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Pennsylvania and the Civil War (Gettysburg)

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Did You Know … ?

  • When withdrawing at Gettysburg, Gen. Robert E. Lee’s train of wounded Confederate soldiers stretched more than 14 miles.
  • A bronze likeness of Albert Woolson, the last surviving Union veteran, stands at Gettysburg.
  • Approximately one in four soldiers who went to the Civil War did not come home.
  • More than 50,000 Union and Confederate veterans camped at Gettysburg in July 1913 for the battle’s 50th anniversary.
  • Union Gen. George Gordon Meade was in command for only three days before the Battle of Gettysburg.

The turning point

The Confederates twice brought the Civil War to the North, the second time to Gettysburg. The North prevailed both times, but the Gettysburg encounter — in 1863 — was the Civil War’s bloodiest battle with an estimated 51,000 casualties, about a third of all combatants. Gettysburg also is considered the war’s turning point, eventually leading to a Union victory.

Late in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln, in his eloquent two-minute Gettysburg Address dedicating the Union cemetery at the battle site, redefined events. He transformed Gettysburg — the town and the battlefield — from a scene of devastation to a symbol for saving a nation.

These factors combine to make Gettysburg the best known of the Civil War battles and the Gettysburg National Military Park the central focus for interested tourists or history buffs who want to see where it all happened or gain new insights.

The town saw fighting in its streets, and neighboring towns were harassed for supplies, were occupied or were themselves battle sites, before or during the July 1-3 Gettysburg bloodbath.
Nowadays, the National Park Service, state and local tourism promoters, nonprofit conservationists and for-profit businesses offer visitors numerous options for as much focus on the Civil War as they want.

Museums and the national park are logical starting points. Harrisburg has its Civil War Museum and Gettysburg its Heritage Center Museum. Even the small Wrightsville remembers the day the Union militia burned its Susquehanna River bridge to keep the Confederates from Harrisburg.

But the national park offers, besides orientation at its Museum and Visitor Center, ranger-led programs, living history events and, usefully, several options for guided sightseeing throughout the park’s battle sites.

The Pennsylvania Tourism Office created a series of Civil War Trails to take visitors beyond the obvious to look at the war’s effects on noncombatants. In-town walking tours, hosted or self-guided, offer similar glimpses of history plus the pleasures of historic districts, history that goes beyond the Civil War and even options for leg-stretching biking and hiking. Finally, restored houses and farms that were caught up in the Gettysburg battle, with some living history features, bring the 1863 events very much to life.

Things to do for Venturers

  • Before your trip, use the National Park Service Civil War Web site to look for ancestors who fought in the Civil War, if any. Check to see if you had an ancestor at Gettysburg.
  • Start your collection at the country’s largest Civil War artifact and collectibles show in June in Gettysburg. It’s a fundraiser for the Gettysburg Battlefield Preservation Association.
  • Ride horseback through the park astride your own horse or on a mount available locally, following designated horse trails. This can be done in conjunction with a guided tour.
  • Attend the July reenactment of the Gettysburg fighting as it affected the Shriver House in town. Confederates commandeered the house, used its attic as a sharpshooter’s nest and treated wounded in the kitchen. This is described as the only reenactment to occur on the streets of Gettysburg.
  • Hike the Gettysburg battlefield, relying on designated trails for your route. You can cycle on the paved routes, too.
  • Pursue an interest in the Underground Railroad, which had numerous sites in Pennsylvania including the Menallen Friends Meetinghouse and other places just north of Gettysburg. Other examples are scattered in the state such as the LeMoyne House, an escapee way station in Pittsburgh, as were the Belmont Mansion and Johnson House in Philadelphia.

Things to do for Centrics

  • For insight into the civilian’s experience of the battle, choose the Shriver House Museum — The Civilian Experience, in Gettysburg. The costumed guide tells the real-life experiences of the Shriver family. The house, restored to its 1860s look, includes a sharpshooter’s nest in the attic, where two Confederates died.
  • Attend the Annual Gettysburg National 19th Century Base Ball Festival in the third weekend of July and see how baseball was played in 1864 — and thus glimpsing another aspect of early 1860s life beyond the war. Players use 1864 rules, equipment and uniforms.
  • Christ Evangelical Lutheran Church stages occasional free one-hour programs of song and storytelling to relay the church’s history as a Civil War hospital. The performances, called Candlelight at Christ Church, are staged outdoors weather permitting.
  • Plan your visit to coincide with a living history weekend at the Gettysburg park. Get closer to the history at the Wills House in the park. At the center of the battlefield, the house was also at the center of the post-battle cleanup. It includes the bedroom where Lincoln stayed the night before he delivered the Gettysburg Address.
  • Take a self-drive trip from Harrisburg to Gettysburg, following the markers for the Pennsylvania Civil War Trails: Prelude to Gettysburg. The signage is designed to tell the story of this Civil War episode as it affected towns that saw battle or occupying forces, including Columbia, Hanover, Wrightsville and York.
  • Tour the Daniel Lady house and barn, which were held by the Confederates and used as a field hospital. Look for the schedule of living history and reenactment events held at the farm, not all of them connected to the Civil War.

Things to do for Authentics

  • Ride the same rails Abraham Lincoln traveled to deliver the Gettysburg Address. Steam Into History seasonally operates a replica of the steam locomotive that carried Lincoln to his Gettysburg date. Its journeys, with narrator, are roundtrip to Glen Rock or Hanover Junction from New Freedom.
  • At the national park, engage a licensed battlefield guide to lead you through the park as you drive your own vehicle. Other options are a self-guided auto tour, a motorcoach tour with licensed guide and audio tours for purchase at the visitor center.
  • Use the park’s walking tour pamphlet for your quiet stroll through the Soldiers’ National Cemetery, burial site of many Union soldiers killed at Gettysburg and the cemetery Lincoln dedicated on Nov. 19, 1863.
  • Stroll the town of Gettysburg. This was part of the battlefield, too. Take a walking tour with a costumed guide that focuses on what the battle meant to civilians in town.
  • Allot time for a visit to the Eisenhower National Historic Site, which was President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s last home and which sits next to the Gettysburg park.
  • Tourists are introduced to the life of a Civil War soldier at the Farnsworth House in Gettysburg and nearby encampment site. Hosts issue guests with a wooden replica rifle, haversack and hat for the visit; the camp sits on ground held by the Confederates during the battle.

Additional Resources

For more information, consult the York County Convention and Visitors Bureau at