Mention the word “Gettysburg” in any casual conversation, and chances are the people to whom you’re speaking have heard of this fascinating place at least once in their lives. The name of this famous Civil War battle has become a fixture in modern American language. But what is it that draws millions of Americans to the silent fields of remembrance every year? What exactly is there to see at Pennsylvania’s hidden treasure?
A trip to the Gettysburg battlefield will instill a sense of pride at our country’s heritage whether you travel as a “Rebel” or a “Yankee.” Any battlefield excursion should begin at the Gettysburg Visitor’s Center. Two stories of beautifully arranged exhibits, including cannons, small arms, and mementos of the soldiers who fought there, the Visitor’s Center will give you a great introduction to the battle and help you understand the plight of those who died. There is also a book store on the premises, if reading about the battle helps to increase your understanding of events.
Traveling from the heart of historic Gettysburg, a turn onto Doubleday Avenue begins a tour you will never forget. On either side of the road, sacred fields of combat and great monuments loom as far as the eye can see. As you choose which direction to take, you will see a great contrast between huge empty fields, heavily wooded roads, and tangles of boulders unlike anything else in the country.
National Park Service markers line the battlefield roads, helping new travelers stay on the tour. Here are eight great places that history buffs will find particularly interesting:
1. Devil’s Den. A huge jumble of rocks that are supposed to date back millions of years, Devil’s Den still stands just as it did in that bloody July of 1863. For the aspiring climber, a series of paths and bridges crisscross the summit and the view over the fields is astounding. On July 2, 1863, this pile of boulders became a graveyard for many Union soldiers when the boys in gray assailed the den, eventually gaining the heights.
2. Little Round Top. A short climb to the summit of this impressive hill will bring the visitor a bird’s-eye view of the second day’s battlefield. Giant boulders slope gradually into a rocky field known as the Valley of Death. A popular tourist spot, Little Round Top is best visited at sunset, around 6:30, the time when the battle was fought there. This way, visitors to Gettysburg can get a great feel for what it was like to be there. The castle-shaped monument to the 12th and 44th New York can (usually) be climbed for an even more striking view of the surrounding area.
3. The “Bloody Wheatfield.” Today a quiet, monument-strewn field, the Wheatfield owned by farmer John Rose changed hands during the battle at least six times. Countless casualties fell here as the field saw some of the second day’s heaviest combat. Some visitors choose to walk the field to experience what it must have been like for the young men who trekked across this space. If you plan to do so during the summer months, it is practicle to wear long pants and be sure to check you have not brought any tiny “friends” back with you.
4. Pickett’s Charge. This is definitely one of the most visited and most historically significant places on the Gettysburg battlefield. On July 3, 1863, General Robert E. Lee ordered a charge on the Union infantryman holed up behind a stone wall on Cemetery Ridge. Not even allowed to fire as they marched, the Southerners walked calmly to their deaths, through an open field. A great bronze “book” at the Copse of Trees, the point of focus for Lee’s charge, honors the units that gave their sacrifice there. This is a very emotional spot where many feel drawn to the sufferings of the past.
5. Spangler’s Spring. Although the story has never been proven, it is said that both sides came peaceably to drink at this spring during the fight. The water is no longer available to taste-test, but the spring still stands, a reminder of American brotherhood.
6. The National Cemetery. If any place on the field inspires more reverence than all others, it is Gettysburg’s National Cemetery, where thousands of Union soldiers, many unknown, were buried in November of 1863. While you stroll the neat pathways, these unmarked graves standing row on row become a stunning visual reminder of the sacrifice our country made to the Civil War.
7. East Cemetery Hill. This large hill, so named because of the 1850s Evergreen Cemetery built upon it, was originally called Raffensberger’s Hill. During the battle it became a vital Union position as soldiers, retreating after the first day’s defeat, settled here on the high ground. The ground was highly coveted, and Confederate sharpshooters, taking their places in the attics of many of the town’s homes, targeted the Yankees on Cemetery Hill. Today the hill is a great place to view monuments and find a good view of Baltimore Street where the fighting raged.
8. East Cavalry Field. A little known Gettysburg stop-off, Cavalry Field is located outside the limits of the regular battlefield, but, for fields unchanged by time and great places to stop and walk without fear of constant traffic, it is a great tourist destination. Here, J.E.B Stuart and George Custer clashed in a great cavalry duel. Dotted with monuments and cannons, Cavalry Field has the added advantage of little traffic, so drive slowly and enjoy studying this equally important battle site.
There are hundreds of scenic stops, beautifully crafted monuments and markers, and quaint tour roads to keep the Gettysburg visitor happy and fulfilled. The places listed only begin to scratch the surface of the sacred sites, and each monument tells the story of men and boys who gave their lifeblood to save their country.
Gettysburg’s visitor services are exceptional, from the first-time tourist to the weathered travelers. Following is an example of the great possibilities this town provides for you to have an even better stay.
If lodging is a concern, rest assured that Gettysburg has you covered. The choice of lodging varies greatly between budgets, offering everything from more expensive hotels such as the Gettysburg Hotel founded in the 18th century, to the chains of Travelodge, Quality Inn, Holiday Inn and more for travelers who like to stick with what they trust. If everyday hotel chains aren’t the most exciting of prospects, Gettysburg’s quaint, historical Bed and Breakfasts, such as the so-called “haunted” Farnsworth House Inn, will give added flair to your Gettysburg visit.
Need a place to eat after soaking in America’s battlefield? It depends on what you’re hungry for. Small diners such as Ernie’s Texas Lunch compete with the old stand-by burger chains that millions love. If colonial fare is what you’re looking for, Farnsworth House serves a variety of colonial delights at their 19th century inn. In the summer months, try Little Round Top Chuck Wagon off Taneytown Road for all-American favorites. There is no end to Gettysburg’s choices of food if you know where to look. Even if all you want is a deli and a drink, Kennie’s Market in the heart of town caters to your needs.
Although there is no best time of year to visit, keep in mind that, if you are expecting bright days to get crystal-clear pictures, sudden rain clouds can darken the field and then disappear just as quickly. Despite making the roads more treacherous, winter is a great time of year to capture snow-covered monuments and boulders for some memorable photos. Summer months bring abundant sunshine, making summer a favored time for a trip here, when all kinds of flora are in bloom. Unless you don’t mind thousands of tourists crowding the tour routes, I would suggest not traveling during the anniversary of the battle on July 1-3, although viewing many reenactments and getting a feel for the soldiers’ conditions in the summer heat may be an important element for some. All throughout the year, though, expect to catch a glimpse of someone walking downtown in a blue or gray uniform or a hoop-skirted Victorian dress. Gettysburg lovers who walk around in their historical garb make the era of 1863 real to passers-by, even as we drive past in our modern transportation.
As far as I am concerned, there are no con’s about the Gettysburg battlefield and many pro’s, but don’t take my word for it. Go see this national shrine for yourself! The history lover, the couple looking for a unique vacation, or the teacher willing to show children the great moments of the past, are just a few of the countless types of people who feel drawn to this awe-inspiring location.