October 20 2010 by Sam Lowe
My initial visit to Gettysburg National Military Park was on a cold and dreary October day more than 20 years ago. It was so chilly, in fact, that my stay lasted less than an hour so, obviously, I didn't see much. Or learn much.
Determined to make up for that bit of wimp-related brevity, I returned in September and was amazed not only at what I had missed the first time, but by the addition of the splendid new Visitor Center and Museum. Opened in 2008, it is filled with history, artifacts, photographs and other reminders of the battle that took place here in July 1863.
For three days, the Union and Confederate armies hammered away at each other before the Union troops claimed a costly victory. When the armies marched away from the scene, they left more than 51,000 soldiers dead, wounded and missing. Many of the dead were buried in inadequate graves; others weren't even buried. But four months later, re-internment began on the 17 acres that now comprise Gettysburg National Cemetery.
After the war, more than 3,500 Union soldiers who had been killed in the battle were re-buried here, and the remains of 3,320 Confederate soldiers were removed from the battlefield to cemeteries in the South.
At the dedication on Nov. 19, 1863, the principal speaker delivered a two-hour oration detailing the history and bloodshed of the site. The next speaker was President Abraham Lincoln, who used 272 words and about two minutes to sum up the tragedy in what is now known as the Gettysburg Address. (Incidentally, the free brochures offered at the visitor center note that "contrary to popular belief, Lincoln did not write the speech on the back of an envelope during the trip to Gettysburg, but took great pains in its formulation." He wrote the first draft in Washington, then revised it in Gettysburg.)
The admission to the visitor center is free, but tickets are required to view the film "We Are Met on a Great Battlefield," the "Battle of Gettysburg" cyclorama and the Museum of the American Civil War. The building also features stores, food and beverages, and information about conducted tours. My wife and I opted to take a self-guided car tour and it was a wise decision, primarily because I'm at that age where walking for more than four hours doesn't hold the appeal it once did.
The complete auto tour starts at the visitor center and extends for 24 miles. There are 16 primary stops along the route, tracing the three-day battle in chronological order. Those who decide to see everything and make every stop should count on spending at least three hours on the journey. The free maps distributed at the center identify all 16 stops by number and give a brief explanation of what happened there. The most impressive, in my estimation, is the Pennsylvania Monument, a large pagoda-like structure commemorating the spot where Union artillery hold the line alone on Cemetery Ridge while other troops were called in.
A wide variety of statues, plaques, cannon and stone monuments designate the important sites, including the National Cemetery where Lincoln delivered his address, McPherson Ridge where the battle started when Union cavalry met Confederate infantry, and East Cemetery Hill where Union forces repelled a Confederate assault. Each site is marked by a red-and-black sign inset with a white star and the words "auto tour." Ample parking is provided at each of the stops.
Those with more time might also consider touring historic downtown Gettysburg and see the house where Lincoln revised his speech, and the train station that brought the president to the scene.
Information, log on to www.nps.gov/gett or call 717-334-1124.