Seven Western Theater Sites That Are Well Worth the Visit
As a historian, I'm always excited when my family and I pack up our bags and take a road trip to historical battlefields and sites across the Western Theater. While some people (yep, I'm referencing my older sister!) fail to realize the significance of such places, I--along with fellow history enthusiasts--understand that these battlefields and Civil War sites are much more than just vast fields and old buildings. Many sites across the Western Theater are where America's destiny was forged, often resulting in bloodshed from thousands of soldiers who perished for a cause they believed in. While there are hundreds of noteworthy and visit-worthy sites across America, here are seven historic places I've visited that I believe are well worth the travel time!
1. Andersonville National Historic Site - Georgia
Located in southwest Georgia, Andersonville (officially named Camp Sumter) was a Southern prisoner of war camp that held Union prisoners from February 1864 to April 1865. The conditions of Andersonville were notoriously poor (soldiers were starved, disease was rampant, etc.), and thousands of prisoners died during the time that the prison ran. Visitors of Andersonville National Historic Site will have the opportunity to view the vast museum (which includes an informational video, prisoner of war artifacts from a variety of eras, and more), replicated scenes of Andersonville (like the stockade pictured left), Providence Spring, escape tunnels, the National Cemetery, and more. Above Photo Credit: Kass Cobb
Andersonville National Historic Site Visit Tips:
Be sure to pack sunscreen and bug spray if you plan on walking the prison grounds!
If you prefer touring historic sites in a secluded setting, make certain to plan your visit around times when there are fewer Andersonville tourists (in May, there were school groups that toured the prison grounds).
If you have some extra time, stop by Plains, Georgia, home of 39th U.S. President, Jimmy Carter. The town is quaint, and be sure to visit Plain Peanuts for some amazing peanut butter ice cream!
2. Chickamauga Battlefield - Georgia
The Battle of Chickamauga was fought September 1863. Today, the Chickamauga Battlefield is a well-preserved piece of Civil War history. Visitors to the park can spend a long time viewing Chickamauga Battlefield's visitor center, where hundred of guns from the Fuller Gun Collection are housed. In addition, visitors should stop by the Wilder Brigade Monument (pictured left), which stands over 85 feet tall and overlooks the portion of the battlefield where John Wilder's "Lighting Brigade" was engaged. Above Photo Credit: Kass Cobb
Chickamauga Battlefield Visit Tips:
Plan to spend a few hours at Chickamauga, as the museum has a vast gun collection that's impressive and could take a while to tour (my family and I were on a tight schedule when visiting Chickamauga, and our visit was, sadly, a bit rushed!).
Like with all battlefields, be sure to pack bug spray and sunscreen!
Perhaps plan to pack a picnic lunch, as there are designated picnic areas.
Be sure to schedule time to trek to the top of the Wilder Brigade Monument--there was a magnificent view of the battlefield from atop the over 85-foot structure!
3. Fort Donelson - Kentucky & Tennessee
Fort Donelson, where a battle erupted in February 1862, is a historically significant site that spans into both Kentucky and Tennessee. While the battlefield is a bit broken up because of a modern road, it is still enjoyable to visit. The Confederate river batteries (pictured left) overlook the Cumberland River, a peaceful portion of the battlefield for tourists to visit. In addition, visitors should be sure to stop by the Dover Hotel (middle), where the surrender between Generals Grant and Buckner took place. Stop by the National Cemetery, too, to pay respects to those who lost their lives at Fort Donelson. Above Photo Credit: National Park Service Staff
Fort Donelson Visit Tips:
Be prepared to drive around the battlefield, as modern roads have broken up the battlefield, causing it to be split into different areas.
The Dover Hotel has a small exhibit on the inside, which is open from 8:00 a.m to 4:15 p.m. (depending on staffing and inclement weather). The Dover Hotel was one of my favorite parts of Fort Donelson, so be sure that you allot time to visit the hotel!
Be sure to pack bug spray, sunscreen, and maybe even a picnic that you can enjoy while overlooking the Cumberland River.
4. Fort Pickens - Florida
Located in Pensacola, Florida, Fort Pickens was built before the Civil War to defend against foreign attack. During the Civil War, however, it was one of the few forts that was held by the Union in the South for the remainder of the war. In fact, Fort Pickens held some Confederate prisoners during the war, and--after the war--was used as a prison for Geronimo and some of his Apache warriors. Today, visitors of the park can view the cannons and even climb the stairs to tour the top of the fort for a glimpse of the Gulf of Mexico (pictured middle). Additionally, tourists can even walk through the old prison cells and have fairly free access throughout Fort Pickens. Above Photo Credit: Kass Cobb
Fort Pickens Visit Tips:
Fort Pickens is located inside Gulf Islands National Park, so there is a small fee per car to enter the park and view the fort. Once inside Fort Pickens, however, the cost is well worth it!
