A Day in Gettysburg
with tips to make the most of your visit
We recently returned home from a two-week East Coast history tour. I will eventually get around to sharing all the details of our trip with our route, itinerary, and tips, but for now, I’m going to start with one of my favorite days, the day we visited Gettysburg.
Oh, Gettysburg! How do you adequately prepare to visit one of the most important locations in all of American history? With over 50,000 casualties, Gettysburg is known as the deadliest battle of the American Civil War, and the outcome greatly influenced the future of America. Can you imagine what our country would be like today without a Union victory? Click here for more facts about this battle. So, I wanted to do this sacred location justice and for my family to get the most out of our visit. We began by reading Across Five Aprils, an award-winning historical fiction book about the American Civil War. For more details on that book and others about the Civil War, pop on over to our book page.
Then we scoured the internet, Tripadvisor, consulted friends and read countless blog posts. We decided to spend about 6 hours in Gettysburg. I know, it doesn’t sound like much, but it was sandwiched between a million other things we wanted to see. If you’re planning to visit Gettysburg with your family, there is no doubt you could spend more time, but I would not recommend spending less.
10:00-12:00pm – Film, Cyclorama, Museum & Gift Shop
12:00-2:00pm – Battlefield Tour
2:00-4:00pm – Town of Gettysburg (including Cemetery & Lincoln Memorial)
We drove over to Gettysburg from Lancaster County, about 1.5 hours away by car. That afternoon, we would be leaving Gettysburg and driving to Antietam, another hour away by car. So as you can see, our time in Gettysburg was neatly squeezed into a pocket of time. We would need everything to go as planned. Well, it didn't. We booked a morning tour ahead of time, knowing this would ensure a timely departure from Lancaster. We arrived later than planned due to a bathroom stop and then not being able to find a parking space once we got there. We rushed in and were thankfully able to push our times back a bit and not miss anything. Once inside the Welcome Center, we picked up our tickets at Will Call. The Gettysburg National Military Park Museum & Visitor Center is located at 1195 Baltimore Pike, Gettysburg, PA 17325. The combo ticket included the film, Cyclorama, and museum and cost $15 per adult (ages 13+) and $10 per youth (ages 2-12). I purchased this online approximately three weeks in advance.
We began by orienting ourselves with Gettysburg through the film "A New Birth of Freedom.” Narrated by Morgan Freeman, this 20-minute film did a great job teaching us about the central issues of the American Civil War, what had happened in the war up to the Battle of Gettysburg, and how the outcome affected the remaining time. When the film was over, we were all ushered as a group upstairs to the Cyclorama.
The Cyclorama painting experience is a 377-foot painting in the round. That means that you stand in the middle and view this massive piece of art all around you. It specifically depicts Pickett’s Charge which was the culmination of the Battle of Gettysburg taking place on the third and final day. With realistic props in the foreground, state-of-the-art lighting, and sound effects like cannons firing and horses neighing, it places you right in the middle of the action. This narrated presentation lasts about 20 minutes. This link here, tells more about the French artist that painted this oil on canvas and how it came to be acquired by the NPS and relocated to Gettysburg.
Museum, Bookstore & Cafe
After the 20-minute film and the 20-minute Cyclorama presentation, our group was then free to move about the museum and other areas in the Welcome Center at our own pace. There are twelve galleries in the museum. They retell the story of the American Civil War from every perspective. It’s possible to spend just 30 minutes here doing a quick walk-through or up to 2-3 hours taking it all in. The bookstore and gift shop has a plethora of goods for purchase, and the Battleground Café or the Refreshment Saloon are both excellent places to grab a snack or a full lunch.
This next part was hands-down our favorite part of the day (maybe even our favorite part of the trip)! There are many choices when it comes to how to tour the battlefield. We read about bike tours, and personal tours guided by books, apps or maps. But in the end, we chose to go with a licensed guide through the Gettysburg Foundation, and we were so glad we did. The cost of the tour was $75 for two hours, and that covered everyone in our car. We booked the tour directly with the Gettysburg Foundation, the same place where we booked our combo ticket for the film, Cyclorama, and museum. But instead of doing it online this time, I called in and booked over the phone. I had a few questions such as how much time to leave between the two reservations, what to expect for the battlefield tour and if we could request a guide that would be especially good for our two boys, a teen and a tween. The employee answered all our questions and was able to make the booking for us.
Our guide, Truman, met us in the lobby of the Visitor’s Center at the scheduled time. We headed out to the parking lot where we parked our car, and he climbed in the mini-van with us for our two-hour tour. We knew that these guides usually prefer to drive themselves and this makes a lot of sense. They know exactly where they are going. It also allowed all of us to be passengers and spend our time looking and listening instead of driving. We started on the Confederate side retracing the occurrences of July 1st. We learned that day two brought on fierce fighting and both sides took heavy losses. All along our route we got out of the car and learned about what had happened at that location. We heard about strategies by the commanders and personal anecdotes that made it feel very personal. It bought places like Little Round Top, Big Round Top and the Peach Orchard to life. Finally, we made it to the third day and retraced the steps of Pickett’s Charge. It was all or nothing, and a victory for either side would ultimately mean a victory in the Civil War. Truman was not only a walking encyclopedia, but he was also a very personable gentleman and a delight to spend those two hours with.
The view from Big Round Top
Soldier's National Cemetery and Lincoln Memorial
We dropped Truman off at the Visitor’s Center, said our goodbyes, and then drove over to the Soldier's National Cemetery, just a couple of miles away. Inside the cemetery, there is a memorial dedicated to Lincoln and the famous speech he made only four months after the battle had taken place. Today we all know that speech as the Gettysburg Address (Four score and seven years ago...), one of the most famous speeches in all of history. Note: The exact location of where the speech was delivered is not where the memorial is located, but instead 300 yards away near Jennie Wade’s grave.
The Town of Gettysburg
Our final time in Gettysburg was spent walking along the charming streets and enjoying some ice cream. We poked around in a few shops and got a closer look at two locations that Truman had told us to see. You can see remnants of bullet holes in the walls of buildings. We even saw a small cannonball stuck in the side of a building that never detonated.
Ice cream break
Could we have spent more time in Gettysburg? Definitely! If we weren’t in a rush to move on to the next location, I would have liked to stay overnight in one of the cute Bed & Breakfasts that line the streets of Gettysburg. I also could have spent more time out on the battlefield. We took in so much during our two-hour tour, that it would have been nice to drive around a bit more on our own and explore some of the monuments that had captured our interest.
So that's it. What did we miss? If you've toured Gettysburg with your family, please share any tips that we or others will find helpful. I hope we can visit again someday.
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