This is one day I will never forget. I hope it’s the same for the kids. Not only do I finally understand the Battle of Gettysburg, but I was blown away by the professional manner in which the visitor center treated this horrible battle. I know there are many people who have hobbies surrounding this battle, and now I understand why.
We were up early, so got to see the mist rising over the hills of Pennsylvania as we drove to the park. Very erie, and we could picture the troops camped all over the 23,000 acres. The visitor center was created with private funds, and after a few years of turning a profit, it was turned over to the Park Service to run. (I wanted to ask if it was still operating in the black, but didn’t!) It’s the biggest museum we’ve been to, and we could have spent 2-3 days exploring just the inside, but we were itching to get on our bus tour and see the outside.
It was $144 for the 4 of us. We hadn’t planned on it, but once we saw how huge the park was, we signed up. It was 3 hours of non-stop history and even the kids weren’t bored. When we sat down in the movie theatre (a multi-media presentation worth the ticket price itself) before the tour, I thought, “uh-oh, here we go for the fall, the kids will be the only kids around”, and I was right. It was after Labor Day, so most kids were back in school. I don’t know if it’s because the kids are so cute (oh, I’ll pay for that) or just because they aren’t in school, but they attract a lot of attention when we are out and about. Because we’d had all summer with other tourists around, we’d forgotten what it was like. The tour guide called on them a few times, but they were good sports about it.
After the movie, we went upstairs to see the cyclorama. We didn’t know that’s what we were doing, we just walked where the employee told us to go! So funny, you get into the cattle mentality so easily. Up the escalator we went to the top of the round building. I was wondering why it was round, and we found out. There was a huge painting, 42′ high by 377′ around, depicting the Pickett’s Charge battle. It took my breath away it was so well done. The painter was Paul Dominique Philippoteaux, and you can look it up online. There were four done, and this was one restored just for this visitor center. They dimmed the lights, turned the story on, and we saw the charge unfold before our eyes. The picture below is just a small portion of the painting.
This tiny picture doesn’t do it justice. You have to look it up online!
We went down a few floors and went through part of the museum before it was time for the bus tour. I wanted to type “the corny bus tour” because they usually are, but not this one. I am so proud of us for taking a chance on it.
Our guide explained how it started, and then took us to the first battle. I kept thinking, “if only”: if only the Union leader hadn’t been on his horse and gotten shot in the first few minutes, the battle could have been over under his leadership; if only the silly congressman hadn’t led his Union troops out into the open, we wouldn’t have lost more men; if only General Lee would have listened to his 3 commanders, they wouldn’t have started Pickett’s Charge. I heard the men in our group saying the same things to each other. Yes, hindsight is easy, but we heard how all the pieces came together for this horrendous battle and I couldn’t help but wish “if only it all hadn’t happened.” 3 days of battle, whew.
The picture above was taken on Little Round Top, with Devil’s Den behind Eliza. We got off here during the bus tour so he could show us how important this hill was to Union forces. It had a perfect 360 degree view of the surrounding countryside, and they knew how vital it was to keep it. Unfortunately, when the congressman went out with his troops, he left it exposed. To our left, a Union leader happened to be up on a rock outcropping and saw the Confederates coming around behind the congressman’s men, heading straight for the hill. He was able to send a runner for the Union troops on the other side of the hill, and they came up and battled for the hill. The Union prevailed, but it was a bloody fight. They had even pushed cannons UP the other side of the hill. And when you see how huge the cannon and the cannon balls were, you understand how strong they were.
The next day, General Lee had his men fight the battle now known as Pickett’s Charge. The museum pointed out that Pickett was against General Lee’s idea, but it is still named for him. All 3 of his lead commanders didn’t want this battle, and we can understand why. Lee had his 15,000 troops line up by platoons and their cannons, and they came out of the woods, across a huge field, toward the base of Little Round Top. It was a mile. It was hot. They were loaded down with ammunition. They quickly walked the first half mile, double-timed the next 1/4 mile, and ran in full charge the last hundred yards. Right into Union forces.
General Lee thought it would be a success because their 15,000 men far outnumbered the Union soldiers and he didn’t know Washington was sending reinforcements. Lee was quoted in the museum as admitting to another man during the battle that it wasn’t a good idea, and to help him figure a way out, but we don’t know if that’s true or not. I kept thinking that I would have been so scared, I would have wanted to turn and run away, and then I read numerous quotes from the soldiers – all stating that they couldn’t be a coward, not when their neighbor, friend or brother was right next to them. That they had to keep fighting until the Union won, no matter the sacrifice. Wow.
The battle lasted the full 3 days, and then General Lee beat a slow retreat. It was raining hard and the going was not easy. General Washington had some of his men follow, but they didn’t attack. Lee had wanted this important area, but he hadn’t gotten it. The Union had a victory, but it must have felt hollow. There were 51,000 casualties, 20 times the population of the little town of Gettysburg. The townspeople were overwhelmed with the dead and dying. They were left to bury them and tend to them. Only one townsperson died during the battle; she was standing in her sister’s kitchen when a bullet came through 2 walls and hit her in the back. Many people left their farms for good because they had been ruined by the battle. The way they described the smell of the dead horses made me not want to eat lunch.
This picture is called “Faces of Battle” and the museum worked hard to get pictures of all the men. This is a small portion of the wall. The rest of the museum was done just as well and I highly recommend it to everyone. I don’t like war. I don’t like reading about war. I don’t like the old men who send younger men to war. This museum, however, was excellent.
We went to the cemetery next, and saw where Lincoln stood and made his Gettysburg Address. He was ridiculed at the time for it’s brevity, because the main speaker had gone on and on for two hours. The cemetery itself was created by the townspeople as a way to honor the many men who had died. It was a peaceful, somber area and I really liked the sign that said, “Silence and Respect.” They earned it.