Essential Gettysburg: Touring the Battlefield and the Town

During the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, a pilgrimage to Gettysburg is on the agenda of many tourists and history buffs. The area expects to greet over 3-million visitors every year during the sesquicentennial and over 4-million in 2013, the 150th anniversary of the battle.

The three-day battle was fought over a large landscape and in the town itself. It involved dozens of notable actions, any one of which would have qualified as an independent battle had it been fought elsewhere at another time. Civilians scrambled to find safe havens only to leave them to tend to wounded soldiers or seek better protection. Lincoln’s visit and address a few months later cemented Gettysburg into the American psyche. There’s so much to absorb that it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the task of what to see and when and how to see it. Here’s an itinerary that lays out the story from start to finish. To see it all, you’ll need at least three days. And that’s not counting time for options like joining a ghost walk at night or browsing the galleries of Civil War art and artifacts.

First stop: The Visitor Center

Gettysburg Visitor Center

Gettysburg Visitor Center-Photo Courtesy National Park Service

The Visitor Center at the Gettysburg National Military Park, the official name of Gettysburg Battlefield, is the obvious first stop for information and orientation. The entrance fee covers the movie “A New Birth of Freedom,” (which explains the causes of the war, the importance of this battle, and the impact of Lincoln’s address), the Cyclorama, and the museum.

Photo Courtesy - National Park Service

Photo Courtesy - National Park Service

The Cyclorama is an impressive artifact in its own right as well as a stunning recreation of the battle. Cycloramas were the IMAX theaters of 19th century America. The 360, life-size paintings gave a panoramic view of a moment in history. Artist Paul Philippoteaux spent over a year visiting the battlefield and talking to veterans before he and a team of assistants painted the scene of the battle at the moment of Pickett’s Charge. Lighting and sound effects put you in the middle of the maelstrom of the battle. It’s worth asking about the “Evening with the Painting” event when you can tour behind-the-scenes and learn how the Cyclorama was rescued and restored.

GalleryExplaining the human side of the war is the main purpose of the exhibits in the museum. Give yourself three hours for the complete experience. It’s very interactive, with lots of touch screens and hands-on displays augmenting the amazing collection of artifacts. The first gallery concentrates on the highlighting the speeches, writings, and events which present the increasingly hostile arguments before the fighting. Other displays help you understand the daily lives of the soldiers – what camp life was like, what bugle calls they heard, what they ate, what they carried in their packs, what they wore, how they stayed in touch with their families, how they dealt with what they saw and endured.

The course of the three days of fighting is examined in detail. While there is enough strategic and tactical information presented to satisfy the most ardent military analyst, the focus is still on the people. Guns, buttons, diaries, uniforms, cartridge boxes are displayed with the stories behind who owned them and how they were used. Videos of photos of residents and soldiers with narration from diaries and letters draw you closer to the reality of what happened. A final wall is covered with photos of soldiers killed in the battle – all so sober as they look at the camera; so many; all so young.

Second stop: The Gettysburg Diorama

DioramaIf the Visitor Center lacks anything, it’s an overview of the military movements. Unless you are already familiar with the details of the battle and the terrain where it was fought, a quick trip back into town and a visit to the Diorama is a good idea. It’s the only place where the entire battle can be ‘viewed.’ It took over 10 years to create this 800 square foot scale model of Gettysburg, complete with over 25,000 miniature soldiers, horses, buildings, equipment, and landscape features. The narrated program orients you by showing how the battle progressed. Afterward, you’re invited to examine the diorama more closely.

Touring the Battlefield

There are several ways to tour. You can pick up a self-guided driving tour brochure for free at the Visitor Center or buy an audio tape or CD tour at the bookstore (or many places in town). Motor coach tours conducted by licensed battlefield guides also leave from the visitor center. There are two motor coach tours operating from the Tour Center in town. Those tours are also conducted by licensed guides. For a private tour, hire a licensed guide for a 2-hour driving tour in your own vehicle. While there may be guides standing by at the Center, it’s best to call several days ahead to schedule a tour. If you have a particular interest, let the reservation desk know, and they will pair you up with a guide who shares it. In town, there’s a tour company which takes you around via Segway and a stable which conducts horseback tours. You can also find motorcycle and bicycle tours.

