My East Coast road trip this year featured an overnight stop at Gettysburg National Military Park in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, the site of a three-day-long Civil War battle that ended in a Union victory, a turning point in the war. It was a stop well worth the time.
This is the second year in a row that I’ve done the drive from New England to South Carolina, both times accompanied by my husband and my 23-year-old twins. We avoid the mess that is I-95 and the Capital Beltway and stop at sites of historic interest along the way.
Given the area, this has meant revisiting history that is connected to the Civil War. Last year, we toured Appomattox Court House and National Park, where the Civil War effectively ended. Appomattox was a quiet, somber visit. Gettysburg, however, drove home the immense cost of the Civil War. The battlefield is littered with monuments to those who fought and died in places like “the Valley of Death.” There’s a reason Gettysburg is considered one of the most haunted places in the United States. Close your eyes and you can almost feel the sounds of battle, the gunfire, the screaming, and the groans of those injured and dying.
Gettysburg National Military Park
Gettysburg Vistors Center at the National Military Park
Our first stop after we reached Gettysburg was the Visitor’s Center at the National Military Park.
We arrived in the late afternoon but still had 90 minutes to tour the center and experience the famous Cyclorama. This is a massive painting that encircles an entire room inside the visitors’ center. (Tickets are required.) The first step in the experience is a short film depicting the battle and its’ origins. This film includes the history of the conflict and its’ cause–slavery. It packs a lot into a brief presentation, putting the battle and what was at stake in proper context.
The Cyclorama is located on a level above the theater. Visitors stand on a raised platform with the massive painting spread out in all directions. There is a guided presentation that lights up various sections of the art to showcase the different clashes during the battle on different days. I left with awe for the creators of this painting, amazed at how the presentation put the visitor in the moment, and sadness at the lives lost during those bloody three days.
Gettysburg Battlefield Auto Tour
Only by driving the auto tour can you appreciate how many soldiers fought, their conditions under fire, and how closely the two armies encircled this little town. For instance, the distance between Lee’s headquarters and the Union position on Cemetary Ridge takes about five minutes to drive and passes right through the downtown.
The auto tour includes numerous stops where you can explore as long as you want. They feature written plaques describing the events at that particular place and monuments to the various regiments and their leaders who fought the battles, Union and Confederate alike.
By far, I was most affected by standing on Little Round Top, a sheer hill full of massive boulders at the top. To think of men attempting to climb that hill in the incredible heat of the day, dressed in wool uniforms, almost defeats the imagination. Below is called the Valley of Death and it lived up to its’ name during the battle.
Little Round Trop also provides an appreciation for how surrounded the Union troops were at the summit, and how desperate they must have been, hoping that they would not be flanked and destroyed.
It makes one ponder the nature of war and why men have to fight. In this case, it was because one side refused to stop keeping their fellow human beings in bondage. The choice of the Union was to either fight to keep the United States or let it go and walk away. They fought.
Downtown Gettysburg is easy to walk, with parking off the main street, which features a traffic circle right in the middle of everything. We found two unexpected geeky stops: Four Corners Comics and Nerd Herd Gifts and Games. The twins are standing in front of the Nerd Herd store, at the oversize chess board on the sidewalk outside.
Nerd Herd is focused on tabletop gaming and had events for children listed on its calendar. They also had a room specifically for children’s games.
Four Corners Comics is medium-size for a comic store (Compared to Midtown Comics’ main store in Manhattan, everything seems smaller to me.) They have a separate gaming room and a large selection of graphic novels that featured many choices beyond DC and Marvel. They also carry new comic releases, collectibles, and some fun t-shirts. I’d be happy to call this store my neighborhood shop.
There’s a chocolate store across the street and several casual restaurants too. We ate at the Upper Crust, which you can see in the background in the photo. Excellent pizza and cheesesteaks and we were seated in their open-air section, as we’re still being Covid careful. In all, downtown Gettysburg was a great place to spend a few hours and decompress from the experience of the auto tour.
It might have been interesting to stay at the independent hotels downtown but we instead spent the night at the Hampton Inn located in the commercial area where all the chain stores and restaurants are located. Our hotel choice may not be yours–when we’re road tripping I look for hotels that have three beds in a room. This one exceeded expectations, as we had two rooms, one with a king-size bed and a door for myself and the husband, and the other room with two queen beds. Plus, free breakfast!
We could have easily spent another day at Gettysburg, especially since I wanted to try a ghost tour or the Museum of Haunted Objects but we had to get back on the road. I did come away with one souvenir that I read on the rest of the trip: Twilight at Little Round Top by Glenn W. LaFantasie. It described the fighting of the second day as well as filling in the background of those who fought and sometimes died. It made for somber but fascinating reading.