Gettysburg National Military Park is the site of a pivotal 1863 battle during the American Civil War. It is also where President Abraham Lincoln famously gave his Gettysburg Address at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery.
We often travel to learn and our trip to Gettysburg National Military Park over the Christmas break was the perfect example of that. Here’s what we learned that might help you plan a trip there because (spoiler alert!) everyone should check it out at least once.
WHY YOU SHOULD VISIT
If you’re like me, history class was a long time ago. However, there are some topics that we all have a broad understanding of and one of those is the American Civil War.
Admittedly, the nitty gritty details of when certain battles happened and why they were pivotal in the war’s ultimate outcome have become lost along the way. Maybe I just retained the important bits, but the older I get, the more I appreciate the nuanced details – especially when I have to explain complex topics to my children.
The issue of whether or not slave labor was allowed in the states had been established prior to the Civil War. Plenty of people weren’t happy about it for a variety of reasons. In the North it was harder to compete using “free labor” or non-slave labor. Slavery was central to the break up of the Union because they were fighting over whether or not new U.S. territories (those not yet states) would be able to use slave labor.
The 3-day battle at Gettysburg is considered pivotal because it was the first time General Robert E. Lee had ventured into Union territory. If he had won that battle, historians aren’t sure what would have happened, but the momentum of that Confederate win would have been bad for the Union side.
To me, Gettysburg is hallowed ground. So many men lost their lives there fighting for a cause bigger than any one of them. Visiting this site was a way of paying my respects to the people who played a role in changing the tide of history. Understanding where we came from is crucial to understanding where we are now and where we still need to go.
WHAT YOU CAN EXPERIENCE
Gettysburg is a choose-your-own-adventure sort of place. There is a whole menu of items that you can choose to experience or not experience based on the amount of time and money you have to spend at the park. I’m going to highlight some of those experiences here and direct you to resources for the rest.
Keep in mind that while the Gettysburg National Military Park is open year-round, the program offerings vary by season.
Visitor Center – Film: A New Birth of Freedom
The 20-minute film, A New Birth of Freedom, is a great overview of the Civil War and the role Gettysburg played in the war. Call it your refresher course on all things Civil War-related. As a bonus, it is narrated by Morgan Freeman. Yes, THE Morgan Freeman.
Honestly, if more of the educational films I watched in high school and college were narrated by Morgan Freeman, I probably would have retained more information.
Visitor Center – Cyclorama
The Cyclorama was my favorite part of the Visitor Center experience. Seriously!
What is a cyclorama? It is a circular oil painting. This one depicts Pickett’s Charge and was created by French artist Paul Philippoteaux in the 1880s. The painting is 377 feet in circumference and 42 feet high. That means it is longer than a football field. The painting is displayed as originally intended with an overhang and a 3-D diorama at the base.
It was actually hard to tell where the painting ended and the 3-D diorama began, it was that well done.
Can you tell from the below picture?
The painting underwent a multi-million dollar restoration in 2005.
Don’t dismiss the Cyclorama as a boring painting. When you experience the Cyclorama, it is set to lights, music and narration explaining what happened at Pickett’s Charge. You are able to walk around on a circular stage to view the painting as the narration is ongoing and it is quite the enthralling experience. Even my kids liked it!
Visitor Center – Museum
The reason why I know the Morgan Freeman-narrated film was so good is that when we entered the museum there was a 5-minute opening movie. My kids said, “That was the same information in the other film we already watched!” Good to know they were listening.
The museum is MUCH larger than it appears. Typical of many museums, it will walk you through the events of Gettysburg and the broader Civil War in a chronological fashion.
This is NOT a hands-on museum, but it is very informative.
The accounts of the townspeople who lived in the town of Gettysburg were very compelling to me. They have on display furniture from people’s homes that is pockmarked with bullet holes. Can you imagine?
Do you see the bullet hole in the below bedpost?
I was also shocked to learn, because I haven’t given it much thought, that Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was given mixed reviews in the national and international press.
The Chicago Times called his remarks “dishwatery.”
President Lincoln’s remarks followed that of popular orator Edward Everett who spoke for two hours. In contrast, Lincoln spoke for only two minutes. Everett later said to Lincoln, “I wish that I could flatter myself that I had come as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.”
Eisenhower National Historic Site
I’ll bet you didn’t know you could learn about Gettysburg and visit President Eisenhower’s home in one visit! Eisenhower had a farm immediately adjacent to the Gettysburg site and he often entertained world leaders there.
If you decide to go on this tour, a shuttle bus will take you from the visitor center to Eisenhower’s home and back.
Gettysburg National Cemetery
If you don’t have time beyond visiting the museum, please include an extra 30-minute stop at the Gettysburg National Cemetery. The full impact of the loss of life can really be felt by taking a walk around the cemetery.
