The battlefields of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania

Black and white photograph of Town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, about the time of the Civil War battle. The point of view is about where the Eleventh Corps was positioned.

Black and white photograph of Town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, about the time of the Civil War battle. The point of view is about where the Eleventh Corps was positioned. Image available in the public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Gettysburg, Pennsylvania is perhaps best known as the site of the bloodiest battles in the American Civil War which took place in early July 1863.  The battle between the Union and Confederate forces lasted three days and marked a turning point in the overall conflict.  Six months after the battle, President Lincoln used the occasion of the Gettysburg National Cemetery dedication ceremony to deliver the historic Gettysburg Address, redefining the aims of the war and honouring the fallen Union soldiers.  Gettysburg is now home to a number of different events and buildings commemorating and explaining the battle as well as the civil war itself.

The origins of the American Civil War lie in the mid-nineteenth century and increased tensions centred about the issues of slavery and the self-determination of states versus the power of the federal government.  By 1860, the United States of America was divided and in December of the year, South Carolina became the first state to secede from United States, nominally in protest at the perceived laws of the over-reaching government.  A year later, eleven states gad seceded from the United States to form the Confederacy and war between the Confederacy and the Union (what remained of the United States) had begun.

For the first two years of the conflict, both sides were evenly matched: the Confederacy, under the direction of General Robert E. Lee, would decisively win one battle while the Union would dominate the next. It was not until the Battle of Gettysburg in early July 1863 that the war truly turned in favour of one side, the Union.  Plans for the battle were developed in late June (29 June), however the battle itself did not begin until 1 July with the initial skirmish taking place at Herr Ridge.

For three days, rivers were overflowing with blood and the skies were filled with clouds of smoke. This single battle was the bloodiest moment in American history, with around 57,000 casualties being reported over the three-day period.  Although it was the Confederate forces’ retreat on 4 July that marked the end of the battle, there has been much debate over whether there was a decisive victory. Nonetheless, the Battle of Gettysburg is considered the turning point of the Civil War. The Union thrived after it was able to stand its ground at Gettysburg while the Confederacy never truly regained their former strength. The Confederacy officially surrendered at Appomattox, Virginia in April of 1865, a feat that many believe would not have been accomplished without the Battle of Gettysburg.

Gettysburg Cemetery

Gettysburg Cemetery. by Jack Keene. Image licensed via Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 license.

To be truly immersed in the history of Gettysburg, the ideal time to visit is the beginning of July in order to witness the re-enactment of the battle. Civil War enthusiasts from around the country join together, some dressed in Union blue with others dressed in Confederate grey, in order to bring history to life. In the summer of 2013, the town celebrated the 150th anniversary of the battle, which turned out its largest re-enactment in recent memory.  The re-enactment package includes tours of the battlefield and scheduled viewings of different events that occurred during the three-day period of the battle in July 1863.

The historic town of Gettysburg is also a wonderful place to visit and is a little less crowded than the site of the battlefield.  While it is not the site of the battlefield itself, there are still a number of different ways to tour the battlefield in a number of ways. Personally, I have walked myself through the field using nothing but a local map, I have sat on a tour bus listening to an educated driver, and have sat in my parents’ minivan listening to an older gentleman telling me the story of the battle through the radio speakers. All options are a great and interesting experience that allows a unique perspective on the battle. Make your decision on how much you want to control your time in history. There are also a number of museums in the town that give insight to different events that occurred during the battle as well as a visitor centre right on the battlefield.

Map of the Gettysburg Campaign (up to July 3, 1863) of the American Civil War.

Map of the Gettysburg Campaign (up to July 3, 1863) of the American Civil War. Drawn by Hal Jespersen in Adobe Illustrator CS5. Graphic source file is available at http://www.posix.com/CWmaps/Gettysburg_Campaign.ai.

With a battle comes much death and despair as well as bone-chilling tales of ghosts and ghouls and this is especially true of Gettysburg, the site of the bloodiest battle in the American Civil War. After spending the day visiting monuments and landmarks in the battlefield, the evening can be spent hearing ghostly tales of Devil’s Den and the field of Pickett’s Charge. There are numerous companies along the streets of Gettysburg that offer ghosts tours, each offering a similar experience.  Ghost tours are led through the historic town by a guide who is dressed as if it were still the 1860s, most of them carrying a candle-filled lantern. Visitors are guided to destinations that seem extremely ordinary but are, according to the tour guides, home to visitors from beyond the grave.  From a historic battlefield once littered with the corpses of over 50,000 dead, this is a very effective and distinctive way of engaging with the history and memory of the town and the battlefield.

Visiting the town during the fall season offers other benefits as well, including the Annual Apple Harvest Festival. From apple cider slushies and pancakes to arts and knick knacks, the Apple Festival is a great way to welcome in the autumn season. Open the first two weekends of October, the festival is held just outside Gettysburg in the town of Biglersville and is a great way to spend the day, there is even a petting zoo for the kids and a tractor square dance!

Gettysburg is a quaint, small little town filled with local shops and friendly local folks. Just walking through the streets brings back a time long forgotten. From the Majestic Theater, to Gettysburg College, to the Lincoln Diner, visitors are surrounded by another world.  Gettysburg, Pennsylvania is home to a site of immense historic and national importance but also offers a friendly place to unplug and relax.