The American Civil War is the most transformational event in the country’s history. Battlefields and historic sites decorate much of that US Southeast, some well preserved, others simply marked with a small monument, and others lost to obscurity. It is impossible to visit all of them.

Last year, my father and I were blown away visiting the battlefield at Shiloh, just north of Corinth, Mississippi. So this year, we wanted to experience more of the war sites. But which to see? Fortunately, geography, history, and fate combined to make three of the most important – if not THE three most important – Civil War sites within a single day’s drive.

Begin the day in Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia. Once a thriving industrial town at the juncture of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers, it is best known as the site of the abolitionist John Brown’s raid on a US armory there on October 16, 1859. His hope was to free local slaves and ultimately spark a slave uprising, thereby ending the scourge of slavery in the southern states. The raid ultimately failed to inspire anything, and John Brown himself was captured by US Colonel Robert E. Lee and hanged, but the event is said to be one of the sparks of the war.

John Brown’s Fort. The building is original, but the site was moved about 30 yards.

Today, Harper’s Ferry is well preserved, most of the downtown buildings having been turned into exhibits for Harper’s Ferry National Historical Park. On reasonably busy days you’ll need to park off-site and take a shuttle into the town, though the ride narrates a bit about the history of what used to be an important economic center before a series of floods left it a shell. The highlight is John Brown’s Fort, the building that Brown and his band barricaded themselves inside during the raid. Take some time, though, to explore the town. Harper’s Ferry changed hands eight times during the Civil War and was the site of the largest surrender of American troops (14,000) until the Bataan Peninsula in World War Two.

The church in Harper’s Ferry captivated me!

Those troops surrendered to Confederate General Stonewall Jackson on September 15, 1862, during the Confederate march north across the Potomac. Two days later, they and the rest of Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia met the largest Union army under General McClellan near the small town of Sharpsburg, Maryland, along Antietam Creek. It would prove to be the deadliest single day in a single location in American military history.

Antietam Battlefield is just a short drive north of Harper’s Ferry. Start your visit at the Visitors Center, where a short and powerful video will orient you to the battle, and its significance. In the fall of 1862, the Union badly needed a victory. Britain was close to recognizing the Confederacy, something that President Abraham Lincoln desperately wanted to avoid, as it would give the secession legitimacy it had lacked to this point. While the Union armies had made gains in the west, to the east they had suffered defeat after defeat. Another, especially here on northern soil, might be the last straw.

This man, outside the Antietam Visitors Center, was in complete era garb. Except for his phone.

As with other battlefields, Antietam has a self-guided driving tour that will take you chronologically through the major points of the battle. It is impossible to capture in words or pictures the feeling I got looking across The Cornfield, where more than 8,000 Americans were killed and wounded in a single hour. In all, there were 23,200 casualties here at Antietam in a single day. The Union held, forcing Lee’s retreat and causing Britain to not recognize the South, and the victory gave Lincoln the triggering point he had waited for to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, ending slavery in the United States.

The Cornfield. A Union corps charged across this field from the farmhouse in the background and were just mowed down by Confederate soldiers standing roughly where the photo was taken from.

For most Civil War enthusiasts, the most important battlefield to visit is the one at the small college town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, just a few hours from Antietam. Fought over three days, from July 1-3, 1863, this was the end of the South’s last thrust into northern territory, and really the end of the Confederacy, though the war would linger on. From this point, it was a matter of when, not if, the Union would emerge victorious.

Unlike Antietam and Shiloh, Gettysburg is normally crowded, and can get very crowded. It is more commercialized. The Visitors Center isn’t free, and the film is not worth the admission price. The battlefield, though, is every bit as incredible as Antietam. The Peach Orchard, Devil’s Den, Cemetery Ridge, Little Round Top, these places are all etched into the American consciousness and your self guided driving tour will see them all. The battle saw roughly 50,000 casualties, the most in American history.

The view from Little Round Top shows why it was so important. Terrain advantages like this are worth dying to hold on to.

Several months later, on November 19, President Lincoln visited the battlefield to dedicate the Gettysburg National Cemetery. He was not the day’s primary speaker, but 271 words later, the most famous oration in American history was complete:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us, that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion, that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Nothing can better sum up the feelings associated with such a place than Mr. Lincoln himself.

The Pennsylvania monument at Gettysburg

Together, these three sites represent arguably the three most important in the long and bloody American Civil War. While you may want to space them out a bit, all three can be seen in a single day. That is a pretty amazing – and meaningful – way to spend some time!

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