This is also good practice, if you are visiting with kids, to teach them to be respectful while visiting a cemetery.
The carnage of the battle was horrific. How do you hastily bury thousands of bodies? You really don’t. Shallow graves were dug for many, but it became apparent that a better solution was needed.
The process of carefully removing and reinterring the bodies of the soldiers took approximately five months. Much thought went into how these gravesites would be organized. If the soldiers were identified, their final resting place was organized by state. If they were unidentified, they were grouped in one area and marked as unknown. There are 3,580 Union soldiers buried at Gettysburg. 979 of the soldiers are unknown.
The bodies of the Confederate soldiers remained buried on the battlefield for up to ten years after the battle. The remains of 3,200 Confederate soldiers were later returned to sites in Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia.
David Wills House
The home of David Wills was used as a center, of sorts, for the clean up after the battle. Among other tasks, the planning for the National Cemetery was made from his home.
It is also were President Lincoln stayed the night before he gave his Gettysburg Address.
If you tour this home, you can see where Lincoln stayed and worked on his remarks for the dedication of the cemetery.
Guided and Self-Guided Tours of Battlefield Sites
If you would like to book a tour with a licensed Battlefield Guide, you can do so in advance here. You can also join a tour on a first come, first served basis on the day of your visit.
If you want to take a self-guided driving tour of the various battlefield sites, you can download a map from the National Park Service site here or you can pick up a map when you visit the Visitor Center.
If you want the best of both worlds, detailed information from a Park Ranger and zero cost, then consider checking out the Ranger Programs offered at the park. There are programs for kids too!
TIPS FOR VISITING THE PARK
The park is open year-round except for a few select holidays. However, some of the attractions, like the David Wills House, are closed during certain times of the year.
We could have (and probably should have) spent ALL DAY at the park instead of just an afternoon. If you plan on taking the driving tour or visiting Eisenhower’s home, definitely allocate most of a day to spending at this park.
This is one of the few times when I think I would have enjoyed paying to have a guide lead us on a tour of the park. I eavesdropped on a couple of tours and the information they were providing their guests was so rich and insightful. Plus, I had so many questions that I would have liked to have answered straight away.
There is a small cafe on site. There’s also a McDonald’s right on the other side of the cemetery parking lot, so you will not starve on this trip.
Of course there is a gift shop in the Visitor Center. It is huge! We collect souvenir pins, playing cards and souvenir pennies, all which were available there.
VISITING WITH KIDS
As modern and impressive as this facility is, it is not as interactive as some parks and museums we’ve visited. This is a heads up, not a criticism – especially since this park deals with a tough subject and a sobering time in our nation’s history.
We saw plenty of kids during our visit. Our own kids are nine and twelve and did okay with the museum, but they wanted to move pretty quickly through the exhibits. They enjoyed the movie and cyclorama the most.
Our goal when visiting historic sites with our kids is not that they absorb every single detail about the event in question. Rather, we are hoping they walk away with exposure to a different time period and a better understanding of how a historic event shaped their lives today. It’s amazing how much information they actually pick-up in-between bouts of whining!
If you are traveling with a 4th grader who has the free National Parks pass, you CANNOT use it for your admission to the museum. This is because the museum and park are managed by the Gettysburg Foundation. You can use the pass for free admission to the Eisenhower house tour.
The places mentioned in this post have no idea who I am. I just like to write about places we’ve visited that I think you’ll enjoy as well.
To plan your trip, please visit the Gettysburg National Military park site here.
To book tour guides or to learn about special events, visit the Gettysburg Foundation here.
If you’d like to listen to a podcast by the Licensed Tour Guides of Gettysburg, click here. We listened to some of the episodes on our drive to Gettysburg. It was very informative. In full disclosure, our kids weren’t super happy with our choice. They put their headphones on and listened to music instead. You win some, you lose some.
I have written and rewritten these next sentences multiple times and cannot seem to get it right. Please forgive me in advance.
I grew up on the West Coast of the USA and only read about the Civil War in history books. It is only as an adult that I’ve had the opportunity to visit some of the sites central to the Civil War.
Every visit to one of these sites evokes similar feelings. Gratitude that the United States survived this conflict. Shame that we had to fight it in the first place. Anger that prejudice and oppression exists. Wonder as to what I would have done had I lived in the 1860s. Appreciation that we’ve come a long way since then, but with acknowledgment that it is not nearly far enough. Hope that my children’s generation and the generations to come will do an increasingly better job at treating all people with compassion and respect.
History comes alive when you visit places like Gettysburg National Military Park in person. I firmly believe learning about the past helps us make better decisions for the future. If you haven’t been, I hope you make time to visit Gettysburg.
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