To Battle: A Civil-War Tour of Gettysburg

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Gettysburg Battlefield
Gettysburg Battlefield (drnadig/E+/getty images plus)

Mention “Gettysburg” and almost anyone will immediately think of the American Civil War, the pivotal battle fought there or the long-remembered remarks of President Abraham Lincoln. These slices of history were certainly on our minds as my family and I visited the Pennsylvania town for the first time in more than a decade.

Both during the war and today, there are more visitors to Gettysburg than year-round residents. This small borough has a population of about 8,000 but gets more than a million visitors each year—most of them coming to explore the Civil War sites. In 2021, more than 1.6 million visited Gettysburg’s battlefield.

With 2023 being the 160th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, there are likely to be even more visitors coming in this year. That’s a good thing; the crowds add to the ambiance. After all, a battlefield just doesn’t feel the same when empty.

The Gettysburg National Military Park Museum and Visitor Center

A great place to start your tour of Gettysburg, and to get orientated, is the visitor center and museum dedicated to the Battle of Gettysburg. Admission is free to the visitor center, battlefield and cemetery, but there is a fee to experience the museum ($12.75). A combined ticket allows you to also enjoy the film and cyclorama ($18.75).

The museum features a number of exhibits on the battle, and we got a real sense of what it meant for the soldiers who fought in it—their struggles and their stories.

The museum’s galleries cover different aspects of the battle. For example, “The Road to Gettysburg” tells the story of the events leading up to the battle; “The Battle of Gettysburg” depicts the fighting on July 1, 2 and 3, 1863; and “The Aftermath of Battle” tells the story of what came next, including the burial of the dead and the reunification of the nation.

The 22-minute film, “A New Birth of Freedom,” is narrated by Morgan Freeman and provides a backdrop for the dramatic battle. It added context before we prepared for the battlefield.

The visitors center’s cyclorama, originally displayed here in the 1880s, offers a 360-degree, 3D illusion of being in the middle of the battle. This is as much a must-see spectacle today as it was in the 1800s.

The center also features a bookstore, a gift shop and a food court. We especially enjoyed the bookstore, where you can find more books about the Civil War than I imagined had been written. In the souvenir shop, we found some commemorative magnets to decorate our fridge. We fortified ourselves with snacks from the saloon before going to the battlefield.

Walking the Battlefield

The best way to experience the Gettysburg Battlefield is to simply stroll through it. The battlefield is open 365 days a year and is free to enter. There are a number of walking trails, and they offer a variety of perspectives on the battle. As we walked, it was easy to imagine the sounds and smells of battle, and to ponder the courage and sacrifice of the soldiers who fought here.

The Battle of Gettysburg was the bloodiest of the Civil War, with more than 165,000 soldiers fighting. The National Park Service describes it as “the largest battle ever fought in North America.” Thousands of soldiers were killed, wounded, captured or ended up missing in action. The three-day battle resulted in more than 50,000 casualties.

Walking through the Gettysburg Battlefield, we could feel the weight of history on our shoulders. I could almost hear the cannons and rifles firing, the battle cries of charging troops and screams of the wounded and dying.

Gettysburg National Cemetery and the New York State Monument
Gettysburg National Cemetery and the New York State Monument (Henryhartley at the English-language Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0 <creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/>, via Wikimedia Commons)

Paying Respect

The Soldiers’ National Cemetery is the final resting place for more than 3,500 Union soldiers killed here. The cemetery is open year-round and is a moving way to pay your respects to the thousands who made the ultimate sacrifice for the Union.

The battle was an ugly affair, and most bodies scattered through the local farmlands were placed in hasty, shallow graves—some of which where soon eroded by wind and rain. The citizens of Gettysburg called for a solders’ cemetery to properly honor the fallen dead.

Between 1898 and 1968, sections were added for graves of veterans from the Spanish-American War, World Wars I and II, and the Korean and Vietnam Wars. More than 6,000 veterans currently rest here in simple, uniform gravestones. At the center stands the Solders’ National Monument.

Edward Everett, a speaker and statesman from Massachusetts, was chosen to give the cemetery’s commemoration speech on November 19, 1863; he spoke for two hours about the war and all these soldiers died to protect. Another honored guest was asked to say a few words—resulting in one of the most memorable speeches in history.

Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address

Just south of the cemetery stands a memorial to President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, delivered here in about two minutes after Everett’s speech. The memorial includes a bronze bust of Lincoln and a tablet inscribed with the text of Lincoln’s address—a call for unity and a reminder of the sacrifices that were made to preserve the Union.

The Gettysburg Address is one of the most recognizable speeches in American history, so even my kids recognized the words as we read them together. It’s a reminder that however turbulent and divided our times seem today, there have been times in our history when they were worse. Even then, many held to the notion that the nation “of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth” just as so many who fought here did.

Lincoln’s Other Gettysburg Address

The nearby David Wills House was used as headquarters by Lincoln during the Battle of Gettysburg, and it was here that he put the finishing touches on his famous speech. The house is now a museum featuring exhibits on Lincoln’s time in Gettysburg. Admission to the house and museum is free.

Another Presidential Residence

The Eisenhower National Historic Site in Gettysburg preserves the home of President Dwight D. Eisenhower and his wife, Mamie. They referred to their 690-acre farm estate as “Shangri-La,” and used it as a weekend retreat from Washington, D.C. during his presidency. The Eisenhowers entertained such visitors here as John F. Kennedy and Charles de Gaulle.

The modest, two-story brick farmhouse, built in the 1850s, still entertains visitors today. The home is furnished with period furniture and contains many personal items that belonged to Eisenhower and his family.

The Union Wants You

You don’t need to be a Civil War aficionado or history buff to enjoy Gettysburg. Strolling through the battlefield and cemetery, taking in the museum exhibits and standing in the shadows of historic events makes for a fun weekend—not to mention the beautiful scenery of the surrounding wooded hills. You’ll probably learn something along the way—we certainly did.

Who says you have to study to learn?

The Safest Way to Go to War

Want to add a little more excitement to your tour of Gettysburg?

This year, the 160th anniversary Battle of Gettysburg reenactment will be held on the weekend of June 30, July 1 and July 2.

The reenactment is hosted by the Gettysburg Battle Preservation Association and takes place on the battlefield at Daniel Lady Farm. It is expected to feature more than 5,000 reenactors from all over the world and will include artillery, cavalry and other military equipment from the Civil War era. Tickets can be purchased online or onsite and range from $15 to $130.

The Battle of Gettysburg was a pivotal moment in the American Civil War. It was the culmination of a Confederate offensive campaign led by Gen. Robert E. Lee, held back under the leadership of Gen. George G. Meade. The battle resulted in a Union victory and is considered to be one of the turning points of the war.

Food and drink will be available to purchase, and there will be a variety of activities for children.

The 160th Anniversary Battle of Gettysburg Reenactment is a great opportunity to learn about the Battle of Gettysburg and the American Civil War. The reenactment is also a great way to experience history and to see the Gettysburg National Military Park in a whole new way.

Eric D. Goodman is the author of six books and more than 100 published short stories and travel stories. Learn more about his travels and writing at EricDGoodman.com.

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