Historic Sites In Tennessee. More Than Just Parks has 10 incredible must-see sites for you to visit.
I’ve been to so many of these amazing places since retiring from teaching in 2018. Did I mention that I taught history? I spent a lifetime teaching about the history behind these momentous sites. Then I got to see them firsthand. And now I’m sharing the stories of these incredible places with you. It doesn’t get any better than that!
I’m going to give you my list of the 10 Historic Sites In Tennessee that you’ll want to see.
To be clear, this list includes national park sites (as in sites managed by the National Park Service) as opposed to national parks.
If you are planning a trip to Tennessee then you might want to pick up a copy of Tennessee Bucket List Adventure Guide & Memory Journal: Travel & Explore 50 Must See Destinations by Akeem Press.
Without further ado, let’s dive in!
Historic Sites In Tennessee
10. Andrew Johnson National Historic Site
We begin our top 10 countdown of the best historic sites in Tennessee at #10 with the Andrew Johnson National Historic Site.
Andrew Johnson was an impactful President of the United States, but not necessarily in ways that would endear him to today’s Tennesseans.
The Worst Possible Person
It is the view of most historians that he was the worst possible person to have served as President at the end of the American Civil War.
As Professor of History Elizabeth Varon notes,
“Because of his gross incompetence in federal office and his incredible miscalculation of the extent of public support for his policies, Johnson is judged as a great failure in making a satisfying and just peace.
He is viewed to have been a rigid, dictatorial racist who was unable to compromise or to accept a political reality at odds with his own ideas.
Instead of forging a compromise between Radical Republicans and moderates, his actions united the opposition against him.”
Obstructing Political & Civil Rights For African Americans
Most importantly, Johnson’s strong commitment to obstructing political and civil rights for blacks is principally responsible for the failure of Reconstruction to solve the race problem in the South and perhaps in America as well.
Johnson’s decision to support the return of the prewar social and economic system—except for slavery—cut short any hope of a redistribution of land to the freed people or a more far-reaching reform program in the South.
While Abraham Lincoln appealed to the “angels of our better nature,” historians fault Johnson for appealing to Americans darker instincts.
To learn more about this important chapter in our nation’s history I heartily recommend Reconstruction Updated Edition: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 by Eric Foner.
America’s Worst President?
In a survey by C-Span of America’s best and worst presidents, Andrew Johnson is ranked second to last so he is definitely a contender for the infamous honor of having been America’s Worst President.
Things To Do At The Andrew Johnson National Historic Site
I recommend beginning your visit at the visitors center.
Here you will find the site’s 13 1/2 minute orientation film and the Eastern National bookstore. Adjoining the Visitor Center, the Memorial Building houses the presidential museum, as well as Andrew Johnson’s original 1830’s Tailor Shop.
Andrew Johnson’s Early Home tells the story of the tailor-turned-politician. Andrew and Eliza’s family lived in this house from the 1830’s until 1851, when they moved into the larger Homestead several blocks away.
After visiting the early home you can take a tour of his homestead (1851-75) where Johnson lived for 24 years, both before and after his presidency.
Johnson was only Democrat from a southern state who did not leave the Senate during the Civil War. His home was occupied during the war by soldiers and left in disrepair.
Visitors can also see The National Cemetery where Andrew Johnson and his family are buried at the crest of Monument Hill.
CHECK OUT: 5 MUST-SEE Historic Sites In Alabama
Historic Sites In Tennessee
9. Stones River National Battlefield
At #9 on our list of Best Historic Sites In Tennessee is the Stones River National Battlefield.
As 1862 drew to a close, President Abraham Lincoln was desperate for a military victory.
His armies were stalled, and the terrible defeat at Fredericksburg spread a pall of defeat across the nation.
General Braxton Bragg’s 34,700-man Confederate army was confronted on Stones River by 41,400 Union troops under General William S. Rosencrans, who had orders to drive Bragg out of eastern Tennessee.
