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Gettysburg

Visiting the site of the Civil War’s pivotal battle

The rolling meadows surrounding small town of Gettysburg may seem peaceful and quaint to today’s visitors. But to the soldiers of the Union and Confederacy who fought here in 1863, the crossroads became a crucible that would help decide the outcome of the Civil War.

Today, visitors to the area can relive the brutal battle and learn about the generals, artillery officers and foot soldiers who carried the fate of a nation on their shoulders. Tourists who stroll the streets of the town will discover its own unique charms.

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National Military Park

During the American Civil War, the Battle of Gettysburg claimed the lives of more than 45,000 men over the first three days of July. The 20,000-acre Gettysburg battlefield, just north of the Maryland-Pennsylvania line, is one of the most famous battle sites and cemeteries in the world. At Cemetery Ridge, graves encircle the site where Abraham Lincoln delivered the famous Gettysburg Address the following November and where the Soldiers’ National Monument now stands.

Imbued with profound symbolism, Gettysburg proved to be the beginning of the end for the Confederate armies. It was General Robert E. Lee’s last major offensive operation in the Eastern Theater and is now considered by historians to be the major turning point in the Civil War. This seminal event is immortalized in stone at the High Water Mark of the Rebellion Monument, a large bronze tablet in honor of the 4,500 men who were killed or wounded during the disastrous final day battle of Pickett’s Charge, the deepest penetration into the Union line at the Angle.

The Gettysburg National Cemetery gate lies on Taneytown Road. A key prelude to touring the park is a visit to the Gettysburg National Military Park Visitor Center, with an excellent museum focusing on the importance of Gettysburg to the Civil War. A must-see is the Cyclorama, a life-size painting of Pickett’s Charge painted in 1884 and reinstalled in 2008, with a high-tech light show and stirring narration. With its undulating hills and valleys etched with long rows of graves interspersed with more than 100 monuments, the battlefield is so large that it is best visited by car, bus tour or by bike. At the visitor center, rangers provide maps of hiking trails, or you can pick up the 18-mile self-guided auto tour.

The largest monument on the battlefield, the 110-foot, 3,000-ton Pennsylvania Memorial, carved from raw stone, cut granite and cement, courts most visitor attention. Atop a granite dome, supported by four arched columns, stands the winged goddess of victory and peace. The Northeast column houses a spiral staircase that leads to an observation deck which affords stirring panoramas of the battlefield. Around the perimeter of the monument are 90 bronze tablets etched with the names of the fallen troops who fought on both sides during the battle of Gettysburg. At the site where Pickett’s Charge was unleashed, the Virginia State Memorial, dedicated in 1917, is surmounted with a brass sculpture of General Lee astride his horse.

Gettysburg Museums

A quaint and charming college town cocooned within the National Military Park, the small town of Gettysburg, resonates with Civil War significance. The Gettysburg History Museum contains more than 4,000 artifacts including collections of firearms, uniforms, First World War and Second World War memorabilia and a few more light-hearted nods to JFK (his cigar box), Elvis and Marilyn Monroe. Highlights include the flag that flew over the Pacific Fleet Headquarters at Pearl Harbor when the Japanese attacked on December 7, 1941, and a German World War I grave marker fashioned from an ammo box lid.

The superb Shriver House Museum elucidates life in the town before, during, and after the Civil War. This evocative museum relates the story of the Shriver family (George, Hettie, Sadie and Mollie) a civilian family caught up in the furies of battle. The home itself is a beautifully restored period peace. Built in 1860 as “Shriver’s Saloon and Ten-Pin Alley,” the Shriver home was used as an impromptu hospital; medical supplies were discovered under the floorboards during restoration work. Riddled with bullets, the attic where Confederate sharpshooters camped out, and were eventually killed, draws most tourist interest. Tours of the meticulously furnished home are led by docents regaled in Civil War garb. Shriver House is also a very popular stop on the Gettysburg Reenactment Anniversary Trail.

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Civil War Anniversary Reenactment

Arguably the best, certainly the busiest, time to visit Gettysburg is during the town’s three-day Civil War reenactment, held during the first weekend of July. This painful and pivotal period in the nation’s history is brought to life with hundreds of events scheduled over three days, drawing an estimated 350,000 people to Gettysburg from all over the world. The calendar of events and ceremonial observances evolve each year. One of the most moving anniversary celebrations, or “reconciliations,” remains etched in the national consciousness.

In 1938, elderly veterans met at Gettysburg for what would prove to be one last time. The men shook hands across the symbolic wall, or “Angle” and, with haunting resonance, many let out the stirring Rebel Yell. In more recent years, as part of Gettysburg’s anniversary celebrations, National Park Service rangers have guided visitors across the lush fields and valleys where Union regiments poured rifle and artillery fire into the arc of the Confederates. Besides telling the story of the battles on the home front—which involves the town’s residents taking on their precursor’s Civil War era identities—exhibits over the last decade have increasingly linked the conflict to civil rights and the role of the thousands of African-Americans who served in the Union Army.

If you plan to visit, always make RV park and restaurant reservations far ahead of time. Another popular event in Gettysburg is Remembrance Day (held the Saturday closest to November 19), the anniversary of the Consecration of the National Cemetery, when President Lincoln delivered the famed Gettysburg Address.

For More Information

Gettysburg Travel

717-334-6274

www.destinationgettysburg.com

 

Pennsylvania Tourism

800-847-4872

www.visitpa.com