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20 Top Sites at a Top Time for Visits

Last year marked the 150th anniversary of the start of America's Civil War and 2012 and coming years will provide many more anniversaries and related modern-day events--including lots of reenactments and other one-time offerings. Thus, there's never been a better time to hit the trail to explore a wide variety of top Civil War-oriented sites.

Though the list of possibilities could run into the thousands and Civil War Trails "trailblazers" and the National Park System (see "On the Trail of the Civil War) offer many more possibilities, here are 20 top sites worth the drive.

Charleston, South Carolina
The first actual shot of America's Civil War took place at Fort Sumter in Charleston's harbor on April 12, 1861. Confederates attacked the Union fort and earned a quick surrender in less than 36 hours. Today, tour boats take visitors to Fort Sumter National Monument, where artillery still sits on the walls and both the museum and park rangers provide insights to that first battle, the "Siege of Charleston" (1863-1865), as well as the re-raising of the U.S. flag on April 14, 1865. Historic Charleston has many other attractions for the Civil War buff, including several exhibits and more at the fascinating Charleston Museum.

Washington, D.C.
Our nation's capital has many Civil War-oriented destinations. The African American Civil War Memorial & Museum highlights the contributions of the United States Colored Troops and other African American involvement in the Civil War. Ford's Theatre and its museum, with its focus on Abraham Lincoln and his presidency, now also features the new Ford's Theatre Center for Education and Leadership--designed to delve deeper into American history through exhibits, engaging videos, and creative programming. The Library of Congress houses more than 1,400 stunning Civil War photographs by Matthew Brady. The National Museum of American History features Lincoln's top hat and the chairs that Lee and Grant used during the surrender at Appomattox. Cedar Hill, the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site, with its pretty views of downtown D.C., was the home of the abolitionist, statesman, and Lincoln confidante.

Manassas National Battlefield, Manassas, Virginia
There were actually two major battles at Manassas National Battlefield. The First Battle of Manassas (also referred to as First Bull Run) took place in the heat of July, 1861. Federal troops were routed, foretelling the possibility of a long Civil War (it was). The Second Battle of Manassas took place during equally hot August 1862, and also resulted in a Confederate win. The Henry Hill Visitor Center is the place to start, including a museum and walking and driving tour maps. There's also a stature for Stonewall Jackson, who earned his nickname at Manassas.

Shiloh National Military Park, Shiloh, Tennessee
Part of the Mississippi Valley Campaign, the early-April two-day Battle of Shiloh in 1862 resulted in large number of deaths and injuries. The nearby town of Corinth was a strategic rail junction and suffered its own battle and siege--and the resulting loss to the Confederate cause was huge. Shiloh National Military Park and the Corinth Civil War Interpretative Center are well worth exploration. Tennessee is topped only by Virginia in number and breadth of Civil War sites, with other top options including: Chattanooga National Military Park (see below); Stones River National Battlefield; Fort Donnelson National Battlefield; and so much more.

Richmond, Virginia
Today's state capital city of Richmond was once the capital of the Confederacy and features a large number of visitor-worthy Civil War sites. The best place to start an exploration of expansive Richmond National Battlefield Park is the new Civil War Gateway Visitor's Center at historic Tredegar Iron Works, with staff and exhibits and audiovisual programs that introduce Richmond's role in the Civil War. The park covers four major actions during the Civil War, including the 1861 naval action at Drewry's Bluff, the 1862 Seven Days Campaign, part of the 1864 Overland Campaign, and the 1864-1865 actions along the Richmond-Petersburg fronts (including Fort Harrison). An 80-mile driving tour of the battlefields features 13 separate sites and four visitor centers. Other Richmond area highlights have to include: the American Civil War Center (which is also at historic Tredegar Iron Works and tells the story of the Civil War from three perspectives--African American, Union, and Confederate); the Richmond Slave Trail; the Museum of the Confederacy (featuring the White House of the Confederacy); Hollywood Cemetery (with many Civil War markers); the Virginia Historical Society; and historic Monument Avenue (with statues of Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee, and J.E.B. Stuart).

Pamplin Historical Park & The National Museum of the Civil War Soldier, Petersburg, Virginia
Located just outside Petersburg and called "The Ultimate Civil War Experience," this sprawling destination is a Civil War treasure trove. A visit starts with The National Museum of the Civil War Soldier, where visitors choose a "Soldier Comrade" from a group of 13 real Civil War soldiers to accompany them with a personal MP3 player audio tour of the museum (visitors learn the fate of their soldier at the end of the tour). A path leads to Tudor Hall Plantation, which has been restored to its Civil War state. Other highlights include: The Field Quarter (field slaves life); Field Fortifications (a full-scale model of the fortifications around Petersburg); the Military Encampment (depicting the lives of soldiers); Battlefield Center (a museum focusing on the Petersburg Campaign); several self-guided trails; the excellent Civil War Store; and--nearby--Banks House, which served as the headquarters of U.S. Grant back in 1865.