Lee’s Headquarters

Lee's HeadquartersIt’s not on the tours, but the house which General Lee used as his headquarters is a small, privately owned museum. Located on Buford Ave beside the Quality Inn and the Appalachian Brewing Company Restaurant, it’s easily overlooked. But don’t miss this. It is a gem!  Ideally situated behind and in the middle of his lines, Lee took over the house as his headquarters during the battle. Very well presented exhibits show what the house was like, where Lee and his staff worked, and the story of the one unit from the immediate area which fought in the battle. If you want to say you slept on the Gettysburg Battlefield, the motel occupies what was part of the battlefield on the first day.

In town

The battle started with heavy skirmishes north of town. It rolled into the quiet farming community and became increasingly vicious and bloody with house-to-house fighting. The Shriver House is dedicated to the civilian experience at Gettysburg. With husband George fighting elsewhere, Hattie took refuge with her two small daughters in a house south of town where she thought they would be safe. In fact, it was where the battle moved. When the fighting ended, she and her girls hiked past bodies of dead and wounded soldiers and horses and over debris of weapons and supplies. Their home had been used by Confederate snipers and blood stained the attic floor where they’d been shot. There was no happy ending to the tale. George Shriver was captured by Confederates and died in Andersonville prison camp.

The only civilian killed during the battle was 20-year-old Jennie Wade. She was struck by a Confederate bullet while baking bread in the kitchen of a house that sat in the middle of ‘No Man’s Land.” She’d gone there with her mother to care for her older sister who’d given birth just the day before the battle. The outer walls of the building are pockmarked with over a hundred bullet holes. The Jennie Wade House is furnished in the style of middle class homes of the time.

After the battle

Lincoln's BedroomThe months after the battle scarred the town. It’s said that the stench of decay was smelled two miles away. Lawyer David Wills was prominent in organizing work which today would be managed by FEMA, CDC, and the Red Cross. He was instrumental in creating the National Cemetery where the Union dead were buried and where Lincoln delivered his Gettysburg Address. The David Wills House on Gettysburg’s main square is dedicated to the story of the town after the battle, and includes the bedroom where Lincoln stayed and finished writing the Address. (Lincoln 2)

National Cemetery

National CemeteryThis is the final stop for the comprehensive Gettysburg experience. The cemetery was only for the Union soldiers who fell. (Confederates were buried in trenches, shallow graves, or under rocks. It was nearly ten years before most of them were returned to the South. Most of the Confederates were buried in a special section of Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, VA.) The National Park Service has free guided tours of the cemetery which includes checking out the most likely spot where Lincoln gave his address.


Gettysburg National Battlefield Visitor Center: There are several combination, multi-day, multi-activity ticket packages available. The bookstore is crammed with a library’s worth of books on every conceivable aspect of Civil War-era history, as well as all sorts of souvenirs. The cafeteria has the usual fare, but adds a few ‘period’ menu items, like cornbread and stew. Directions, hours, ticket packages:

Gettysburg Diorama: 241 Steinwehr Ave. Admission $5.50 adults; $3 kids (6-17). 717-334-6408.

Gettysburg Licensed Tour Guides: Rates and reservations 717-337-1709. This site also has links to bus, bike, Segway, motorcycle, and horseback tour operators.

Gettysburg Motor Coach Tours: This is a different company from the motor coaches operating from the Visitor Center. The guides are also licensed. One of the tours is on a double-decker bus and has a dramatized audio narration. 877-680-TOUR (toll free) 717-334-6296

Horseback Tours: 2 hour tour with guide $75. (Horses are well-trained trail horses suitable for beginners.) 717-334-1288

Lee’s Headquarters: 401 Buford Ave. Open March-Nov. $3 adults, $1 kids. 717-334-3141

Shriver House: 309 Baltimore St. Open March-Nov. $7.95 adults; $7.75 seniors, $6.00 kids. 717-337-2800

Jennie Wade House & Museum: 548 Baltimore St. $7.50 adults; $3.50 kids 6-12. 717-334-4100

David Wills House: 8 Lincoln Square. $6.50 adults, $5.50 seniors, $4 kids (6-18) 717-334-2499