Educational Trips: Civil War

In school, students begin learning about the Civil War as young as the third grade. As emotional and significant as the War Between the States was, it can sometimes be difficult to convey to young students the poignant and often gruesome events and issues of the time. This is where field trips come in. They can learn their facts, dates, and figures in the classroom but there's something special about seeing where battles took place, imagining the movement across the field, the victories and the defeats. Obviously, not all ages are expressly suited to seeing the battlefields and understand that lives were lost on that particular plot of ground. Younger students may be better suited to the museums or grade-level appropriate ranger programs available at certain parks. Older students may benefit from seeing the sites firsthand to better understand the significance of the war and how the separation of states eventually drew our country even closer together.

William T. Sherman

National Civil War Museum - Harrisburg, PA - Unlike other Civil War museums, this Harrisburg attraction is one that focuses on the entire scope of the war instead of a single facet. Without bias to either the Confederacy or the Union, the National Civil War Museum lays the entire story on the line for education's sake. Come by and see 4,400 artifacts, 21,000 archival pieces, and plenty of personal possessions from Abraham Lincoln, General Robert E. Lee, and many others. Take a tour through the facility and explore the chronological history of the Civil War from tensions before the rise of the war to the assassination of President Lincoln.

Museum and White House of the Confederacy - Richmond, VA - In its day, this beautiful neoclassical mansion played home to the President of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis. Though he and his family only lived there from 1861 to 1865, the house has become a symbol of the Confederate movement and now holds the Museum of the Confederacy, founded only 25 years after Lee's surrender. Inside you can find over 15,000 documents and artifacts along with 500 original Confederate flags. Newer additions to the collection include the anchor of the CSS Virginia, the Confederacy's first ironclad warship.

Gettysburg National Battlefield - Gettysburg, PA - One of the most recognizable battles, Gettysburg is famous for being the site of President Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, months after the slaughter of the battle had ended. Running from July 1 through July 3, 1863, Gettysburg saw some 46,000 casualties, making it the battle with the highest number of deaths (roughly 8,000 deaths). Described by many as the turning point of the war, the Union effectively defeated the Confederacy's attempts to invade the North. The Battlefield is, today, beautifully preserved along with Gettysburg National Cemetery. Stop by the Visitors Center first and then head off to tour the park on a guided or self-guided tour to learn about this important battle firsthand.

African American Civil War Museum - Washington, D.C. - There are many museums and landmark sites about the Civil War but few focus directly on the support given by the African American community. This Washington, D.C. based history museum tells the story of African American involvement in the war with collections of archival pieces, personal possessions and artifacts, and other forms of documentation and interpretation. Offering free admission, this wonderfully educational museum is a must-see on any capital city trip. If you have time, stop by and see the Civil War exhibits at the National Museum of American History (also free!).

Antietam National Battlefield - Antietam, MD - The single bloodiest day of the entire Civil War happened September 17, 1862, on a field in Maryland. Roughly 23,000 soldiers were either missing, wounded, or dead after an hours long battle waged to end the South's first invasion. The Union was successful and this lead to President Lincoln's preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. The events at Antietam changed the tide of the war, showing that the North were formidable fighters and that they would not allow the South to rise up into northern territory. There are many park lead programs and activities to take advantage of, as well as the eight and a half mile tour of the battlefield (guided or not).

Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park - VA - This lovely stretch of farmland was strategically the ideal spot for both armies to wage war, as it was halfway between both capital cities. The problem was that it was occupied farmland. The small towns in the area were bombarded, homes were stolen from, families torn apart, to say nothing of the soldiers who lost their lives. This climactic show of force cost 15,000 lives, many of which are buried in unmarked graves, and wounded some 85,000 more. When you visit the Military Park, start at the Visitors Center to get acclimated and pick up some maps or a guide. Then, take a drive around some of the four battlefields, tour the plantation homes, or even see the place where Stonewall Jackson's arm is buried in a marked grave.

McLean House at Appomattox Court House

Appomattox Court House National Park - VA - The site of, not only one of the last battles, but the actual surrender of the war. On April 9, 1865, General Lee surrendered in the McLean House in the village of Appomattox Court House. The village contains over a dozen restored buildings, a theater showing an introductory history film on the war, as well as a bookstore. There are many exhibits, especially in the McLean House, which are perfect for touring with a student group. Educational programs and activities are available through the National Parks Service, as are guided tours.