The Battle of Gettysburg, 1-3 July 1863, is considered one of the major turning points of the war and the highpoint of the Confederacy. The bloodiest battle ever fought in North America saw Robert E Lee and George Meade’s men fight and fall amongst some of the most beautiful farmland in Pennsylvania. Today, Gettysburg National Military Park is the most-visited Civil War battlefield in the United States. Approximately three million people visit the Gettysburg area every year! If statistics aren’t your cup of tea, a quick walk through the Visitor Center parking lot will give you an idea of the national pull of the battlefield. We started playing name-that-state on our way in and suffice to say we had a better part of the 50 States covered plus a bit of Canada as well! Visitors should start their tour at the Visitor’s Center located just outside the center of historic Gettysburg. (Modern Gettysburg is a classic example of soulless urban sprawl. The historic center, on the other hand, is perfect for a walk, window-shopping and ice-cream eating!)
The Visitor’s Center contains a Park Ranger station, the Gettysburg Cyclorama, and a Civil War museum. The Museum gift shop sells Civil War books and memorabilia. Excellent bathroom facilities are available here and you should take advantage of them before starting any battlefield touring. I would recommend at least a day and a half to visit the battlefield and national cemetery.
Begin your visit with a stop by the Ranger Desk. Decide on which, if any, Ranger programs you wish to attend. I would recommend choosing at least one or two. Programs range in both time and scope from a 30-minute overview (a great refresher or intro to the battle if you need one) to in-depth 2.5-3 hour battlewalks. The majority of talks run an hour and take place at key spots around the park. While the 2.5-3 hour battlewalks are for those interested in learning about the knitty-gritty details of specific parts of the battle and hiking the course of the battle, the hour-long talks appeal to a broad range of visitors. We attended an Anniversary battlewalk on July 2nd and I loved it. Following Wofford’s Brigade through the Wheatfield and beyond (and even getting to climb a fence!) was educational and fun. (Yes, I’m a history geek!)
While toddlers like Laura and Elise risk being bored, school age children are well-catered for at the park. In addition to Junior Ranger activities, a National Park staple, there is a “Join the Army” talk designed just for them. While not listed as a Children’s Program, the “Care of the Wounded” talk is family friendly and I highly recommend it. Learn about Civil War medicine, battlefield triage and the fate of wounded men in a fun (yes I did say fun) hands-on talk. Our Ranger donned Civil War medical hat, pulled out his medical instruments, and got the kids involved as patients, doctors and nurses. His light engaging style had them laughing, participating and learning at the same time without leaving the adults behind! Living history costumed walks offered during the summer months are also another way to help bring the past alive to your children.
While access to the battlefield and all Ranger program are free, there is a combined fee to visit the museum exhibits, film and cyclorama. Adults pay $12.50, Youth (ages 6-12) cost $8.50 and children under 6 are free. The cyclorama is a 360-degree round painting depicting Pickett’s Charge, one of the battle’s climatic events. French artist Paul Philippoteaux and his team of assistants painted the scene in the 1880s. At the time circular paintings were en vogue and traveled the country–another form of popular entertainment. The painting has been restored and hung in its own room. After watching the New Birth of Freedomfilm below, visitors go up escalators to see the painting. A sound and light show helps breathe life into the painting. While I wouldn’t take small children to it (too loud/battle sounds), the older children present seemed to be enjoying themselves.
The museum is excellent. While you could get through it in an hour, if you don’t have children and are interested in the subject matter, you could easily spend double the time without being bored. The museum is another example of a good modern museum–the interactive displays actually compliment the exhibits (not always the case). The museum focuses on the entire Civil War and not just the Battle of Gettysburg. Special attention is paid to Gettysburg, however, it does a great job of presenting the whole war from its genesis and roots to its final bloody moments. Even if you don’t find the painting/film appealing, I would recommend checking out the museum. Depending on which talks you wish to attend, you can fit the museum experience in at your convenience.
Once you’ve figured out which talks you want to see, it’s time to drive the battlefield. The Park Service has set up a driving tour of the battlefield with key spots highlighted by stops. They recommend a minimum of 3 hours to drive the 24-stop tour. If you want to stop and appreciate the battlefield, three hours is a minimum. Remember that with a bit of planning, you can listen to Ranger talks at various spots along the drive. It is possible to hire a licensed guide for your car for a private tour or to join a bus group going around the battlefield. You can also buy a CD for your car with running commentary at the Museum Shop in the Visitor’s Center.
Food/Drink: A “saloon” inside the Visitor’s Center offers snacks as well as fast-food style food in a themed hall. Expect to pay for the convenience of eating in the Park. Picnic tables are located outside for those wishing to bring their own food. Water fountains are available in the Visitor’s Center and we weren’t the only ones refilling our bottles in them. If the Saloon or picnicking outside don’t strike your fancy, downtown Gettysburg has a number of restaurants and a short ride will bring you to any number of chain restaurants/fast-food places.
I Like Ike: If you plan to visit Eisenhower National Historic Site (ENHS), consider adding another half-day to your schedule. Visitors to ENHS must purchase tickets and take the shuttle bus from the Gettysburg National Military Park Visitor Center to the Ike’s farm. Two days allow you to spend a morning/afternoon at Ike’s farm without feeling rushed. An hour to an hour and a half is all that you need unless special talks/programs are going on during your visit, however, you can use the remaining time to explore a little of downtown Gettysburg.