For the most part, the United States has been a relatively harmonious country. While we don’t always see eye to eye, things rarely come to blows to the point that the nation falls apart. But the one exception was the Civil War from 1861 to 1865. It’s the one time in U.S. history where the country was broken, and families and friends were, quite literally, pitted against each other. And to this day, many of the battlefields, houses, and buildings that served as critical backdrops for pivotal events are still around for you to see — including these three sites.
If you’re not a Civil War history buff, you might not know that the deadliest war in U.S. history began in South Carolina at Fort Sumter. The Charleston-based military outpost was the first fort seized by the newly formed Confederate States of America and their army. The fort was built in 1829 to serve as a coastal garrison for the critical shipping port. But many years later, it would be the starting point for the Civil War. Fort Sumter continued to serve as a Union base, even after South Carolina seceded in 1860.
However, on April 12, 1861, Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard led an assault on the fort after receiving word that President Abraham Lincoln intended to restock the fort with supplies and soldiers. The battle lasted for only a day and a half and led to the fort being surrendered to the Confederacy. It was the usurping nation’s first victory and sent a strong message to the Union that the Southerners shouldn’t be underestimated. Today, you can visit the fort, which is a National Monument, and learn about its storied history during one of the nation’s most contentious eras.
Gettysburg National Military Park
Even if you only have a passing understanding of the Civil War, most people know that the 1863 Battle of Gettysburg tops the list as the bloodiest battle in the war. The sleepy farmland in Pennsylvania was the scene of unprecedented carnage with heavy casualties on both sides. In previous wars and during this time, it was common for locals to take a picnic and watch the battles as they unfolded — from a safe distance of course. And since most of the Civil War battles occurred in the South, Northern gawkers had no idea what they were getting themselves into.
According to most historians and military experts, Gettysburg served as a turning point in the war where the Union gained and maintained the upper hand until its conclusion in 1865. It’s no secret that the Confederacy had better generals, many of whom graduated top of their class from military schools such as West Point. And on the whole, most of the battles up until this point in 1863 favored the Confederacy. But the Battle of Gettysburg saw General Robert E. Lee (one of the Confederacy’s best generals) face crushing defeat at the hands of Major General George G. Meade. The battle lasted three days between July first and third, and led to a total of 51,112 casualties with the Confederacy facing a slightly higher loss. Most importantly, the battle sent General Lee on the run and improved morale in the North.
Anyone who’s visited Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C., might be familiar with Arlington House, a structure that sits just off from the somber site that serves as a final resting place for our brave military members. But this National Monument is also known by a different name, the home of Robert E. Lee. While you can certainly go to the Arlington House and learn more about the life and times of Robert E. Lee and his campaign of reconciliation after the Civil War ended, that’s not quite as intriguing as the tale of comeuppance that we’re about to share.
By 1864, many of the cemeteries in the Washington D.C. area were at or reaching capacity because of the high casualties from the war. In an odd twist of fate, the Union had bought the land surrounding Robert E. Lee’s Arlington plantation in a public auction and also occupied his mansion as an outpost during the war. And oddly enough, they decided to begin burying their dead soldiers in the land surrounding Lee’s estate. Whether this is by design or convenience, no one will confirm. But imagine, if you will, the sobering reality Robert E. Lee would have faced for the rest of his life, looking out into the graveyard that he helped to create. However, he never did as after the war ended he opted not to fight to regain the title to his home or lands.