They are sites of great conflict, where the struggle for life amongst too much death soaked the earth in blood and made heroes of ordinary men. American warriors clashed on these hallowed lands, fighting soldiers from other nations and the warriors to whom this land first belonged and sometimes even their own kin. Their names, all of them, are famous: Gettysburg; Lexington and Concord; Shiloh; Little Bighorn; Normandy. But groups come to visit these battlefields and the communities that surround them not only thanks to name recognition but for far nobler reasons: to pay tribute to those lost and learn lessons from the past.
Often called the greatest battle ever fought on American soil, the battle of Gettysburg, which raged over three July days in 1863 and resulted in more than 50,000 casualties, turned the tide of the Civil War. It was in this bucolic pocket of southern Pennsylvania that the Union Army stopped Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s invasion, protecting the U.S. capital and reviving plummeting Union morale.
Groups that visit Gettysburg National Military Park “will get a different perspective than what they learned growing up,” said Natalie Buyny, director of media and public relations for Destination Gettysburg. “There’s no better view than from Little Round Top. That’s the strategic hill where the Union Army held out against a Confederate attack, which was really the battle’s decisive victory.”
There are many ways to explore the roughly 6,000-acre park, including by horseback and carriage ride. After, groups should head to the charming town from which the battlefield takes its name. Long called one of the country’s most haunted places, Gettysburg offers ghost-themed experiences, like the Ghosts of Gettysburg Candlelight Walking Tours. Foodies can visit one of Adams County’s many farm markets, follow the area’s craft cider and adult beverages trail, or even stop by the National Apple Museum, which celebrates the fruits that helped grow the county.
Shiloh changed everything. At sunrise on April 6, 1862, thousands of Confederate soldiers streamed out of the woods, surprising Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s Federal forces, which were camped around Tennessee’s Shiloh Church. Two days later, some 23,000 men had been killed or wounded or were missing.
“The Civil War is pivotal in U.S. history, but Shiloh itself was one of the turning points during the war,” said Shiloh National Military Park ranger Chris Mekow. “There were 110,000 Americans in this fight, which at that point was the largest land battle in the entire hemisphere. It made the public realize that the war wasn’t going to be the easy, clean struggle that they thought it would be.”
Mekow suggests visitors plan to spend at least three hours at the park, beginning with a viewing of the Shiloh Battlefield Visitor’s Center film. Afterward, groups can take a ranger-guided tour of sites like Hornet’s Nest, where thousands of Union soldiers stood fast against a tireless assault by Confederates. Shiloh’s iconic Hagy’s Catfish Hotel is a great place for groups to refuel before stopping by Savannah’s Tennessee River Museum, home to everything from fossils to steamboat memorabilia. Nearly Pickwick State Park provides boating, swimming, kayaking and easy walking trails for groups wishing to stretch their legs.
Lexington & Concord, Massachusetts
With four units, Minute Man National Historical Park in Massachusetts encompasses the sites of the skirmishes between the British army and the American revolutionaries that began the fight for independence.
“Most people have probably heard of the battles of Lexington and Concord because they were part of the creation of our nation,” said Phil Lupsiewicz, National Park Service media and communications specialist. “But they might not be familiar with how everything happened. And that’s what we do. We tell the story of April 19, 1775.”
The 1,000-acre park ranges from Lexington Green, the location of the first fighting between the Minutemen militia and the Redcoats, to Concord’s North Bridge, where the famed “shot heard round the world” rang out as the conflict continued. The five-mile Battle Road Trail follows the path of the Running Battle that occurred as the Brits attempted to march back to Boston from Concord.
Groups may want to catch the park’s annual April battle reenactments but should make time to explore the two towns that bookend the park. Concord is a place of literary pleasures, like Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, which holds the graves of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Orchard House, where Louisa May Alcott wrote “Little Women.” Lexington offers goodies like the world-class Lexington Symphony and historical homes that groups can tour by contacting the town’s historical society.
Little BigHorn Country, Montana
If there is a conflict on American soil as storied and studied as Gettysburg, it’s Montana’s Battle of the Little Bighorn, more famously known as Custer’s Last Stand. On June 25 and 26, 1876, thousands of Lakota and Cheyenne, fighting against the government that had forced them to leave their ancestral lands, took on a few hundred U.S. Army cavalry soldiers. Most, including leader Lt. Col. George A. Custer, would perish.
The park features Last Stand Hill, which Ken Woody, the park’s chief of interpretation, called “one of the most famous hills in the West. It’s where Custer was found dead, and it’s the location of the mass graves of the soldiers and the horses; and the Indian memorial is also nearby. I always tell groups if you don’t do anything else while you’re here, you have to do that.”
The surrounding Big Horn County entices groups with the Custer Battlefield Trading Post and Cafe, famous for its Indian tacos and fry bread. Hardin is home to the 36-acre Big Horn County Historical Museum and Visitor Center, with two-dozen historic buildings; or groups can head to Bighorn River, for some of the country’s best fly-fishing.
The United States is filled with battlefields by turns stirring and somber, but there is also a site overseas where groups will want to pay their respects: Normandy, France. This area marks the most significant Allied victory in World War II, which set the stage for the liberation of Europe from the Nazi regime. Beginning June 6, 1944, some 160,000 troops, primarily British, Canadian and American, launched an assault against the Germans along a 50-mile stretch of coastline. It’s estimated that D-Day resulted in more than 6,600 American casualties.
Normandy is rich with museums and memorials dedicated to the events surrounding D-Day, including the Normandy American Cemetery and the Utah and Omaha beaches where American soldiers landed. But groups should be sure to explore some of the other treasures of the region, too, like Claude Monet’s House and Gardens, where the beloved impressionist created many of his masterpieces, and the spectacular Abbaye du Mont-Saint-Michel, tucked away on an island in the English Channel. The contemporary church Eglise Jeanne d’Arc marks the spot where Joan of Arc was burned for heresy and became legend.