If you go to Gettysburg and take the time, maybe take a tour, maybe just drive around, read some of the monuments, read some of the plaques, you will come away changed.Author Jeff Shaara
Deciding where to go on a road trip in the middle of a pandemic didn’t happen without a lot of discussion beforehand. But because we had only experienced a brief pass-through of the battlefield years ago, we chose Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, as a major stop in 2020 for its history, excellent National Park Service resources , and relative safety outside. What we didn’t expect was that, as Jeff Shaara said in the quote above, we would come away changed.
We drove about one and a half hours from Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, arriving in Gettysburg for an afternoon at the Visitor Center. Then by spending two nights near town, we had time to stroll leisurely on the second day through the battlefield. If you’re traveling with a family, we highly recommend the Inspiration Guide (free upon request) by Destination Gettysburg outlining multiple activities for families (bus tours, farm days, camping, trail rides, etc.). But as a couple mainly interested in history and the site, we focused on the resources at the Visitor Center and a self-driving auto tour.
Stop 1: “The Birth of Freedom”
Narrated by award-winning actor, Morgan Freeman, the well-produced movie The Birth of Freedom (in the Visitor Center) offered not only historical footage but also re-enactments of milestone events in the battle. Graphic charts and depictions of troop movements helped us understand the monumental and difficult decisions made by leaders on both sides as well as the outcomes of battles. Names we’d only read about came alive on the screen: Cemetery Ridge, Wheatfield, Peach Orchard, Little Round Top, Devil’s Den, Culp’s Hill and others. And we began the change Shaara mentioned — moving from part-time history buffs to concerned citizens moved by the decisions leaders made, the fighting (even among family members), and the tragic toll of this Civil War.
Stop 2: The Cylorama
After months of extensive research, artist Paul Philippoteaux and his talented team painted an oil-on-canvas rendering of one of the turning points of the Gettysburg battle: Pickett’s Charge. After technicians mounted the canvas (measuring 42 feet high, 377 feet in circumference) inside a circular room, they brought the painted canvas to life using lights, sounds, and narration to produce an almost-real experience for viewers. In this theater-in-the-round, you can watch as spotlights focus on various war scenes, accompanied by sound. Moving indeed.
Stop 3: The Museum
Relics of the war, hands-on experiences, multi-media presentation — all await you at the Museum at the Visitor Center. I’m always drawn to the remnants of real life — uniforms, vessels, notes and pictures — while Bert reads about artillery, troop movements, vantage points, etc. Again, we were moved not by what the men had, but by how they survived with how little they had. A visit to the Museum (highly recommended) is included in the all-inclusive package you purchase at the ticketing desk.
Stop 4: The Virtual Tour
Before you even leave home, you can take the Virtual Tour, 16 stops on the battlefield narrated by rangers stationed throughout the park. Containing maps, footage and placement of various battles, the Virtual Tour will help you plan your own auto tour.
Stop 5: The Auto Tour
With map in hand and the well-marked areas at various sites, you can tour the battlefield at your own pace, in your own time. (Or look into engaging a Licensed Gettysburg Tour Guide.) A drive through Gettysburg will allow you to see parts of the battlefield in “big picture” format — the whole area, for example — but it also will afford you the opportunity to park, walk up to monuments and markers, and explore on your own. Take in the vantage points just as the troops would have, learn more about the strategies and tactics, or just appreciate the monuments from various states and divisions. But be prepared for the quiet — there’s a reverence here that made us appreciate where others had fought and died for what they believed.
Stop 6: The Gettysburg National Cemetery
Located within the National Military Park, Gettysburg National Cemetery is the final resting place for over 3,500 soldiers, (some identified, some unknown) killed in the 1863 Battle of Gettysburg, deemed the turning point in the Civil War. President Abraham Lincoln attended the dedication of the cemetery on November 19, 1863, and presented what is now known as “The Gettysburg Address” on the premises. The cemetery is open daily, (check the times online as they vary by date), and visitors are free to roam, read headstones, and remember those who lost their lives in this battle.
We have no doubt that you will see Gettysburg National Military Park on your own terms, in your own time. Grateful for the opportunity to explore on our own, we were moved by many things — open spaces, state monuments, names of people whose lives were lost. And we hope that you, too, will experience Gettysburg with a sense of reverence and respect for the cause as well as the casualties.
Some have asked us for recommendations related to travel, so here are a few.
- Book lodging early as many people especially during the coronavirus restrictions want to travel to places out in the open. An extensive list of lodgings available are in the Inspiration Guide, but we found that, even a month in advance, the bed and breakfasts we liked were not available. So, we booked a hotel on the outskirts with a short drive to downtown.
- Downtown Gettysburg was crowded when we went in September. Parking and seats at outdoor restaurants were at a premium. Our advice: Go early, if you can, or be prepared to wait in line for dining.
- Do your homework before leaving home. Watch the Virtual Tours. Check out a book on Gettysburg from the library. Or click on the National Park Service website and the section Plan Your Visit for information on dates, times, and availability that may have changed with Covid-19 regulations.
Whatever you do — don’t miss Gettysburg. It’s a battlefield, of course. But so much more. We feel that you, too, will be impressed with the preservation of land, the statues and monuments, and the information from the national park service that will help you better understand the Battle of Gettysburg. Mostly, though, as author Jeff Shaara so aptly said: ” . . . you will come away changed.”
Travel through history,
Rusha and Bert
Be sure to check out our next post on the houses and farms of Gettysburg.
And if you’ve missed any of our previous posts on Road Trip 2020, click on the links below to see where we’ve been. As always, thanks for traveling with us.