“It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced…that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain – that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom”Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address, November 19, 1863
When I was a kid learning about history in school, we covered the Civil War every single year because West Virginia became a state right in the middle of 1863. Naturally because I heard the same things over and over again, I was convinced that the Civil War was the most boring part of American history, and I never wanted to study it ever again. That changed when I actually studied it for myself.
There are, of course, many things to say about the American Civil War and many ways to study it (some favorite books here and here), but for this blogpost, I want to focus on my trip to Gettysburg, my thoughts on the place, and a few notes about how to go about visiting.
Any student of US history has heard of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and the Battle of Gettysburg, which is one of the bloodiest and most famous battles of the American Civil War. Today, Gettysburg is the most visited Civil War battlefield in the country, and it receives over 1 million visitors annually. Though that number will take a dip in 2020 with fewer visitors due to COVID-19, I was able to visit at the beginning of March and discover what is now one of my favorite National Park Sites.
Visiting Gettysburg is a fun sort of Two Parks in One deal because you can (and should) also visit the Eisenhower National Historic Site, which is the farmhouse where Dwight and Mamie Eisenhower retired and lived until their deaths in 1969 and 1979 respectively. Dwight Eisenhower was a student of history and, as a United States General, he had specific knowledge of American and military history. In World War I, Eisenhower served as commander of Camp Colt in Gettysburg and it was here that he discovered a love of what is such a beautiful and emotive landscape. Though the Eisenhowers purchased their Gettysburg farm in 1950, they did not really get to enjoy living there until the end of Eisenhower’s presidency in 1961.
Eisenhower is one of my favorite presidents because he had both a tactician’s understanding of international politics and a general’s longing for peace. As Eisenhower himself said,
“I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can, only as one who has seen its brutality, its futility, its stupidity.”January 10, 1946; Address in Ottawa, Canada
In all honesty, I wanted to visit Gettysburg, but I was hesitant as well. I don’t like things that glorify war because the act of war itself is not something that deserves to be celebrated. I had not been to a National Military Park before, so I did not know how Gettysburg would be presented. I was worried that the museum would consist only of analysis of the battle plans like they were a chess strategy rather than part of a real war with real people dying. But in reality, the museum at Gettysburg is very well done – not only in what it presents of the history but the arrangement of artifacts, quotes, and explanatory notes. One of my favorite aspects is that the museum did not quote only generals and officials but also the townspeople of Gettysburg and soldiers who sometimes lack a name but still speak poignantly:
“Ye advocates of war, come here and look, and answer what compensation is there for this carnival of death.”Philadelphia Public Lodger, July 15, 1863
I think there is a certain beauty in Eisenhower’s selection of his farm at Gettysburg. This was the site of one of our bloodiest but most famous battles. Eisenhower was a general in World War II and a wartime president overseeing the end of the Korean War and the ongoing Cold War. There is a history of war and violence at Gettysburg that is, by design, impossible to ignore, but one sees also that it is a beautiful place.
Farms roll over the hills; endless fields waiting for crops to grow. In the early morning, you have to wear sunglasses to block the bright light of late winter, and the whole place takes on a sepia tone that makes it seem like you’ve stepped back into a time in history when life was a bit slower. You can wander among the battlefields, and in the off-season, there is a stillness to these places that begs you to sit and ponder a while. I recommend visiting Gettysburg in its off-season because without the crowds and reenactors, Gettysburg is a solemn memorial. The beauty of Gettysburg is at odds with its history, but it grants a peace to this place where so many died for the cause of freedom. You feel the immensity of the sacrifice and understand why this battle lives on in our national memory today. In a sense, it is the somber feeling of Gettysburg that makes it so melancholically peaceful today.
In his Gettysburg Address, Lincoln refers to the ongoing war and his hope that those who died at Gettysburg “shall not have died in vain.” We know today that the war ended, and slavery was abolished. But we also know that the end of the Civil War did not result in the sudden creation of a unified, blithe populace who could easily forget what came before. There was, and still is, a struggle for freedom and equality, and there was, and still is, a dream of a unified republic. So although Lincoln’s line about “a new birth of freedom” is a good one that is apt for the times, I think the goal we continue to fight for today comes in the very last line:
“It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us…that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address, November 19, 1863
Gettysburg is an astonishing place to visit and a moving one, if you allow yourself that. Though the battle itself took place in the summer (July 1 – July 3, 1863), I like the quiet atmosphere of late winter/early spring. We spent only one day at Gettysburg, which was sufficient, but you could also easily spend two days here to fully explore the Eisenhower site, the Gettysburg battlefields, and the various memorials.
If you have only one day, this is an easy trip from Hershey (what we did). Starting at the visitor’s center, you can watch the video and tour the museum. Also there is the Gettysburg Cyclorama, which is a must-see. The Cyclorama is a massive circular painting completed in 1883 that is almost 100 yards long and was reportedly so realistic as to be upsetting to the Gettysburg veterans who first saw it. Today, it is an immersive experience as well as a stunning artwork. Your time in the visitor’s center will likely take 1-2 hours, and afterwards, you can take a bus to the Eisenhower Historical Site. To tour the house and wander the main part of the grounds takes only about an hour. In the afternoon, pick up a guide at the gift shop or download their app, and, after lunch, hop in your car to drive around the loop, stopping as desired. There is also a bus that will take you the same way, but the self-guided option allows for more freedom.
With two days at Gettysburg, you can find accommodation in or near the town of Gettysburg, which is a part of the area that I would like to explore further. The first day can be devoted to the visitor’s center and the Eisenhower Site, which is actually very extensive. On the second day, I would recommend taking more time to stop at the different sites on the tour, doing one or more trails, and visiting the various memorials created by the different states. Gettysburg is not a fast-paced attraction, but I think the more you are able to slow down while visiting, the better it is.
There’s a reason why Gettysburg consistently attracts so many visitors. It’s an important historical site, of course, but there is also its beauty, calm, and solemnity. It’s a place that I really can’t recommend enough. I will end with one more quote that is not actually related to Gettysburg, but that does come from the Civil War and is a good bit more peaceful than the numerous war quotes I could have used. After all, Gettysburg is a somber place, but it is also peaceful and full of hope for a future that is better than the past. So in that vein,
“Let us cross over the river and rest under the shade of the trees.”Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, May 10, 1863; last words
Bonus fact: Gettysburg National Military Park is actually older than the Park Service itself. The battlefield was first protected as early as 1864 by local citizens, but in 1895 the Federal government gained ownership of the site. At this time, a few other places were designated as National Parks or Historic Sites, but there was no uniform body running all of them. The National Park Service was founded by President Wilson in 1916, but until 1933, Gettysburg remained under the jurisdiction of the War Department.
Also: Want to visit Gettysburg but stuck in quarantine? Check out the virtual tour on the NPS website here!