EW Staff
October 19, 1990 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Americans began placing memorials on the fields where the Civil War was fought almost as soon as the guns had fallen silent. Federal soldiers put up a redbrick monument at Manassas, Va., for instance, shortly after Gen. Robert E. Lee had surrendered at Appomattox. Informal tours of the Gettysburg battlefield began before 1870. Americans — some 8.8 million last year — still feel the urge to visit the scenes of the bloodiest conflict in their history. Here is a brief guide to a number of the more important historic sites, all of them open year-round.

Harpers Ferry National Historical Park (Harpers Ferry, W.Va., on U.S. Route $340)
In the year before secession began, abolitionist John Brown fought what might be called the first battle of the Civil War by seizing the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry on Oct. 16, 1859. Captured on Oct. 18 by a company of marines led by two future Confederate generals, Robert E. Lee and J.E.B. Stuart, Brown was hanged Dec. 2 at nearby Charles Town.

One of the pleasures of visiting Harpers Ferry, which sits at the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers, is the beauty of the surrounding federal parkland. The town itself is a mix of scrupulous historic preservation and aggressively marketed schlock. Shenandoah Street is old, and there you smell stone and wood. High Street is olde, and there you smell scented candles and fast-food grease. Such things upset purists, but as parents know, educational trips go down better if there are stocks of gum, burgers, and Johnny Reb caps nearby. — Alex Heard

Fort Sumter National Monument (Charleston Harbor, Charleston, S.C.)
The Civil War’s opening shots were fired at 4:30 a.m. on April 12, 1861, when Confederate batteries opened a 34-hour artillery barrage on the small Union force that occupied Fort Sumter, about a mile away at the entrance to Charleston Harbor. Some 3,341 shells were lobbed at Sumter, but today, you and an attacking force armed with videocams will chug out on a slow boat, and the only battle sounds you’ll hear will be between parents and bored children. The key here, as at all Civil War battle sites, is to fire your imagination, primed by some reading beforehand. Reflect on the importance of naval fortifications in the days before airpower and the bomb. Marvel at the marksmanship of the Southern gunners under Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard. And wonder how those 3,341 shells managed to cripple the fort without killing a soul. — AH

Manassas National Battlefield Park (Manassas, Va., on U.S. Route 29 and Interstate 66)
Two major battles (known in the North as Bull Run) were fought here; both were significant Confederate victories. First Manassas, the first major battle of the Civil War (July 21, 1861), ended with Union forces fleeing in panic back to Washington. Second Manassas (Aug. 28-30, 1862) was a far more complicated and bloody battle. After that victory, Lee launched his first invasion of the North, which would culminate a few weeks later at Antietam. Though suburbia creeps close, Manassas retains a 19th-century pastoral air, and the battlefield is distinguished by a huge equestrian statue of * Confederate general T.J. Jackson on the hill where he earned his nickname, ”Stonewall.” — AH

Fort Donelson National Battlefield (U.S. Route 79 at Dover, Tenn.)
Fort Donelson isn’t a building, but a natural fortress: a steep, densely wooded bluff on the Cumberland River enhanced by the Confederate army with 15 acres of earthworks — logs with dirt heaped over them to a height of 10 feet. The Union side was led by an unknown brigadier named Ulysses S. Grant, who understood the weaknesses of Confederate generals John Floyd and Gideon Pillow. Grant tried a bold assault that left him vulnerable to complete defeat but won the battle and gained valuable access to the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers. Grant demanded an ”unconditional and immediate surrender,” a move the Confederates termed ”unchivalrous.” You can wander through the woods inspecting cannons and in the museum check out the “iron valentines” they fired. The museum also has a slide show on the battle. Its lesson is clear: As of 1862 chivalry was dead, and war was becoming modern. — Tim Appelo

