5 Underrated Civil War Sites Worth a Visit

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The Civil War featured many historic battles whose names need no introduction. Gettysburg. Chickamauga. Antietam. Manassas. Shiloh. Those battles have been commemorated in books and movies, and the sites now draw hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. Beyond that, there were a number of other battles and events that played a crucial role in the war, but they don’t have the name recognition or popularity of the aforementioned sites. Here’s a look at some historic sites or exhibits that are often overlooked by casual Civil War travelers.


5. Fort Donelson National Battlefield

The Union's capture of Fort Donelson turned the course of the Civil War in Tennessee.

Part of Fort Donelson’s battery, overlooking the Cumberland River.

This might have been the most obscure major battle in the Civil War. Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, who orchestrated this critical Union victory on the Cumberland River Confederate fort, wrote after the February 1862 battle that, “Fort Donelson will hereafter be marked on the maps of our United Country.” The significance of this Union victory can’t be overstated. It guaranteed that border state Kentucky would stay in the Union, and it soon led to the fall of Nashville. This is also the battle that started the rise of U.S. Grant to leadership of the Union Army, with a new nickname, “Unconditional Surrender” Grant, after he sent a note to the Confederate leader noting that, “No terms except unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted.” Today, Fort Donelson National Battlefield features both driving and walking tours, a national cemetery, and a visitor center. You could easily work this site into your travel itinerary during a visit to the Nashville area, about 80 miles southeast.


4. Andersonville National Historic Site

Some 13,000 Union prisoners perished in Andersonville.

Andersonville National Cemetery; Jud McCranie

The Camp Sumter prison camp in Andersonville, Georgia, featured conditions that were barbaric even by POW camp standards. The lack of fresh water and food, and unsanitary conditions were bad enough, but prisoners also had to contend with predatory fellow prisoners as well as brutal guards. Of the 45,000 Union prisoners sent to Andersonville, 13,000 died. Given the camp’s brutal history, Congress designated the historic site to stand as a memorial to all American POWs. The site itself, located about 150 miles south of Atlanta, features a National Prisoner of War museum that includes exhibits such as a replica of a “Hanoi Hilton” cell much like the cells in which American POWs were held in Vietnam. There is also a national cemetery, honoring those lost during the Civil War as well as recent veterans who chose burial there. You might not want to drive all the way to the middle of Georgia to see this camp, but other nearby historic sites include Jimmy Carter’s hometown of Plains, Georgia, and the Jimmy Carter National Historic Site, along with the Museum of Aviation in Warner Robins.


3. Stones River National Battlefield

Stones River was one of the bloodiest conflicts in the Civil War.

An artillery demonstration at Stones River; National Park Service/Jim Lewis

According to some accounts, this battle near Murfreesboro, Tennessee, boasted the highest percentage of attrition, including both deaths and injuries, of any conflict in the war. Almost 3,000 men died in the battle that began New Year’s Eve 1862 and concluded two days later in a Union victory. Today, the site features a national cemetery, visitor center/museum, and regular artillery demonstrations. In addition to ranger-guided tours, both on foot and by bike, you can set off on your own on more than 7 miles of hiking trails, which connect with Murfreesboro’s trails along the Stones River.


2. Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park

Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park is popular with local residents.

Artillery position at Kennesaw Mountain; Mike Reichold

Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park hosted some 1.75 million visitors in 2011. By contrast, Gettysburg National Military Park, the Holy Grail of Civil War sites, drew only 1.1 million. That’s certainly not any indication of Kennesaw’s relative importance in the war; in the June 1864 Battle of Kennesaw Mountain, Confederate forces actually prevailed, allowing the Confederacy to hold the vital city of Atlanta only a few more weeks. The park’s visitor count is no doubt boosted by its location just 25 miles northwest of Atlanta, and many fitness-minded residents from nearby Marietta visit to jog or walk the park’s 18 miles of interpretive trails. The area’s remoteness has also made it popular with birdwatchers


1. National Civil War Museum

The National Civil War Museum in Harrisburg would be a good stop on your trip to Gettysburg.

The Moment of Mercy statue at the National Civil War Museum.

Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, might seem an unlikely place for a Civil War museum, which is what critics told city mayor Stephen Reed when he proposed the museum. But the Civil War buff was not deterred. The facility in the city’s Reservoir Park features thousands of Civil War artifacts as well as photos and archival material and is now an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution. The museum’s mission statement notes its exhibits are “Equally balanced presentations … without bias to Union or Confederate causes.” Featured exhibits have featured the expected, such as “Harrisburg’s Role in the Battle of Gettysburg” as well as the offbeat — “Among Soldiers: Animals in the Ranks of the Civil War.” This is a good site to take in on your visit to Gettysburg National Military Park about 40 miles away.


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