The Gettysburg National Military Park

On our second day visiting friends near Baltimore, we visited the battlefield at Gettysburg, which sprawls over a large area of fields, woods, and hills in southeast Pennsylvania. Pretty much the whole thing is included in the National Military Park.

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It was a warm October day, though fairly overcast. We drove through the suburbs of Baltimore, then Pennsylvania farmland.

Gettysburg museum and visitor center. Photo from National Park Service
Gettysburg museum and visitor center. Photo from National Park Service

We started at the excellent museum, which includes very extensive exhibits about not just the battle but the Civil War and the period that led up to it.

From the Cyclorama "Battle of Gettysburg".
From the Cyclorama “Battle of Gettysburg”.

The museum includes a restored “Cyclorama”, dating to the 1880s, that depicts the battle. Cycloramas were a series of large paintings that combined to form circular structures that surrounded observers. Popular in the late 19th Century, they were the closest thing to moving pictures available at the time.

After spending a couple of hours in the museum, we bought a CD that could be used for a self-guided auto tour. I also bought a couple of books, because I can’t help myself. I confess to being one of those people who is fascinated by the Civil War.

The view from McPherson Ridge, which saw fighting on the first day of the battle.
The view from McPherson Ridge, which saw fighting on the first day of the battle.

A word of warning about visiting Gettysburg. It’s a very popular place. On a warm Saturday in late October it was packed with people. I’d avoid visiting during the summer or pleasant weekends. Either that or show up as early as you can manage – it opens at 6 am.

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Anyhow, we set off on our auto tour. The battlefield is full of monuments commemorating different units and individuals who took part in the battle. Some are modest, like this memorial to a Massachussets Infantry Regiment.

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Some are massive. like this monument for Pennsylvania soldiers, who provided a majority of the Union forces.

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Many feature statuary, like this memorial to troops from North Carolina.

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This picture is from Seminary Ridge. Gettysburg was a three day battle that started when the Confederates pushed the Union Army off of this ridge. For the remainder of the battle, the Confederates were positioned here. The Union army moved to Cemetery Ridge, which turned out to be a better defensive position.

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Here’s a view of Little Roundtop (the smaller of the two hills), which made up one end of the Union position, as seen from the Confederate lines. I’ve read several accounts of Gettysburg, but seeing the topography of the battlefield made it much easier to understand what happened here.

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And here we are on Little Round Top, on the other side of the Battlefield. The Union had at first neglected to secure this hill, which had a commanding position over the Northern lines. The statue in the picture above is of the union officer who noticed that Southern troops were moving towards the hill. He ordered federal units to defend the strategic high ground. Better late than never.

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A view from Little Round Top.

As Confederate troops advanced on Little Round Top, Union soldiers rushed in, beating the Southerners to the top by only ten minutes. Fierce fighting ensued, some of it hand-to-hand. Some of the Union troops ran out of bullets and fought with bayonets. However, at the end of the day Little Round Top was still in Northern hands.

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Here’s another view from Little Round Top. That area with the rocky outcroppings was known as Devil’s Den, another site of intense fighting. All the traffic down there gives you a sense of how crowded it was.

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The second day of the battle saw unsuccessful Confederate attacks on both flanks of the Union Army. On the third and last day, the Confederate commander, Robert E. Lee, ordered a disastrous attack on the center of the Northern line. More than 12,000 men marched across open ground to storm the Federal positions. About half ended up killed, wounded, or captured.

Back at the museum there were exhibits that indicated these mass infantry charges were rarely successful during the Civil War, mainly because of advances in weaponry. Lee’s second-in-command opposed his plan. However, I suspect that Lee felt if he did not take the risk, his invasion of the North would be effectively over.

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Lee gambled and lost. Gettysburg brought an end to his brief invasion of the North. In a protracted war, the Confederacy was doomed. The purpose of the invasion was to break the political will of the North, resulting in the defeat of Abraham Lincoln in the 1864 election. It was also meant to encourage European powers to intervene on the Confederacy’s behalf. These hopes were dashed as Lee retreated back to Virginia with his army.

And a good thing, too. It’s important to always remember what the Civil War was about. While the North certainly failed to practice racial equality, the South was fighting to preserve and extend the morally indefensible system of slavery. In fact, Lee’s army seized any black Pennsylvanians they found (assuming them to be runaway slaves) and sent them South to live in bondage.

It’s hard to understand the American experience without understanding the Civil War. Gettysburg was a pivotal moment in that war, and the Gettysburg National Military Park can certainly provide a deeper appreciation of that moment.

32 Comments on “The Gettysburg National Military Park”

  1. I’ve driven through the park but didn’t have time to stop. My great-grandfather was one of the southerners attacking in Pickett’s Charge and stories about the battle for Cemetery Ridge used to be told around the dining room table when I was a child. I wish I had listened more closely because I don’t remember any details, only that he was said to have walked back to Virginia. One of my cousins has memorabilia so I may have to do some telephoning now to find out more.

  2. Such a good post. I was especially take with “It’s important to always remember what the Civil War was about. While the North certainly failed to practice racial equality, the South was fighting to preserve and extend the morally indefensible system of slavery.” Your words should be emblazoned everywhere!

  3. Thank you for the wonderful post about Gettysburg. When my son wrote a piece on Pickett’s Charge we drove there (lived in Pittsburgh then) to walk the actual field. It was quite the eye-opening experience for him. (He received an A+.)

    I have been several times and will visit several more I am sure. There are many interesting and of course, heartbreaking, stories about the individuals who fought there but I admit that Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain’s is my favorite.

    On a lighter note, as I scrolled through the photos initially (I always do this with your posts and then go back and savor your words and Judy’s photos together), I was curious how turkeys managed to land up high on the Pennsylvania monument. Then I realized one was wearing a hoodie or jacket of some kind. πŸ™‚ So, not turkeys. I should wear my reading glasses more often.

    Excellent, poignant finish to the post.

    Again, thank you to you and Judy.

  4. Definitely a “must see” and “must experience” for any American, and a worthwhile visit for visitors from other countries. We toured Gettysburg when the kids were teenagers. I’m not sure they appreciated it then, but I imagine it enriched their understanding of their history and helped them understand this critical part of our nation’s past.

    • This is the second of the Civil War Military Parks I’ve visited – a few years ago I went with my son David to Vicksburg in Mississippi. I’ve also been to Ft. Pulaski near Savannah GA. I’d like to see the ones at Shiloh and Chattanooga, and there are so many others.

  5. Another spot on the wish list although I don’t know if I could persuade anyone to go with me…maybe my brother…my dad would have loved it. Even in pictures this place touches me deep inside with so much loss….you have shown the beauty there too.

    I have been meaning to say that I like the new theme.

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