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Gettysburg – The Defining Battle of the Civil War

by Grant
Gettysburg

As a guy, there are certain obvious signs you have one helluva wife. Chief amongst those signs is her willingness to sit through all four hours of the movie Gettysburg the night before you visit the battlefield, which you are visiting on your sixth anniversary.

We make a point to spend every anniversary somewhere different. Some times they are great, sometimes not. Last year, we spent it in Ljubljana, Slovenia, which was fabulous. The year before, Evanston, WY, which was not exciting but at least had a good steakhouse.

General Buford commanded the Union cavalry at Gettysburg. It was his decisive action to hold against a force three times his size which allowed time for Union troops to occupy the high ground around Gettysburg. The cannon in the foreground fired the first shot of the battle.
General Buford commanded the Union cavalry at Gettysburg. It was his decisive action to hold against a force three times his size which allowed time for Union troops to occupy the high ground around Gettysburg. The cannon in the foreground fired the first shot of the battle.

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Updated May 2019

The Town of Gettysburg

Our final stop for our New England trip was Gettysburg, PA, site of the Civil War battle and final home of Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower. The town has every Civil War-related attraction you can imagine and then some but retains a small-town feel regardless. While not a lot of folks’ “ideal” when it comes to spending an anniversary, it is right up our alley.

I am quite sure most of the year Gettysburg is relatively quiet, but not this week. It was Bike Week when we were in Gettysburg, which made for its own challenges.

Bike Week at Gettysburg
Bike Week at Gettysburg

Don’t get me wrong. I am all for folks getting together, hanging out and doing their thing. When it comes to thousands of motorcycles, I don’t want to be nearby. Being around thousands of rumbling motorcycles is not relaxing. The behavior of some of the bikers was irritating, to say the least. But, it is their week so who am I to complain?

Pro Tip: Check the calendar in the location you are going BEFORE you book to avoid major festivals, bike weeks, celebrations, etc., if crowds are not your thing.

Aside from it being a bit annoying while in town, camping with a couple hundred bikers is not all that great either. They weren’t rude or rowdy, but the rumble of the bikes kept our kitty, Alee, hiding most of our stay and the coming and going at the wee hours got old very fast.

Gettysburg National Military Park

Gettysburg is the site of the most important battle of the Civil War. In no other battle was the outcome so precariously perched on a knife’s edge in so many different moments.

If I gush a bit about this battle, it’s because it is one I have studied extensively and that I teach as part of my Civil War literature unit. If there is only one Civil War battlefield you ever visit, this should be the one. But, rather than bore you with an account of the battle, let me tell you about our day at the park.

This monument, with Robert E. Lee seated on his horse, overlooks the field of Pickett's Charge.
This monument, with Robert E. Lee seated on his horse, overlooks the field of Pickett’s Charge.

Gettysburg National Military Park all but surrounds the town of Gettysburg and encompasses most of the major sites of the battle. The park is best explored by car with a very detailed auto tour, which takes you day by day through the battle. If you prefer, you can do a bus tour or hire a guide to drive your vehicle for you. 

There are a handful of walking trails and the Park Service does do walking tours of the various sites.

This monument the 20th Maine Regiment on Little Round Top. Their actions on the second day of the battle saved the Union line from crumbling.
This monument is for the 20th Maine Regiment on Little Round Top. Their actions on the second day of the battle saved the Union line from crumbling.

If you are going to visit Gettysburg, I cannot stress enough that you should see the excellent movie mentioned above. Yes, the movie is four hours long. Yes, it drags a bit in the middle. You will never see a better representation of the various leaders in the battle than that movie. 

I swear every time I hear Jeff Daniels, who plays Joshua Chamberlain, shout: “BAYONETS!”, I get goosebumps. Chamberlain’s defense of Little Round Top is one of the many decisive moments of the battle and garnered him a Medal of Honor.

An artillery demonstration by Civil War reenactors.
An artillery demonstration by Civil War reenactors.

We were fortunate that the campground had a copy of the DVD to let us borrow. Did I mention my wife is truly amazing?

