The second-to-last day of our trip, W- and I spent at the main event (so to speak) of our Civil War Battlefield tour – Gettysburg National Military Park. Since the wedding rehearsal dinner we had to attend wasn’t until late evening, we had all day to explore the park, which I highly encouraged W- to do since who only knows the next time we’ll be in Pennsylvania.
While he looked at the different tour options in the Visitor’s Center, I checked out the display of musical instruments used by soldiers on the battlefield (my mother is a music teacher, so I knew she’d appreciate seeing some photos of them). Eventually he settled on The Gettysburg Story Battlefield Auto Tour, which gives tourists three options, depending on how long they have to spend at the park. It’s narrated by Stephen Lang, who played Major General George Pickett in the 1993 film Gettysburg (the movie is more than 4hrs long, but totally worth the time). We chose the longest tour option, which was supposedly going to take three hours; however, we took our time at each stop, reading every sign and climbing every observation tower, stretching three hours into eight. The extra time was definitely worth it as we didn’t feel rushed or like we missed anything.
Something I wasn’t aware of, but we learned at the beginning of the audio tour is that there are over 1,300 monuments and statues in Gettysburg National Military Park, effectively making it one of the largest sculpture gardens in the world. Why so many monuments/markers/memorials/etc. you ask? There’s literally something for every single division, brigade, and line, documenting the positions and actions of the soldiers throughout the entire three days of battle. So if you had an ancestor who fought in the Civil War at the Battle of Gettysburg, you would be easily able to trace all of their movements and stand where they stood.
For anyone not familiar with the Battle of Gettysburg, it was part of Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s second invasion of the North, and was the turning point of the American Civil War. On July 1, 1863, the battle began with Confederate Maj. Gen. Henry Heth’s troops engaging Union Brig. Gen. John Buford’s cavalry, despite Lee’s direct order to avoid an engagement until the entirety of the Confederate forces were gathered. Buford’s cavalry was vastly outnumbered, but they were soon reinforced by Maj. Gen. John F. Reynolds’ infantry. Reynolds was actually shot and killed after joining the fighting, but eventually the Union forces established defensive positions south of Gettysburg on Cemetery Hill.
On Day #2 of the battle, the remainder of both armies arrived on the scene, and there were several failed attempts by Confederate troops to attack Union flanks (i.e. the right or left end of a military formation), most notably at Little Round Top, Culp’s Hill, and Cemetery Hill, but the Union lines held fast.
The third and final day of the Battle of Gettysburg is probably the most famous in terms of pop culture and general knowledge because of Pickett’s Charge. Basically General Lee had a theory that the Commander of the Union Army, Maj. Gen. George Meade, had fortified the flanks following the previous day’s attacks, leaving the center of the line relatively weak. He ordered artillery to bombard Union troops, and then commanded three divisions under Maj. Gen George Pickett, Gen. J. Johnston Pettigrew, and Maj. Gen. Isaac R. Trimble to attack the Union center, which required them to walk 0.75-mi across an open field to Cemetery Ridge, making them sitting ducks to Union fire. The Confederate assault lasted less than one hour. The furthest they got, along the stone wall near where Brig. Gen. Lewis A. Armistead was mortally wounded, is referred to as the “High Water Mark of the Confederacy”.
I will say that if you take your time at Gettysburg and plan on seeing all there is to see, it can be quite the workout. There are three observation towers one can climb along the auto tour, as well as several tall monuments with staircases to give you better views of the battlefield. Not to mention all of the trails to walk and signs to get out and read.
One place not all of the audio tours stop at but that I would highly recommend is the Gettysburg National Cemetery. Even if you’re running short on time, a quick stop at the cemetery will allow you to see the Lincoln Address Memorial, which commemorates his Gettysburg Address, as well as the Soldiers’ National Monument.