Gettysburg: All-American travel |

Gettysburg: All-American travel

COLETTE CONNOLLYspecial to the daily

To the casual observer the Gettysburg National Military Park, nestled in the beautiful Pennsylvania countryside, looks like any other swath of land. The monuments and other markers placed there are definite reminders of the Civil War’s bloodiest battle and its bravest heroes. History lovers savor the place for its sacredness and beauty.A couple of weeks ago, I visited Gettysburg with my husband and two school-age children, ages 8 and 13. We arrived in town eager to explore, having spent the previous days sight-seeing in Washington, D.C. After settling into our suite at The Dobbin House, we wasted no time getting to the National Military Park Museum and Visitor Center located on the outskirts of town. The building is quite large, and it takes a few hours to do a thorough tour of the museum itself, but it is well worth it. The huge building also houses the newly restored Gettysburg Cyclorama, an enormous wraparound canvas painting originally created in the 1800s by French cycloramic artist Paul Philippoteaux. It was meticulously brought back to life a few years ago by the National Park Service and its private partner, the Gettysburg Foundation.The 15-minute show creates an incredible 3D experience that allows visitors to experience the battle of Pickett’s Charge, an infantry assault ordered by the Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee against Maj. Gen. George G. Meade’s Union Army. Smoke and strobe lighting imitate the fierce fighting that took place on the main fighting ground, Cemetery Hill. The bucolic setting soon turns into a frenzied scene, as horses charge, wounded soldiers cry out, munitions explode, and guns firing all around. Bayonets, saddles, cartridge boxes, canvas stretchers, knapsacks, and even a full-size Union cannon and its carriage, are placed in the foreground of the cyclorama to add to its authenticity. The cyclorama is a good place to learn more about the Battle of Gettysburg. In many ways, it mentally prepares visitors for the museum and its incredibly extensive collection of Civil War memorabilia, which amounts to about 40,000 items in the museum’s collection and approximately 350,000 in the archival collection. If you’re interested in Civil War-era guns, there’s a whole collection of them here. Carbine pistols, made by workers at the Springfield Armory in Springfield, Mass., are on display, in addition to muskets made at the Harpers Ferry Armory in the years leading up to the Civil War. Aside from the other memorable items on show at the museum, including Confederate and Union army uniforms, recruitment posters, the 34-star flag of the United States, circa 1861, and the tents and possessions of officers and soldiers on both sides of the divide, perhaps the most valuable information to be gleaned from a visit is a more complete understanding of the Civil War and the events leading up to it.

Be sure to watch the Morgan Freeman-narrated documentary, A New Birth of Freedom, and you’ll discover that even before the Civil War the country was divided. Freeman tells us how the industrialized northern states made money from manufacturing, while the south, a mostly agricultural economy, survived on cotton trade with the rest of the world. Taking a private, ranger-led tour of the battlefields truly brought the experience at Gettysburg to life for all of us. Driving our car through town, the knowledgeable park ranger pointed out the many brown-bricked homes in Gettysburg that still bear bullet holes from the battle. We discovered that approximately 2,400 people lived in Gettysburg at the time of the battle and that the town was devastated by the events that happened there, with residents opening up their homes to the wounded. Much of the land has been opened up to recreate what the countryside must have looked like at the time of battle. Trees have been cut down and a combination of “cow-high, pig-tight” fences and stone walls were erected to reflect what stood there during the Civil War, our guide told us. Looking out into the Pennsylvania countryside, we were able to vividly imagine the charge of horses, and men, both sides running toward each other, ready to fight ’til death. At every point along the two-hour tour, our guide gave us behind-the-scenes insight into every stage of the battle. We learned that after the first day, the Confederates, under Gen. Robert E. Lee, held the upper hand against Union troops, but that at Little Round Top, a day later, the Union Army’s quick action prevented the Confederates from gaining valuable ground. A Confederate advancement across open fields in an area known as “Pickett’s Charge,” was, we learned, the undoing of Lee’s forces, with over 5,000 soldiers lost in an hour.We were reminded of that bloody battle over and over again during our visit of Gettysburg. When we took a ghost tour of the town later that night, we heard about a young boy named Daniel, whose spirit is frequently felt around town. The death and destruction that took place in Gettysburg has ranked it among the top ghost towns in the country. Don’t take my word for it, though. Go see it for yourself.Colette Connolly is a New York-based freelance travel writer who enjoys exploring the U.S. with her husband and two children.

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