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How to Make the Battle of Gettysburg Come Alive

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
living historians
living historians at the reenactment of Gettysburg

Visiting Gettysburg

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.

uniforms from the battle of Gettysburg

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.

depicting a camp set up

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.

artifacts from the battle of Gettysburg

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.

a cannon

Three Days of Battle

July 1st

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.

Gettysburg Battle Map Day1.png

battlegrounds from day 1

July 2nd

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.

Gettysburg Battle Map Day2.png
By Map by Hal Jespersen,, CC BY 3.0, Link

battlegrounds from day 2

July 3rd

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.

Gettysburg Battle Map Day3.png
By Map by Hal Jespersen,, CC BY 3.0, Link

battlegrounds from day 3

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.

reenactment of the battle of Gettysburg

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.

living historian

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.

This Post Has 20 Comments

  1. Cindy Moore

    I want to visit the Gettysburg Battle Site. I have an ancestor, Dennison Gregory, who fought and died there.

    1. Leeanne

      Then you really have a connection. I wonder if you know which battle field and if you’d be able to find his gravestone.

  2. Alicia

    What a great review of the battle of Gettysburg! And I love museums that have videos to go with the artifacts. It helps you really envision it!

    1. Leeanne

      I agree, interactive museums are my favorite.

  3. Tiffany Smith

    We are actually going to Gettysburg in 2 weeks! I wish we could have seen the reenactments, I learn so much with their displays and interactions.

    1. Leeanne

      I agree with you Tiffany. My daughter got to wash clothes, and talk to multiple ladies about sewing and dressmaking, and even cooking. It was really fascinating.

  4. Linda Winans Egeler

    What a great place to visit! I never knew that Gettysburg was not a planned battle. How very sad that the Civil War could have ended right then and there, but continued to drag out for two more years.

    1. Leeanne

      I couldn’t agree more with you. Missed opportunity for the Union for sure.

  5. Lisa, Casey, Barrett Dog

    The pictures were phenomenal! This was definitely a way to make the Battle of Gettysburg come alive. We felt like we were there with you! Thank you for sharing.

    1. Leeanne

      I’m glad you got the feeling that you were there with us. It was such a fun day.

  6. Julie Gazdecki

    My husband has always been very interested in Civil War history, and the battles. We have talked about going to Gettysburg for a long time. Being able to see the Battle of Gettysburg come alive would be such a great experience for him.

    1. Leeanne

      Julie, I’m sure he would love the reenactment. You should go in costume as well, it would be so fun.

  7. Suzan

    Looks like the Battle of Gettysburg was pretty alive! Great images.

    1. Leeanne

      Yes, and quite loud. Those are real canons going off just not really gunpowder.

  8. Lisa

    I love historical travel. We went to Gettysburg a few months ago and I loved driving around and listening to the audio commentary.

    1. Leeanne

      I knew you would Lisa, Gettysburg is such a great National Park.

  9. Megan

    I remember going to see the Battle of Gettysburg on a field trip when I was younger. It’s quite impressive! I can’t seem to remember the museum; I wonder if it’s new or it’s just been too long to remember, but I’d love to take my kids these days. What a great trip!

    1. Leeanne

      Yes, I’m sure your kids will love it as much as my kids loved it. Such an important part of our history.

  10. Joseph- Brentwood Pa

    1st time I was at Gettysburg I was in my early 50s…now in my early 60s … Gettysburg is my top go-to place on the planet…. peaceful and awe-inspiring at the same time.
    Fantastic article.

    1. Leeanne

      Thanks, I’m glad you enjoyed it. I think it is quite an impressive place.

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