After a day of bitter and intense fighting, the battered Union army was on the verge of retreating, but Rosecrans decided to hold fast.
On January 3, Bragg’s equally exhausted Confederate forces withdrew southward. Rosecrans’s tenacity thus averted a potentially serious Union defeat.
Union casualties numbered 12,906; Confederate losses totaled 11,739. (Source: Britannica)
This battle was more important than people realized at the time. If you’re interested in learning more about it than I recommend reading the Battle of Stones River: The Forgotten Conflict between the Confederate Army of Tennessee and the Union Army of the Cumberland by Larry J. Daniel.
CHECK OUT: 10 BEST Civil War Sites In America
Things To Do At Stones River
The landscapes of Stones River National Battlefield offer visitors an array of historic and natural features to experience bicycling, hiking and walking.
If you are a history buff then two places I recommend visiting are Fortress Rosencrans and the Stones River National Cemetery.
If you are a film buff then you should know that outdoor filming activities [outside of areas managed as wilderness] involving five persons or less and equipment that will be carried at all times, except for small tripods used to hold cameras, is permitted.
CHECK OUT: 10 MUST-SEE Historic Sites In Georgia
Historic Sites In Tennessee
8. Natchez Trace Parkway
Coming in at #8 on our list of the best historic sites in Tennessee is the Natchez Trace Parkway.
Natchez Trace Parkway is one of the most scenic drives in America. The parkway is a two-lane road which goes through nearly 450 miles of protected land.
You can travel from Nashville, Tennessee, through Alabama and on to Natchez, Mississippi.
Take your time as you go and you’ll see a wonderful array of wildlife, gorgeous waterfalls, memorable hikes and historic sites, some dating back thousands of years.
The Trace is especially gorgeous in the fall when the trees lining the roadway explode in color.
One helpful resource is a Guide to the Natchez Trace Parkway by Tim & Taryn Chase Jackson. The authors point out the fantastic food options and unforgettable attractions you’ll find along the way.
Walk The Same Ground As Spanish Explorers
It’s scenic, but we haven’t forgotten about the history either. This beautiful parkway follows the path of the original Natchez Trace Trail. And it has quite a history too!
Native Americans were the first humans to use this path. By the 1500s, explorers like Spain’s Hernando de Soto, were also following it as they explored the Americas.
By the nineteenth century, it became an important trade route between Nashville and the Mississippi River.
It continued to flourish until the rise of the steamboat. After that, it was largely forgotten until the National Park Service (NPS) took over the route in 1938.
The NPS finally completed the Parkway in 2005.
CHECK OUT: 10 MUST-SEE Historic Sites In Mississippi
Historic Sites In Tennessee
7. Cumberland Gap National Historical Park
At lucky #7, we have the Cumberland Gap National Historical Park.
Cumberland Gap National Historical Park lies along the borders of Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia. Pinnacle Overlook has views of Cumberland Gap, a pass in the Cumberland Mountains once used by pioneers headed west.
From May through October, visitors can tour the historic Hensley Settlement which includes numerous historic buildings and structures.
The settlement is an Appalachian living history museum on Brush Mountain, Bell County, Kentucky in the United States.
It’s part of the Cumberland Gap National Historical Park and is located approximately 10 miles north of the park visitor center on Ridge Trail.
If you prefer the indoors to the outdoors then you can explore a hidden world found underground.
In Gap Cave are stalagmites and bats. Park trails include the Ridge Trail, running the park’s full length.
The restored structures of the early 20th-century Hensley Settlement perch on Brush Mountain.
There are also spectacular overlooks, cascading waterfalls and an extensive system of trails which you will find to be simply breathtaking.
CHECK OUT: 5 MUST-SEE Historic Sites In North Carolina
Historic Sites In Tennessee
6. Trail Of Tears National Historic Trail
We conclude the bottom 5 of our top 10 historic sites in Tennessee with the Trail Of Tears National Historic Trail.