Fort Monroe National Monument, Fort Monroe, Virginia
Recently added to the National Monument ranks in late 2011, historic Fort Monroe National Monument tells the American story from the 17th to the 21st centuries, ranging from the exploits of Captain John Smith to fleeing slaves to a modern-day bastion of naval defense that closed on September 15, 2011. Virginia's Fort Monroe guarded the strategic entrance from the Chesapeake Bay to Hampton Roads and remained in Union control during the Civil War. It became known as "Freedom's Fortress" because any slave who reached it was declared free. There are more than 170 historic buildings, including the Fort Monroe Casemate Museum, where Confederate president Jefferson Davis was once imprisoned.

Emancipation Oak, Hampton, Virginia
This historic live oak has great relevance to the Civil War. In the fall of 1861, Mary Smith Peake--the first African American teacher of the American Missionary Association--taught the children of freed slaves, as well as adults, under this tree. They were part of the "contraband" camp (one of 100+) that had been established at Fort Monroe to house slaves who had gained their freedom by reaching the famed fort. In 1863, the oak was the gathering place for the first southern reading of Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation (thus, the name). Issued on January 1, 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation would eventually free millions of slaves as the Union Army advanced. Later, in 1868, Hampton Normal and Agricultural School (now Hampton University) was founded. Booker T. Washington, the son of a freedman, who attended the school from 1872 until 1875, would go on to start Tuskegee Institute and help start many schools for African American children in the region.

Fredericksburg, Virginia
Like Richmond, Fredericksburg is rich in Civil War history and sites. The Fredericksburg/Spotsylvania National Military Park is one of the largest military parks in the world and spans more than 8,000 acres and four battlefields--Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, The Wilderness, and Spotsylvania Court House. Two visitor centers at Chancellorsville and Fredericksburg help interpret the four battles through audio-visual presentations and museum exhibits. Other area highlights have to include: the Fredericksburg Area Museum & Culture Center (including the permanent "Fredericksburg at War" display); the White Oak Civil War Museum; the Civil War Life Museum Shop; historic Chatham Manor (which served as a Civil War hospital where Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross operated on Union and Confederate soldiers); and Ellwood, a quiet estate overlooking Wilderness Run where the only marked grave in the cemetery is for Stonewall Jackson's left arm.

Winchester, Virginia
The Shenandoah Valley town and surrounding area is another major Virginia destination for Civil War buffs. Winchester changed hands more than 70 times during the Civil War. The excellent Civil War Orientation Center at the Winchester-Frederick County Visitors Center is a great place to start, thanks to interactive touch screens and more that make it easy to make a plan for visiting the area's many sites. Cedar Creek and Belle Grove National Historical Park features the significant 1864 battle and landscape, as well as an antebellum mansion that remained remarkably unscathed. There's also: Kernstown Battlefield (site of two battles and an historic Civil War-era house); historic Mount Hebron Cemetery (including Stonewall Confederate Cemetery, with 2,500+ Confederate soldiers); Winchester National Cemetery (for Union Soldiers); Old Court House Civil War Museum (3,000+ artifacts); and restored Stonewall Jackson's Headquarters (including his prayer book and camp table).

New Market Battlefield State Historical Park, New Market, Virginia
Taking place May 15, 1864, more than 250 cadets from the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) joined Confederate forces in the Battle of New Market. Ten cadets were killed in action or died later due to wounds. A ticket to this major site includes: The Virginia Museum of the Civil War (focusing on the Battle of New Market and all major campaigns in Virginia, plus the Emmy-winning film, "Field of Lost Shoes"); Bushong Farm (original and reconstructed buildings); and varied auto and walking tours. Many New Market visitors also head down the Shenandoah Valley to Lexington to visit VMI and the fascinating VMI Museum--as well as downtown's Stonewall Jackson House, the only home that Jackson ever owned.

Harpers Ferry, West Virginia
Though abolitionist John's Brown's famed 1859 attack on slavery took place before the official start of the Civil War, this strategically located town in a state formed by the war changed hands eight times. The historic community at the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers saw the largest surrender of Union troops in the Civil War and the education of former slaves at one of the nation's first integrated schools. Mountainous West Virginia saw much more action and the state features many other battlefields and sites worthy of exploration.

Antietam National Battlefield, Sharpsburg, Maryland
This bloody one-day battle is solemn and sacred ground to Civil War buffs. Neither side could really claim victory on September 17th, 1862, but the battle did turn Lee back from Maryland and would lead to Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation. Visit possibilities include: "Antietam Visit" and "Antietam Documentary" films; ranger talks; an 11-stop auto tour; walks; Pry House Field Hospital Museum; the super Museum Store; and so much more. Iconic sites at Antietam have to include Bloody Lane, Burnside's Bridge, Dunker Church, and the Cornfield.

