The Gettysburg Battlefield is the place to relive a defining tragedy in American history. The site of the pivotal battle in the Civil War, July 1863, it’s where 150,000 soldiers were engaged for three days to determine the future of the United States. More than 50,000 became “casualties,” the term given to those who were wounded, dead or otherwise unable to rejoin the next day’s fight.
The battlefield has been preserved to allow visitors to experience the topography that confronted those soldiers. While it may be an unlikely place for a family vacation, Gettysburg presents a grand opportunity for families to share schoolbook history lessons and experience the beauty of southern Pennsylvania and the nearby Amish country.
The Gettysburg Battlefield and Parklands
The 5,900-acre park includes hills, fields, woods and orchards unspoiled by commercial development. There isn’t one telephone pole or electrical line to be seen on the site, and their absence is a tremendous aid in imagining a world from another era.
The first stop on your visit should be The Gettysburg National Military Park Visitors Center. There you can arrange for a variety of battlefield tours that the National Park Service offers: a guided bus tour, private guides who will ride in your car, audio tapes timed to the marked plaques, guided bicycle trip or a horseback riding tour.
Recent expansion to the facilities includes several film theaters and a new Civil War-themed cafe. In addition to this, don’t miss the restored 360-degree-mural, a historic Cyclorama that used to tour the country as a narrated light attraction before the advent of movies. Entitled “Pickett’s Charge,” the wonderful artwork by French artist Paul Philippoteaux is very evocative and the accompanying narration depicting the final day of the battle brings the whole scene to life.
A Gettysburg Bike Tour
The battlefield site is far too spread out to be comfortably covered on foot, with 16 major sign-posted stops on the self-guided tour map. However, the informative markers as well as statues, cannons, observation towers and dwellings throughout the battlefield can be explored outside of the car and make the driving tour more interesting.
If the weather cooperates, try a bike tour instead. The licensed Gettysbike tour company offers great family-focused tours — plus special outings for historians, Civil War buffs, etc. All tours include bike rentals and helmets, and depart straight from the parking lot at the Visitors Center. Our guide Jessie Wheedleton (she can be reached here to do custom tours by car, on foot or Segway, too) was very knowlegeable and did a great job keeping us all engaged with dates, battalions and battle names. Being outdoors among the monuments is a special way to see them, too.
Of particular interest to kids are Devil’s Den with its huge boulders, and nearby Little Round Top which holds a commanding view of most of the battlefield. Since so much of the tour of Gettysburg is outdoors, good weather will guarantee a more wonderful experience.
The Gettysburg Soldiers’ National Cemetery
Don’t leave the site without working your way to the Soldiers’ National Cemetery on the eastern side of this vast park. You will have to park elsewhere to enter and it’s worth it.
Even after seeing thousands of monuments and memorials, nothing elicits the response of the cemetery itself, with hundreds of tiny flags marking the graves of those who lost their lives in battle.
There’s a towering monument here, too, and most important, a marker for the site that President Abe Lincoln gave his memorable Gettysburg Address. Be prepared to read it all together.
Touring the Historical Sights of Downtown Gettysburg
Downtown Gettysburg also has been remarkably well preserved and provides an opportunity for children to experience what life might have been like in the 1860’s. There are buildings that still bear the marks of those tumultuous days in July, 1863.
Our son Luca, age 12, loved viewing the bullet holes in the side of a brick building and hearing the heroic stories of citizens aiding the young soldiers. Some of these buildings have been turned into museums such as the Shriver House Museum and the Samuel McCreary House.
The Seminary Ridge Museum is on the campus of the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg. Known as Old Dorm because it housed both Union and Confederate wounded during the Civil War, this museum will feature artifacts highlighting the stories of soldiers, nurses, residents and African Americans who waited out the three-day battle in the surrounding countryside.
Trip Planning Details for a Gettysburg Weekend
There are, however, plenty of modern hotels, motels, inns and restaurants available to accommodate the hundreds of visitors and their various budgets. There are many small museums, civil war memorabilia shops and walking trails that can be enjoyed in town, as well.
One hotel within the battlefield proper is The Doubleday Inn, located at 104 Doubleday Avenue (Oak Ridge) in Gettysburg Battlefield, PA 17325. This inn only accepts children over age 13. There are also other ones nearby that offer re-enactors telling ghost stories, and history demonstrations with muskets, cannon and cavalry.
Two popular choices are the red brick, former farmhouse now the Baladerry Inn and the white clapboard, Civil War-era Battlefield Bed and Breakfast Inn, where Friday nights are for ghost stories. For the summer, camping options include The Drummer Boy Camping Resort which we saw advertised, and which looked nice. Alternatively, the Wyndham Gettsyburg Hotel is a 248-room, full-service hotel that has two restaurants, a health club and an indoor pool. It’s located in historic Gettsyburg.
At the classic O’Rorke’s off the Main Street, we enjoyed our Crab Pretzels — many pretzel dishes orginate in the nearby Pennsylvania Dutch Country — and the crab dip was delicious. Same for the apple fritters, another local favorite.
For more information, contact the Gettysburg’s Convention and Visitors Bureau.
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