Visiting Hallowed Ground on Halloween: My Trip to Gettysburg

A Trip I should have Taken Years Ago

Living in Philadelphia, I take a lot of trips up and down the Acela/I-95 corridor.  Whether by car, train, plane, or Megabus (RIP Chinatown Bus), I’ve wandered up and down the east coast from Montreal to Florida. Knowing that my long-term plans include leaving the east coast (hopefully by next summer) I feel a sense of urgency to make sure I see more of this state I’ve called home for the last nine years. With that in mind, I decided to spend yesterday at Gettysburg.

Gettysburg National Military Park in Gettysburg, Pa
Gettysburg National Military Park in Gettysburg, Pa

Gettysburg one of those places that I’ve always wanted to go to, but never put any muscle behind to plan it.   Turns out, Gettysburg doesn’t need too much planning.  You’re pretty much good to go if you show up to the visitor’s center with at least four hours of daylight left.

Entering the Visitor's Center at Gettysburg National Military Park
Entering the Visitor’s Center at Gettysburg National Military Park

My Visit

There’s a visitor’s center with a museum, gift shop, cafeteria, and film showing.  The museum was interesting, but I had a hard time focusing on some of the rooms.  It’s a very text-heavy overview of the history of the Civil War. I was probably a little too excited to get out to the battlefield itself, and my impatience cost me some valuable contextual knowledge.  Sometimes I have to skip parts of museums to avoid information overload, and by this point in my life I’m pretty conversant on Civil War history.

One thing that did strike me pretty hard there was seeing this poster:

A poster recruiting Pennsylvania soldiers to defend Philadelphia
A poster recruiting Pennsylvania soldiers to defend Philadelphia

As a Philadelphia transplant, I love embracing Philadelphia’s place in colonial and Revolutionary American history.  But i rarely think about Philadelphia during the Civil War.  Previously, when I’ve thought about Gettysburg, it was a battle out somewhere in Central PA that was the turning point of the war.  I never took it further than that to think that what they were turning the Confederate Army away from was marching further north and potentially capturing this city that I love.

The Virginia Memorial at Gettysburg
The Virginia Memorial at Gettysburg

The Battlefield

Access to the battlefield itself is via bus or car.  Self-guided auto tours are the main way to go and easy to spot signs mark your route.  After leaving the museum, I picked up a tour cd in the gift shop (about $25).  There are both less expensive and more expensive options for the tour cd, but this one covered the sites that I was particularly interested in more depth.

A monument to the 88th Pennsylvania Infantry
A monument to the 88th Pennsylvania Infantry

The weather was a little warm for late October, but still cool.  The light was beautiful, and being there on Halloween added an air of otherworldliness to an already hallowed place.

I’ve never visited a Civil War battlefield before, so seeing its vast expanse overwhelmed me.  The tour winded all over the little town and right through its namesake college.  Along the route monuments, plaques, and cannons dot the grounds, marking various historical spots and offering solemnity to the beautiful fields.

Fall in Gettysburg
Fall in Gettysburg

I spent three hours of wandering through fields and seeing monuments to the dead from nearly every state in the union at the time. The sacrifices that took place around me were impossible to comprehend.  The tour cd had many stories of soldiers, townspeople, and families and the various tragedies and heroics performed by each.  Brothers fighting on separate sides of the war who met each other for the last time at the barn you’re photographing, the house where a stray bullet killed a local town girl, a regiment ordered to hold their place until the opposing side had eliminated the last man, all looking peaceful and serene in the dusky fall light.

The Pennsylvania State Memorial at Gettysburg
The Pennsylvania State Memorial at Gettysburg

Exploring Further

This definitely sparked my interest in visiting more American battlefields and appreciate more American military history.  My trip inspired me to dig deeper, and I purchased Doris Kerns Goodwin’s marvelous biography of Abraham Linconl, Team of Rivals. Further, I put together a list of other books that would be good to read before or after a trip to Gettysburg.

Are there any Civil War sites you’d recommend I add to my travel plans?


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