Gettysburg Battlefield: A Walk Through Civil War History

Gettysburg Civil War Battlefield

There are many corners of our planet that are steeped in history. Some of them celebrate mankind’s most incredible achievements—the Panama Canal or Peru’s Machu Picchu come to mind—and some, like Auschwitz or the 9/11 Flight 93 Memorial, remind us we must be better than those who came before us. And then there are the places that bring what we learned in history classes to life, the destinations that educate and even inspire us. A few more than four score and seven years ago, on a chilly battlefield in Pennsylvania, one leader immortalized those words and 265 others in a speech still symbolic of the USA’s core values. And that’s why Gettysburg National Military Park is so worth a visit.

Located in southeastern Pennsylvania just beyond the Maryland border, Gettysburg hosted the deadliest battle in United States history. The Civil War between the Union and the Confederacy took approximately 50,000 lives over three days in July 1863. Four months later the nation’s president, Abraham Lincoln, made the location the backdrop for his call for freedom, democracy, and unity. Gettysburg Battlefield has a lot to offer, and whether you have a day or a long weekend you’ll find plenty to see, do, and learn.

What Was the Battle of Gettysburg?

To make the most of your visit to Gettysburg, it helps to start with an understanding of its historical relevance and why it played such a key role in United States history.

Battle of Gettysburg. Source: Wikipedia
Battle of Gettysburg. Source: Wikipedia
Fought July 1-3, 1863, Gettysburg is viewed by many historians as a turning point in the USA’s Civil War. Confederate General Robert E. Lee intended to build on military successes from a campaign in Chancellorsville, Virginia, but his efforts were halted by Major General George Meade and his Army of the Potomac. The first two days of the battle were intense and deadly, and although each side suffered significant casualties the third day resulted in a defining defeat for the Confederacy.

Known best by the name Pickett’s Charge, Confederate Major General George Pickett intended to take control of a part of Gettysburg known as Cemetery Hill, which would open additional road access to the troops and improve their position for continued northern campaigns. However, Maj. Gen. Meade predicted the attack, and the Union was prepared for it. More than half of the 12,500 Confederate soldiers who were part of the charge died on the battlefield, and the Union delivered a decisive blow that sent the Confederacy retreating to the south. Pickett’s Charge was not successful, and many historians recognize it as a true turning point for the Civil War. The Confederacy never recovered from their defeat, and their failure at Gettysburg paved the way toward the Civil War’s end almost two years later.

The Battle of Gettysburg represents one of the most challenging points in the USA’s history, but there was a lot of good that emerged from it, including the reunification of the nation. In 1913, veterans from both the Union and the Confederacy returned to Gettysburg for a reunion that honored the 50th anniversary of the battle. Despite concern that there could be tension or hostility between soldiers who fought on opposing sides, the event was peaceful and reflected the nation’s resilience. President Woodrow Wilson addressed the veterans in attendance, noting, “We have found one another again as brothers and comrades in arms, enemies no longer, generous friends rather, our battles long past, the quarrel forgotten—except that we shall not forget the splendid valor.” A similar event was held in 1938 at the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, and 25 men who served were in attendance.

This video footage from the 50th anniversary provides some stunning historical context to the event.


Visiting Gettysburg Battlefield

A complete visit to Gettysburg National Military Park requires a full day, but enjoying the highlights can take just a few hours while providing a great education. Here are a few of the spots we recommend for any itinerary.

Gettysburg Battlefield Visitor’s Center

Gettysburg Cyclorama. Source: Wikipedia
Gettysburg Cyclorama. Source: Wikipedia
As with many historical destinations, Gettysburg National Military Park features a visitor’s center to orient you to the experience, and it’s a terrific place to start your visit. If you have the time, beginning with the 20-minute film “A New Birth of Freedom” provides outstanding context for Gettysburg’s relevance and importance in history, and if you aren’t well-acquainted with the conflict it’s a good starting point.

Equally compelling is the Cyclorama, a highlight for any visit. Cycloramas are panoramic images that provide a 360-degree view, allowing you to immerse yourself in it as if you were standing in the middle of the scene. The Gettysburg Cyclorama depicts Pickett’s Charge, one of the most emotional parts of the battle, and it tells the story of the day’s events across 377 feet of art. Painted by French artist Paul Philippoteaux in the late 1880s, it took more than a year to complete the cyclorama, and the experience today includes sound and light to build the storytelling conveyed through the artwork.

Devil’s Den

Devil’s Den earned its name long before the Battle of Gettysburg, when local lore told stories of a giant snake that lived behind its rocky landscape. During the Civil War, Devil’s Den served as the site for Union troops to fire on Confederate soldiers before two different assaults on July 2. The Confederacy was eventually able to take control of the area in one of their limited successes during the battle. Devil’s Den represents the way geology played a critical role during the Civil War; Devil’s Den is covered in large boulders that provide both protection and good vantage points into the nearby valleys, which made it easier for soldiers to see troops and defend their position. Today, the spot is popular with visitors because of the trails that wrap their way around the boulders, making for a quick hiking route for history fans.

