No matter how compelling a Ken Burns documentary can be, nothing beats standing on a Civil War battlefield for bearing witness to those four bloody years. Millions of Americans seek out that kind of visceral connection at Civil War sites annually, and the next few years are the time to visit as special events commemorate the conflict's 150th anniversary.
For play-by-play commentary on the battlefield, you can hire a National Park Service-licensed guide at Gettysburg or Vicksburg to ride along for two-hour car tours. Parks also typically offer self-guided tours and orientation films and, on summer weekends, invite re-enactors to stage skirmishes, decked out with muskets and wool uniforms.
You don't need to be a history buff to get caught up by these vivid stories. So whether you're planning a road trip dedicated to the Civil War or just detouring on the way elsewhere, be warned: You may be in for a lifelong obsession.
Don't let those Abe Lincoln bobbleheads or other gift shop kitsch distract you from the meaning of those three historic days in July 1863. Focus on the battle, the turning point of a war that had up until then been the Confederates' to win.
After a quick orientation at the Gettysburg National Military Park Museum and Visitor Center, set out with an NPS-licensed battlefield guide for a two-hour drive around the park (book in advance, $65). Such a historian will make vivid sense of all the advances and retreats, the personalities and the mayhem. The park frequently hosts "living history" weekends, when volunteers, in full costume, re-create skirmishes -- check the NPS site for the current calendar. Don't miss: The 250-year-old Fairfield Inn, eight miles to the west of the battlefield, re-creates a three-course meal eaten here by Robert E. Lee during a pause in the Confederate retreat from Gettysburg.
You won't find battlefields (unless Congress is in session), but Washington's vital role in the Civil War -- from the initial rupture of the Union to President Abraham Lincoln's assassination just five days after the surrender at Appomattox, Virginia -- still looms large.
First stop: the Lincoln Memorial, engraved with the texts of the Gettysburg Address and the 16th president's second inaugural speech. More than a mausoleum for Lincoln's ideals, the memorial continues to serve as a site for civil rights rallies. Ford's Theatre and Petersen House, sites of Lincoln's assassination and death, retain a more funereal hush. A less-visited but emotionally charged monument honors the United States Colored Troops and stands across the street from the African American Civil War Museum, which chronicles the war from the perspective of the African-American soldiers, spies, nurses and families. Don't miss: Lincoln's Cottage at the Soldiers' Home, where Lincoln and his family retreated each June through November. Though he commuted in to the Oval Office daily -- past encamped Union troops, field hospitals and cemeteries -- Lincoln felt most at home here, four miles from the White House.
"The slain lay in rows precisely as they had stood in their ranks a few moments before. It was never my fortune to witness a more bloody, dismal battlefield," wrote Major Gen. Joseph Hooker. In 12 hours, 23,000 soldiers were killed, wounded or missing in the Battle of Antietam, making that September day in 1862 the bloodiest in U.S. history.
Devastating casualties and the nighttime retreat of Lee's Army of Northern Virginia back across the Potomac spurred Lincoln to write the initial Emancipation Proclamation. Pick up a map for a self-guided driving tour of the battlefield and be sure to climb the observation tower for an overview of the 8.5-mile site.
Don't miss: Pry House, a medical museum on the park grounds, merits a visit for its chilling look at battlefield medicine (when supplies ran low, field surgeons bound wounds with corn husks). And Clara Barton was here.
Harpers Ferry, West Virginia
In 1859, two years before the war, John Brown, the righteous, Bible-thumping, angry and awesome abolitionist, raided the federal arsenal in Harpers Ferry, attempting to rouse a slave rebellion and the conscience of the nation.
He failed to incite revolt, but arguably hastened the path to war. Harpers Ferry changed hands eight times, a sought-after prize for its strategic position at the convergence of the Potomac and the Shenandoah rivers (providing passage from the east to the Shenandoah Valley).
John Brown's Fort, which was a firehouse occupied by Brown's raiders, was the scene of several skirmishes, including a three-pronged siege by Stonewall Jackson that captured more than 12,000 Union soldiers garrisoned here -- immediately preceding the Battle of Antietam, up the road in Sharpsburg.
