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National Battlefields in America: A Guide for Visitors

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An often forgotten part of America’s history are the many battlefields across it’s landscape. Fortunately, the National Park Service does an excellent job in preserving many of the national battlefields in America. They provide visitors an opportunity to dive deep into America’s history, both good and bad. Exploring this history requires visitors to both appreciate what took place on these lands and be respectful of those who lost their lives. While most national parks are in the west, the east coast gets a majority of the national battlefields and military parks in America. I’m going to explore eight of America’s best national military parks and battlefields, as well as guide how to visit any of these amazing parks.

Considerations When Visiting National Battlefields in America

There are a number of national battlefields across America. They serve as an integral reminder of how America got to where it is today. Visiting these hallowed grounds is both an enlightening and sobering experience. I’ve had the ability to visit a number of those on this list, as well as other similar sites across the country. One of the biggest thoughts to keep in mind is that these are places where people fought, and died, for their causes. It’s important to take a certain reverence for what happened across these fields, rivers, and forests. Always make sure that you are respectful when walking trails or visiting the different monuments erected in these places. Check out this post to learn more about respectful heritage tourism.

The first national battlefields in America were in Lexington and Concord where this statue stands
This statue stands at the head of the Lexington Battle Green

Another major consideration I’d encourage you to take is to learn their history before you arrive. Even a precursory search on Wikipedia can help give context to where you’ll be going. It can also go a long way to helping understand why a certain location became a major part of American history. The various visitor and interpretive centers will be packed full of history. However, you’ll be able to appreciate it more if you have an idea what went on around this moment in time. The national battlefields of America are a great way to learn about history, but they still only tell a small part of the story.

One final note about the list of battlefields you’ll read below. All but one of them are located east of the Mississippi. This isn’t to say that there aren’t notable sites west of this river (I’ll call out a few at the end of the post). However, many of those sites are ones where America’s lust for expansion caused a lot of harm and aren’t necessarily sites to be celebrated. While these places are worth visiting, I wanted to focus this post of more well known places key to America’s most foundational battles.

Antietam National Battlefield, Maryland

While many may consider Gettysburg to be the defining battle of the American Civil War, that’s usually because people simply forget (or didn’t learn) about Antietam. This national battlefield in America is the site of the single bloodiest day in American history. Nearly 23,000 soldiers were either killed, wounded, or missing after just 12-hours of combat. Pivotally, it also ended the first invasion of the north by the Confederacy. Had the south succeeded at Antietam, later battles like Gettysburg may have never even been necessary.

Antietam was the bloodiest single day at a national battlefield in America
Bloody Lane was fought over for hours. Photo courtesy of NPS.

Antietam National Battlefield remains one of the best preserved in America. When visiting you’ll still be able to see many of the existing structures from the battle. The aptly named Burnside Bridge stands as a reminder that crossing even small bodies of water is difficult. Just 500 Confederate soldiers prevented thousands of Union troops from crossing here. The Pry House Field Hospital Museum is another fantastic exhibit. You’ll get a chance to learn about field medicine during the period at a location actually used for it. There is also a national cemetery located at the park, to allow you to pay your respects to many of the Union soldiers who died in defense of their country.

The battlefield features a number of different ways to tour it. I’m always a big fan of auto tours, since many of these battlefields are quite large. Antietam’s auto tour is 8.5 miles and will allow you to quickly visit most of the major locations of the battle, including Bloody Lane. If you’ve got time to spend a whole day at the park, there is also plenty of hiking. Bloody Lane Trail will allow you to explore one of the key parts of the battle and surrounding area by foot. You can also walk the Cornfield Trail, which loops through the part of the battle which featured the highest casualties.

Antietam National Battlefield is a great place to visit and understand the history of America. It served as a pivotal battle of the American Civil War, yet it is often forgotten. The battlefield is only an hour from Washington, D.C, Baltimore, and Gettysburg, PA, so make sure to visit if you’re heading through this area.

Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park, Virginia

This military park features four distinct battlefields from the American Civil War. It serves to highlight the toll that the war took on this relatively small patch of ground in Virginia. These battlefields — Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, The Wilderness, and Spotsylvania — all took place during three separate years during the war. While the first two battles were resounding Confederate victories, the last two were the beginning of the end of the war. Together, these national battlefields mark some of the bloodiest ground in the American Civil War.

Chancellorsville at sunrise. Photo courtesy of NPS

When visiting the area, it’s best to spend at least an entire day exploring. All four parts of the parks feature well defined driving tours of the battlefields. These are the quickest way to see all four battlefields. For those who will be spending more time in the area, I’d recommend two days to dive deep into the history at these sites. The battlefields all features numerous trails for hiking, as well as monuments, museums and other exhibits. Throughout the year, there are also a number of special events taking place. One of the biggest is National Cemetery Illumination which takes place every Memorial Day Weekend.

The battlefields all surround the town of Fredericksburg. Be sure to spend some time exploring the downtown of this historic city. Places such as Chatham Manor and Mary Washington’s house tell the story of the area before and during the war. Fredericksburg also serves as a fantastic base from which to explore much of Virginia’s history. It’s located almost midway between Washington, D.C and Richmond.

Fort Necessity National Battlefield, Pennsylvania

The simple fortifications found at Fort Necessity hardly earn their designation as a fort. However, this site is perhaps one of the most pivotal national battlefields in America. This is the site where a young colonel named Washington would lead British troops against an attack by the French. The battle would be the first in a long war between the two sides that many consider the first truly “world war”. The ensuing conflict was known in America as the French and Indian War and is where this young George Washington would make a name for himself.

Fort Necessity is one of the oldest national battlefields in America
Fort Necessity wasn’t much, but it protected what it could

Fort Necessity National Battlefield today is a very simple location. The French burned the original palisade fort that was located here. It wasn’t until the 1950s that archaeological work being conducted in the area uncovered the original earth works. When visiting the site today, you’ll see the uncovered trenches as well as a reconstruction of the palisade Washington called Fort Necessity. What is most interesting about this site is that the nature around it remains largely the same. The tree lines where the French surrounded Washington are in the same locations. Its easy to imagine yourself a British soldier in the wilderness of America being rained and fired upon for hours by a largely unseen enemy.

Washington’s actual task was to create a road through this area to the Forks of the Ohio. Nearly 60 years later, Congress authorized the construction of the first National Road. It’s route passed along the same one Washington created then, leading travelers right by Fort Necessity. When you come to visit, make sure to also stop at Mount Washington Tavern (when open) which was built along the road. It’s a great place to take in some history as you road trip along the National Road.

Fort Sumter National Historical Park, South Carolina

Site of the first shots of the American Civil War, Fort Sumter is a fantastic place to start your journey to learning about the war. The fort was originally commissioned in response to the War of 1812 against Britain. It was initially planned to be one of the strongest and most technically impressive forts in America. However, construction was difficult and, by 1861, it remained incomplete. When Confederate artillery began firing upon the fort on April 12, it wouldn’t be long before the Union garrison surrendered.

The ruins of the fort tell the story of just how successful it was. Photo courtesy of NPS

Visitors to the fort will be required to take a ferry. Seeing as how the fort was built on an artificial island in the middle of Charleston Harbor, it can’t be accessed any other way. Once you reach the fort, its mostly wide open to explore. There are ranger led talks about the history of the Fort and battles which took place here. The fort itself was largely made a ruin between the two battles that were fought over its control.

Fort Sumter is key piece of the history of the city of Charleston as well. Charleston is an awesome city to visit in its own right. It has served as key player in the Colonial Era of South Carolina, the American Revolution, and Civil War. Much like Fredericksburg above, it’s a excellent place to explore the history of South Carolina from. You can also visit Fort Moultree which is an American Revolution era fort built along the harbor as well. So you can get more bang for your buck with two national battlefields in America by visiting Charleston.