Shiloh National Military Park (Route 22 in Shiloh, Tenn.)
About 80,000 of the 100,000 American soldiers pitted against each other at Shiloh in April 1862 had never been in combat before. Soldiers on both sides were confused by the magnitude of the fighting, a feeling likely to be shared by visitors to the sprawling Shiloh park. Fortunately, there’s a 25-minute movie reenactment of the battle on view at the visitor center to help orient you. It’s a moving experience to find yourself in the same peach orchard where petals, severed by bullets, fell on the troops like snow, or at the site of Shiloh Church, where the first American army field hospital was built. — TA

Antietam National Battlefield (At Sharpsburg, Md., near State Route 65)
After his victory at Second Manassas in 1862, Lee crossed the Potomac and launched what was to be an invasion of Maryland and Pennsylvania. His first attempt to attack the North never made it beyond the border-state town of Sharpsburg, Md., where the Confederate army met a Union army roughly twice its size on Sept. 17, 1862. Antietam was the bloodiest single day of the Civil War: 23,000 men were killed, wounded, or captured. The battle was more of a standoff than a victory for the North, but Lincoln, who had been waiting for a victory before issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, decided Antietam would have to do. Antietam battlefield is a beautiful expanse of rolling, open land and patchy woods. As is the case with most Civil War battlefields, Antietam is larger than one expects, so it’s a good idea not to try to see it all on foot. — AH

Fredericksburg Battlefield (Fredericksburg, Va.)
The picturesque town of Fredericksburg and its environs saw a number of major battles. Several of those sites are encompassed in a 5,644-acre park in Spotsylvania County. The National Park Service has set up a self-guided automobile tour that begins at Marye’s Heights, a key site in the first of the battles (Dec. 11-13, 1862). The best view is from the Fredericksburg National Cemetery on Marye’s Heights, which rises rapidly from Lafayette Boulevard in a series of gently terraced grave plots that lead to a high ridge studded with monuments to Union soldiers. — AH

Vicksburg National Military Park (On U.S. 80, at Vicksburg, Miss.)
Whoever controlled Vicksburg controlled the Mississippi. The goal of splitting the Confederacy and having a transportation link through the heart of the country brought thousands of Union troops to the city. The siege and bombardment lasted for 47 days before the July 4, 1863, surrender. Vicksburg National Military Park’s 1,858 acres of hills, woodlands, and high river bluffs are traversed by 16 miles of roadways lined with memorials. Horses still dash into battle, cannons stand sentinel, riflemen take aim, and soldiers bleed — their faces twisted in pain by artisans’ hands. — Mary Ann Wells

Gettysburg National Military Park (Gettysburg, Pa.)
The battle at Gettysburg (July 1-3, 1863) was the greatest of the war, and the little town around which General Lee’s and General Meade’s armies fought has turned the battle into a major industry. Gettysburg is easily the most commercialized Civil War battle site. If you’ve never been there, you should prepare for double-decker tour buses filled with people wearing headphones. Commercialization laps at the edges of the park, but it doesn’t spill in. The vast battlefield is especially moving and is worth the time required to see it on foot. — AH

Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park (Route 27, seven miles south of Chattanooga)
Chickamauga/Chattanooga was made the nation’s first military park in 1895, and it now contains 1,400 monuments and informational markers. Driving through the park and reading the tablets celebrating the derring-do of various platoons is not enough to give you the big picture. What makes Chickamauga a must-see is the large museum addition completed last summer, with its excellent collection of guns and superb multimedia exhibit explaining the battle. It’s an exemplary museum, with a sure sense of history and a canny awareness of how to convey it in the epoch of MTV. — TA

Appomattox Court House National Historical Park (Appomattox, Va., 21 miles east of Lynchburg on Route 24)
In early April 1865, Lee retreated westward from Richmond. He was boxed in by Union forces at Appomattox Court House, and on April 9, 1865, he surrendered to General Grant in the parlor of Wilmer McLean’s redbrick home. McLean had lived near Manassas during the First Battle of Manassas in 1861, during which his house had been used as a Confederate headquarters. During that fight, a Union artillery round had crashed into his dining room. He had moved to Appomattox Court House because its remoteness seemed to offer a chance to escape the war. It’s still off the beaten path, but well worth a visit. — AH

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