At least 22 of the 419 units in the National Park Service (NPS) system deal directly with the Civil War and a few others are related (like Rock Creek Park and Fort Monroe National Monument). This does not even take into account the multiple sites devoted to Abraham Lincoln. While we have not been to all of them yet, this is our ranking of our favorite NPS sites dedicated to remembering the Civil War. Click here to see all of our Top 10 lists, including our favorite Civil War books and films.
Richmond, Virginia was the capital of the Confederate States of America during the Civil War, located only 110 miles south of Washington, D.C. The heavily fortified city repelled Union attacks in 1862 and 1864, but was abandoned following the retreat from Petersburg on April 2, 1865. Richmond National Battlefield Park is composed of thirteen units connected by an 80-mile driving tour, some of which are only staffed seasonally. The main National Park Service (NPS) visitor center at Tredegar Iron Works is located near the historic Virginia capitol building and not far from Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site.
Tredegar Iron Works, film, Cold Harbor battlefield, Chimborazo Medical Museum
The modern NPS visitor center is located downtown inside the Tredegar Iron Works on the Canal Walk. During the war, this foundry produced almost 1,100 cannons, as well as armor plating for ironclad gunboats. Today the stabilized and enclosed remains of Tredegar Iron Works offer three stories of exhibits, including a film and several interactive multimedia displays. The site of the June 1864 Battle of Cold Harbor has a year-round visitor center northeast of Richmond. We also highly recommend a stop at the Chimborazo Medical Museum, which covers an often overlooked aspect of a war that claimed 620,000 soldiers’ lives, many from disease.
Short trails help visitors understand the battles at Beaver Dam Creek, Gaines’ Mill, Malvern Hill, Cold Harbor, Fort Harrison, Fort Brady, Parker’s Battery, and Drewry’s Bluff.
The stabilized brick walls of Tredegar Iron Works are an interesting subject for photographs. The foundry was protected by its workers from destruction by the retreating Confederate army on April 2, 1865. This proved important during Reconstruction after the war.
There are probably not many places on the list of top 50 most visited units in the National Park Service (NPS) system that you have never heard of, but Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park may be one. Located in a suburb of Atlanta, Georgia, this 2,923-acre park receives more than 2.3-million visitors annually. The park memorializes a Civil War battlefield on General Sherman’s “scorched earth” march to Atlanta in 1864 and is now surrounded by a heavily-populated suburb and a university. Watch for pedestrians on the road to the top of the 700-foot tall Kennesaw Mountain.
You can drive to the cannons and earthworks on top of Kennesaw Mountain when the shuttle bus is not running on weekdays, but most recreationists walk the road or trails to get there. Inside the NPS visitor center at the 700-foot hill’s base, you will learn about the Atlanta Campaign of 1864 when Union General William Tecumseh Sherman led 100,000 troops out of Chattanooga, Tennessee on the “March to the Sea.” After 5,350 soldiers died at Kennesaw Mountain, he decided to just go around it on his way to the city, causing the Confederates to abandon their fortifications there. If you do drive to the top, you will need to go around many pedestrians and bikers, too.
There are 19.7 miles of hiking trails, but we found that most visitors just walked or biked down the center of the paved road to the top.
Kennesaw Mountain offers sweeping views of the Atlanta-metropolitan area.
Antietam National Battlefield was established in 1890 to commemorate those who fought in Sharpsburg, Maryland on September 17, 1862, the bloodiest single day in American military history with more than 23,000 total casualties. In fact, it was in the aftermath of Antietam that Clara Barton earned her nickname “The Angel of the Battlefield” before going on to found the American Red Cross in 1881. The battle was a draw, but together with a Union victory at Harpers Ferry stopped the Confederate advance north and provided the impetus for President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.
Museum, film, driving tour, Observation Tower, Pry House Medical Museum, cannons
Your entrance fee allows you access to the museum and eight-mile driving tour, as well as 3,200 acres of beautiful Maryland countryside. Even though this site holds a grisly honor, today it is a charming open space with picturesque bridges and monuments, perfect for a pleasant walk or bike ride. During our visit, Burnside Bridge was being rebuilt after it collapsed in 2014. Overall, it is a much quieter spot than nearby Gettysburg National Military Park.
The park has more than doubled in size since 1990 and there are walking trails accessible all along the driving tour route. At a minimum, you should get out of the car to walk “Bloody Lane” before climbing up the Observation Tower.
A split-rail fence provided cover for Confederate troops on Sunken Road, also known as “Bloody Lane.” A nice view of it and the Maryland countryside is offered from the Observation Tower.
Reservations are required for organized groups to camp within the park, but there is a walk-in campground located five miles south within Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park. Greenbrier State Park offers a developed campground about 15 miles away.
Early in the Civil War control of the state of Missouri hung in the balance. Union and Confederate forces gathered near Springfield and both organized surprise attacks for the morning of August 10, 1861. Rain overnight caused Confederate General Sterling Price to cancel his plan, but Union General Nathaniel Lyon went through with his in the face of overwhelming odds. The strategy worked briefly but cost Lyon his life. Even though the Union army retreated that day, seven months later they prevailed during the Battle of Pea Ridge in northern Arkansas, successfully keeping Missouri in the Union.
Museum, film, driving tour, Ray House, cannons
Missouri stayed in the Union throughout the war despite the $10-million in property damage caused by guerrilla fighters, making it the third most fought-over state. Start your visit by watching a short film, then peruse the excellent museum before taking the five-mile driving route that provides an overview of the battle at eight interpretive stops. The paved road is heavily used by locals for jogging and biking, so drive carefully.
A portion of the infamous Trail of Tears crosses through this park following the route of the telegraph wire south towards Elkhorn Tavern in Arkansas’ Pea Ridge National Military Park. There are also hiking and equestrian trails through the park’s 1,926 acres.
Rebuilt at its original location, there is a reconstruction of the Ray House, which was used as a Confederate hospital. Nearby split-rail fences add to the bucolic ambiance.