July 1st, 2nd and 3rd marks the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. You can bet that the small town will be packed to the point of being unbearable. I visited over a weekend back in early May and, already, the battlefield was packed with cars and in the evening there were battling ghost tours bumping into each other.
Trust me, if you have not already made reservations, there are none within about a half-hour of the town. And, those are going at full price. Lines at the Gettysburg Visitors Center will be winding back on themselves. Lines for the Cyclorama will be long. Restaurants will be packed. The wait for ice creams will seem interminable for kids. Bus tours will have a waiting list.
This coming anniversary is not the time to be in Gettysburg, though it seems that everyone wants to do just that. I recommend that families and couples plan to visit later in the summer; better yet, during the autumn when the colors are beautiful and the temperatures more moderate. And, yes, when the crowds are diminished.
I have visited the battlefield as a child when I was thrilled with the thought of attacking armies and the romance of battle. Later, I visited after years in the military and was dismayed at the spectacular loss of more than 6,000 lives and tens of thousands of casualties in such a small, concentrated place.
I marveled at the resiliency of the locals who had to clean up after the armies departed after the battle, the amazing work of recovering the dead, of helping the wounded and then getting them back home — North or South. Some of the stories made me cringe. As an adult with close relatives who just returned from Afghanistan, the visit was far from exhilarating. It was saddening.
I wondered why Gen. Lee abandoned all his precepts of war. Was something wrong with him? Why did the Confederate Army attack without suppressing artillery fire? How did a band of 30-something men hold off hundreds on Little Round Top? And how did the Southern Army almost succeed in its mad frontal assault, basically foiled by fences that stretched across the battlefield that had not been taken seriously as obstacles. Why were most of the Confederate forces held back as the charges moved relentlessly forward?
Gettysburg is a battle with many questions and an outcome that was less a victory for the North but more of survival. Less a defeat for the South and more of an awakening of the dramatic human horror of war and unprecedented death.
There are many books and maps that explain the battle. Read one, or several of them, before visiting. Knowing that the Northern troops were formed in a fishhook-shaped defensive line that allowed internal communications is key. The artillery canisters that are akin to today’s cluster bombs were also an important part of this battle. The failure of the Southern artillery to suppress the cannons of the North was critical.
And, I would recommend that visitors take a tour, or download one of the good apps that help explain the three-day battle as it unfolded, ending with Pickett’s charge across open fields (except for those fences) to the edge of the Union lines. These books, maps and tours can do a far better job of outlining the battle than I.
The South was so close to victory, but not quite. Even if the Confederates had triumphed, they would not have won much of a victory because of the amazing losses they sustained. This is a battle that can be looked at as a tie where armies clashed violently and then both withdrew bloodied, tired, confused and depressed. I heard of no victory celebrations in Gettysburg, even from the ostensible winners.
All that being said, the battlefield tells an American story of valor on both sides. It stands as a reminder of how vicious man can be to man and brother can be to brother. It is a memorial to tens of thousands of young men marching towards death with hardly an understanding of what they were doing.
If you go
Start at the Gettysburg National Military Park and Visitors Center on Baltimore Pike just about a mile outside of town. The downtown is cute and compact. It is easy to wander through the town and fun to discover stores dedicated to everything from vintage candies to military books. Most of the souvenir shops are concentrated right around Cemetery Ridge where Baltimore Pike and Steinwehr Ave. meet.
The town convention and visitors bureau maintains a good website at http://www.gettysburg.travel/
The National Park Service has a good website NPS.gov/gett. Plus a quick search will show Facebook, twitter and Youtube connections.
Where to stay
I’m using TripAdvisor, Priceline, Expedia and Orbitz these days to research hotels and make reservations. They have improved dramatically recently and establishments with plenty of comments normally have very accurate descriptions.
For example, during my visit in May I stayed at the three-star Wyndham Gettysburg just outside of town on the Interstate for $61 a night. I found it, without bidding, through Priceline. On balance, there are plenty of places to stay from hotels to B&Bs in the $100/night range.
I was touring with friends who had actually lived in Gettysburg. It was a tradition of theirs to go to Ernie’s Texas Lunch, 58 Chambersburg St., only steps from the center of town and a locals’ joint if there ever was one. We went and enjoyed a hot dog feast. If you go, make sure to enjoy one of their weiners and fries with gravy. You won’t go hungry, nor will you spend more than $10.
For breakfast head to the Lincoln Diner, 32 Carlisle St., across from the historic train station where Lincoln arrived in town prior to his famous address. On Sunday mornings this place is the sight of an impromptu town meeting. Everyone knows each other, it seems; and the eggs, bacon, sausage, grits, waffles and pancakes come in heaping portions. The Avenue Restaurant, 21 Steinwehr Ave. (717) 334-3235, was also recommended for breakfast; however, we didn’t have a chance to test it.
For ice cream, the place to be is Mr. G’s in the midst of the souvenir shops and at night surrounded by ghost tours. According to TripAdvisor this is the best restaurant in town — I don’t think the First Lady would approve.
We didn’t end up eating dinner in town, but the Dobbin House, 89 Steinwehr Ave, (717) 334-2100, was recommended for decent food and historic atmosphere. Another historic spot is the Farnsworth House, 401 Baltimore St. (717) 334-8838, where the building still sports bullet holes from the battle. The Pub on Lincoln Square (717) 334-7100, is considered a good basic place in the center of downtown action.
Yes, I went on a ghost tour: as-seen-on-TV Mark Nesbitt’s Ghosts of Gettysburg. Mark is another friend-of-a-friend. The tour was packed with colorful history and ghoulish stories. Join up at [email protected] or call 717-337-0445. Form up at 271 Baltimore Street for the tours.
Photos by Charlie Leocha