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Like millions of others, I was captivated by the movie 'Gettysburg' and the book 'Killer Angels'. I was always a little interested in the Civil War and the Battle of Gettysburg but I never had much understanding of the battle, and was always a little puzzled by shorter accounts. Thinking about the action of the 20th Maine holding the end of the line on Little Round Top. That sort of stuck in my mind as I've hiked around various places in NH, so I started to want to see Little Round Top for myself. It turned out my son felt the same way ... hmmm ... road trip!

This past winter we started doing some planning. We settled on May as the best time for us - warm enough to be out walking or riding bikes, but early enough to avoid most of the crowds. Turns out to have been a very good choice, with the 150th Anniversary of the Battle, the area is gearing up for a big spike in tourism; hotel rooms are getting scarce and planners are wondering what they're going to do with the crowds.




I settled on America's Best Value on Steinwehr Avenue. This turned out to be an excellent choice, close enough to walk down to the Gettysburg Square and do a walking tour through historic Gettysburg. It's also on the very edge of the larger battlefield, so it was a great place to start a bicycle tour of the larger battlefield.

"All roads lead to Gettysburg" - but not all roads are created equal.
I-81 was closed near Harrisburg. Fortunately, Isaac noticed this on a road display as far away as Connecticut. We later found out that it was due to a fuel tanker mishap that caused a major fire on the highway, basically melting the road. All we knew while driving down was that we needed to figure out an alternate route. Good thing we had an atlas; it made it simpler to avoid Harrisburg. Although - the alternate routes had their own delays, partly because of the sudden surge from diverted traffic, partly due to ongoing work. There were odd detour signs occasionally, which no one else seemed to be following. So we didnt either. Never made any sense of that, but one Pa resident told us that sometimes the highway dept puts up signs like that and forgets to take them down. Or puts them up ahead of time. Or something. Actually, I think he didnt really know :)

So after 11 hours on the road (!) we pulled into Gettysburg. Tourist traffic immediately was evident - with us in the left turn lane, another traveler pulled up beside us to turn left - he was in the wrong direction lane. Isaac wisely just let him go when the light changed :)
Checked in and hit the street, we walked down past the Gettysburg Square to unwind and dine. And wait out a thundershower. It sprinkled all the way back to the hotel, and of course we'd left our rain gear. Our clothes were dampened ... but not our spirits, despite the forecast of rain for Saturday.

Showers & clouds Saturday,  we focused on walking and visting indoor attractions. So back to the Gettysburg Square and the train station for a little more information. We visited a few of the Historic Gettysburg sites on the wallking tour, then took a break for lunch. In the afternoon we visited the Rupp House, where we got to heft a typical soldier pack. Yikes! Roughly 40 pounds. Soldiers of the time carried that, barefoot, over many miles (sometimes dozens!) ... at the end of which they had to fight.  Interesting contrast - today the hotels list the attractions that are within "walking distance". Anything over half a mile is not in that list.

Walking the streets provides an odd array of experiences. Between the main battlefield and historic Gettysburg is a short strip that resembles a beach boardwalk - with everything from cheesy stores selling plastic rifles to upscale antique stores (buy your very own battlefield saber!), museums and ghost walk tours with period actors encouraging your patronage. I found it rather jarring - serious museums (like the Rupp House) dedicated to the context of the Civil War and the Battle, interspersed with a raucous make-a-buck-on-the-tourist trade. Somehow, selling plastic skulls and toy sabers next to a house where the wounded were hospitalized just seems sort of tacky...

We walked through Soldier's National Cemetery, where many veterans of the Civil War and later wars are buried. It is also the site of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, delivered as part of the dedication ceremonies. The cemetery is full of monuments (as is the entire area) , including a bust of Lincoln with the Address in bronze. As I stood by, a young fellow in a small group read the Address aloud to the others of the group. It was moving to listen to the latest generation puzzling out and pondering one of the greatest speeches ever delivered...

Saturday evening we drove to a couple of more distant locations to the north of town. We drove along McPherson's ridge, where the Battle started, and visited the observation tower. The field was full of singing red-winged blackbirds. The sunset was beautiful and shed lovely light on the fields and the town. Everywhere you go in Gettysburg, it is hard to grasp what the peaceful pleasant scene before you must have been like. But there are reminders everywhere in the signs, the antique shops and museums, the monuments and even the occasional old building with bullet marks.

Early Sunday morning I got up and visited the monument of the 11th Pennsylvania Infantry. We had missed it the night before, but I really wanted to see it. The 11th was one of the first units to engage the Confederates; facing overwhelming numbers they were forced off the ridge. Like many units, they had a mascot, Sallie, a brindle bull terrier. She stayed behind with the dead and dying men of her unit, and was found by the survivors days after their battle, weak and hungry. They nursed her back to health and she continued with them until she herself was killed on the field. They buried her like any other comrade, and when their monument was commissioned, she assumed her rightful place watching over them.  Hard to say how much of the stories are true about her activities and how much myth, but clearly a beloved member of the regiment.