As a former history teacher, I believe no study of American history is complete without an understanding of the Trail of Tears. This history lesson begins in 1830, but don’t worry because there’s no homework assignment.
In 1830, Congress passed the Indian Removal Act. This infamous piece of legislation forced various Native American tribes to relinquish their lands in exchange for federal territory.
Most of the major tribes – the Choctaws, Muscogee Creeks, Seminoles, and Chickasaws – agreed to be relocated to Indian Territory (in present-day Oklahoma).
The Trail Of Tears
As the National Park Service reports, “U.S. Army troops, along with various state militia, moved into the tribe’s homelands and forcibly evicted more than 16,000 Cherokee Indian people from their homelands in Tennessee, Alabama, North Carolina, and Georgia.”
The impact of the resulting Cherokee “Trail of Tears” was devastating.
More than a thousand Cherokee – particularly the old, the young, and the infirm – died during their trip west, hundreds more deserted from the detachments, and an unknown number – perhaps several thousand – perished from the consequences of the forced migration.
The tragic relocation was completed by the end of March 1839, and resettlement of tribal members in Oklahoma began soon afterward.” (Source: National Park Service)
To learn more about this dark chapter in American History, I recommend Trail of Tears: The Rise and Fall of the Cherokee Nation by John Ehle.
CHECK OUT: 5 MUST-SEE Historic Sites In South Carolina
Top 5 Historic Sites In Tennessee
5. Manhattan Project National Historical Park
Kicking off our list of the top 5 historic sites in Tennessee is the Manhattan Project National Historical Park.
It’s there that the United States began developing the deadliest weapon known to humankind.
The Manhattan Project was the code name for the American-led effort to develop a functional atomic weapon during World War II.
The development of the atomic bomb brought together some of the world’s leading scientific minds, as well as the U.S. military. Most of the work was done at Los Alamos, New Mexico.
On July 16, 1945, the team of scientists led by Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer, in a remote desert location near Alamogordo, New Mexico, successfully detonated first atomic bomb.
This detonation created an enormous mushroom cloud some 40,000 feet high ushering in the Atomic Age. The explosive force was estimated to be equivalent to an 8.0 earthquake.
As a retired history teacher and a lifelong history buff, I can tell you that the best book to read if you’re interested in the story behind the Manhattan Project is The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes. His Pulitzer Prize–winning book details the science, the people, and the sociopolitical realities that led to the development of the atomic bomb.
Let’s Not Forget About Oak Ridge, Tennessee
The rolling hills and narrow valleys of East Tennessee proved to be the ideal location for the top-secret atomic weapons program developed here beginning in 1942.
Oak Ridge, TN was instrumental in the United States win over Nazi Germany during World War Two because of the development of the atomic bomb.
Known as the “Secret City”, Oak Ridge was not on any maps and 100,000 workers were brought to the city to work on a Top Secret war project, known as the Manhattan Project.
This city became home to several massive Manhattan Project facilities employing thousands of workers during and after World War II and was the headquarters for the project after relocating from New York City.
These facilities in Oak Ridge operated with one goal in mind—enriching uranium for use in the world’s first atomic bomb. (Source: NPS)
Now when it comes to things to do, there’s nothing top secret about that. Oak Ridge is home to four museums and you can visit them all on your next visit to the Secret City.
Be sure to visit the American Museum of Science and Energy, the K-25 History Museum, The Oak Ridge History Museum, and the Oak Ridge Children’s Museum.
Historic Sites In Tennessee
4. Fort Donelson National Battlefield
We’re on to the final four best historic sites in Tennessee.
At #4 we have Fort Donelson National Battlefield.
The Battle of Fort Donelson, which took place from February 11-16, 1862, was one of the Union’s first major victories.
Following his victory at Fort Henry on the Tennessee River, Union General Ulysses S. Grant marched his troops to Fort Donelson.
On February 13th, a Union gunboat opened fire on the fort.
