April 9, 1865 is considered by most to mark the end of the American Civil War — though technically it wouldn’t formally conclude until 16 months later. This conflict brought our country to the brink of collapse, and had brother killing brother in fields from Pennsylvania to Louisiana. Over the course of four years, over 620,000 Americans lost their lives from combat and disease, more than any other American conflict. All of this done in the name of freedom for all men and women and to preserve the Union.
Now, over 150 years later, the anniversary of General Robert E. Lee’s surrender to future-President Ulysses S. Grant is nearly upon us again. If you’re a Civil War buff or a neophyte looking to experience one of the most critical junctures in American history, this next week leading up to the unofficial end to the Civil War is a great time!
Visit the Battlefields and Sites
As mentioned above, the Civil War was spread out throughout the East Coast and much of the middle of the country. If you’re near one of the major battlefields — like Gettysburg, Manassas (where both Battles of Bull Run were fought), or Antietam — you have a great opportunity to see where it all happened in person. Since many of these sites are national parks, you’ll also likely be able to get in for free or for a small entry fee. At each battlefield, you’ll usually be able to take a guided tour to learn more about the battle itself and the local area or meet one of the many reenactment troupes who aim to bring history to life. An especially timely setting to visit would be the Appomattox Court House, where General Lee surrendered and effectively ended the Civil War, and see the home of Wilmer McLean, who could convincingly say “the war began in [his] front yard and ended in [his] parlor.”
Make a trip of it — Find a few battlefields that are close together and visit a few for the weekend.
If you live more toward the center of the country, you can still visit the site of major battles like Vicksburg, Shiloh, or Palmito Ranch (the last battle of the war). If you live on the West Coast, but love this idea, make a trip of it. Find a few battlefields that are close together and visit a few for the weekend. Another option would be to follow our East Coast History Tour (which hits many of the major Civil War sites on the East Coast) or the scientifically-optimized road trip of the United States. Most states that were around during the Civil War have sites and monuments spread throughout, so it’s worth investigating what part your area played in the struggle for the Union.
Learn More About the Civil War
Seeing a battlefield may not be an option for everyone. In these cases, you can bring the history to you! Of all the topics available to the public, the American Civil War is one of the most researched, discussed, and beloved around the country. Simply put, there is a wealth of information out there in almost every format you could want. Want to read about the Civil War? You have many options of exceptional books about the war. More of a fan of podcasts? Well, there’s also an abundance of pods on the subject.
It’s hard to top Ken Burn’s incomparable PBS series “The Civil War.”
Then you have the movies and television. The Civil War is a well-trodden road for filmmakers on both the TV and silver screens. Fiction movies, while not always the most accurate, can be a great gateway to the subject matter before learning more. When it comes to series on the Civil War, though, it’s hard to top Ken Burn’s incomparable PBS series “The Civil War.” You can find clips of series on the PBS website or purchase the full series online at a number of retailers.
Honor Our Veterans
While there aren’t any Civil War veterans alive today, marking the end of the Civil War is a great time to pay respect to living veterans. We’ve previously touched on ways you can honor our veterans, and many of those ideas are equally applicable on any day of the year, even in this instance. A similar idea is to use some of the ways you can commemorate 9/11, especially the last two ideas — Connect with a Family Member of a Different Political Belief and Give Back to Your Community. Both of these ideas recognize what many of the soldiers of the Civil War fought and died for, the unity and strength of the United States.
● ● ●
Whether we recognize it or not, the Civil War influences our lives on a daily basis. As it stands, outside of days like Memorial Day and some locations around the country, we don’t really commemorate the Civil War in the United States. If you’re a history buff or just beginning to learn about the American Civil War, there’s no time like this historic day to start learning more!