Gettysburg National Military Park, Pennsylvania

Gettysburg is perhaps the most well known of the national battlefields in America. The Battle of Gettysburg decisively changed the direction of the war. The Confederate invasion of Pennsylvania was repulsed, the Union Army had captured the momentum, and the conclusion of the war seemed in sight if only distantly. Gettysburg would be the deadliest engagement of the entire war. With the battle having concluded on July 3rd, it is hard to escape the symbolism of what this battle meant for the nation.

Sunset at Gettysburg is a perfect time for reflection. Photo courtesy of NPS.

The first thing you should know about visiting Gettysburg is the sheer size of the battlefield. It stretches out over miles south of the town. Fortunately, like many of these parks, it features an auto tour. This is the best way to spend your day exploring the grounds of the park. There are also some areas of the battlefield which can be traversed by foot. Much of the grounds remain largely in the state they were in at the time of the battle. As you explore the battlefield, you’ll notice numerous monuments. Each of these monuments were erected in memory of those who fought and died here, paid for by the various states they represented.

The visitor center and museum are also star attractions here. The museum features a massive collection of Civil War artefacts. The story of the war, and in particular this battle, is told through these items. No visit to Gettysburg is complete without visiting the museum. I also highly recommend taking in the cyclorama painting. It’s a uniquely immersive way to experience a fraction of what the battle was like on those July afternoons. If you only visit one of these national battlefields in America, make it Gettysburg.

A canon restored after use at Gettysburg

Pearl Harbor National Memorial, Hawaii

This is the only national battlefield in America I included west of the Mississippi River. The significance of Pearl Harbor to both American and world history can’t be understated. Pearl Harbor was the beginning of America’s entry into World War II. It also galvanized much of the country’s response to the war effort. However, I highly encourage you to learn more about the societal outcomes of the attack before your visit to help you better understand the complexities of the war.

The USS Arizona Memorial is at the site of one of the few national battlefields in America where the US was attacked by a foreign force.
The USS Arizona lies just beneath the surface. Photo courtesy of NPS.

Pearl Harbor National Memorial serves to memorialize those who lost their lives in that attack. When planning your visit, keep in mind that you will need to make some reservations. The USS Arizona Memorial has a free, timed ferry ride to the site of the USS Arizona. The Ford Island Bus Tour will allow you to take a ranger guided tour to the USS Missouri and USS Oklahoma memorial sites. There are also two other fantastic museums at the memorial. Both the Pacific Fleet Submarine Museum and Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum are informative and tell the story of the war effort.

Minute Man National Historical Park, Massachusetts

While this isn’t the first national battlefield in the nation’s history, it might be one of the most important. Minute Man National Historical Park preserves the site of the “shot heard round the world”. From it’s grounds the first shots of the American Revolution were fired. The park follows the route of that very first battle fought on April 19th, 1775. While many of these parks feature were part of world changing moments, perhaps no other would play such a mythical role in the founding of a country.

This monument protects the site of the British soldiers who died at the North Bridge

The park is separated into a few different units. It’s best to visit and follow the route of the Battle Road to get an understanding of what that day was like. It can be a strange feeling to stand at one end of the North Bridge, where once the minutemen had lined up to face off against the redcoats. Take the opportunity to hike along the Battle Road Trail in order to experience the history of that day first hand.

One of the more interesting parts of this park is it’s preservation of American history in general. Homes such as The Old Manse and Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House, are preserved on the grounds of the park. The park also links the towns of Lexington and Concord as well. Both towns are chock full of history. It’s impossible to visit one of the great national battlefields in America, without also enjoying time in these two wonderful towns.

Saratoga National Historical Park, New York

The Battles of Saratoga were one of the most decisive moments in the American Revolution. For the first time in the war, the Americans were able to defeat the British Army. Not only did this serve to save New York from falling completely into the hands of the British, but it also had ripple effects felt across the world. France, nominally an American enemy just 15 years prior, recognized American independence after the battles. With French support, America was ultimately able to win the war and the rest is history.