Little Round Top

On July 2, 1863, Union troops successfully defended their position on Little Round Top from advances by the Confederates, and today it is a scenic spot to visit while experiencing the Battle of Gettysburg. The importance of this battle is recognized by many historians as a necessary victory for the Union to defeat the Confederacy. If the Union had lost Little Round Top, Confederate troops would have had direct access to Maj. Gen. Meade’s line, and that would likely have forced Union troops to retreat instead. The fighting is long over, but Little Round Top is a great place to enjoy the scenery and consider how expansive the Battle of Gettysburg was in 1863.

Gettysburg Address Location

Gettysburg Address Location
Gettysburg Address Memorial
If you want to visit the spot where President Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address, you’ll want to visit the National Cemetery. The cemetery features a monument that is just a few hundred meters away from the location where Lincoln shared his brief speech, which was part of the dedication of the cemetery itself. It’s hard to miss the monument, which features Lincoln’s bust flanked by two plaques: one that describes the importance of the memorial and another that shares the full text of the famous Gettysburg Address. For many visitors it is a must-visit spot and a sobering tribute to the lives lost and the nation saved when the war ended.

Pickett’s Charge

No trip to Gettysburg National Military Park is complete without a stop to see where the turning point took place. It’s one of the most well-preserved and best-maintained parts of the battlefield, and the National Park Service does an admirable job ensuring visitors don’t stray far from the paths that minimize foot traffic on the grounds themselves. There are numerous monuments and memorials in the area, which are worth pausing to read because they remind us of the human toll the battle took and of the tens of thousands of people who lost their lives over the course of just three days.

How to Tour Gettysburg Battlefield

There are two primary ways to tour Gettysburg National Military Park: you can take a guided tour, or you can create your own self-driving tour.

Gettysburg BattlefieldGuided tours are a popular choice because they pair you with a licensed guide who can provide great information and insights into the spots you visit. Tours can be personalized, and more standard group tours on coach buses are also available. This can be a great way to make sure you don’t miss a single highlight and have a chance to ask questions of someone who can connect you to accurate information.

A great alternative to guided tours are self-driving tours. Gettysburg is well-connected by roads that make it easy to drive yourself to all of the sites you want to see. This is a terrific option for people who prefer to piece together a fully customized experience, don’t like to be limited by group schedules, and want to get out of the car to explore on their own. Stopping by the visitor’s center is a great idea before embarking on a self-guided tour, since you can get information and maps to help along the way. Several apps are also available that provide stories and information about most spots on the driving route; while there are fees associated with them, for many people apps can act as guides that can deepen the experience.

More Information:

Is Gettysburg Battlefield Haunted?

Gettysburg BattlefieldClaims of paranormal sightings are common in historical locations (one of our favorites is the story of the Female Stranger at Gadsby’s Tavern in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia), and there have been numerous ghost stories connected to the Battle of Gettysburg. It would make sense for a few spirits not quite at rest to still wander the fields; after all, war deaths are often abrupt and don’t provide for the most peaceful of transitions. Even Robert E. Lee’s ghost has been spotted, although some of the most compelling tales took place in and around nearby buildings.

The Daniel Lady Farm, which is just to the east of the battlefield, served as a Confederate hospital, and thousands of soldiers were treated there—many of whom lost their lives after suffering from horrific wounds. That’s why it isn’t surprising that many people believe it is haunted—as many as 10,000 ghosts have been thought to still wander through the farmhouse. Not far away, the Gettysburg Hotel is another famous ghost-spotting site, and Union solider James Culbertson has been identified by paranormal investigators as a current resident.

If you enjoy a good ghost adventure, there is a ghost train that operates tours in Gettysburg that may be as popular with the spirit world as it is with living guests. The 90-minute ride tours the town and the battlefield, and some employees claim they have seen ghosts on the tracks and even on the trains themselves.

This spooky video from the New York Post shows a possible ghost sighting at Gettysburg Battlefield in 2020. Is it real? We’ll let you decide!


Where to Stay in Gettysburg

If you’re planning a visit to see where the Battle of Gettysburg took place, it’s an easy day trip from many spots along the USA’s east coast, including Washington, DC; Baltimore; Philadelphia; Pittsburgh; and New York City. To make the most of your experience, though, it can be helpful to stay at a local hotel so you can maximize your visit to the battlefield and enjoy the restaurants and shopping available nearby. When we travel, we love to use to find a hotel that meets our needs. Take a look to see which of the hotels in the Gettysburg area might be best suited for your visit!

Experience History at Gettysburg Battlefield!

The Battle of Gettysburg changed the United States in countless ways. It changed the direction of the Civil War, shifting the momentum from the Confederacy to the Union. It changed the nation, which lost thousands of lives in conflicts across the country. And it changed the national tone, opening the door to a country that honors those who gave their lives so that we might live peacefully and freely.

It took just 275 words for Abraham Lincoln to express that hope, and today it still reflects the kind of country we strive to build on the shoulders of those who came before us.

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Photo from the Gettysburg Address. The arrow points to Lincoln.
Actual photo from the Gettysburg Address. The arrow points to Lincoln. Source: Wikipedia
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address
November 19, 1863


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Gettysburg Battlefield: A Walk Through Civil War History