Gettysburg: America’s preeminent battlefield shrine and the museum of the civil war
A total of 23,000 soldiers of Union forces and 28,000 soldiers of Confederate forces were killed
Gettysburg is a sleepy crossroads town. Situated in hilly Cumberland Valley fields in Pennsylvania, it is a musket volley or two short of 215 miles southwest of Manhattan. Now a national battlefield shrine, in July 1863 it was the turning point in our nation’s Civil War, known as the War Between the States to our Southern countrymen.
For three days – July 1, 2 and 3 – General George Gordon Meade and his Army of the Potomac battled General Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia. The fighting men of both sides, North and South, made history in the battle that forever changed America. A total of 23,000 soldiers of Union forces and 28,000 soldiers of Confederate forces were killed, wounded, captured or reported missing in action in the epic confrontation.
It is worth a trip, if only to stand on the actual ground of General Pickett’s famous charge. General Lee viewed the charge, which he ordered and always regretted, from a vantage point on Seminary Ridge in the center of Confederate lines above the battlefield. It is here, at the site of the Virginia State monument topped by a majestic statue of Lee on his horse, Traveler, that you fully grasp what happened on that terrible day.
After a fierce artillery barrage, 12,000 Confederate soldiers advanced almost one mile, across open fields, without cover or concealment, into the jaws of massive Union artillery firing shell and canister (buckshot). They marched toward certain death.
What makes Gettysburg so attractive as a tourist destination is its proximity and easy accessibility. It is an easy four-hour drive from New York City. Head south on the New Jersey Turnpike to Exit 6, and then west on the Pennsylvania Turnpike past Harrisburg, General Lee’s ultimate target of his northern thrust, to Route 15. Take Route 15 south for about 30 miles and bear right, west, along Baltimore pike to Gettysburg.
One Thanksgiving past, my wife, Eleanor, and I booked two nights at the Holiday Inn Battlefield at 516 Baltimore Street. The price was reasonable, the room spacious with a king-size comfortable bed, and there was free, convenient parking in the rear. We arrived at dinnertime, showered, dressed, and then enjoyed a delicious, moderately priced turkey dinner in celebration of America’s favorite holiday.
The hotel is close to the battlefield, which is a few miles south of the town center. Next door to the hotel is the house where the battle’s only noncombatant casualty, a young Irish-born woman, was shot dead by a Confederate musket ball.
The next day, Friday, we drove two minutes to the Visitor Center and the Gettysburg Museum of the Civil War. We could have walked. We arrived at 10 a.m., about two hours after the center had opened for the day, but two hours too late to hire a battlefield guide for a personal, escorted tour. There are only a few guides available in the fall. Many more, of course, are available in summer, the peak of tourism, when millions visit. But you have to be early whatever the season.
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