Canon overlook the Hudson Valley below. Photo courtesy of NPS.

Of all the national battlefields in America featured on this list, Saratoga is the most bike friendly! In fact, it’s promoted as a fantastic way to explore the park. If you don’t quite have that kind of time, you can drive the tour road around the park on weekends. The park also features a guided audio tour, helping you to understand the different parts of the park you’ll be exploring. Be sure to head into Schuylerville, to visit the Saratoga Monument and Schuyler House as well.

Vicksburg National Military Park, Mississippi

The Siege of Vicksburg was a critical point in the Western Theater of the American Civil War. Yet, it is often forgotten by the public at-large despite its importance. What many people fail to realize is that while Robert E. Lee was losing the fight at Gettysburg, General Ulysses S. Grant was winning the Siege of Vicksburg. These two moments in history happened at the same time, signaling a great change in the history of the world.

Obelisk memorials, like this one at Vicksburg, can be found at national battlefields across America.
Monuments big and small are found all around the battlefield

Vicksburg is a battlefield that still features the scars created by those who fought there. With the city under siege by Union forces, both sides dug into trenches. On your tour around the battlefield of Vicksburg, these battle lines are still clearly seen in the terrain. You can stand atop hills or battlements carved into the earth. Imagine what it might have been like to charge the lines, fire raining down. The auto tour of Vicksburg runs directly along the Confederate and Union lines. Monuments stand where soldiers from the several states fought for their causes.

Another unique aspect of Vicksburg National Military Park is the recovered USS Cairo. This early “ironside” ship is one of the best preserved ships of the Civil War. Visitors to the park will be able to visit the ship, then drive to the top of the bluffs. From there you’ll be able to see where she would have fought, and been sunk, in the muddy waters of the Mississippi below. The city of Vicksburg was a vital port along the Mississippi, something that it remains even to this day. It’s a city full of history and culture that I highly recommend spending time in before or after your visit to the battlefield.

The interior of the USS Cairo

Resources to Learn More About America’s Battlefields

There is a wealth of resources to learn more about the various national battlefields across America. You can find a huge list of similar sites related to war or conflict on the NPS site. If you’re on the go, using the NPS App is one of my favorite tools to plan ahead! There is also the American Battlefield Protection Program Twitter account which posts lots of interesting facts and news about battlefield restoration efforts.

Another excellent resource for learning more is the American Battlefield Trust. They are dedicated to helping preserve battlefields across the country. In many cases they partner closely with NPS or other state organizations to purchase land for conservation. Their website also features a fantastic interactive map. You can use this map to explore battlefield locations across the US, and learn more about each location! It’s a wonderful learning tool, so I highly recommend checking them out.

Exploring Beyond National Battlefields in America

Battlefields aren’t the only military sites in America worth visiting. In fact, I think there is just as much to learn from the forts or other associated sites as the battlefields. Forts also have a habit of sticking around longer. For example, the Castillo de San Marcos and Fort Matanzas in St. Augustine, FL have both been around for hundreds of years. These are excellent examples of Spanish forts, re-used by the British and Americans during their history. Sites such as Ford’s Theater (where Lincoln was assassinated), Harper’s Ferry (John Brown’s famous raid), or the Presidio in San Francisco, have plenty of stories to tell us. There are also countless state parks, like Fort Clinch in Florida, dedicated to preserving our military history. Not to mention the countless national memorials in D.C to those who lost their lives fighting in wars.

It’s also important to understand that not every site you can visit is an example of how great America is. I encourage you to explore places like Little Bighorn National Monument, to understand the impact of American expansionism. Sites like the internment camp at Manzanar, highlight America at her worst. Others like Andersonville National Historical Site in Georgia show us that sometimes battlefields aren’t the deadliest places in war. In every case, it’s important to understand these sites before you visit them. Educate yourself on their history, because then you’ll be able to better appreciate what truly happened there.

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