History is a sleeper for me – until I am onsite. With the exception of a few important dates (hmmm, only 1776 and 1962 come to mind at the moment), history is a blur, including the many now historic events of my own lifetime.
The Civil War is part of the big black hole of “important US history” that is either inaccessible or non-existent in my memory banks. Battalions, brigades, divisions, regiments, all the ranks of military officers… it all is as forgettable to me as domain, kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species (biology being another mystery to me). So, when I say Gettysburg knocks me out, you know it’s not coming from a Civil War geek. If you have even the slightest interest in the Civil War, it likely will knock you out, too.
In case YOU are interested in visiting Gettysburg, here is a summary of what we did, what we considered the highlights, and what we would have done differently. If your travels take you anywhere near Gettysburg, GO!
Day One: When we checked into Artillery Ridge Camping Resort (click here to read our review), we knew it was close to the battlefield, but didn’t realize it was so close that we could WALK to some of the most interesting battle sites. That was a huge plus for us. We would return to this same campground.
We began at the new (2 years old, I think) Gettysburg National Military Park Visitor Center, viewing the orientation film (A New Birth of Freedom, just 22 minutes) and the Gettysburg Cyclorama (se my prior blog post). It is a great way to begin your education.
Next, we drove most of the battlefield, using the map and driving tour we picked up at the Visitor Center. It was a simple, relaxing way to see the huge battlefield at our own pace.
Day Two: We walked from our campground into the park, revisiting Little Round Top, Devil’s Den and the Slaughter Pen on foot.
This is one of the two most important battle sites in the park, and even those of us not schooled in military tactics can easily understand the importance of holding the high ground of Little Round Top. Hand to hand combat, a military blunder by an egotistical military appointee, a forced march through the heat and humidity of July and the valor of troops committed to holding their position at all costs… it is an incredibly heroic story, memorialized with markers, statues, and tablets of all kinds, in all directions. We walked several miles, but you could walk from the campground to Little Round Top and back in about 2 miles, I think.
Day Three: Our 2 1/2 hour Segway tour covered all the ground we had walked, plus the other “most important” site, the area of Pickett’s Charge and the High Water Mark of the Confederacy. Along with the Round Top area, the hand-to-hand fighting here marked a crucial point of the battle, when Union troops held Cemetery Ridge and the Confederates withdrew. On our tour, we heard the recorded narrative of a licensed guide, so learned all the details of both sites, presented with great drama – riveting!
After a rest back at home, we drove through the town of Gettysburg, which we hadn’t even seen yet. Oh, how I wished we had another day to stay in the area, but our campsite was not available for a longer stay.
Heading back home, we parked in the lot for the Gettysburg Military Cemetery, which encompasses the Soldier’s National Cemetery, burial ground for the Union troops killed at Gettysburg and site of Lincoln’s famous dedication address. The walk through the cemetery is evocative and sobering, the sense of history overwhelming. Leaving the cemetery, we walked back through the parking lot, to the west and back to the High Water Mark. For me, this was the high point of the trip, the crux of the battle. Envisioning the events described during our tour gave me chills.
Day Four: Today! Time to leave. :(
Three days were not enough – five would have been great. We had no time to take the historic walking tour of the town, and to enjoy appealing present day Gettysburg.
The Segway tour was great fun – but learning and riding the machine keeps you from focusing fully on the stories playing on your headphones. A tour of some sort is crucial to a real appreciation of the significance of Gettysburg, but I think the open-air, double-decker narrated bus tour would cover more ground while allowing you to give the narration your undivided attention. I will take it next time we visit.
We were happy with the location of our campground, surely the closest to the sites of greatest interest. If you go to Gettysburg, be sure you know how to get to your campground without driving through town – I’d hate to drive a big rig through the narrow roads and the roundabout in the center of town.
So, we came, we saw, we learned, we loved it. See, I just need a field trip to appreciate history. :)