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Visiting Gettysburg

Approaching Gettysburg from the south, along the Emmitsburg Road (Route 15) your first impression is of stone monuments rising up out of peaceful fields. You’re driving along the shallow, mile-wide valley which once separated two mighty armies – the valley across which Pickett led his magnificent and futile charge. The sense of this special place creeps upon you as, almost unconsciously, you slow down and begin to gaze about you.

This is hallowed, and haunted, ground.

One of the two major Civil War battlefields outside the former Confederacy, Gettysburg was the scene of the war’s bloodiest battle, and one of its most decisive. Together with the fall of Vicksburg, Mississippi – on the day after the guns fell silent at Gettysburg – the first four days of July, 1863, marked the military turning point of the Civil War. After Gettysburg and Vicksburg, the cause of the Confederacy would depend upon the politics of the Union. If Northern will held firm, the South could not win.

For both casual tourists and serious students of history, Gettysburg offers a scene of unique and terrible beauty. Perhaps it’s the sombre stone monuments – Union memorials to specific units, Confederate memorials to troops from the various states. Perhaps it’s the peaceful acreage of Gettysburg National Cemetery, carved out of the battlefield itself – the place where President Lincoln delivered his now famous Address honoring those who gave “the last full measure of devotion”.

Or perhaps it’s something more – the lingering presence of the thousands who fell at Gettysburg.

Whatever the reason, this field has a haunted air.

If you want to do justice to Gettysburg, even as a casual tourist, you’ll want to spend at least one night and two days. Make your reservations ahead of time. Gettysburg is a popular destination, and driving around crowded streets of this little town is no way to find accommodation.

Try to arrive in the early afternoon, in time to check into your hotel or B&B and get to the Gettysburg Museum and Visitor Center – the best place to start if you plan a lengthy exploration of the battlefield – and the indispensable point of departure for a shorter visit.

The Museum and Visitor Center offers three major opportunities to learn about the Battle of Gettysburg: the museum itself; a short film, followed by a visit to the famous battlefield cyclorama; and a two-hour bus tour of the battlefield. Altogether, these three experiences would constitute a hard day’s tourism – and a nearly overwhelming amount of information to process. However, if you buy a combination ticket late enough in the afternoon, you can split your visit between two days – a very wise idea.

On the whole, it’s probably preferable to begin your tour inside the Visitor Center, reserving the bus tour for the morning of the second day. But if you have a decent familiarity with story of Gettysburg and the lay of the land, reversing this order will do quite nicely.

You’ll want to allow at least two hours, and a good deal of mental energy, to do justice to the museum. It would be a great pity to stroll quickly through this well-organized treasury of historical relics, and there’s a great deal to be learned from numerous multimedia presentations on the battle and its historical context.

The film and cyclorama will take another hour. These paired visual presentations are more relaxing, but, should you need to take a break after the museum, the Visitor Center has both a coffee shop and an ample cafeteria, as well as space for strolling around or resting.

The guided bus tours departing from the Visitor Center are a fine way to see most of the battlefields. The guides are independent contractors who have been thoroughly tested on their knowledge of the Battle of Gettysburg and a good deal of background information. However, they don’t work from a standard script, so your experience will be distinctly personal.

The bus stops three times for guests to stretch their legs, including – for the benefit of children and older passengers – a stop midway at a gift shop with clean restrooms. One stop will be a bit challenging for some – a short walk over uneven, stoney ground to the heights of Little Round Top. But the view is worth the walk, even for the wobbliest tourist.

All in all, a bus tour is well worth the fare, affording a fine way to get a good look at the battlefield and decide where you might want to spend more time. Even if you’re only in Gettysburg for a day or two, there should be time to see a good deal on your own.

Most travelers prefer to make their own housing arrangements, but perhaps it’s not amiss to put in a word for the 1863 Inn of Gettysburg. Located near the intersection of Taneytown Road and Baltimore Street, the Inn is close to nearly everything a visitor will want to see, and within walking distance from some. A five-story, old-school motel with exterior corridors – very nicely updated and clean – the 1863 Inn feels like a bit of history itself. It has ample parking and a helpful staff, and there are good restaurants within a block or two.

The ideal season to see Gettysburg is fall. An early October visitor will experience the battlefields in all their haunting, melancholy beauty. The gray stone of the memorials stands out starkly against a riot of color in the woods which once sheltered the opposing armies’ lines. The crisp air and mist-shrouded light of an autumn morning or evening contribute to the feel of long-ago sadness and a hard-won peace.

Gettysburg is special at any season, but fall is the perfect time to visit.

Most first-time visitors to Gettysburg will probably understimate the time they will want to spend there. Even leaving out the obvious tourist traps, there is much to see and learn. The battlefield itself is accessible by car, and much of it can be walked. And the setting, in the rolling farmland of southern Pennsylvania, has an undeniable charm. A visit to Gettysburg is not something to rush. Give yourself time. You’ll be glad you did.