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On Memorial Day, Americans honor those who have died in the service of their country. It’s a day of remembrance and reflection, when many decorate the graves of fallen servicemen and women. Nobody’s too sure where or when Memorial Day officially began, but everyone seems to agree it was sometime either during or shortly after the Civil War era. By the 1870s, what was then called “Decoration Day” was being celebrated in both the northern and southern states and became officially recognized as “Memorial Day” in 1967.
There are a host of well-known Civil War battlefields and historic monuments that thousands of people visit every year. Places like Gettysburg National Military Park, the Vicksburg Battlefield, and Fort Sumter where the first shot was fired. There are dozens of other battlefields well worth a visit, however, and while they may be less well known, the stories they tell are equally compelling.
Here are five suggestions of places in five different states that you can check out on Memorial Day if you’re looking to explore the deadly conflict that led to the consolidation of the United States.
Petersburg National Battlefield – Virginia
Petersburg is 25 miles south of Richmond and was an important town in the supply chain that supported the Confederate capital. Because General Grant and the Union army couldn’t take Richmond by force, they laid siege to Petersburg to stop the flow of goods to the city. The siege lasted almost 10 months until General Lee was finally forced to abandon Petersburg on April 2nd, 1865, just a week before the end of the war. You can visit the earthworks constructed by the troops, tour the museum, and hike or bike numerous trails and walkways with outdoor exhibits and explanatory markers.
Harpers Ferry – West Virginia
Many visitors flock to see the Antietam battlefields in Sharpsburg, but just down the road is a town that changed hands between Union and Confederate forces eight times over the course of the war. Harpers Ferry is at the meeting point between the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers and was a strategic prize hotly contested by both sides. It’s a gorgeous town with hiking trails, museums, and an excellent Visitor Center.
Wilson’s Creek – Missouri
The first major battle to be fought west of the Mississippi occurred at Wilson’s Creek on August 10, 1861. It was also where the first Union general was killed as the 12,000 Southern troops decimated the Union forces. Many soldiers who lost their lives in the battle are buried at the Springfield National Cemetery, a worthy place to pay your respects after touring the site of the conflict and adjoining museum.
Kennesaw Mountain – Georgia
This battleground saw action in the summer of 1864 as part of the “Atlanta Campaign” when General Grant sent Sherman’s troops from Chattanooga into Georgia. Confederate General Joseph E. Johnson was forced to retreat into Atlanta after a series of battles, despite forcing a rare Union defeat at Kennesaw Mountain. Sherman lost over 3,000 men here and you can both hike through 22 miles of interpretive trails and stop in for a tour of the museum.
Stones River – Tennessee
By the end of 1862, the war had been raging for almost two years and the Union forces desperately needed a win. The day after Christmas, Union troops began marching towards Murfreesboro where Confederate forces were guarding the way into Chattanooga. The Southern army attacked at dawn on December 31st with the goal of pushing the Union soldiers back to Stones Creek. By the end of the day, both sides had suffered massive losses in the “Slaughter Pen” but the fighting continued on for several more days. Over 3,000 men were killed and another 16,000 wounded in one of the bloodiest battles of the war.
Over 750,000 soldiers lost their lives in the Civil War but in the aftermath of America’s bloodiest conflict, over 4 million slaves found freedom. On Memorial Day, why not spend some time on one of the many battlefields scattered throughout the 23 states that were involved in the struggle. They all have a story to tell any visitor who takes the time to listen.