Through the National Park Service heritage areas exist across the country. Heritage areas are "places designated by the United States Congress where natural, cultural, historic, and recreational resources combine to form a cohesive, nationally distinctive landscape, which tell nationally important stories and represent the national experience through both physical features and the traditions that have evolved within them."
In 1995, Congress invited proposals from across the United States for the still relatively new National Heritage Areas program. Of the 41 proposals submitted from across the country, the Tennessee Civil War National Heritage Area was one of eight that was ultimately selected. In 1996, Representative Bart Gordon successfully introduced legislation to create the Tennessee Civil War National Heritage Area, which was designated by Congress in November of that same year.
In 1998, the Center for Historic Preservation was charged with creating a Compact and Master Plan to develop, implement, and manage the Heritage Area. Over the next two years, the Center partnered with the Tennessee Historical Commission/ Wars Commission, the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development, the Tennessee State Legislature, the Tennessee Civil War Preservation Association, Tennessee State University's African American History Conference, and other stakeholders to develop a preliminary planning document, conduct state-wide public forums, and gain input and support for the final Master Plan. In 2001 Don Sundquist approved the Heritage Area's Compact and Master Plan, which outlines major interpretive themes, management structure, planning, and funding guidelines. The final Master Plan and Environmental Assessment was submitted to the National Park Service and the Secretary of the Interior in 2004.
Several of the Heritage Area's early signature projects remain in active use, and serve as the foundation for the Heritage Area's current inititiatives. In 2002, the Heritage Area partnered with Stones River National Battlefield to present the Legacy of Stones River Symposium, which featured prominent historian David Blight. The event's success spurred three subsequent symposiums with plans to continue the symposium every eighteen months, and created a model for the Heritage Area and other organizations to conduct similar events. Another early project, "In the Shadow of the Pinnacle: Actions at the Cumberland Gap," servse as the first exhibit that visitors encounter upon entering Abraham Lincoln Museum. In 2005, the Heritage Area hosted the Alliance of National Heritage Area's International Heritage Development Conference, an interactive forum on best practices, public-private partnerships, and new heritage tools that drew national and international heritage development professionals and leaders to the state.