Don't miss: The extraordinary natural beauty. Hike the two-mile Cliff Trail loop from the Visitor's Center up past Jefferson Rock. In warm weather, float downstream in an inner tube for a cool perspective.
Richmond's rich and accessible Civil War history surpasses that of any other city. While the Southern white history of the Civil War has always been well-preserved in the heroic statues along Monument Avenue and in institutions like the White House and Museum of the Confederacy, the city has recently taken pains to better document the African-American experience, most significantly with the Slave Trail.
The walking tour includes the sites of slave markets, the notorious Lumpkin's Slave Jail (called the Devil's Half-Acre for its brutal treatment of inmates), the still-active farmers' market at Shockoe Bottom and streets where a visiting Lincoln was met by hundreds of cheering freed slaves.
Stop at the American Civil War Center in the former Tredegar Iron Works, which clad Confederate ships and forged artillery. A nearby pedestrian bridge crosses the James River to eerie Belle Isle, site of a prison where captured Union soldiers were held. Don't miss: Hollywood Cemetery is the final resting place of American presidents (James Monroe and John Tyler) and Civil War luminaries Jefferson Davis, George Pickett and J.E.B. Stuart. A rough-hewn pyramid marks the graves of unknown Confederate soldiers.
The battlefield is now a quiet rolling landscape beside the Tennessee River, but landmarks named during those clashes (Hornet's Nest, the Bloody Pond) evoke the soldiers' experience -- so profound that much of the acreage was donated by veteran groups, both Northern and Southern, who bought land and erected monuments to fallen comrades.
After a 12-mile car tour, trace the path of the Confederates' retreat to Corinth Crossroads, 22 miles south of Shiloh in Mississippi. The railroad crossroads was the junction of north/south railroads and east/west railroads, so whichever army held the town controlled troop and artillery movement along the rails.
The desire for control drove both sides to the battle of Shiloh.
Don't miss: Hagy's Catfish Hotel, a glorified fish shack near the Shiloh park, is worth a stop for a meal overlooking the river.
Mobile Bay, Alabama
A Confederate admiral hailing from the North faces a navy led by a Union admiral born in Tennessee and raised in New Orleans.
This unlikely scenario played out in 1864 in Mobile Bay, the only Gulf Coast port still controlled by the Confederates, which provided Southern troops with supplies via railroad from Mobile.
Adm. David Farragut used four new ironclad ships to lead his attack through the straits between fortresses on Dauphin Island and Mobile Point -- and followed with 14 wooden ships, lashed in pairs so that if one got hit, it would not be lost.
You can stand at the preserved ruins of Fort Morgan for views of the bay and take the 40-minute scenic ferry trip across to tour Dauphin Island's Fort Gaines. Another Confederate defense, the fort has self-guided tours, a blacksmith demonstration several days a week (in season) and a rather astounding 10-man latrine. Don't miss: Dauphin Island Sea Lab and Estuarium, a marine research lab, seemingly offers tours as an afterthought, but the information about the ecology of these barrier islands is fascinating and worth the short hop from Fort Gaines.
The beautiful farmland around Fredericksburg seemed especially attractive during the war because of the city's position midway between D.C. and the Confederate capital of Richmond.
Walk the trail at Marye's Heights, where Confederate infantry, shielded by a 4-foot-high stone wall, mowed down wave upon wave of assailants, leaving 9,000 Union dead before Gen. Ambrose Burnside gave the order to retreat. Salem Church, surrounded by decidedly nonhistorical development, is a satellite of the national park.
The Wilderness Battlefield, where the armies met in the overgrown and gnarled woods, is now mostly manicured, but peaceful paths are punctuated by historic markers and still surrounded by dense thickets.
Don't miss: A macabre side trip to Ellwood Farm, where Stonewall Jackson's amputated arm is buried in its own marked grave (open weekends, 11 a.m.-5 p.m.; on weekdays, pick up a pass at the Chancellorsville Visitor Center).
Jackson was famously shot by his own troops when returning from a reconnaissance trip at dusk. His wounded arm was amputated, and Jackson lived for another eight days before succumbing to pneumonia.
Vicksburg was not just the location of individual battles but also endured a painful 47-day siege. Pemberton's Headquarters (1018 Crawford St.) and the Old Court House Museum reflect the town's wealthy antebellum period as well as wartime life. The low-key museum is a treasure trove of artifacts, costumes and fascinating historic photography (formally attired citizens pose outside cave-bunkers carved into hills during the siege).
