Climbing tall lookout towers to see panoramic vistas of rolling, green farm country are what I remember best from childhood visits to Gettysburg — that and the cool wax museum full of presidents. On my earliest visits to the battlefields I’m sure I didn’t understand fully what happened there. And that’s okay.
Today a visit to Gettysburg can be a different experience for each family. I’ll be the first to admit that the battlefields are beautiful, but once you’ve seen a wheat field full of monuments they pretty much all start to look the same — so it’s a shame if all you do is drive around the battlefield. Decide what you want to learn on your trip or even how you want to learn it since there are a number of ways to entertain and inform everyone in your family.
Your first stop should be the Visitor Center. This is not the Visitor Center you remember from your high school field trip. Officially opened on September 26, 2008, this 139,000-square foot introduction to the Battlefield includes the newly conserved Gettysburg Cyclorama experience, the Gettysburg Museum of the American Civil War and a breathtaking film, A New Birth of Freedom.
Backpacks are not allowed in the Visitor Center, so leave them in the car. Films and the museum set the stage for your visit to Gettysburg and give you enough information to understand why this war among brothers — and this battle in particular — was so important in the history of the United States.
The museum can get crowded but there is a lot of information in there. Stay and soak up the facts or just get the highlights. Kids will enjoy looking at uniforms and punching buttons on the interactive display that lets them select their state to hear a debate about succession from the union. A full soldier’s pack on the floor is there for kids to lift and feel how much weight troops carried. Different bugle calls play at the push of a button to alert soldiers to the presence of officers, dinner or a charge.
The self-guided Auto Tour is one way to see the battlefield. Be prepared for lots of hopping in and out of the car, climbing on canons and running up observation decks. Other options include hiring your own guide to ride along on the tour with you, make a reservation for these inexpensive experts. Or ride a bus with a narrator, tour on your bike, take a hike, ride a Segway or what would be my favorite, tour on horseback.
Park rangers give guided walking tours at numerous times and places throughout the day. Check online or at the Visitor Center for a schedule and keep an eye out for re-enactors who might be camped out around the battlefield. The Gettysburg 146th National Civil War Battle Reenactment is an all-day family event held July 1-3. The gates open at 8:30 a.m.; each day will include two exciting battles, field demonstrations, live mortar fire demonstrations, two activities tents with continuous living history programs and a living history village with all-day activities along with special ranger led hikes and programs.
Since there is so much to learn here, it’s probably better to just focus on small pieces of history at a time — after all, you want to have fun, too, and there is much more to Gettysburg than just the a battlefield.
The downtown area is loaded with quaint restaurants and antique shops that allow you a close-up look at civil war era items. Several small museums in town include the Soldiers National Museum, American Civil War Museum, and the afore mentioned (and a little cheesy) Hall of Presidents, although it’s still a good way to learn about the presidents and their wives. And for ghost lovers, there are tours galore here including one at the house of Jennie Wade, the only civilian to be killed during the battle.
The Gettysburg train station has been restored to look like it did when Lincoln arrived in town to deliver his famous address, as well as The David Wills House, where Lincoln finished writing the address. Both are right in the center of town and part of the national park which means you can go inside.
If you’ve had enough Civil War stuff, head to Eisenhower National Historic Site, the home and farm of General Dwight D. Eisenhower, 34th President of the United States. The park service sponsors a Junior Secret Service Agent Program for children ages 7-12. Kids earn a Junior Secret Service badge by testing their agent skills in a variety of activities. They may even have to work with the “Agent-in-Charge.”
For the shopper in all of us there is an outlet mall on 97 just south of Gettysburg and a Boyds Bear Country (BoydsBearCountryCountry.com) on Business Route 15 south.Clearly you can’t do all of this in a day so stay the weekend or just select a few things to do on a day trip. It’s an easy drive so a return trip won’t be hard.
Do a little research online and if there is an activity that you really want to do make a reservation. That includes seeing the Gettysburg Cyclorama and the film narrated by Morgan Freeman A New Birth to Freedom. These are both at the Museum and Visitor Center and if they are busy you may be stuck waiting 1-2 hours to see the film. You can get your tickets online.
- There is an Orientation Theater right inside the entrance to the Visitor Center. A short film that will help get you oriented runs continuously.
- Horseback tours fill early. Get a reservation well in advance or come camp with your own horse. Camp sites and camping cabins are also available. www.artilleryridge.com
- Gettysburg.com (great calendar of events)
- Nps.gov/gett (general park information)
- http://www.nps.gov/gett/planyourvisit/gettdivsprograms.htm (for a detailed listing of park events and ranger talks that are free or low cost – some start early in the morning so you might want to get an early start)
Gettysburg is an easy drive. From Annapolis it takes about 1 ½ hours.
There are two main roads to Gettysburg, 15N from Frederick or 97-N from Westminster. 97 is probably more stop and go but there are more interesting family-friendly restaurants and antique stores along the way if you think you might want a diversion.
By Donna Jefferson