Pack bug spray/sunscreen to use while touring the park.
The park is a bit difficult to navigate (like finding the museum), so be sure to arrive quite some time before Fort Pickens closes to ensure that you have plenty of time to visit the fort and view the museum featuring both historical information and nature information.
5. Sacramento - Kentucky
Fought on December 28, 1861, in McLean County, Kentucky, the battle (or, more accurately, the skirmish) of Sacramento would have been the engagement where many soldiers first witnessed combat. To commemorate the battle, a Battle of Sacramento reenactment is typically held each year in May. Visitors of the reenactment can stroll through sutlers' booths, attend a ball after the battle, and--of course--watch the reenactment (pictured middle). In addition, the historic house (pictured right) is open for tours during the reenactment and is staged with relics from the Victorian Era. If you're not going to be visiting Sacramento for the reenactment, consider stopping by to view the outside of the house and the monument dedicated to the soldiers' who fell in the fight for Sacramento. Above Photo Credit: Battle of Sacramento Facebook page (for inside of house and reenactment photo) and Kentucky Travels.
Battle of Sacramento Visit Tips:
If you want to tour the inside of the historic house, consider contacting the Battle of Sacramento's Facebook page to see if it would be possible for the home to be opened.
To receive up-to-date news about the battle reenactment, like/follow the Battle of Sacramento on Facebook.
If you're attending the reenactment at Sacramento, there is a small per-person entry fee (your entrance button would be good for all 3 days of the reenactment, though!).
If you're around Sacramento, consider stopping by Camp Calhoun Cemetery in the nearby town of Calhoun. Camp Calhoun was a camp used by numerous Union regiments during the Civil War, and many soldiers who perished in camp are interred there.
6. Shiloh National Military Park - Tennessee
The Battle of Shiloh was fought April 6-7, 1862. Founded in 1894, Shiloh National Military Park is an exceptionally well-preserved battlefield (though I may be biased, having 3 grandfathers who fought in the battle!). Visitors to the park can enjoy strolling through a museum and watching the documentary, "Shiloh: Fiery Trial." In addition, tourists can walk through the massive, over 4,000 grave National Cemetery (pictured left) and purchase Shiloh-themed merchandise and books from the Shiloh gift shop. Trails and informational signs--along with monuments from multiple states--help visitors have an enjoyable, educational time. For those interested in Native American history, there's even an area with Native American mounds that overlook the Tennessee River--a must-see! Above Photo Credit: Kass Cobb
Shiloh National Military Park Visit Tips:
If you're planning on viewing "Shiloh: Fiery Trial," allot about 50 minutes to watch the documentary.
Be sure to pick up a map of the battle grounds, as there's a lot to see on the 5,000-acre battlefield.
Pack bug spray/sunscreen and watch for snakes if you're touring Shiloh in spring, summer, or fall!
7. Stones River National Battlefield - Tennessee
The Battle of Stones River was fought December 31, 1862, and ended January 2, 1863. Visitors to the park today will find a pristine National Cemetery (pictured right and left), along with beautiful split-rail fences with cannons on the field (pictured middle). In addition, tourists should stop by the Slaughter Pen, where they can see large rocks that made a sort of trench-like formation--this natural trench, however, proved deadly to soldiers at Stones River. Visitors should also allot time to stop by the Hazen Brigade Monument...the oldest Civil War monument that still stands right where it was erected--in 1863--on the battlefield. Above Photo Credit: Kass Cobb
Stones River National Battlefield Visit Tips:
The National Cemetery is in a different location than other parts of the battlefield, so be sure to grab a map from the visitors center to ensure you see all major parts of the park.
Allot enough time that you can tour the museum and watch the brief documentary at the visitors center.
Pack bug spray and sunscreen, plus be sure to watch for snakes--especially in the Slaughter Pen!
Whether it's a fun day trip or a whole battlefield/historical vacation, I hope you'll enjoy visiting these battlefields and historic sites as much as I did! Remember--before traveling, be certain that you check in with the parks to ensure that the battlefield is open on the day you plan to tour the grounds. In the words of Abraham Lincoln, "The mystic cords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the angels of our nature."
About the Author: Kass Cobb is a genealogist, history enthusiast, and college sophomore who plans to double-major in history and military history. Kass first became obsessed with history in eighth grade through a unit on the American Civil War. She began researching her family's heritage and discovered that she is a direct descendant of eight Civil War veterans. Since then, Kass has desired to share the stories of United States veterans. One of the ways she does this is by obtaining grave markers for veterans. When Kass isn't busy planning historical events for her community, placing signs at cemeteries, or researching her family's past, you'll find her antique collecting, reading, singing, and enjoying nature with her many pets.