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Gettysburg Battlefield

I recently had the opportunity to visit Gettysburg again, this time as a museum professional and historian, rather than a teenager on a school bus trip. I was amazed at how differently I looked at it.

I remembered it as a powerful and solemn place, but it still meant so much more to me as an adult, partially because it was part of a “tribute trip” to a dear friend and Civil War fanatic who passed away last year at the age of 80. He could turn just about any conversation into a discussion about Gettysburg. I always indulged him. I was his “historian” friend, so he knew he could always “talk history” with me.

As my husband and I stood on the battlefield, we tried to imagine what it must have been like to be there on July 1, 2 and 3, 1863. We envisioned bullets whizzing past us, charging troops with bayonets gleaming in the sun, horses being shot out from under their riders, the screams of young men whose limbs were being amputated without the benefit of anesthesia.

It is a picture of war that is quite different from how we do it today. A cannonball couldn’t shoot all that far compared to today’s weapons that kill anonymously and indiscriminately. This kind of warfare was “up close and personal,” young boys often fighting hand to hand, looking the enemy directly in the eye as they killed.

And every single person who died that day was just on a different side of the same coin. Every soldier was an American, every death tallied in the same column.

As we toured, we talked about how we glorify the Civil War in this country, and we wondered if other countries do the same with similar wars in their history. It was a terrible time for our country. What makes us idealize this era?

There are lots and lots of museums and restaurants to visit in Gettysburg. We weren’t in town long enough to experience many of them. We hope to get back someday when we have more time.

To visit the battlefield itself, you have four options, none of which is walking it! The perimeter road is over 20 miles long, which makes virtually impossible to tour on foot. You can bike it or ride a horse, if you choose, but these are the most common “motorized” ways to see the battlefield:

1. You can hire a “step-on” guide who will get into your car and drive it for you, giving you a personalized tour of the battlefield. The guide will stop anywhere you want and answer any and all questions you might have. This is your most expensive option.

2. You can purchase a ticket for a tour bus and ride along with a group. The drawback to this option is that the bus only stops at certain locations, and you can’t always get off to look around. I’ve also heard that many of the buses now run recordings instead of featuring a live guide.

3. You can purchase an audio tour to play in your car. This gives you some flexibility to stop and get out when and where you want, while providing you with a “virtual tour guide” to explain what you are seeing. It is unlikely you will ever use the CD again, so this is a one-time investment that may seem a bit pricey.

4. You can take a self-guided tour with the help of a free brochure and map from the National Park Service. The stops are well marked on the route, and when you get out to view the scene there are a variety of text panels explaining what you are looking at. This is obviously the most cost-effective option, but I would only recommend this for people who have already have a knowledge of the Civil War in general and the Battle of Gettysburg in particular. We oriented ourselves first by purchasing a $4 ticket to the “Electric Map” at the Visitor’s Center. While a bit dated (the voiceover sounds like a commercial from the 1950s, and you can hear the electric lights flicking on and off!), the map is an effective tool for explaining the details of the battle, as well as creating an overview of the area that will help you figure out where things happened in relation to what is standing there today.

The National Park Service has embarked on an ambitious project to make the landscape look the same as it did in 1863. As a result, when we were there we saw many projects in progress, including replanting fields, trimming back trees and bushes, and constructing new fencing that replicates what was there during the battle.

No trip to Gettysburg would be complete without a visit to the cemetery, located across the street from the Visitor’s Center. Veterans from all of our nation’s wars are buried there. The property it dotted with all kinds of trees, clearly labeled for those of us who don’t know much about such things. It is also the site where President Lincoln delivered his famous Gettysburg Address.

A word to the wise…

If at all possible, avoid planning your trip to Gettysburg until after the National Park Service opens its new Visitor’s Center in the spring of 2008. The current museum is terrible! I understand they are preparing to build a new site, with all the bells and whistles, but that doesn’t mean the current facility should be allowed to go to rack and ruin in the meantime. There are many inexpensive ways to upgrade the current exhibits to make them presentable. Thousands of people from across the country visit this site every year, and I thought it was disgraceful to let the exhibits become so run down. I daresay nothing had been changed since I visited over 18 years ago. To let a national shrine that houses the country’s largest and most comprehensive collection of Civil War artifacts look that way is shameful.

I am unsure about the fate of the “Electric Map.” A local told us that it is too big to move, so they will have to wait until they start to tear down the current museum to remove it from the building. I think the concept should absolutely be utilized in the new facility, but an upgrade to the recording and technology would be appropriate.

Visiting Gettysburg is definitely a “must do” on anyone’s travel list. It is an important site in our history, and you really can “feel” what happened there. I am looking forward to seeing the new Visitor’s Center when I return someday, which will no doubt bring the battle to life in new and exciting ways. Preservation groups have worked hard to make sure the surrounding skyline looks as close as possible to the way it did when the battle took place, so it really isn’t that hard to gaze around you and “see” what happened there…

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