Gettysburg: America’s preeminent battlefield shrine and the museum of the civil war


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.

So, instead, we viewed the Electric Map display, which describes the battle and uses colored lights to depict various troop movements. We also visited the Cyclorama Center, which presents a sound-and-light program inside a circular auditorium that dramatically shows Pickett’s charge by spotlighting selected segments of Paul Philippoteaux’s 360-foot oil painting of this historical event

The synopsis:  The Confederate Army approached Gettysburg from the northwest and immediately attacked the Union Army, which had been trailing it and was advancing into Gettysburg from the southeast. General Lee’s plan was to invade the North and bring the war to Union territory. General Meade, who had just replaced General Joseph Hooker, had been ordered by President Lincoln to track Lee’s army and prevent Lee from attacking the city of Washington. 

On July 1, in early morning, Confederate troops attacked Union troops on McPherson Ridge, just west of town.  You can drive around the battlefield and, using an audiotape, hear a reenacted description of the battle, engagement by engagement. There are thousands of monuments and dozens of convenient parking areas.  It takes about three hours to complete the drive.  There is a helpful printed guide, Touring the Battlefield, and the paved roadways enable you to navigate the battlefield with ease and gain access to all of the highlights without needing to ask for directions.

By 4 p.m. on July 1, the Confederate troops had driven the Union troops back into the town of Gettysburg, capturing thousands of them. The Union troops retreated to high ground south of town called Cemetery and Culp’s hills.  Throughout the night, the rest of both armies arrived at the battlefield.  When dawn broke on July 2, the armies occupied parallel ridges (the South on Seminary Ridge to the west of town, and the North on Cemetery Ridge to the east of town).