As most Civil War battles took place during the Union’s incursions into the South, there is no better place for groups to steep themselves in the history of one of our nation’s most significant struggles.
Thanks to interpretive work on the part of the National Park Service, there are many more ways to experience these sites than a run-of-the-mill walk around the battlefield. This year, as the park service celebrates its centennial, groups can expect even more special events and programs.
Harpers Ferry National Historical Park
Harpers Ferry, West Virginia
Before the official declaration of the Civil War, several key events of aggression between North and South, slave owners and abolitionists, brought the country down the path to war. But few have painted as vivid an impression in the collective American memory as John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry.
The Harpers Ferry raid was significant not only for the force involved but also for its location.
“Harpers Ferry was literally on the border of North and South,” said Dennis Frye, chief historian and chief of interpretation, education and partnerships for the park. “The Potomac became the international boundary, and the city was literally destroyed by the Civil War.” Though the raid on Harpers Ferry is the conflict most often associated with it, the town changed hands eight times during the war over continued skirmishes for control of the city’s arsenal and armory.
The Harpers Ferry National Historic Park consists of much more than John Brown’s “fort,” the fire engine house where he made his last stand. If you only have time for a short visit, Frye recommends concentrating on the historic lower town, which has been reconstructed to show the industrial community that supported the U.S. armory in the 18th and 19th centuries.
“We have museums galore in the historic town: the John Brown Wax Museum, museums on the two Civil War battles, the natural history museum, a museum of African-American history and a museum on industry,” he said.
Active groups with more time can walk the Maryland Heights Trail, a four-mile, moderate hiking experience on the cliffs that overlook the Potomac and give a bird’s-eye view of the town, two rivers and the Murphy-Chambers Farm. An easier alternative is one of the Bolivar Heights loops, two walking paths that offer aerial views of the terrain and battlements of the Civil War battle of Harpers Ferry, a precursor to the Battle of Antietam.
Shiloh National Military Park
During the Civil War, one of the key differences between the strategies of the Union and the Confederacy was in borders. The Confederates focused on maintaining theirs and holding their ground while the Union sought to push them back, and its main strategy for doing so was to control the transportation routes. In the 1800s, that meant railroads and rivers.
As they moved down the Tennessee River, the Union generals turned their gaze to Corinth, Tennessee, part of the Memphis and Charleston Railroad, an east-west connector that was the only complete route from the Mississippi River to the Atlantic at the time. Shiloh lay in the way.
The Battle of Shiloh on April 6 and 7, 1862, made its mark on U.S. history as one of the bloodiest days ever experienced in America. Nearly 65,000 Union and 45,000 Confederate forces met on the field, and by the end of the second day of hostilities, 23,000 were dead, more casualties than all of the wars the United States had fought to that point put together.
“It was truly a shock to the nation how many men were killed and wounded,” said Dale Wilkerson, park superintendent. “It came to cement that this would be a long and bloody war. It was the first truly large-scale battle.”
In 1894, the commemorative park was one of the first set up by the National Park Service to honor the Civil War, spurred by monuments erected by states for their regiments. Today, there are 40 such markers on the field, most close to 100 years old. Rangers can lead interpretive tours dedicated to these historic monuments as well as interactive tours that focus on individual battles and maneuvers during Shiloh’s hostilities. Rangers walk groups through what the men would have seen and why generals made the decisions they did in areas like the “hornet’s nest,” a particularly bloody area of fighting on the battle’s first day.