Gettysburg, Pennsylvania
All of Gettysburg is another sacred site for anyone interested in the Civil War. Over three days--July 1-3, 1863-the Union held their ground in Gettysburg, forcing Lee's Confederate army back across the Potomac and halting his string of victories in prior months. Gettysburg National Military Park is the area's top attraction and the most visited battlefield in the United States. Visitors can tour on their own or with park rangers or licensed guides (including bus tours, horseback rides, self-guided auto and walking tours, and even Segways and motorized scooters). It's best to begin at the Museum and Visitor Center, where there's a helpful timeline, tour and ticket sales, and the famous Gettysburg Cyclorama-a 360-degree oil painting measuring nearly 400 feet in length and completed in 1894. Other area highlights must include: the Soldiers' National Cemetery (dedicated by Lincoln on November 19, 1863, with what became known as the Gettysburg Address); the David Wells House (where Lincoln put the finishing touches on his speech); varied town tours and other historic houses; the American Civil War Wax Museum; and the Gettysburg Diorama.

Vicksburg National Military Park, Vicksburg, Mississippi
For more than 45 days from May to July in 1863, the Battle of Vicksburg was fought for control of the city and the Mississippi River. There's a 16-mile auto tour that parallels the Union siege and Confederate defensive lines, with three interconnecting roadways, 15 tour stops, wayside markers, and exhibits. Highlights of any visit have to include: Vicksburg National Cemetery; the USS Cairo Museum and Gunboat; three detached riverfront batteries; and Pemberton's Headquarters in historic downtown Vicksburg (where a mansion served as Confederate HQ).

Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park, Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia and Lookout Mountain, Tennessee
Featuring great views and overviews of this major Civil War theater, these two sites just across state lines provide two distinct visits. Chickamauga Battlefield in Georgia was the South's last major victory in September 1863, and it is the nation's oldest and largest military park. However, the Union won in renewed fighting in November at Lookout Mountain Battlefield outside Chattanooga. There are excellent audio tours and artifacts and displays at both battlefields and the Visitor Center at Lookout Mountain features James Walker's dramatic 30 x 13-foot painting, "Battle of Lookout Mountain."

Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park, Kennesaw, Georgia
Some of the fiercest fighting of the infamous Atlanta Campaign took place here on June 27, 1864, during a mountain battle that lasted from June 19 to July 2. Along with a unique cell phone-guided driving tour, visitors can explore artillery emplacements, preserved earthworks, and monuments. Georgia visitors may also want to head to the Atlanta History Museum for "Turning Point: The American Civil War," which is one of the nation's largest and most comprehensive Civil War exhibits.

Ft. Fisher State Historic Site, Kure Beach, North Carolina
This site--the largest earthwork fort in the South--served as protection for the last supply line for Lee's forces, which ran up the Cape Fear River and through the historic port city of Wilmington (also well worth a visit). It finally fell on January 15, 1865, after a huge Union amphibious attack. It was one of several major factors leading to a Confederate defeat and surrender later that year. Situated right on the Atlantic Ocean, Ft. Fisher features a helpful visitor center, original and recreated earthworks, a scenic walking trail, wayside exhibits, and guided tours.

Andersonville National Historic Site, Andersonville, Georgia
The infamous prison for Union soldiers at Camp Sumter operated in 1864 and 1865. The National Prisoner of War Museum serves as the park's visitor center and features two introductory films, many artifacts, exhibits, and tour offerings. Highlights of touring the grounds can include costumed interpreters, reconstructed gates and stockades, and Andersonville National Cemetery, where more than 13,000 former Union prisoners are buried (as well as veterans of the U.S. Armed Forces since the Civil War).

Appomattox Court House National Historic Park, Appomattox Court House, Virginia
This small town and nearby village features the site where Lee surrendered to Grant on April 9, 1865, in the shadow of the old Appomattox Court House and historic McLean House. That court house was destroyed by a fire in 1892, but McLean House still stands. The Museum of the Confederacy recently opened a major new museum here that makes Appomattox even more of a draw.

On the Trail of the Civil War
Perhaps no single resource can help plan visits to Civil War sites better than Civil War Trails and www.civilwartrails.org. This multi-state program identifies, interprets, and creates driving tours of the great campaigns and the less-known Civil War sites. Directional "trailblazer" signs and four-color interpretative markers with maps, illustrations, and text have been installed at more than 1,000 sites.

"The stories travelers discover at more than 1,300 Civil War Trails sites--each RV accessible--are as diverse as the sites themselves," says Civil War Trails founder and executive director Mitch Bowman. "Visiting sites along the five state Civil War Trails program is like standing on the stage where many of America's most momentous events occurred. There is no better time than now to discover these stories of triumph and tragedy"

Because many of the major sites outlined in the feature are part of the National Park System, www.nps.gov can also serve as a great research and travel tool.