Location: Gettysburg, Pennsylvania
Webpage: National Park Service
General Description: Following his dramatic victory at Chancellorsville, General Robert E. Lee led his undefeated Confederate Army of Northern Virginia towards Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, with the intention of a major victory in Northern territory. His army was followed by the Union Army of the Potomac under the command of Major General Joseph Hooker. Unfortunately, General Lee was unaware of this since the cavalry of Major General J.E.B. Stuart was absent on a raid in Maryland leaving Lee without his scouts. The two armies met by chance at Gettysburg on June 30, 1863 with the Confederate troops attacking Union troops west of town. The Union troops were eventually driven back through town to Cemetery Hill south of town where they were joined by Major General George G. Meade. On July 2 the battle lines were drawn up with the opposing forces facing each other along two parallel ridges about a mile apart, the Confederates on Seminary Ridge and the Union on Cemetery Ridge. General Meade set up his line of defense along a fish hook that was anchored on the north by Culps Hill and Cemetery Hill and on the south by Little Round Top. However, General Sickles independently decided to move his troops towards the Confederate lines to what he believed to be a more defensible position. This left him terribly exposed in an advanced position and left Little Round Top, the Union left, undefended. The charges and counter charges through the wheatfield and the peach orchard left over 4,000 dead and wounded. The quick action by Brigadier General Warren alerted the Union forces of the vulnerability of Little Round Top and brought reinforcements to hold and turn back the Confederates at Devils Den. Having to pour reinforcements into the Union left flank meant the Union right flank at Culps Hill was lightly defended. By 7 pm the Confederate forces attacked and held the lower slopes of Culps Hill with fighting continuing until nearly midnight. General Lee ordered simultaneous attacks on both flanks to commence at dawn, however, the Union artillery started a barrage just before dawn in an effort to repulse General Ewell from Culps Hill and General Longstreet was delayed in initiating his attack on the Union left. Therefore, General Lee changed his plans and decided to attack the middle of the Union line. At 1:00 pm the Confederates began an artillery bombardment with 150-170 cannon, the largest barrage of the Civil War after including the 80 Union cannon that answered. After 2 hours the artillery quieted and 12,500 Confederate soldiers marched out to charge the Union line in what is known as “Pickett’s Charge”. Although the Union line briefly broke at a jog in the fence line known as “The Angle”, the Confederate attack was repulsed. This location has been called the “High Water Mark” as the furthest advance of the Confederates during the battle, as well as, Gettysburg marking the farthest point of advance of the Confederates during the Civil War. Pickett’s Charge is commemorated at the National Park by Paul Dominique Philippoteaux’s cyclorama. This is a 42 foot high, 365 foot diameter oil painting that includes the major aspects of the charge. The Visitor Center also includes two theaters and an extensive museum providing details and exhibits of each day of the battle, as well as, events leading up to and after the battle from the beginning of the Civil War to its conclusion. Included is President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address which he delivered in November of 1863 during the dedication of the Gettysburg National Cemetery.
1) In 2008, a new Visitor Center was opened that will take your breath away. Not only is the building a beautiful architectural structure on its own, but the inside will make you feel you are at some amusement park. It is certainly designed to accommodate large crowds.
2) The 360 degree Cyclorama is spectacular. Painted before there were motion pictures in 1883, this cyclorama is one of four that were done for expeditions in Chicago, Boston, and Philadelphia. This is one of the last two surviving cycloramas of this size which is huge. You ride an escalator up into the center of the 365 foot long painting that totally surrounds you. They have extended fence lines and added other props to bring the painting right up to the viewing platform. It was difficult to tell where the painting started. The painting is full of details that would take an hour to examine, but they only give you about 15 minutes before the next group comes in. It includes all the details of Pickett’s Charge all mashed together, so the short program with spotlights highlighting parts of the painting were a big help.
3) The museum at the Visitor Center is the best Civil War museum I have seen. It consists of 11 rooms, each room dedicated to a different theme. Beginning with “Impact of War: In a Larger Sense”, the museum gives an excellent overview of events and reasons for the Civil war and the history leading up to the battle. Fully a third of the museum is dedicated to the three days of the battle, with exhibits, movies, and interviews of soldiers and civilians that lived through the war. Finally, the aftermath including the massive tending of the wounded, the Gettysburg Address, and the major events to the end of the Civil War and its lasting impact on the United States. The museum alone is worth a couple of hours of time.
4) The driving tour of the battlefield can take from two hours to a full day to see. It is very well laid out to lead you from the first day of the battle on July 1 through the major events of July 2 and July 3, from the initial contact west of town through Pickett’s Charge. The events at Culps Hill on the Union right flank in the hook of the fishhook are a bit disjointed due to the expanse of the battlefield, but makes a good ending for the tour. I would strongly recommend buying the CD for the driving tour as it provides good perspective of each stop on the tour and includes a few important stops that are not included in the tour provided in the brochure. For about $30 you can also hire a professional guide to ride around with you on the tour. This could be very informative as we were able to overhear some of these tour guides at some of the stops.
5) There are still evidence from the battle that can be seen on the driving tour. Examples include stone breastwork the Union soldiers put up on Little Round Top to protect them from the sharpshooters at Devils Den and cannonball holes in the farm houses.
6) The monuments at Gettysburg is the largest collection in the world and range from small modest monuments to the very large and ornate structures and small buildings. There are 1320 monuments scattered across the battlefield. Most are to specific units that participated in the battle, but there are a number to individual commanders and a few to both sides including the Eternal Light Peace Memorial and High Water Mark Memorial.
7) Visiting Gettysburg in the early spring (such as early May) can be a great. The crowds are much smaller then they will be during the summer, the weather is cool and pleasant, and the spring flowers are in bloom.