Additional ships and soldiers arrived, giving Grant an almost three-to-one advantage over the Confederate forces. On February 15th, Confederate troops counter-attacked.
“Unconditional Surrender” Grant
The unflappable Grant reorganized his men, occupied the outer defenses of the fort and applied pressure which led many Confederate soldiers to flee.
When Confederate General Simon Buckner asked Grant his terms for surrender, he gave an historic reply:
“No terms except an unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted.” Grant’s response earned him the nickname “Unconditional Surrender Grant.”
The victories at Forts Henry and Donelson helped make Grant a hero in the Union.
Vastly outnumbered, the Confederates immediately surrendered and gave the Union control of much of the Cumberland River.
To learn more about this important battle, I recommend The Battle of Fort Donelson: No Terms but Unconditional Surrender by James R. Knight.
The General Who Would Be President
Did you know that Grant was an average student at West Point? Well, there’s obviously more to life than book learning which is painful for a former history teacher to admit.
Of all the generals to become president, only three were professional soldiers who spent their entire lives in the military before becoming president. Grant was one. The other two were George Washington and Dwight Eisenhower.
Grant Was A Gifted Writer
Here’s another interesting fact. For an average student, Grant was a gifted writer. After leaving the presidency, he became ill.
Grant was also financially destitute due to bad investment decisions which he had made.
Worried about his wife’s financial future, he decided to write his memoirs. He wrote them as he was dying from throat cancer, show a clear, concise style, and his autobiography is considered among the best, if not the best, written by a President.
I highly recommend The Complete Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant written by none other than Ulysses S. Grant.
CHECK OUT: 10 BEST Civil War Sites In America
Historic Sites In Tennessee
3. Overmountain Victory National Historic Trail
At #3 on our top ten list of historic sites in Tennessee is Overmountain Victory National Historic Trail.
The Overmountain Victory National Historic Trail traces the route that was used by the Patriots during the Battle of Kings Mountain.
The route is 330 miles and it goes through four states (Virginia, Tennessee, North and South Carolina).
You can explore this route by following a Commemorative Motor Route which uses existing state highways.
It is marked with a distinctive trail logo and includes 87 miles of walkable pathways.
The Battle Of Kings Mountain
It was a battle which pitted Patriots against Tories. No British soldiers participated as this was a fight strictly between those who wanted to break free of British rule versus those who didn’t.
A force of 1,800 backcountry or “Overmountain” men defeated a force of 1,000 Tories at King’s Mountain on October 7, 1780.
According to British commander Henry Clinton, the American victory “proved the first Link of a Chain of Evils that followed each other in regular succession until they at last ended in the total loss of America.”
CHECK OUT: 10 BEST Revolutionary War Sites In America
Historic Sites In Tennessee
2. Chickamauga & Chattanooga National Military Park
Coming in at #2 on our lit of the best historic sites in Tennessee is the Chickamauga & Chattanooga National Military Park.
During the Civil War, Chattanooga was the “Gateway to the Deep South.” Battles were fought there and at Chickamauga which proved decisive in the ultimate defeat of the Confederacy.
The Battle of Chickamauga was a successful attempt by the Confederate army of General Braxton Bragg to halt the Union advances through Tennessee.
The Greatest Victory For The Confederates In The West
It resulted in the greatest victory for the Confederates in the Western theatre of the war and was the second bloodiest battle of the entire war, with 16,170 Union and 18,454 Confederate casualties.
And it occurred at a time when the Confederates were meeting with defeat at the Siege of Vicksburg in the West and at Gettysburg in the East.
The Union Army was saved from complete annihilation by the stubborn defense of George Thomas and his soldiers.
This defense earned Thomas the nickname of the “Rock of Chickamauga.”
It’s important to remember, however, that Chickamauga was the opening act in this drama.
A new leading actor, by the name of Ulysses S. Grant, was about to take the field.
A Union Victory at Chattanooga
The battered Union forces were then reorganized under the leadership of Ulysses S. Grant.
