Since we just returned from a whirlwind trip to Pennsylvania we are going to take a quick break from Europe posts here at the blog to tell you about some of things we saw in that great state.
The entire state of Pennsylvania is special to me because of my time as a missionary there, but Gettysburg holds an especially special place in my heart because of the feeling that rests there, a place where history literally hung in the balance and turned. A place where thousands of men gave up their lives, on both sides, for something that they believed in. It was place of wounding and later a place of healing, and that is an odd combination to find. So forgive me if I’m a little bit passionate about this place, it is a site that I think everyone needs to visit and soak in its history.
How to Get There
Getting to Gettysburg is not particularly difficult, assuming that you are using a modern GPS system which I assume most of you are. There are a few navigational things to keep in mind however. When you visit the battlefield if you are not on a guided tour you will be following the Auto Tour route, which is outlined in red on the park map. You will probably not be stopping at every stop on this tour as that would take a lot of time, so before hand you should map out the stops that you especially want to visit. Then you should follow the route as marked on the map, we began by attempting to go backwards, and that was not a good choice. It puts you against the flow of traffic and will cause you problems in finding signs and with one way roads.
When you go to the visitor center there is plenty of parking so you should be fine unless you are there at a particularly busy time. Be aware that backpacks are not allowed in the visitor center and museum so leave those in your car or bus.
What You Will See
I recommend that you start with visitor center so that you can see the film, cyclorama, and museum before going to the battlefield, I think this help to put the places you see in perspective. If you arrive early however you will have to wait for the visitor center to open at 8 am. In the visitor center you can purchase a combined ticket for the film, cyclorama and the museum. It is $12.50 for adults and $8.50 for children.
There is a film that helps to put the battle of Gettysburg in historical context. It is pretty well put together and certainly worth watching. The Civil War involves complex political issues and while the film certainly has a pro north bias it does do a good job of showing some of the issues at hand.
From the film you are taken directly upstairs to view the cyclorama. The cyclorama is a 360 degree hand done oil painting of the last day of the Battle of Gettysburg. You will see an impressive presentation here using the cyclorama and projection. This will help you to get a sense for where different action went on during the last day of the battle.
The cyclorama is also important for its own historical significance because it was created to help people learn about the battle and was featured in multiple locations before making its permanent home in Gettysburg. I think it is definitely worth seeing while you are at Gettysburg, I like it better than the film actually.
Gettysburg features a well put together museum that leads you through the history of the battle from the beginnings of the Civil War to the giving of the Gettysburg Address. The museum and the film are meant to compliment each other ands they follow a similar pattern and portions of the film are featured throughout the exhibits. If you watched the film before going to the museum you don’t have to sit and watch these clips.
The exhibits in the museum are fairly text heavy which makes it hard to take everything in. There is no audio guide for the museum so you are left to read everything if you want the information. There are plenty of places to sit down and take rests to watch film clips. There are a few fun interactive throughout the museum that give you chance to engage a little with history.
The battlefield is of course the main event, and your time at the visitor center should really be aimed at setting the stage for your battlefield tour. If you decide like we did to do the tour on your own you should follow the auto tour route. You can get a map from the rangers at the the visitor center. As I said previously try to plan out the stops you want to make before leaving the visitor center and then follow the route in numeric order.
Be aware that there are hundreds of monuments at Gettysburg, ranging from tiny stone markers, to information plaques, to monoliths, to statues, to buildings. You cannot stop to read them all, but when you do stop at particularly important locations you might want to walk a little bit to see some of the markers nearby. You can also drive slowly along the road, especially if you are there on a less busy day, and see at least some of the state names on the larger markers.
Some of the places I suggest stopping are the eternal peace flame, the Longstreet tower, Little Round Top, Devil’s Den, and the Pennsylvania monument. If you had a relative who fought in the battle it would be worth your while to figure out where they were positioned and see whatever monuments are there.
The battlefield can take as much time as you have and will likely make up the bulk of your visit. It is nice to be able to look out and just ponder what happened here and why. Sometimes it is so peaceful now that it almost hard to remember that the reason we visit is because so many men died here in an incredibly bloody conflict.
The cemetery is an important part of Gettysburg and worth your time to visit. The cost of the war becomes more real when you look down rows and rows of graves. This of course is where President Lincoln gave the Gettysburg Address at the dedication of the cemetery so it is an excellent place to reflect on those immortal words.
The parking lot of cemetery is located up the hill from the cemetery and is just a gravel lot with cord showing parking places. The large cemetery entrance off the street does not actually allow for entrance by car so that can be a little confusing.
Gettysburg is an extremely important historical site and one you should definitely visit if you can. It is a long excursion to do it well so plan on at least half a day for it. You will probably be pretty tired by the end of it and kids definitely will be. Since everything is accessible by roads though there isn’t a ton of walking you have to do, so that helps some.