The military park can be walked or hiked, but the preferred method is driving the 20-mile loop with frequent stops.
The on-site USS Cairo Museum is named for a federal ironclad ship that sank during the siege and was preserved in the Mississippi silt and mud until being dredged up and restored 100 years later. A visit makes it clear why these monitor ships, with angled defenses to deflect shelling and the ability to carry heavy artillery, changed naval warfare forever. (For grim novelty, look to Cedar Hill Cemetery: find the grave marker of a camel kept as a mascot by Mississippi infantrymen and, sadly, killed in action.) Don't miss: At Rusty's Riverfront Grill (901 Washington St.; 601-638-2030), a little time off from somber history really hits the spot. Order the po' boys (oyster or shrimp) and fried green tomatoes, and grab a table with a view of the levee and river to watch the ships go by.
Petersburg and Appomattox, Virginia
At Petersburg National Battlefield, the horrors of the nine-month-long siege can be seen in the field as well as in the reproduction of a massive cannon, known as the Dictator.
As Union troops lobbed shells into Petersburg, Pennsylvania soldiers who'd been miners before the war dug a tunnel beneath the Confederate defenses, packed its end with four tons of gunpowder, and blew it sky high. Union troops made the error of charging into the resulting crater and were fired upon from above until they surrendered.
In spite of this tragic gaffe, the Union drove the Confederates from the city, and Robert E. Lee's army began a retreat west.
Follow that route from Petersburg to Appomattox by driving to Appomattox Court House National Park. Lee surrendered here at the reconstructed McLean House (the original structure, which had withstood the long war, met its demise, piece by piece, at the hands of souvenir hunters).
Wander the charmingly restored village -- costumed actors portray citizens of the era during the summer -- and imagine the relief of an end to the war at last.
Don't miss: Poplar Forest, Thomas Jefferson's escape from the crowds that visited Monticello after his presidency. The hilltop octagonal house is still in the last stages of restoration, and frequent programs allow visitors to participate in the archaeological process.
Chickamauga, Georgia, and Chattanooga, Tennessee
After an almost six-month standoff, the Federal Army was badly routed at Chickamauga in September 1863 and retreated to nearby Chattanooga.
The Confederates promptly cut off most supply lines, took positions on the surrounding high ground, and began to shell the city mercilessly. While little evidence of fighting remains, the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park, which spans nearly 10,000 acres, offers prime vantage points for understanding the long campaign.
Begin at Lookout Mountain, from where the Rebels lobbed shells at the city and up which the Union soldiers stormed to regain control. Historic markers indicate where the armies changed positions and tormented each other along the Tennessee River. Drive along the crest of Missionary Ridge, where a critical battle was fought, for another view.
At the national military park's Chickamauga unit, you'll find an actual battlefield instead of urban sprawl, plus an excellent, recently refurbished Visitor Center.
Don't miss: If you like your cocktails and fried chicken in motel bars with old-school R&B, Christmas lights and velvet wallpaper, Lamar's (1018 East Martin Luther King Blvd.; 423-266-0988) is the place for you. Seriously worth it.
Andersonville, Macon County, Georgia
Brutal death wasn't limited to the battlefields. Of the 45,000 Union soldiers incarcerated at the notorious Andersonville Prison during its 14-month existence, nearly 13,000 died. Disease and infections were easy to come by in the overcrowded stockade, with its open sewers, little or no medical care and limited rations. Andersonville National Historic Site recalls not only the misery of those soldiers but, through the powerful design of the National Prisoner of War Museum, the suffering of all U.S. POWs.
The National Cemetery beside the park's entrance has rows of white headstones standing at attention, their order broken by state monuments. Two reconstructed walls of the stockade with posts (and a roadway) mark the 26-acre perimeter of the prison itself. A chilling place to visit, but vital too.
Don't miss: Southwestern Georgia is known for peanuts (Jimmy Carter, peanut farmer and president, hails from nearby Plains) and for barbecue. Pull over for a sample at one of the boiled-peanut roadside shacks, and if you're staying in Columbus, seek out Country's Barbecue.