The Civil War was one of the most definitive moments in the history of the United States. Every American, if not every educated person in the world, has at least a basic knowledge of the American Civil War. The great war about slavery, or even more so, freedom. The freedom of all men, regardless of color, religion, or any kind of belief. North versus south, brother vs brother. Many Americans still have pretty deep feelings about the repercussions of this conflict today. Some would even say that the ideas that we fought about back then are still being fought about 150 years later.
There is a small town in south central Pennsylvania that unfortunately for them, became one of the most important locations in the nation. Gettysburg was just a small town that happened to be at a crossroads of many main routes through Pennsylvania between Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Shippensburg, PA. Read more here. The population in 1860, three years before the Civil War changed the town forever, was only 2,400. At the end of the battle, which took place in 1863 between July 1st and July 3rd, roughly 8,000 men had lost their lives in Gettysburg. Incredibly, only 1 Gettysburg resident was killed while the three day battle raged all around the town. Her name was Jennie Wade. Her story is tied to the war in various ways, as most American’s were during this time, and is worth looking into further if you’re interested. She is buried in the Gettysburg National Cemetery alongside the other thousands who died over those few summer days.
Gettysburg National Cemetery is one of many locations millions of Americans have visited since this historic battle. Gettysburg became a place to pay your respects to those who fought for freedom soon after the Union won the war and continues to be a popular destination today. Tourism has become a huge industry for Gettysburg over the years, for the most part, tastefully. Being a national park, the battlefield has no commercial interests related to it, and stays largely as it was in 1863. If fact, the national park service is continually trying to keep the landscape as close to how it looked during the battle by studying photos from that time, trimming and planting accordingly.
The main attraction to the park is, of course, to tour the battlefield, which covers about 6,000 acres. But before you begin one of the many guided tours or your self-guided auto tour, you should start at the Gettysburg Museum and Visitor’s Center. The current museum and visitor’s center was built in 2008 and features the restored cyclorama. Read more about the cyclorama here. It’s definitely worth spending an hour or two looking through the various exhibits which illustrate American life in the mid 19th century and, of course more specially, a chronologically sorted, very well presented display of the three days of the battle of Gettysburg. Admission to the museum is not cheap, and just in case you want to spend more money, there is a very nice cafe, along with a large gift shop featuring everything from historic texts and battlefield auto tour CDs to civil war toys, t-shirts and fudge.
After you’ve spent too much money, you can at least feel better that the main feature of Gettysburg is free, after all, it’s a national park.
Gettysburg National Battlefield Park is the largest gathering of monuments in the world. Overall there are more than 1,300 monuments spread out over around 6,000 acres to explore. This comes as no surprise in spots as you weave in and out of the sometimes pretty intricate sculptures. Little Round Top and the Pennsylvania Monument are the largest monuments and should not be missed. Little Round Top is a collection of castle like structures, one which can be climbed up through, on top of an exposed hill overlooking Devil’s Den, another park favorite. The Pennsylvania Monument is a 110 foot granite memorial hall which can also be climbed and offers very scenic views of portions of the battlefield and town. Etched in bronze on all sides are the names of the roughly 34,000 Pennsylvanians who fought here at Gettysburg. Devil’s Den, while not a monument per se, although there are many surrounding it, is possibly the favorite stop for visitors. While it was an important location during the battle, the draw is the collection of gigantic boulders which were deposited here a couple million years ago. It’s an impressive field which can be climbed and explored freely. There is an obvious section where all travelers wander around, however if you have the time, there are many more huge boulders to explore across the road. Just watch out for snakes in the summer.
The monuments in Gettysburg can signify a range of subjects. For the most part they are broken down between the two sides, union and confederate, with the respective markers being placed in their historically accurate positions throughout the battlefield. For example, the monument for the 20th Maine has been placed where that company made their stand on little round top. But this is just one example, the monuments in Gettysburg can be in honor of the state where soldiers came from, the units in which they served, or for individuals such as generals and other commanding officers like Longstreet and Meade. For obvious reasons, the union monuments greatly outnumber the confederate ones, however the confederacy is well represented here. There are a few other monuments around that honor specific locations or events, like the Gettysburg address and the high water mark. Also, there are additional monuments outside of the National Park that are on private land or the surrounding areas which have been placed because a specific battle or event happened there.
While most people will focus on the battlefield, the entire town of Gettysburg is a monument to those 3 days in 1863. They layout of the town is largely the same as it was then, with countless historic building throughout the area. The historic significance of Gettysburg has kept up interest in leaving places as they were instead of constantly updating and rebuilding everything like most towns around Gettysburg have done in the last 150 years. If you have the time, it’s well worth it to walk around and explore the entire town.