As a random person to name a Civil War battle, and the one they’re most likely to mention is the Battle of Gettysburg. There are reasons for this, of course. This battle broke a string of Confederate triumphs that dated back to the year before, it punctured the myth of Lee’s infallibility, and it forced the Confederacy onto the defensive, something it would never recover from. As such, the Gettysburg National Military Park has some of the best facilities of any National Military Park, as befits the decisive battle of the Civil War.
In late May of 1863, the Confederacy had a problem. Union General Ulysses S. Grant was besieging Vicksburg, and if the city fell, access to the farm and cattle of Texas would be lost, as well as to the only unblockaded ports left to the CSA. Confederate General Joe Johnston was near the city, but felt that he had too few troops to break Grant’s siege. Faced with this crisis, the South turned to General Robert E. Lee. Lee proposed to invade the North. With a victory or two, Lee hoped he could at the very least force Grant to be recalled from Vicksburg to try and stop him, and at best, could either capture Washington or do enough damage to draw Britain and France into aiding the Confederacy.
To that end, he marched his army north through Maryland and into Pennsylvania. There, blinded by the absence of his cavalry who had been led by General J.E.B. Stuart in a raid behind Union lines, Lee’s army blundered into the Union army led by General George Meade at a small town called Gettysburg.
The first day’s action was a confused mess with troops from both sides arriving at various points until the Union army was pushed out of the town proper and onto a set of hills southeast of town. On the second day, Lee tried to dislodge Meade from those hills by striking both ends of the Union line, and when that failed, he tried to attack the middle on the third day. This attack, the famous Pickett’s Charge. This attack ended in disaster, and on July 4th, Lee’s beaten army began a long, slow retreat home.
Ironically, that same July 4th saw the surrender of Vicksburg, meaning that Lee had failed to achieve even his minimum objective with his invasion.
Though arguably the loss of Vicksburg did more damage to the Confederate cause materially, in that it cut off the food supplies in Texas from the armies who needed it, the damage to Confederate morale and international prestige inflicted by the loss at Gettysburg cannot be discounted. The defeat also ended any hope that Britain or France would intervene to aid the Confederacy.
Known as the Bloodiest Battle in American History, Gettysburg cost both sides a combined 46,000 men, woudned, captures, or killed. It was to commemorate the National Cemetery where many of those fallen were buried that President Abraham Lincoln made is famous Gettysburg Address.
The Gettysburg National military park boasts the largest and best equipped of the National Park Service visitor’s centers, fresh from a renovation in 2008 in honor of the 145th anniversary of the battle. Of particular note are the extremely well stocked museum, the film “A New Birth of Freedom,” and the Cyclorama. This last is an oil painting pf the battle that is 377 feet around and 42 feet high. Visitors stand in the middle of the painting and can look in any direction to see parts of the battle depicted all around them. Also of note are Gettysburg National Military Cemetery and the David Wills House, which examines the Gettysburg Address and the post-war history of Gettysburg.
Naturally, food and lodging can be found in convenient Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
Unusually for a National Military Park, entrance to the battlefield itself is free, but there are fees for the museums and the Cyclorama. Prices are $10.50 for adults, $9.50 for seniors and active military, $6.50 for youth ages 6 to 18, and free for children under 6. Entracne to the David Wills House is $6.50 for an adult, $5.50 for a senior, and $4.00 for youth aged 6 to 18. Again, children under 6 are admitted for free. Bus tours take place at regularly scheduled times throughout the summer months. This tour costs $28.00 for adults aged 13 and up, $17 for children ages 6 to 12, and is free for children under 12. A two hour guided tour from a Battlefield Guide can be purchased for $55.00, $70.00, or $125.00 depending on how many passengers you have in your vehicle. These guided tours require at least a three day reservation. You can call 1-877-874-2478 to arrange for this.
Please note that the Lifetime Senior Pass for the National Parks does not apply for any of the Gettysburg fees.
A map to the Gettysburg National Military Park.