One thing to note about the battlefield itself: there is a monument behind every blade of grass. Seriously, there are more than 1,300 monuments, memorials and markers on the battlefield.

From these woods, the Confederate troops under Pickett began their ill-fated charge.
From these woods, the Confederate troops under Pickett began their ill-fated charge.

The visitor center is kinda like Civil War World, if Disney were ever to imagine such a thing. Granted, it is a very popular park, but the visitor center is very obviously not a Park Service building at all. 

It is owned and run by the Gettysburg Foundation and is a great example, at least in my opinion, of a not great partnership. It feels very commercialized and, while the money goes to helping the park, it does not fit with the rest of the park. Perhaps, I am truly becoming a park snob.

Some wildflowers growing at Gettysburg
Some wildflowers growing at Gettysburg

While I am sure Bonnie would not classify visiting Gettysburg NMP as her ideal anniversary, we both enjoyed the day. And, to balance it out enjoyed a seriously awesome dinner that night at VOLT, the restaurant of Top Chef runner-up Bryan Voltaggio. We enjoyed a 21-course meal at the chef’s counter! It is definitely the best (and most expensive) meal that we have ever had.

Eisenhower National Historic Site

Eisenhower was stationed at Gettysburg back when this was the home of the Tank Corps and loved the area. Many years later,  after leaving the Army, Eisenhower bought a farm adjoining Gettysburg NMP. This actually was the first home he and his wife owned. 

The farm served as a refuge for him while he was president, allowing him to grow crops, raise Angus cattle, shoot, hunt, fish and spend time with his grandchildren. 

Eisenhower's home after WWII and the presidency
Eisenhower’s home after WWII and the presidency

It also allowed him to paint and the house has several of his paintings hanging throughout. He was a pretty skilled artist!

The house itself is fairly unassuming, a nice change from the opulence we saw in Hyde Park, Kinderhook or Campobello. Aside from the formal living room, it was a very comfortable home.

Eisenhower's home overlooked the battlefield at Gettysburg.
Eisenhower’s home overlooked the battlefield at Gettysburg.

Eisenhower was a huge student of the battle and, aside from showing off his cattle, would make a point to take visitors on a personally-guided battlefield tour at every opportunity.

Pro Tip: You have to schedule your tours of the home through the Gettysburg NMP Visitor Center.

Steamtown National Historic Site

On the way to Gettysburg from our previous stop in Connecticut, we stayed in Scranton, PA for a couple of nights to visit Steamtown National Historic Site. 

Steamtown NHS is a kid’s dream come true: an entire park dedicated to old school trains! Here, you can climb all over the locomotives, a box car, a Pullman car and a caboose. You can even take a ride on a working steam-powered train. 

The roundhouse at Steamtown NHS
The roundhouse at Steamtown NHS

Yes, it is very kid-friendly. In fact, I would recommend folks driving along the East Coast to detour to Scranton for this site. It is well worth it, especially if you have kids or an interest in trains.

The site has a great museum and a restored, operational roundhouse (a train maintenance facility) and various locomotives and cars scattered throughout. I got to geek out a little at the trains. Like every boy of a certain age, I used to walk down to the train tracks and listen to the rails for the train to come. It runs in my family. My father’s stepfather, my namesake, used to work the rails not that far from here.

The tracks at Steamtown
The tracks at Steamtown

Final Thoughts on Gettysburg

Let’s be honest, battlefields are not always the most exciting places to stop. Often you are just staring at an open field or the edge of a forest looking at where a bunch of people fought well over a hundred years ago. Some of the monuments are interesting, but even those get redundant.

Learning (or relearning) the story of the battle and its importance in our nation’s history is often interesting, though. For that reason, it is important that you budget enough time for the visitor center exhibits and park film.

Sunset on our last night on the road.
Sunset on our last night on the road.

For every amazing vista at a national park, it is corners of history we find at these smaller sites which make our journeys off the beaten path so worth it. We don’t go on vacation so much as explore America. It isn’t always pretty but it is majestic.

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Gettysburg was the defining battle of the Civil War with many moments where the battle could have gone either way, making for a tremendous battle to study.
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