Next year marks the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg and the Gettysburg Address. To celebrate these milestones, why not plan a visit? Gettysburg, Pennsylvania is a small town with a big part in American Civil War history. Gettysburg is approximately 1 hour southwest of the state capital Harrisburg, one and a half hours northwest of Baltimore, and three and half hours east of Pittsburgh. While the town of Gettysburg is most famous for the Battle of Gettysburg and Abraham Lincoln’s speech, there is a lot to do in the town and you should consider visiting.
Most people familiar with the Civil War have heard about the Battle of Gettysburg. The battle took place on July 1-3, 1863 and is credited with the most casualties of any battle during the entire Civil War and also as the turning point of the war. The war was fought between General George Meade's Army of the Potomac (USA) and Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia (CSA). Due to the sheer number of casualties resulting from the battle, the need for a permanent resting place was apparent and Soldiers' National Cemetery was created immediately following the battle. Abraham Lincoln came to the cemetery’s dedication in November of 1863. While he was the secondary speaker behind Edward Everett, a well-known orator at the time, it was Abraham Lincoln's "few appropriate remarks" that have led to a two-minute speech that is recognized as one of the most important speeches in American history.
The Battle of Gettysburg was a pivotal battle in the Civil War because it was one of the only battles that was fought in the North. Gen. Robert E. Lee purposely came to fight in the North in order to scare the Union politicians into negotiating a truce. Gettysburg is centrally located and it's not surprising that the battle took place in this area. Gettysburg is like the center of a wheel with spokes and makes traveling to many other Northern cities very easy. Most importantly, from Gettysburg, there is one centrally located road that you could have taken directly to Baltimore and Washington, DC. If the South won the Battle of Gettysburg, it is theoretically possible they would have been able to march right into Washington, DC.
Things To Do
Once you arrive in town, your first stop should be at the Gettysburg National Military Park Museum and Visitor Center. At the museum and visitor center, you can obtain information about the park, tours, and visit the museum. Housed within the museum is the Gettysburg Cyclorama. This cyclorama was painted in 1883 by French artist Paul Philippoteaux and depicts “Pickett’s Charge”, which was the final offensive by the South during the battle. This unique illustration provides 360 degree viewing and is truly breathtaking. The painting has been restored and when viewed you literally feel as if you can walk out onto the battlefield.
The next stop during your visit to Gettysburg should be the Gettysburg National Military Park. There are numerous ways in which you can tour the park: you can tour via a group bus tour, hire out private licensed tour guides to ride in your car with you, or you can purchase a self-guided audio tour. The option you choose should be dependent on the depth of information you want to learn. There are approximately 1,328 monuments and 26 miles of paved roads within the park, so there is a lot to see and a lot of ground to cover. Bus tours are a good option if you want to get an overview of the area and a relaxing bus ride, whereas the private licensed tour guide will get into your car with you and enable you to have a customized tour, allowing you to request extra emphasis on a particular spot on the battlefield. This option may be better for visitors that already have a working knowledge of the battle or wish to focus their tour on a specific element of one of the armies. The self-guided tour is a good in-between or if you want to go at your own pace. Licensed tour guides are tested experts and are the only guides allowed to be hired in the park, so you will definitely be getting your money’s worth.
Another place to visit in Gettysburg is Soldiers’ National Cemetery, which is the final resting place for many of the Union soldiers who were killed at the Battle of Gettysburg. The creation of the cemetery started within the weeks following the battle. After the battle, the dead were crudely and quickly buried for fear of an epidemic spreading in the hot, humid summer. It was also quickly recognized that these men who gave their lives deserved a proper burial. In this spirit, a committee was created representing all of the Northern states that lost soldiers. David Wills was a local attorney, head of the committee, and also represented Pennsylvania on the committee. The committee decided on a common burial design and also decided on the location of Cemetery Hill, as this place played an important roll in the North’s victory. The land was quickly purchased and the reburials began. The cemetery was formally dedicated on November 19, 1863 and is the place where President Abraham Lincoln delivered his famous Gettysburg Address.
Another place to visit in the center of town is the David Wills house. David Wills was an attorney in Gettysburg during the Civil War and he was the central force behind the restoration of the city and creation of the cemetery after the battle. Abraham Lincoln stayed at the David Wills house on the evening before his speech at the dedication of Soldiers' National Cemetery. The house opened to the public on February 12, 2009 in honor of Abraham Lincoln’s 200th birthday. The Wills house features a museum with 6 galleries, which includes two rooms that have been restored to their 1863 appearances. You can also view Wills’ office and the bedroom where Lincoln stayed the night before he delivered his famous Gettysburg Address. The Wills House museum is managed by the Gettysburg Foundation. The Gettysburg Foundation is the official partner of the National Park Service and Gettysburg National Military Park.
In Gettysburg you can also visit President Eisenhower's house. The house and farm are run by the National Park Service as the Eisenhower National Historic site. The property is adjacent to the Gettysburg battlefield and was a weekend retreat for Dwight and Mamie and also was a house that many foreign diplomats would come to visit during Dwight’s presidency. Both the house and property are maintained as they were when the Eisenhower’s lived there, and the house has almost all of it’s original furnishings. If you would like to visit the property, you must buy your tickets at the Visitors Center and take a bus to the property. No private vehicles are allowed.
Dining and Alternative Transportation
After exploring Gettysburg, you will work up an appetite and a good place to go for lunch or dinner is the Dobbin House Tavern. The Dobbin house dates back to 1776 when Alexander Dobbin built the house. In the 1800s, the house was a stop on the Underground Railroad. The house is now a restaurant and features employees who work in costume. The Dobbin House features two candlelit dining areas. The upstairs room is for more formal dining whereas the downstairs room of the restaurant is for casual food. They serve American cuisine and the menu is written in period era English. The house remains virtually the same as it was originally built. After eating your meal, make sure that you take a look at the secret crawl space where the runaway slaves would stay, along with a natural spring that runs underneath the house and also the attic, which has historic artifacts.
As an alternative to using your personal vehicle for transportation, feel free to explore Gettysburg using the city’s transit system, Freedom Transit. Freedom Transit is a free public transportation system operating throughout Gettysburg with bus stops conveniently located at many of the major tourist stops. During peak season the old and narrow streets of Gettysburg can become congested with traffic and using your own vehicle may not be the wisest choice for transportation. That being said, Freedom Transit offers a convenient way to take in Gettysburg without the hassle of consistently finding parking for your personal vehicle at each of the different stops you intend on visiting. Be sure to check Freedom Transit’s schedule before you head out for the day, as the schedules and routes change depending on the season.
Gettysburg, Pennsylvania holds a special place in American history for the events that took place there in 1863. Now that the 150th anniversary of those events is approaching, the time to take a trip there has never been better! The National Park Service is actually undertaking efforts to restore the battlefield to its original condition for the anniversary, such as re-planting specific crops in the spots in which they were known to be during the battle. The landscape, monuments, and the history make this place so special and is a place that once you visit – you will never forget.
***For another great weekend trip destination, check out Portland, Maine.