Driving Through History

Gettysburg National Military Park
By Christina Breda

In the summer of 1863, the 97,000-strong Union Army of the Potomac under General Joseph Hooker met by chance with General Robert E. Lee's northward-bound, 75,000-strong Army of Northern Virginia, touching off the three bloodiest days of the Civil War. The battle raged on July 1 through 3 and—although neither side earned a decisive victory—became a turning point in the war.

The climax came July 3, in what is now called Pickett's Charge, when Major General George E. Pickett led 12,000 Confederate troops on what amounted to a suicide run across an open field toward the Union line on Cemetery Ridge. In one hour, the charge produced more than 5,000 casualties while the Union line held its ground. In all, the battle produced 51,000 killed, wounded, or missing soldiers. Four months later, on November 19, a national cemetery was dedicated to become the final resting place for many of the Union dead. Although not the principal speaker, President Abraham Lincoln gave a"few appropriate remarks," in what became known as the Gettysburg Address.

What to Do

Gettysburg National Military Park is a hot Civil War commodity, attracting some 1.6 million visitors each year. Here, more men fought and died than in any other battle before or since on American soil. Given its high-profile status in the eyes of Civil War buffs, you won't find much quiet time here, but for anyone who wants to hit the most significant points of the war, Gettysburg is a must-visit. The 26 miles of paved park road are ideal for biking, walking, or even horseback riding.

If you're the type to skip the visitors' center, resist the temptation here. Gettysburg is a vast and complex park, and you'll want to get off to an organized start. For an extra $3, you can check out the electric map, which shows the progression of the battle. Plan on spending two hours driving through the actual battlefield if you're not big on getting out and walking around; four hours if you like to stop and explore; and more if you plan any other activities such as hiking, lunch, or shopping.

You can tour the battlefield in your own car on a self-guided tour, or by hiring a licensed battlefield guide to go with you in your own vehicle (about $35 for up to five people). For a self-guided tour, pick up a map at the visitors' center, or rent or buy a tape through one of many local vendors. Audiotapes give you detailed driving instructions and ample background information. In addition, there are several companies that offer guided bus tours.

After the battlefield tour, visit the Cyclorama, a painting in the round that depicts the battle. It is located next to the visitors' center. After that, take your pick from the multitude of museums, gift shops, and art galleries scattered throughout town.

Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 8 Nov 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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