Gettysburg National Military Park
Visitor's Center (717) 334-1124
-The Battlefield Experience-
We are lucky. Virginia is rich with history - people travel from all over the world to experience what we have nearby. Unfortunately, a good bit of our history has to do with war, however, a well-rounded education means we need to explore this part of our history and our heritage. Hopefully, as parents and teachers, we can instill a sense of respect for what has happened in the past and help our children learn non-violent conflict resolution as a viable option. May we learn from our mistakes.
Our family has traveled the many battlefields throughout Virginia. Plenty of guidebooks exist that make this journey easy. The library or internet can supply you with more than enough information to get started. If we were forced to narrow down our favorite books, explaining the history of the Civil War, to just one, the winner would be The Golden Book of The Civil War, adapted for young readers by Charles Flato, ASIN 0307 168 417.
Most of the battlefields have terrific (and free) Visitor's Centers that offer a wealth of information as well as free films (donations accepted) that aid in understanding what we see. We have consistently found rangers friendly and thrilled to answer our questions. Numerous road signs exist to help increase our understanding. Having been the capital of the Confederacy, Virginia offers many interesting places like Spotsylvania Courthouse, Chancellorsville, Wilderness, Manassas, Appomattox, Culpeper, New Market, Petersburg, Winchester, and more.
I can't honestly recommend the big re-enactments. We attended one, and one was enough. It was in Orange County. We found it to be grossly commercial and loud. Many re-enactors were overly into the drama they were creating - to the point of being offensive and brutal to their horses. The crowds were staggering (not to mention the heat). Much better than the large scale re-enactments are the small demonstrations where we actually talk with soldiers in uniform, see and touch equipment, and hear their stories. Although unplanned, we have come upon these more than a dozen times and it has always been a good experience. Without the crowds, the soldiers had time to spend with us and were willing to answer questions. And leaving was easier when we hadn't been shuttled in with the masses.
-Gettysburg-This summer, we finally went to Gettysburg, PA. It was the most impressive Civil War battlefield we have experienced. Maybe this was because Gettysburg was the turning point of the war. Maybe it was because of Lincoln's famous Gettysburg Address. Maybe it was because of the clearly senseless death (over 51,000 soldiers were killed, wounded, or captured. Fifty-one thousand!) The wounded usually died because of the lack of understanding regarding injuries/hygiene in the 1860's. (A visit to The Exchange Hotel in Gordonsville, VA (703) 832-2944 - which served as a hospital during the Civil War and is now a museum - clearly illustrates how poor our medical knowledge was at the time. The admission fee is $4/adult, $1/student and well worth it.)
To prepare for this adventure, we spent three weeks reading every book about Gettysburg that we could find. We watched the movie Gettysburg. One of my sons wanted to memorize the Gettysburg Address. My daughter wanted to research the role of women during this war (fascinating). We even traveled the route of Lee and his troops, which made the trip longer but far more interesting. At the library, we had found a really long tape about Gettysburg (it lasted all the way there and back). That helped a lot.
One of the best parts of this trip was the cabin where we stayed. Through the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club, we found The Hermitage. It cost $15 a night and was only twenty miles from Gettysburg. If you don't mind the .25 mile hike in, hauling your supplies, and primitive conditions, this is the place. It was so good that once we got settled, regardless of our preparations for Gettysburg, no one wanted to leave.
However, we did leave the next morning for Gettysburg. We went straight to the Visitor's Center. Commercial distractions are there, but the Visitor's Center has more than a day's worth of affordable and informative activities. The museum (at the Visitor's Center) is free and worth all the time you can give it. The Electric Map was excellent and worth the fee ($3/adult, $2/child). The Cyclorama was a disappointment and not worth the same fee - especially if you have ever experienced the Cyclorama in Atlanta. The park itself incorporates nearly 6,000 acres with 26 miles of park roads and over 1,400 monuments, markers, and memorials making it one of the largest collections of outdoor sculpture.
We had several options for touring the battlefield. Tour buses and private guides were available. We chose the audio tape which cost $12.00. Besides being the least expensive way to go, it allowed us to explore at our own pace (we spent four hours on this part of the adventure). Picnicking was easy. The tape gave clear directions and told interesting stories. Scheduling this trip after a major holiday meant smaller-than-usual crowds. The experience was extremely powerful, and having the opportunity to actually see the lay of the land was a major benefit.
The park grounds are open daily from 6:00 a.m. until 10:00 p.m. The Visitor's Center is open from 8:00 a.m. until 5:00 p.m. The hours change with the seasons so be sure to verify. The park itself has no entrance fee.
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