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Somber Reminders at Civil War Sites

Though the Civil War happened more than 150 years ago, echoes of it still resonate at sacred places around the country.

These tumultuous battles were waged for four years, in the end causing the deaths of approximately 620,000 soldiers due to combat, disease, and starvation, mostly along the East Coast and in the Southern states.

Today, numerous historic Civil War sites remain, each offering unique perspectives and remembrances into the shaping of our nation.

Arlington National Cemetery

  Arlington, Virginia

Set high on a hill with spectacular views of Washington, D.C., and the surrounding region is the most widely recognized cemetery in the world: Arlington National Cemetery.

What most people don’t know is that it is located in Arlington, a thriving community encompassing 26 square miles, making it the smallest independent county in the country.

The land once belonged to George Washington Park Custis, grandson of Martha Washington and stepson of President George Washington. Custis’ daughter Mary and her husband, Gen. Robert E. Lee, lived in a mansion here called Arlington House; the couple relinquished it to federal troops at the commencement of the war, and it was transformed into a headquarters and camp. To help accommodate the rapidly rising number of Civil War soldier fatalities, some 200 acres of the property was set aside as a military cemetery.

Today, Arlington National Cemetery is the final resting place for more than 400,000 former active duty service members, veterans and their families. The 3 million visitors a year here can take hop-on/hop-off interpretive tram tours that stop at various sites around the 624-acre grounds. These include the Eternal Flame at the President John F. Kennedy Gravesite, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the Space Shuttle Columbia Memorial, the Women in Military Service for America Memorial, the Chaplains Hill and Monuments, and the McClellan Gate, among almost three dozen monuments and memorials.

According to Cara O’Donnell, public relations manager of the Arlington Convention and Visitors Service, Arlington National Cemetery holds great significance to the black community.

“During the Civil War, a Freedman’s Village was set up on the grounds to help slaves transitioning into free citizens,” she said. That parcel is no longer part of the cemetery, but it is still an active African-American neighborhood called Nauck. “That is a big part of the cemetery and what it stood for.”

Other noteworthy Arlington County historic sites are the Air Force Memorial, the U.S. Marine Corps Memorial commemorating the conflict at Iwo Jima during World War II and the National 9/11 Pentagon Memorial.

Antietam National Battlefield

Sharpsburg, Maryland

Located in Maryland 70 miles west of both Baltimore and Washington, Antietam National Battlefield is recognized as the site of the bloodiest day in American history. It was here, on September 17, 1862, that an unprecedented 23,000 soldiers were killed or wounded.

“The intensity of this battle is unmatched,” said Daniel Spedden, president of the Hagerstown/Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Visitors come here and see the [Visitor Center] introductory film, the monuments, the 23,000 casualties in a single day and the towns burned to the ground as the war raged back and forth. To wrap your head around that is amazing.”

Situated in a valley with 3,500 acres of beautiful rolling hills and countryside, Antietam is also documented as one of the nation’s best preserved battlegrounds. Impressive sites include 96 monuments erected in memoriam to states, regiments, war correspondents and six generals who died here.

Perhaps a bright note on all the bloodshed could be that Clara Harlowe Barton performed the first charitable acts of soldier care here, leading to the founding of the American Red Cross.

Nearby Civil War sites include South Mountain State Battlefield in Middletown, the first battle of the war fought in Maryland and a prelude to Antietam, and the National Museum of Civil War Medicine in Frederick, which features exhibits encompassing more than 1,200 artifacts covering Civil War medical innovation. You can also embark upon a Sharpsburg Tour Company adventure for an unusual look at this town that suffered mightily during the Battle at Antietam.