally — then and now. These Civil War battleground sites in the South are your ticket to that history and its present day resonance.
The Battle of Franklin was one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War, with thousands of casualties (the 150th anniversary is November, 2014). You’ll hear the stories of soldiers who died and see bullet-hole riddled buildings, one of which, the Carter House, served as the Union command post and offers tours. Another must visit, the Carnton Plantation, was the largest field hospital during the battle (read “Widow of the South” before you visit for greater understanding of the Plantation’s significance in the War). The Lotz House is located at ground zero of the battle, and also offers guided tours. After exploring, take some time to enjoy Franklin’s small town charm, cafes and shops, and delightful downtown.
The battle for Chattanooga marked a turning point in the Civil War. The Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park on the border of Georgia and Tennessee marks that battle. Besides trails, maps and tours, there’s an extensive center that has a compelling exhibit and gun collection. It’s also possible to hike and bike here. Also worth a visit is the “Battle for Chattanooga” at the summit of Lookout Mountain, where you can experience the war in a 3-D presentation.
Virginia is a virtual living history of the Civil War. One of the war’s turning points occurred here at Appomattox, where General Lee surrendered to General Grant. The Appomattox Court House National Historical Park offers a walking tour where you’ll see original buildings restored to their condition during the War. That includes the McLean house where Generals Lee and Grant signed the terms of the surrender.
Aside from Appomattox, the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania County Memorial National Military Park is perhaps the most prolific War site in the state. An overwhelming number of soldiers lost their lives here, the bloodiest battleground in the country. The Park was established to commemorate those lives. Numerous historic sites and structures are here (four major battleground sites) and the place is huge, over 8,000 acres and preserves, which makes for a great hike.
The Confederate Army’s attempt to take the state of West Virginia all but ended here at the Droop Mountain Battlefield State Park. It’s a place that inspires reverence, all the more so thanks to a spectacular lookout spot with a near wrap-around view. Another point of interest in the state is the Fort Boreman Historic Park in Parkersburg. There’s a pretty impressive reconstructed fortification here complete with trenches, and it’s another spot that also offers outstanding views of the valley beyond.
Middle Creek National Battlefield is the site of the largest Civil War battle in the eastern part of the state. It’s here soon-to-be president James Garfield led his Union troops. While there is a guided tour available here, which is outstanding, what’s most interesting about this battlefield is that you can take two trails, Confederate or Union, and learn about each along the way.
Another of Kentucky’s Civil War treasures, the Perryville Battlefield offers a tour of the site as well as a comprehensive, well-curated museum that tells the story of what happened here — a victory which enabled the Union to retain control of the state for the remainder of the War. But what makes this a must on the South’s top battleground sites is the re-enactment. It takes your breath away.
Four Oaks, N.C.
The Battle of Bentonville was the largest fought in North Carolina. There’s much to experience here at the Bentonville Battlefield. The Harper House reconstructs a Civil War field hospital, complete with a kitchen of the time and slave quarters. There’s an educational program and artifacts in the Visitor’s Center, and along the battlefield trail are trenches and a Confederate mass grave. Guided tours of the house and out structures are available.
Visit the Rivers Bridge State Historic Site and you’ll see the site where the Confederacy made one of its last gasp attempts against General Sherman on his march through the South. The preserved battlefield of the Battle of Rivers Bridge here is best experienced by taking a ranger-led tour. However, there’s a guided trail with panels that interpret the battle’s significant points.
No civil war tour would be complete without a visit to Fort Sumter. It’s where the first shots were fired. The best advice to see the site is the boat tour, which provides narration en route to the site about three miles off shore on the Fort and it’s role in the War. Artifacts such as cannons and fortifications are still at the Fort for viewing. This is one of the War’s greatest preserved sites and should not be missed.