“Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth upon this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met here on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of it, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this…”
My Uncle Pete used to recite this entire speech by memory…Gettysburg Address, arguably the greatest speech ever given.
After reading Michael Shaara’s novel “Killer Angels” years ago and then watching Turner Home Entertainment’s movie “Gettysburg” a while back, I have always been fascinated by U.S. Civil War History. Memorable battlefields such as Manassas, Shiloh, Antietam, Cold Harbor, Wilderness, Vicksburg, Chancellorsville, Fredericksburg, Kennesaw Mountain, and Chickamauga capture one’s imagination…but none of them seem to evoke reverence and embody history like Gettysburg. The battle lasted three days – July 1, 2 and 3, 1863, and raged through the town and the surrounding countryside. The largest battle ever fought in North America saw more than 51,000 soldiers killed, wounded, or missing…considered a pivotal turning point of the Civil War.
My wife and I, history lovers that we are, always yearned to visit Gettysburg but there didn’t seem to be an opportune time to swing by whenever we are on the East Coast…until now. My wife was on a business trip to Washington, D.C. and I joined her to mix business with pleasure…and a visit to Gettysburg National Military Park in Gettysburg, PA. Oh yeah, I was also hopeful that our visit to Gettysburg would once and for all settle a long running but “friendly”
argument debate between my stepdaughter and I as to who was more pivotal at Gettysburg, Brigadier General John Buford (her position) or Colonel Joshua L. Chamberlain (the correct position). I would soon find out that most, if not all, of the park rangers were not fans of Chamberlain and his “Hollywood boys from Maine” and took every opportunity to dull the sheen off his heroics on Little Round Top.
We were just driving up from Washington, D.C. and Maryland after spending time with friends and family so the transportation portion of our logistical planning wasn’t much of a challenge. It was about a 2-hour drive from Washington, D.C. If you plan on flying, then the closest international/decent sized airport is Harrisburg, PA, about 35 miles from Gettysburg.
We stayed in one of the chain hotels outside the town center, but if I would have to do it over again, I would probably stay closer to the historic district. TripAdvisor recommends the Inn at Lincoln Square, the James Gettys Hotel, and the Federal Pointe Inn…as they probably better complement your stay in a historic setting. Maybe when we come back, if we come back, then we’ll check out one of those three recommended hotels.
The Gettysburg National Military Park is open daily from 6:00 A.M. to 10:00 P.M. April 1 to October 31, and 6:00 A.M. to 7:00 P.M. November 1 to March 31. Entry into the National Park is free but certain attractions and activities available in the Museum and Visitor Center charge fees. The Museum and Visitor Center is open daily throughout the year but is closed on Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, and New Years Day. The National Military Park is managed by the National Park Service (NPS) in close cooperation with the Gettysburg Foundation, and together with volunteers, they “restore Gettysburg’s historic integrity and preserve its remarkable resources.” Be mindful of the time of year you visit. While summer time is when most of the reenactments are held, especially around the anniversary of the battle from the 1st to the 3rd of July, temperatures and humidity can be downright punishing…just imagine what it was like for the combatants on the battlefield back in early July of 1863. When we visited in late August/early September, temperatures were in the high 80s and low 90s with considerable humidity…so plan accordingly.
There are a few ways to enjoy the national park and get the full impact of Gettysburg. Some folks recommend a guided tour with well-qualified Licensed Battlefield Guides (reserve at least three days in advance) either on a bus or in your own vehicle. Audio CDs coordinated with the official map are also sold at the Visitor Center. There is also a Segway tour where licensed battlefield guides conduct the tour on Segway personal transportation devices. Or, you can download an app on Gettysburg on your smartphone and follow your official map. Being “do-it-yourselfers”, we opted for the last option and augmented this with our own homework and with the daily scheduled, free NPS Park Ranger-guided programs. There are also ranger-guided Battle Walks to take advantage of, all free to the public. If you do opt for a paid tour with a Licensed Battlefield Guide, we heard some great things about Terry Fox, one of the oldest and most experienced guides at Gettysburg. I don’t know if you can request him by name, but it might be worth a try.
There were other attractions in and around Gettysburg, such as the George Spangler Farm, the Eisenhower National Historic Site, the David Wills House, and the Rupp House…but we focused our attention on the Gettysburg National Military Park owing to our limited time to explore and experience Gettysburg.
We arrived at Gettysburg on a Sunday afternoon and started our tour with a visit to the Visitor Center and Museum. We watched the moving and poignant movie “A New Birth of Freedom”, majestically narrated by Morgan Freeman (apropos if you asked me…what with the Emancipation Proclamation and all…free man, get it?) then marveled at the Cyclorama painted by a French artist, named Paul Philippoteaux, in the late 1880s. He spent months on the battlefield researching the battle with veterans, a battlefield guide and a photographer. It took Philippoteaux and a team of assistants more than a year to complete the painting. The result is a breathtaking canvas that measures 377 feet in circumference and 42 feet high. We then made our way through the museum, which explains in detail what precipitated the Civil War, leading up to the Battle of Gettysburg and beyond. Tickets for the film, cyclorama, and museum can be purchased in advance. We both thought the movie and Cylcorama were worth it. The museum offered additional information and viewpoints from both sides of the Civil War…and the battlefield artifacts were of special interest. But if you can’t spare the recommended 90 minutes to 2 hours to explore the museum, then you can browse and pick your spots like we did.
For our only full day at Gettysburg, we toured the national park following the official map as well as participated in four ranger-guided tours of Little Round Top led by John Nicholas, the Second Day (of battle) led by Jim Flook, the Soldiers’ National Cemetery, and the Third Day led by ranger Scott Adrian. I would have wanted to participate in a ranger-guided tour of Culp’s Hill, a pivotal terrain on the Union Army’s rightmost flank and where some of the fiercest fighting took place, but that tour wasn’t scheduled on the day we were there. The park rangers were very informative (I especially liked John’s information on Lt. Colonel Soughton and the 2nd US Sharpshooters) and each had their own style of breathing life into the battle, injecting their own theatrics that enhanced the presentation. NPS publishes a schedule of their ranger-guided tours about a week in advance, and if your schedule is malleable, it might be worth adjusting it to coincide with tours you want to participate in.
We were satisfied with our own tour of the Gettysburg battlefield interspersed with ranger-guided tours of select sites, but for those who require additional information and have no inclination to conduct their own research prior to visiting Gettysburg, then it might be advisable to secure the services of a licensed battlefield guide to fully appreciate Gettysburg.
The Gettysburg National Military Park covers over 6,000 acres with over 1,328 monuments, memorials, and markers, considered the largest collection of outdoor sculpture in the world. Today, the Gettysburg battlefield receives more than one million visitors annually from all over the world, drawn by the area’s historical significance as well as its natural beauty. Prior to our trip to Gettysburg, I wondered whether foreigners would find it as impressive and significant as Americans would. On our follow-on trip to Niagara Falls, we met this gentleman from Avila, Spain who just visited Gettysburg and was moved by the Gettysburg National Military Park. He remarked that Gettysburg “made him more of a patriot” and felt every American should visit the site…adding “You should be proud of your country.”…and WE ARE!
Regarding that long-running
argument debate with my stepdaughter…well, the argument debate rages on. Suffice it to say, there were many heroes at Gettysburg…but only 64 men (including the latest Medal of Honor recipient, Lt. Alonzo Cushing) actually received the Congressional Medal of Honor for their bravery at Gettysburg. Guess who one of them was…yes, none other than Joshua L. Chamberlain!