Returning to the hotel I found Isaac had completed his morning run and we got ready to go for a bike tour of the main battlefield. There is a very bicycle-friendly road that winds through the battlefield. I highly recommend this as the way to tour the area. Although be warned. It's not quite like NH, but there are still a few ups and downs in the rolling hills of Gettysburg.

We visited the Longstreet Tower, a very tall ( 80 ft?)  observation deck near the Longstreet monument.  Rising above the trees, a splendid view of everything from Historic Gettysburg to Little Round Top. From there we rode to Little Round Top, and visited the site of the 20th Maine's action there. Hard to describe standing there thinking about what they faced and how critical it was. But that's true of many other sites across the 6,000 acres of the battlefield - the fighting was just as intense on Culp's Hill at the opposite end of the Union lines, and the stakes were the same.The center of the Union line bore an artillery assault and an enormous infantry attack; there were desperate moments everywhere.

Climbing out on the rocks of Little Round Top it is surprising to see how small a knoll it is. The rolling fields are not high, and any prominence affords a commanding view of the area - which is why the hills were so significant, of course. Still, coming from NH , it's a little surprising to see such strategic locations are actually such small hills.

We stopped for a few photos at the Devil's Den, a rocky outcropping below Little Round Top, which is a very popular lunch spot. I chatted a bit with a local expert - not a guide but some sort of volunteer - who gave me directions for a NH monument. Alas, we never found it. We had no trouble finding the Pennsylvania monument, though. A huge and most impressive structure. And rightfully so. Around its base are written in bronze the names of 34,000 soldiers of Pennsylvania who came to Gettysburg.

Everywhere on the battlefield there are Pennsylvania and New York unit monuments. But near the Pa monument was also the towering Vermont state monument, with brief descriptions of Vermont's contributions, including the 1st Brigade, which marched 32 miles to arrive in time to reinforce and hold Little Round Top. Long legs those Vermonters!

Next stop was the Cyclorama. This is an enormous painting in the main Vistors Center, with a viewing platform in the center. The full show consists of a brief movie putting the war and the Battle in context, then a short viewing of the painting. The viewing is accompanied by a soundtrack and lighting that takes you through a dawn-to-evening of the battle. It is a must see IMHO.  The viewing is perhaps a bit short, but on the other hand it has to be to give everybody an opportunity to see it.

We did not feel any need to see the commercial attractions in the area. The train station, the Rupp House and the Visitors Center and Cyclorama were just the amount of indoor museum viewing we wanted.

Leaving the vistors center, we rode to Spanglers Spring and Culp's Hill, and ascended the 3rd of the observation towers. The view from here is a little obscured by the trees, but still impressive. This was the north end of the Union line and,  much like the 20th Maine,  the men here repulsed numerous bitter assaults.They did have one advantage - they had more time to build up defenses, and an engineer leading them. Their wall and their line held.

After Culp's hill, we rode back to The Angle for a last view of the main battlefield and the site of Pickett's Charge. A fitting place to end the day, contemplating Lee's final push at Gettysburg and the determination it took to charge across an open field. And the determination to face and defeat 12,500 men charging across that field at you. 

The ride home was much easier than the ride down; we managed to be on the road by 4.15 and out of the Harrisburg/Allentown traffic before it started getting heavy. 11 hours down, 8 hours back, 2 full days of sightseeing. We didn't see everything there was to see, but on the other hand, two days was enough immersion in the death and destruction of the Battle for us. It's an interesting and valuable place to visit, but it did start to weigh on us after a while.

Gallery / slide show


Visiting Gettysburg?

( Please note this article was written in 2013; things change ...)
Your experience may be different, but we had a great trip, and these are our recommendations:
- 'America's Best Value' on Steinwehr Ave. Clean, reasonable, and within walking distance of the Historic Gettysburg, and on the edge of the main battlefield.
- Breakfast at The Avenue on Steinwehr Ave. Good service, good food, good prices.
- Supper - Tommy's Pizza on Steinwehr Ave. Everybody loves good pizza.
- other supplies - Kennie's Market on Middle Street. Employee owned, friendly, good prices.

What to visit -
- first and foremost, walk or ride a bike as much as you can.
- Go to the train station and get a "Historic Walking Tour" booklet and follow it to things of interest to you.
- Visit the Rupp House. While there, get a large map of the Auto tour.
- Go to the Visitors Center and view the movie &  Cyclorama.
- Follow the auto tour, but do it on a bicycle. You'll see and appreciate more.
- Don't bother to hire a guide. Read some books and the internet.
- If there are specific monuments or other sites you want to see, make a list and locate them ahead of time.

Resources
- tour map - we used a map we downloaded from the National Park Service, but the URL has changed, sorry. It may still be available with some searching, or perhaps a copy can be picked up on site. Try visiting here to start some research: https://www.nps.gov/gett/planyourvisit/index.htm

- book - James McPherson's Hallowed Ground. Read it through a couple times and take it with you.
- book - Michael Shaara's The Killer Angels or the movie based on it 'Gettysburg'.
- monuments

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