Most people don’t know that the Battle of Gettysburg was not a planned battle. This battle happened because as the saying goes “all roads lead to Rome”, in Pennsylvania, all roads lead to Gettysburg. This wasn’t a planned battle but instead a battle of crossroads. I was honestly amazed by this battlefield and the history of this town.
Since we live in Boston we have visited so many American Revolutionary sites and monuments but Gettysburg and this road trip were our introductions to the Civil War. There is so much to learn and see in Gettysburg and the battlefields that you can spend several days exploring the area.
Table of Contents for Gettysburg
Where is Gettysburg, Pennsylvania?
Like I said in the beginning Gettysburg is really at the crossroads, north, west, east, or south, it’s easy to get to Gettysburg. Gettysburg is east of Rt 15 and Rt 30 goes through the town. If you need to fly into the area I highly suggest Harrisburg or one of the other cities listed below. You will need a car to explore the area that you can rent at the airport.
- 45 mins from Harrisburg or York
- 1-1/2 from Baltimore or Washington DC
- 2-1/2 hours from Philadelphia
- 3-1/2 hours from Pittsburg or NYC
Gettysburg is a National Park and has a very large visitors center which I highly recommend starting your visit here. Gettysburg is unique in that the National Park system operates the park in conjunction with the Gettysburg Foundation.
Start Your Visit at the Gettysburg Visitors Center
Within the visitor’s center, there are 3 activities for you. Your first stop should be the Gettysburg Museum of the American Civil War. This is simply amazing. In addition to all the artifacts they have, the soldiers’ uniforms from the civil war are stunning.
The second activity is a film called “A New Birth of Freedom”. This is a 20-minute film that will help you to understand why this battle at Gettysburg happened and its significance within the war.
Lastly, is the Cyclorama painting. This isn’t your average painting. This painting is longer than a football field and taller than a 4 story building. What I love about this painting depicting Pickett’s charge on the 3rd day of battle, is the sound and lighting effects. You actually feel as though you are in the battle. It’s spectacular.
After you have spent time in the visitors center, visiting the battlefields with not only have more meaning but also come alive for you. This is why I highly recommend starting at the visitors center.
The Battle of Gettysburg
Gettysburg is such an iconic Civil War battle and yet I don’t think most people really know the reason behind this battle or its significance. The Civil War was fought from April 12th, 1861 to April 9th, 1865, essentially Abraham Lincoln’s whole presidency. The Union States in the north and the Confederate States in the south. The predominant cause of this war was slavery and its expansion into new territories.
The battle of Gettysburg was from July 1-3, 1863. Gettysburg was the single bloodiest battle of the war sustaining more than 50,000 casualties over the 3 days. Again this wasn’t the battle General Robert E. Lee was headed for but when the opportunity presents itself, you take it.
General Lee celebrating a win at Chancellorsville, VA headed north to continue his momentum. This defeat prompted President Lincoln to appoint a new commander in chief, Major General George Gordon Meade. As Lee marches north, Meade prepares to defend Washington DC but also starts to pursue Lee.
On June 28th, General Lee makes his way into Pennsylvania and learns of Meade’s location, and changes course. As I said before all roads lead to Gettysburg and as such, this is where the Union Army and the Confederates meet on July 1 for this battle.
Luckily for us, the Union Army prevails and stops General Lee’s northward movement. Unfortunately, General Meade did not continue to battle with the retreating army. This mistake allows the conflict to rage on for another two years instead of forcing General Lee to surrender.
Three Days of Battle
On July 1st, Major General Heth and his confederate soldiers march north toward Gettysburg to capture supplies. They were surprised when they encounter Union soldiers ready to fight. Throughout the day of fighting, the Confederate army receives reinforcements and is now at 30,000 troops. They are able to push back the 20,000 Union troops to Cemetery hill south of town. Unfortunately, for the Union army their leader, Major General Reynolds dies in this battle.
As dawn on July, 2nd rises the Union army fights to keep the fishhook-shaped range of hills south of town. Unfortunately, the Confederate army encircles them with heavy artillery. Fierce fighting ensues especially to the west of town on Devil’s Hill, Little Round Top, the Wheatfield, the Peach Orchard, and Cemetery Ridge, refer to the map. However, the Confederates also engage with the Union troops on the east side of town on East Cemetery Hill and Culp’s Hill. Things don’t look good for the Union Army but they hold on strong til nighttime.
With so much heavy fighting on July 2nd, Lee believes his army is weak. But on July 3rd, this doesn’t deter Lee, he pushes forward and tries to finish the job. His troops advance on Culp’s Hill with powerful attacks. However, the main event is along Cemetery Ridge on the west. General Pickett, with orders from Lee, is the driving force leading his, less than an adequate number of men, to take the ridge. This attack known as Pickett Charge does indeed reach the top of the ridge. The victory is short-lived though as Union soldiers bombard them with close-range fire driving them back down the hill. This battle is where the Confederate Army lost 60% of its men. With casualties being so high, Lee retreats and makes his way back to Virginia.
Is this the End of the Civil War?
Sadly, this is not. Meade doesn’t pursue Lee’s retreating army and misses a great opportunity to end the war. Lincoln writes about this in his Gettysburg Address where he dedicates the Gettysburg National Cemetery to the 50,000 fallen soldiers from those three days.
Enjoy history? Learn about the War of Independence on the Minute Man Trail
How to Make Gettysburg Come Alive
The best way to make the battles of Gettysburg come alive is to visit during a reenactment. Of course, the reenactments are done from July 1-3rd, when the real battles happened. These battles are not at the National Parks but at Daniel Lady Farm in Gettysburg. You can attend the festivities for one day or both.
My family loves to see battle reenactments but on these festival days, it’s not just the battles that are interesting but all living historians too. My younger daughter is very interested in sewing and she loves talking to women about their dresses. She had a hands-on demonstration on how to wash clothes as well as what the men carried in their packs. These are the reasons we go to reenactments.
Save for Later under Gettysburg
Final Thoughts on How to Make Gettysburg Come Alive
Honestly, for me and my family, walking the battlefields and taking a tour to hear the history is the best way to learn and understand what was happening back in 1863. When you go to the battlefields and see what the men saw while fighting, that is when you can understand what these men did. Knowing now that they fought so our nation can stand for all free men is awesome.
Please leave a comment on Gettysburg or any reenactment you have been to, we love hearing about others’ travels.