Gettysburg is probably the most important and well known battle ever fought on American soil. For even the most casual student of history, most of the landmarks, important moments, and generals who fought in the battle of Gettysburg have familiar names. Because of this rich history, a trip to this historic battlefield is an opportunity that should not be passed up.
To relate all of the events of the entire three day battle would take quite a bit, so let me give a brief outline. In 1863, the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, energized by several recent victories, marched north into Pennsylvania in an attempt to defeat the Union Army on their own soil and end the war. Unfortunately for Robert E. Lee, the Confederate Commander, several blunders prior to and during the first day of battle put them in the unenviable position of staring up at the Union Army, who possessed the high ground. The second day of conflict involved fierce fighting at the Peach Orchard and Wheat Field, as well as unsuccessful attempts by the Confederates to push their opponents from the high ground on the far right and left sides of the battlefield. On the third day, thinking the flanks of the Union forces to be strong, Lee attempted a massive assault on the Union center, known as Pickett’s Charge, in which three entire Confederate divisions were sent across a mile of open ground toward the Northern position. Not surprisingly, this attack failed, thus ending the battle, crippling Lee’s army beyond the South’s capacity to replenish it, and expelling the Southern forces from Union soil, never to return. Although the Union Army sustained heavy casualties as well, they were better equipped to recover due to their industrial might and endless supply of troops, whereas the Confederates, who had already been outmanned and outgunned for the first two years of the war, had no way of replacing their losses.
When you visit the battlefield, the best place to start, as with most other battlefield sites is the visitor’s center. Getting there is not difficult as it is on Baltimore St., which is easily accessible from Highway 30. Signage along the main roads will also get you there with little trouble. At the visitor’s center there is actually a self-guided auto tour which can be purchased, and gives you a fairly thorough tour of the park. There are other tour options as well, including tours which can be taken with park rangers. Either way you decide to tour the park, take your time and soak it all in. There are so many important landmarks and monuments to see, such as McPherson’s Ridge from the first day of battle, Devil’s Den, Little Round Top, The Wheatfield, and the Peach Orchard from the second day, and of course Cemetery Ridge, where Pickett’s Charge reached its peak on the third day. This list does not even include other areas, such as the site where Lincoln gave his famous Gettysburg Address, and the site of the Confederate and Union Headquarters during the battle.
Because there are so many interesting sites to see at Gettysburg, I would recommend a two day visit to anyone who is truly wanting to take everything in. I guarantee that if you are even a casual student of history, a trip to Gettysburg, and an opportunity to see all of the famous landmarks you have heard about, will be well worth it.
Here are a couple of books in our collection you might want to check out if you are planning on taking a trip to Gettysburg:
Hallowed Ground: A Walk at Gettysburg by James M. McPherson – This is an interesting book in which the author gives you a tour of the battlefield as he relays the events to you. He seamlessly blends the past with the present, telling you what happened at particular points of the battle, and what those places are like today if you visit.
Jeff Shaara’s Civil War Battlefields – This book gives a strong, detailed account of the battle without being too detailed. Shaara not only gives details of the battle, but also explains the importance, effects, and the places he recommends visiting today.
I also have to recommend the movie Gettysburg starring Martin Sheen, Tom Berenger, and Jeff Daniels. Although historical movies often lose a great deal of reality in their transition to the big screen, this movie is about as historically accurate as a movie can be. If you decide to watch it, be prepared for a marathon, though, because it’s over four hours long. It’s well worth the time, however.