Fort Sumter in South Carolina is a good example of how times change in historical commemoration. Just as surely as the Confederate bombardment of the Union fort marked the start of that war on April 12, 1861, the calendar marked Sumter’s position at the leading edge of Civil War centennial commemorations in 1961 and the sesquicentennial in 2011. And that most recent, 150th anniversary provided new opportunities for South Carolina, and the rest of the country, to reconsider the relationship between the catastrophic clash between North and South and the institution of slavery that propelled that clash.
The last time I visited Gettysburg the ranger who was giving the tour of the National Military Cemetery there decided to do something a bit different. He wanted to take us to what scholars now think was the actual spot at which President Abraham Lincoln gave the Gettysburg Address on November 19, 1863. That spot is in a public cemetery still used for funerals, and enclosed by a black iron fence with a gate that normally is locked. But that day the gate was open, so the ranger decided to take us in, even though it wasn’t a normal part of the tour.
I wanted to say something about Appomattox Court House, but that also brings up the strange tale of Wilmer McLean. One of the most amazing things I learned when, as a new American, I started investigating the history of the Civil War was the story of Mr. McLean. He supposedly often told people that the American Civil War started in his front yard and ended in his front parlor. And in a sense, he was right.
Antietam is one of those scenic sites that can be so darned beautiful, especially when the weather’s pleasant, that it’s hard to fathom the horrors that ensued here 151 years ago. And it was an absolutely gorgeous afternoon when we visited the park in May 2010.
On October 16, 1970, Congress established as a National Historic Site one of the most notorious locations of the Civil War: Andersonville Prison, in Macon County, Georgia. Originally known as Camp Sumter, this site of a little over 16 acres, surrounded by a 15-foot high stockade (part of which has been reconstructed), was ready for use by February 1864. Between that time and the camp’s liberation in May 1865 it was to hold 45,000 Union men; approximately 13,000 of those men died in captivity.
If you live in or around Washington, DC, or are just visiting, and you’re looking for a real civil war battlefield that’s easy to get to, Manassas is the way to go. It’s got not one but two battle sites. Both of these battles were bloody affairs. Both were Confederate victories. Both are remembered for putting a real dent in Union morale, at a site within an easy ride of the nation’s capital.
Richmond, Virginia was the capital of the Confederacy for most of the duration of the Civil War. The city today has a number of sites to commemorate that conflagration. Down on Richmond’s riverfront is a National Park Service site that includes what for my money is one of the better (private) interpretive museums I’ve seen.