They went on to win battles at Orchard Knob, Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge. These victories opened the west to Union forces.
At the Battle of Lookout Mountain, Union forces under the command of General George “Rock of Chickamauga” Thomas swept the Confederates from the field.
The victories forced the Confederates back into Georgia, ending the siege of the vital railroad junction of Chattanooga and paving the way for Union General William Tecumseh Sherman’s Atlanta Campaign and march to Savannah, Georgia, in 1864.
Relive That History Today
Today, you can relive part of this exciting history at the Chickamauga Battlefield Visitor Center. The center is located at the north end of Chickamauga National Military Park. Inside are museum exhibits on the Battle of Chickamauga and Campaign for Chattanooga.
And If You’re A History Buff Like Me . . .
If you love history as much as I do and you’re particularly interested in how this conflict impacted the men who fought in it then I heartily recommend Six Armies in Tennessee: The Chickamauga and Chattanooga Campaigns by Steven E. Woodworth.
Woodworth is a gifted writer who uses primary sources skillfully to take his readers into the hearts and minds of the everyday soldiers.
The #1 Historic Site In Tennessee
1. Shiloh National Military Park
At #1 on our list of the top ten historic sites in Tennessee is Shiloh National Military Park.
On April 7th, 1862, the battle was fought. The 23,741 casualties at Shiloh were five times the number versus the First Battle of Bull Run in July of 1861.
They were more casualties in this one battle than all of the war’s major battles (Bull Run, Wilson’s Creek, Fort Donelson and Pea Ridge) up to that date combined.
Also Known As The Battle Of Pittsburg Landing
Also known as the Battle of Pittsburg Landing, it allowed Union troops to penetrate the Confederate interior. The battle pitted Union General Ulysses S. Grant against Confederate General Albert Sydney Johntson.
The Union army how has nearly 54,000 men near Pittsburgh Landing and outnumbered Beauregard’s army of around 30,000.
Johnston, however, intercepted the Federals 22 miles northeast of Corinth at Pittsburg Landing in an attack which totally took Grant by surprise.
Grant found himself caught off guard by this surprise attack orchestrated by Confederate General Albert Sidney Johnston.
“The Devil’s Own Day”
On April 6, 1862, the first day of the battle was a difficult one for the Union. Grant suffered heavy losses.
At the end of the first day’s fighting, Grant’s second-in-command, William Tecumseh Sherman remarked:
Well, Grant, we’ve had the devil’s own day, haven’t we?” To which Grant replied, “Yes, lick “em tomorrow, though.”
During the first day’s fighting, Confederate Commander Albert Sydney Johnston was shot in the right knee. The bullet severed an artery and the commander bled to death.
Grant Orders A Counterattack
Despite having everything go wrong for him, Grant ordered a counterattack on April 7th, which drove the Confederates from the field. This time, it was the Confederates who were caught off guard.
They were forced to fall back. Their new commander, General Pierre G. T. Beauregard, decided that the essential arithmetic favored the Union. He ordered a withdrawal.
The South’s defeat at Shiloh ended the Confederacy’s hopes of blocking the Union advance into Mississippi. It doomed the Confederate military initiative in the West.
It also provided the Union with a much-needed boost in morale given Robert E. Lee’s victories in the east.
As a retired history teacher and lifelong Civil War buff, I have devoured more books on this subject than I care to remember.
One that’s definitely worth reading if you’re interested in learning more about the battle and how it helped educate Ulysses S. Grant is Shiloh and the Western Campaign of 1862 by O. Edward Cunningham. Many Shiloh experts and park rangers consider it to be the best overall examination of the battle ever written.
To Learn More About Shiloh
So many books have been written about the Civil War and the various battles that took place. Of course, the big three authors when it comes to war are, in my humble opinion, Bruce Catton, Shelby Foote and James M. McPherson.
What these three have written are the best collections of books encompassing the war as a whole.
You can’t go wrong with any of these authors. My personal favorite is Shelby Foote. I have read his fabulous three volume history of the Civil War–twice!
