My Favorite Civil War Sites

November 19, 2007

For the last few weeks I’ve been devising in my mind my top ten favorite Civil War sites. The only governing rule was that they had to be sites that I’ve actually visited, which rules out many famous places. And they don’t have to be battlefields, just notable places connected to the Civil War. So here is my personal list, subject to revision at a later date. Your comments and additions are most welcome.

Forever # 1 on my list. No site comes close to capturing both the horror and the grandeur of two great armies locked in combat in for three fateful days in July 1863. If you only visit one Civil War site, go to Gettysburg. And make sure you take enough time to do it justice. I have been three times and feel as if I’ve only scratched the surface.

2) Shiloh

Listed # 2 because this was the first Civil War battlefield I ever visited. Somewhere I have a few faded pictures of a family vacation ca. 1963 when our parents took us on our first visit to Shiloh. I still have a faded picture of me and my brothers standing next to the monument to the soldiers from Alabama who fought and died there. Today Shiloh fascinates because it is in many ways just as far off the beaten trail in 2007 as it was in 1862. This bloody battle convinced the North that the war would not end quickly.

3) Harper’s Ferry

Worth a visit because it has been painstakingly restored. Here you can see where John Brown attempted to start his rebellion. And the confluence of the Potomac and the Shenandoah Rivers and the nearby railroad explains why it changed hands so many times during the war.

4) Ford’s Theater

Understandably not much of Civil War Washington can be seen today. But Ford’s Theater remains frozen in time, preserved for the moment when John Wilkes Booth assassinated Abraham Lincoln.

5) Antietam

The peaceful Maryland fields look much as they did before the bloody battle erupted in September 1862. Historians still argue about what would have happened if McClellan had not discovered Lee’s plans to divide his troops.

6) Orchard Knob

During the battle that lifted the siege of Chattanooga in November 1863, Orchard Knob was the forward Confederate defensive line for the troops on Missionary Ridge. When General Grant took the hill, he knew it would demoralize the Confederate troops. From Orchard Knob, he ordered the general attack that led to the taking of Missionary Ridge. I didn’t know any of this when I chose Orchard Knob as the place where I proposed marriage to Marlene in April 1973. We were students at nearby Tennessee Temple University and Orchard Knob seemed like a undisturbed place to ask such a personal question.

7) Bull Run

A surreal experience because a major freeway runs through the park and cars from Washington come whizzing by so you get a strange mix of old and new. But if you concentrate, you can imagine Stonewall Jackson standing like a stone wall, rallying the troops from Virginia.

8) Appomattox

A fitting, quiet, peaceful place where the war ended and America was reunited. If you have time, take the driving tour of Lee’s Retreat from Petersburg through the back roads of Virginia to the final surrender at Appomattox.

9) Monocacy

A little-known battle that technically was a Confederate victory but the Union troops, led by General Lew Wallace (who would later write “Ben Hur”), held back the Rebels long enough to fortify Washington from eventual attack by Confederate General Jubal Early.

10) Davis Bridge

I love this particular site because it is almost impossible to find. A couple of years ago my brother Andy and I spent a day investigating the battle of Corinth, MS (October 1862), a major battle for control of a crucial railroad junction. After the Confederates attacked and were repulsed, they began their retreat along the same roads they had used to attack Corinth days earlier. Grant hoped to spring a trap by blocking the crossing at Davis Bridge. But the Confederates got there first. A fierce battle ensued, with the major portion of the Rebel forces escaping to safety. In the great scheme of things, the Battle of Davis Bridge barely rates a footnote. Andy and I drove far into the country, and we missed the turnoff that led to the battlefield. To be truthful, there isn’t much to look at. It’s all tangled growth surrounding a low, swampy area far from any city or town. You would never know that several hundred men fought and died here. Few monuments mark the spot. Walking down the muddy road, it felt like we were seeing what those soldiers saw in that brief, bloody, forgotten battle in the fall of 1862.

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