The bloodiness and violence of American history is enshrined in these ten historic sites. Here, soldiers clashed, ideals were formed and dissolved in blood, and the future superpower of the 20th century was forged by fire and iron. Visiting them today is a compelling way to step into the popular imagination of the United States, and to look at the country’s checkered history from a range of different perspectives.
Spread over three days, Gettysburg was the bloodiest battle ever fought on North American soil, General Lee’s Confederates clashing with George Meade’s Union army in rolling pastoral farmland as well as on the streets of the town itself. The Union victory, on 3 July 1863, halted the Confederate advance north and marked a key turning point in the Civil War. The brutal events of the battle, the artillery fire, cavalry charges and infantry assaults across ridges, hillsides, fields and woodland, are vividly brought to life by a broad selection of guided walks, audio tours, and exhibitions – there’s even a film narrated by Morgan Freeman. Those wishing to get even closer to the fallen of that fateful day can sign up to one of the frequent Ghost Tours.
Bunker Hill, situated just outside Boston, holds a symbolic position in the early days of the Revolutionary War. The site of a fierce defence of a strategic hilltop position by colonial fighters, it saw this hastily formed company repulse two assaults by the well-trained British army before being finally forced to flee. While it ended in defeat, great losses were seen on both sides, and this first major battle of the American Revolution set the tone for many of the terrible clashes that were to come. It is remembered for the nerve-tightening command given to the colonial troops as British infantry advanced towards them up the slope of the hill: "don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes." Today, the site is marked by a huge granite obelisk, the Bunker Hill Monument. A little background to the breakout of fighting can be gained at Faneuil Hall, in Boston itself, where speeches denouncing the imposition of taxes on the colonies were made between 1764 and 1774.
In 1836, the Alamo Mission near San Antonio, Texas, was the site of a dramatic conflict between the Mexican Army and Texan fighters seeking independence from Mexican rule. All the Texan soldiers defending the Mission were killed, a ringing victory for the Mexican government, but one which catalyzed Texan settlers and other wanderers from around the US to join the fight against the perceived brutality of the Mexican commanders. Today Alamo is a pilgrimage site for some fervent Texan patriots, and is treated by many as a shrine to the memory of the dead soldiers of that day. There are even immaculately maintained gardens dotted with memorials. But it’s a fascinating place for anyone to visit. For some travellers, its attractions may be heightened by the supremely luxurious Emily Morgan San Antonio Hotel, which overlooks the battleground itself.
Fort Sumter encourages contemplation of some of the most fascinating questions in the history of the United States: how did Confederate and Union decision-makers reach a point where talk ceased, and brother-against-brother war tightened into inevitability? What were the reasons and motives that drove South Carolina delegates to declare secession from the USA? For it was in Fort Sumter that Union troops garrisoned themselves after South Carolina’s Declaration of the Immediate Causes of Secession; it was to prevent reinforcement and resupply of this garrison that the first shots of the war were fired; and it was a Confederacy attempt to retake the Fort that constituted the first battle of the Civil War. Visitors to the site today can view a range of evocative exhibits in the museum, which does an excellent job of exploring the above questions. And visitors can also walk the Fort’s walls, looking out over the same view that Sumter’s Union defenders would have seen, rained on by artillery and wondering what on earth this could mean for the future of the United States.
The Battle of Little Bighorn marked the high-point of Native American attempts to preserve their culture and their way of life during the Great Sioux War of 1876. The US army’s 7th Cavalry Regiment, led by General Custer, were scouting two river valleys in east Montana when they clashed with an Indian force. They were annihilated. Today, the site has a Visitor’s Centre with displays of the clothing and weaponry of the two sides, and thoughtful consideration of the way the battle has been presented through the decades since. You can also take a walking or driving tour of the battlefield; visit the Custer National Cemetery; and muse at the foot of the Little Bighorn Indian Memorial, its purpose powerfully summarized by Lakota Elder Enos Poor Bear: "If this memorial is to serve its total purpose, it must not only be a tribute to the dead; it must contain a message for the living… power through unity…"
The swift, sudden destruction of much of the US’s key Pacific naval base by the Imperial Japanese Navy in 1941 is remembered at the site of Pearl Harbor today. Exhibit galleries with photographs, personal memorabilia and artifacts from the battle can be visited, alongside a Memorial Theater, which screens films examining and evoking the day that drew the United States into World War Two. While at Pearl Harbour, you can also visit two hoary and storied old American warships, Battleship Missouri and the USS Bowfin Submarine.
Manassas in Virginia was the site of two key clashes in the Civil War, and two victories for the Confederate Army – one far more dignified than the other. The First Battle took place shortly after hostilities broke out at Fort Sumter. Union forces, propelled by an eager northern appetite for a quick victory over the rebellious secessionists, marched towards the Confederate capital of Richmond. At Manassas, they encountered and launched a surprise attack on the Confederate Army. A swift victory was anticipated by Union soldiers and observers – but despite early advantage, the Confederates counter-attacked with unexpected force, and the Union ranks scattered. Retreat became rout as soldiers fled north from the battlefield. In the aftermath, both sides stared out at the new reality unfolding before them: a long and bloody civil war. This First Battle of Manassas is explored in the Henry Hill Visitor Center through exhibits, artifacts, and a film entitled "Manassas: End of Innocence". The more orderly Second Battle, which took place a year later and marked a War that had matured into full regimented reality, is explored and remembered at the nearby Brawner House Interpretive Center.
The Battle of Shiloh took place took place in 1862, and marked the increasing bloody brutality of the conflict that had evolved from Fort Sumter and Manassas. It was the sixth bloodiest battle in the Civil War, and saw an immense number of casualties on both sides. The battlefield itself is exceptionally well-preserved: well-positioned and detailed signage enables visitors to visualize the unfolding of this vicious battle across the 4000-acre field. Union victory here led on to the besieging and capturing of nearby Corinth, a busy railroad junction of great strategic importance. The Corinth Battlefield Unit can also be visited today. While appearing to be of immense significance at the time, both Union victories did little to bring the Civil War towards conclusion – three more bloody years of advances and reversals were to befall both sides, before eventual Confederate surrender.
From Shiloh the violence of the Civil War escalated. By September 1862, what had begun with a 34-hour battle in which only one Union soldier died, had evolved into a conflict wherein 23,000 soldiers were killed or wounded in 24 hours, at the Battle of Antietam in Maryland. This was the bloodiest one-day battle in US history – nine times as many US soldiers were killed as on D-Day, the bloodiest event for the U.S. in World War Two. Abraham Lincoln took victory at Antietam as an opportunity to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. This act locked the Civil War into violent conflict, and framed slavery as the War’s central issue. The site today has several distinct areas to visit, including Bloody Lane, where a number of famously gruesome photos of the Battle’s horrific casualties were taken.
Yorktown, in contrast to the dark and dreadful violence of the battles of the middle period of the Civil War, is for some US citizens a site of straightforward patriotism. Here, in 1781, George Washington, allied (whisper it quietly) with a significant French force, besieged the British Army and forced their surrender on 19 October 1781. Next to the battlefield, which is now a beautifully undulating and flower-strewn stretch of meadowland, is the Yorktown Victory Center, which charts the Revolutionary period that culminated in the Siege of Yorktown and US victory over the British. This victory secured peace and liberty to the United States – at least, peace for several decades, and liberty to certain of its citizens.