Read About The Battle Of Shiloh
When it comes to the Battle of Shiloh, however, I’m going to recommend three books none of which have been written by the three men mentioned above (please forgive me). I previously recommended one of these and it’s still the best of the bunch in my opinion, but I’m going to recommend it again along with two others.
To gain an understanding of this battle, its strategic importance, and how it influenced the outcome of the war, I recommend:
- Shiloh and the Western Campaign of 1862, by O. Edward Cunningham
- Shiloh, Bloody Shiloh by Wiley Sword
- Shiloh: The Battle That Changed the Civil War by Larry J. Daniel.
THINGS TO DO AT SHILOH NATIONAL MILITARY PARK
The world’s greatest learning laboratory is where history happened. At the Shiloh Battlefield and the Corinth Civil War Interpretive Center there are exhibits spaces which show visitors the weapons of war, the people who used those weapons, and the effects of their use.
Dive Into The Past
At Shiloh Military Park visitors can dive into the past. Things to do include:
- Museums/Interpretive Centers: Both the Shiloh Battlefield and the Corinth Civil War Interpretive Center have large exhibit spaces dedicated to showing visitors the tools of war, the people who used those tools, and the effects of their use.
- Audio Visuals/Films: Both the Shiloh Battlefield and the Corinth Civil War Interpretive Center have excellent films and displays. Shiloh Battlefield is now showing the award-winning film, Shiloh: Fiery Trial. The Corinth Center has two short modern, state of the art films – one on the Battle of Shiloh and one on the Battle of Corinth, and a new movie entitled Corinth: A Town Amidst War.
- Self-Guided Auto Tour: The Shiloh Battlefield has a 12.7 mile auto tour route with 22 tour stops at such famous places as the Peach Orchard, the Hornet’s Nest, and the Albert Sidney Johnston death site. Visitors may also take auto and walking tours of Civil War Corinth, MS. This route includes surviving Civil War fortifications, homes used by Civil War Generals, and portions of the Corinth Battlefield.
- Ranger Programs: The park staff at Shiloh Battlefield conducts daily ranger-led interpretive programs during the peak season from Memorial Day to Labor Day.
- Living History: Both Shiloh and Corinth host several living history and special events throughout the year, mostly from April to October.
Map Of Historic Sites In Tennessee
List Of Historic Sites In Tennessee
- Shiloh National Military Park
- Chickamauga & Chattanooga National Military Park
- Overmountain Victory National Historic Trail
- Fort Donelson National Battlefield
- Manhattan Project National Historical Park
- Trail Of Tears National Historic Trail
- Cumberland Gap National Historical Park
- Natchez Trace Parkway
- Stones River National Battlefield
- Andrew Johnson National Historic Site
About The People Behind More Than Just Parks
You should probably know that we don’t just make this stuff up out of thin air. My sons have spent their entire adult lives exploring and filming America’s national parks and public lands.
As for me, I’m a retired lifelong educator and a proud dad of these two wonderful guys who are hopelessly obsessed with the national parks. I taught history for over a quarter of a century. Now I enjoy researching and writing articles for More Than Just Parks. I’m always on the hunt for topics where nature and history intersect so please feel free to share any ideas that you might have with me.
We’ve worked with the National Park Service, the Department of Interior, and the U.S. Forest Service for years creating films on important places and issues. Our work has been featured in leading publications all over the world and even some people outside of our immediate family call us experts on the national parks.
Meet The Parks Brothers
We’re Jim Pattiz and Will Pattiz, collectively known as the Pattiz Brothers (and sometimes the Parks Brothers) and we absolutely LOVE the national parks.
Our goal here at More Than Just Parks is to share the beauty of America’s national parks and public lands through stunning short films in an effort to get Americans and the world to see the true value in land conservation.
We hope you’ll follow our journey through the parks and help us to keep them the incredible places that they are. If you’re interested in joining the adventure then please sign up below!