A Trip to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania

9008627857?profile=originalI am in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, visiting a deciding battleground in the U.S. Civil War. In 2013 comes the Sesquicentennial of the 1863 battle and its outcome largely decided if our "perpetual union" would survive.

I resist retelling the details of a battle that is documented elsewhere. Instead, I will concentrate on how to entertain a family while taking them to a historical destination.

What is it about this place that draws people? I think the answer is that the Civil War is about good versus evil, and fascination with the belief system of men from both sides being so strong. Their motivation was so strong that they endured years of living like hobos, away from comforts and family, only to face a possibly torturous death. As in so many things related to Abraham Lincoln, his words in 1861 are prophetic - “The struggle of today is not altogether for today; it is for a vast future also.”

That I just violated tradition, calling the Civil War a contest of good versus evil, is not news to me. I went to college in Atlanta (when Dixie still played at bars and football games). Today, The Lost Cause is finally recognized as the Wrong Cause by most people. None of the professorial discussions of economics, politics of the era, or the flaw in our Constitution can explain the public fascination with Gettysburg except a draw to good versus evil. However, a Gettysburg park ranger told me that some people storm out of the park's introductory film because it mentions the evils of slavery instead of the noble quest for independence by the South. Perhaps in time, other people will come to my own conclusion, which has taken most of my adult life to recognize.

Talking with people during the tour stops, I discovered foreigners taking time to see this great battlefield. One man from Sweden was on his third trip. Foreign tourists and Americans, as if attracted to a majestical object, seem to flock to Gettysburg to get an answer to some unanswerable question.


I stayed at the Wyndam Hotel, located at the Gateway Gettysburg campus. My room included a bar area, living room, bedroom, bathroom, and a 5x5 shower with side spray nozzles. The hotel offers a huge enclosed pool for the kids, and three restaurants to choose from (one providing pizza and family-food). Reasonable luxury is the best description of my accommodations with prices about $225, depending on the season.

I observed prices in the area at “econo-beds” to be nearly the same as the Wyndam and yet with nothing more to offer a guest. The Gateway Gettysburg campus includes a movie theater across the parking lot. Between the pool, exercise room, pizza party, and theater it is hard to get bored.

9008628474?profile=originalIn the Wyndam’s 1863 restaurant, I enjoyed the spinach salad and Scottish salmon steak along with a glass of California Mirassou 2009 pinot noir. The spinach salad is with bleu, pecans, and a warm cider vinaigrette. My salmon steak was a thick cut but cooked to perfection throughout. The salmon plate is served with butternut squash risotto, asparagus, and a pecan relish. A special treat, compliments of the chef, was the pan seared scallop in an apple cider with rum butter sauce – really good. This fine dinner was about $39.00 total.

Executive Chef Claude Rodier, is French in both birth and degreed culinary education. He brings extensive experience in fine restaurants to the Wyndam hotel, including his most recent position as Executive Chef of Blackie’s Restaurant in Washington, D.C. Claude Rodier is bringing to the Wyndam his specialties in pastry and seafood.

City Center

A shuttle runs into downtown from the Gateway Gettysburg campus and takes about 5 minutes. I drove my car around the battlefield and found parking at all of the points of interest. However, around the center of town where the tourists congregate the parking was difficult. A spot in town to visit is the Reid Winery tasting room (built in 1820) and it is the birthplace of Jennie Wade, the only civilian killed during the battle. Other winery tasting rooms in the center of town are located amongst ice cream parlors and places to hang out for people watching.

Gettysburg Battlefield

The park visitor center is located on the battlefield and its museum is excellent. The displays showed me artifacts of the period but also the battle flow is artfully brought into the display. From here, my choice was to walk the park, rent an official guide, buy a self-tour CD, or just follow the crowds and read the signs.

I did not purchase a tour CD for my car. I found that the audio tour road signs and notes on the free map to give me enough information. Unexpected were the helpful people that study this history and could tell me details beyond my knowledge. I simply listened to someone explaining to their partners and when appropriate asked my question. These self-educated experts enjoy sharing their knowledge and even point out what to go see across the fields. Licensed guides or a bus tour can be hired at the visitor center, and the self-guided audio CD is supposed to be excellent.

Seeing the battlefield takes a full day by car including pulling over to walk around. Many people take a second day or a good part of it. For example; I could see the “angle” from the road in my car, but it was a good 100 yards away. I had to get out and stand at this critical spot - the angle is the point of the Union lines where the now famous Picket’s charge focused while advancing under deadly cannon and rifle fire.

9008628299?profile=originalAnother famous spot is the Little Round Top bayonet charge by the Union 20th Maine Regiment. Despite seasons passed since the Civil War, visitors continue to love their fighting men of the period. I came to walk the famous grounds again (last visit was in 1973) and I was touched by and photographed this note left behind on the 20th Maine monument at Little Round Top.

gburginfo.brinkster.net is a web site that I found with lots of photographs and interesting things to look for at the battlefield. Most of this is not offered in tours and car maps.

What else to do – Wine & Music festival anyone?

I had to focus on what will induce my wife to come along on another trip before the Sesquicentennial. She is not into the historical tours, although many women are as engrossed in the activity as are the men.

Wonderfully, there is a Wine and Music Festival going on every September at the Gateway Gettysburg campus. The Wyndam has special offer packages for the Wine & Music Festival. I have more to see in the area and this is enough to get her interested, plus the shopping at the Gettysburg downtown square.

A day trip down highway 15 from Gettysburg is the city of Frederick, Maryland. Here is the National Museum of Civil War Medicine, the Monocacy Battlefield fought by General Lew Wallace (later the author of Ben-Hur), and a great place for lunch.

9008628869?profile=originalI had seen many of the same display at Gettysburg as in the Medicine Museum, except for the section on injuries and treatment of wounds. Displayed are shattered bones showing the longitudinal fractures caused by a Minnie ball. Pictures of soldiers show the horrible damage and how elementary plastic surgery let men continue in life including marriage and children.

I found the Monocacy Battlefield (1864) to be less engaging than others, and probably so because it was a feint to draw Union forces away from besieged Richmond. On my next trip, I will be taking in the 1862 Antietam Battlefield about 35 minutes drive to the west. This is where the horrors of modern war were captured on photographs for the first time by Matthew Brady.  The display of these photographs in Washington, D.C, was shocking and drew huge crowds.  It is possible to drive from Gettysburg in the morning, see the museum in Frederick, have lunch, and go over to Antietam for four hours of viewing before returning to Gettysburg.

Even today, after many years, my wife asks me if the bugs got on me during my walking around. I had dragged her through these places 40 years earlier. Yes, battles are fought outdoors and sometimes it is hot. I remembered to wear my hat, walking shoes, have bottled water, and use sun block. Wonder what it was like for the men wearing wool uniforms in the humid 87 degree temperature at Gettysburg, July 3rd, 1863?
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  • I live in the Philadelphia area, yet I don't go to Gettysburg nearly as often as I want to. My great-great grandfather fought in that battle and was considered "missing." Soldiers were not wearing dogtags yet, so bodies that were blown up by shrapnel or otherwise mutilated were never identified.

    I will be going to Gettysburg next year for the sesquicentennial of that battle, and the advice in this column will be very helpful.

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