I have wanted to visit Appomatox, Virgina ever since I read the young adult historical novelist Ann Rinaldi’s book In My Father’s House. It’s the fictional story of the stepdaughter of Wilmer McLean in whose homes the Civil War literally started and ended. McLean had a plantation in the Manassas, Virginia area and the house was subsequently destroyed during the two Battles of Manassas (fought in 1861 and 1862). He and his family moved to Appomattox located in the southwestern corner of the state to “get away from it all,” thinking the armies would never go there. Well, they did and McLean’s house in Appomattox was used as the site where Confederate commanding general Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union commanding general Ulysses S. Grant, thus officially ending the “war between the states.” McLean’s house was ransacked by people wanting to take away mementos from the most important surrender in history, including a rag doll owned by one of McLean’s young daughters. While there’s not much to Appomattox (it’s still a sleepy village after all), it’s less than two hours from the Petersburg Battlefield, an area that incurred a significant amount of fighting towards the end of the Civil War and which also included nine months of trench warfare. To visit these two areas would be a major check off the Civil War places to visit list.
-Antietam Battlefield (Maryland)
I wanted to make my list of sites “geographically fair” and so I had to choose between Antietam and Gettysburg, the only two battlefields fought in non-Confederate states in the American Civil War. I’ve blogged about both battlefields before but from a visual perspective, I feel Antietam Battlefield is the winner. Some of the war’s most famous photographs were taken at Antietam in the aftermath of the battle. Pictures were taken of the the bodies of fallen soldiers at the Dunker Church and Sunken Road, which became known as Bloody Lane due to the carnage. It was the bloodiest single-day battle in American history, with about 23,000 dead, wounded and missing on both sides.
In 2009 I read the novel Widow of the South during my trip to Ireland. Although I had grown up learning about the Civil War, I knew very little about events that occurred west of the original 13 colonies (fighting in states like Mississippi, Missouri and Tennessee). Franklin was one of those places, site of one of the worst military disasters in the war for the Confederate Army. Carnton is a historic plantation located there that served as a hospital for the Confederate troops. Carrie McGavock and her family personally tended to hundreds of dying and wounded soldiers in the immediate aftermath of the battle. The house was converted into a hospital for the Confederate Army, the largest in the area. The Union Army left the Franklin after the battle leaving behind over 2,500 dead soldiers, most of them Confederates. The dead were buried near to where they had fallen, with wooden headboards marking their gravesites. However, over the next year and a half, many of the grave markers were deteriorating so McGavock and her husband donated two acres of their property for the purpose of a cemetery for Confederate soldiers. It’s estimated that over 1400 soldiers were buried there and for the rest of her life, McGavock tended to the graves of the fallen, thus earning her the moniker of “Widow of the South.”
To say the Confederate States were stubborn would be an understatement; one need only look at the events that transpired in Vicksburg to see how true this was. The Mississippi River town gained historical notoriety as the location of a 47 day siege during the American Civil War. Numerous attempts by United States federal forces on the Mississippi River to pass the rebel batteries at Vicksburg led to the decision by Union General Ulysses S. Grant to lead the army on a campaign to lay the Confederate garrison to siege. The town’s residents dug caves into the hillside to survive the onslaught. Today visitors can either drive or bike the 16 miles of the military park, which includes a collection of monuments and the remains of the USS Cairo, a salvaged ironclad gunboat.
-Andersonville National Historical Site
During the Civil War, roughly 45,000 Union prisoners were held in Andersonville, Georgia, a Confederate prisoner-of-war camp; approximately 12,000 died there due to starvation, malnutrition and disease. Today visitors can see the remnants of this horrific period in American history and also visit the cemetery which is the final resting place for Union prisoners who died while being held there. The burial ground at Andersonville has been made into a national cemetery containing over 13,700 graves, over 900 of which are marked unknown. Since it’s a national cemetery it now contains the graves of more recent veterans and their dependents. While one equates the battlefields of Gettysburg and Fredericksburg with the memory of the Civil War, Andersonville is a grim reminder that the war was fought off the battlefields too and for those that were held there, unimaginable horrors awaited them.