America's dedication to dedicating national military parks from the Civil War is impressive. Tourists from other countries have expressed envy of how America preserves its fields of honor. But some are a better experience than others.
The staff was helpful and friendly at each site, so I rate these based upon the visitor experience, encroachment from local development, ease of following the historical events of the days, and other local amenities.
MOST OVERRATED CIVIL WAR BATTLE SITES
1) Fort Sumter (South Carolina): I was so hyped to see this site that I stayed at an extra day at a conference at The Citadel just to see this event. I got the kids excited about the boat trip out there. The boat trip is much longer than you would think. The island is much further away from Charleston than you would think. And the island is tiny with little to do. I begged the boat to take us back after five minutes, but they insisted on leaving us there for an hour. Whenever I've proposed seeing another Civil War site, my wife asks, "This isn't going to be like Ft. Sumter, is it?"
2) The Battle of Manassas/Bull Run (Virginia): I used to live right next to Cub Run (the next river over) and regularly jogged over the Stone Bridge over to Matthews Hill. And the statue of Stonewall Jackson on Henry House Hill is one of the best Civil War scenes in America. But the map of the battle is confusing, since the brochure tour trail mixes the First and Second Battles of Manassas together so that it is hard to follow, even for someone who knows what happened at both. Development from Centreville, Manassas and near Sudley Ford is endangering the site as well.
3) The Battle of Gettysburg (Pennsylvania): Considering the historical magnitude of the battle, it may be shocking to most folks that it would appear on the overrated list. But though it is the biggest and best known battle site in America, it could be a lot better. Getting rid of that observation tower eyesore was a good start, but the field is cluttered with monuments, especially on Cemetery Ridge, which provides an artificial feel to things. There's increasing encroachment from development that puts pressure on the place. Revitalizing Seminary Ridge is a good start to getting the Gettysburg off this site.
Other Overrated Sites: The Battle of Kennesaw Mountain (Georgia), The Battle of Franklin (Tennessee) and The Battle of Malvern Hill (Virginia).
MOST UNDERRATED CIVIL WAR BATTLE SITES
1) The Battle of Chickamauga (Georgia): Chickamauga is one of the first preserved battle sites in American history, and the effort shows. They've placed the monuments and tributes, but not in a way that distracts from getting a feel for the forests and fields. Despite the confusing nature of the battle that led to mistakes by General Rosecrans, you can follow not only the geography but the timeline of the battle pretty well with the park features. And there are great places to camp nearby, as well as see the unique Battle of Lookout Mountain over Chattanooga just a few miles away.
2) The Battle of Cold Harbor (Virginia): This conflict outside of Richmond has well-preserved fields as well as a walking tour through the makeshift trench lines and brush that give the whole park a creepy feel that will make you appreciate not just the horrors of those days but the courage of the men who endured them. We plan on taking the kids back to the park this summer.
3) The Battle of Fort Donelson (Tennessee): This battle site is a little off the beaten path from I-24, but is worth the extra drive. The gun embankments along the Cumberland River are some of the best photo opportunities. Like Chickamauga, the map shows you the progression of events pretty well, including General Buckner's desperate attempt to break out from the fort. To make the long drive worth it, plan on working in a trip to see the amazing "Land Between the Lakes" recreation park.
Honorable Mention: The Battles of New Market (Virginia), Stones River (Tennessee) and Olustee (Florida).
John A. Tures is a professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Ga.