Everyone knows about the Battle of Gettysburg and that it was one of the most important in the Civil War... but how much do we really know about it? It was a majorly important nugget of American history! Had one of any number of little things gone any different, the South could have won the war; America (and life as we know it!) would be completely different. Once you're done wrapping your brain around that, start considering a grown-up field trip to the Gettysburg National Military Park, where you can brush up on your history, and learn quite a few things you never knew that you never knew! Here are a few highlights of the park.
Here's a fun fact about Gettysburg. While most of America is worried about forests being chopped down, the people of Gettysburg are concerned that there's more woodland in the park now than there actually was in 1863. The NPS has long-term plans to restore the battlefield to its original appearance during the Civil War, and replant orchards and wooded lots that are now bare. They're also adding back in native plants to the meadowed areas to encourage the habitat and keep it looking decently authentic.
David Wills was an attorney and prominent citizen who lived in Gettsyburg-- in fact, his house is conveniently located right in the center of town. He was the one who recieved letters from people looking for loved ones lost and missing during the battle, who planned the cemetery and its dedication, and undertook the cleanup of the battlefield. It's also the house where Lincoln stayed the night before he gave the Gettysburg Address and put the finishing touches on the speech. If you visit The David Wills House today, you'll find two rooms that have been restored to their 19th century appearance: David Wills' study, and the bedroom where Abraham Lincoln stayed.
You'll find more than just Civil War history at Gettysburg. Cold War buffs, or history nerds in general, should definitely stop by the Eisenhower National Historic Site. While Ike wasn't from Gettysburg, he was born shortly after the Confederate surrender, and grew up listening to Civil War veterans tell tales of their time in the Army. Of course, Eisenhower went on to graduate from West Point and become a soldier himself. The first and only house he and his wife ever bought was an old farm in Gettysburg. He was a huge Civil War buff, and frequently took visiting dignitaries on tours of the battlefield. As President, he spent many a holiday and weekend at his peaceful farmhouse, since it was the perfect place to unwind as Cold War tensions mounted.
Devil's Den is one of the more popular tourist sites, as it bears many marks from the battle, even to this day. The boulder-strewn hill naturally made a great place for a battle... there are nooks and crannies where sharpshooters can hide, and placing cannons on an elevated position atop the hill and behind rocks gave added advantages. As you explore, you'll find cannons, walkways, and even a footbridge between two rocks. It changed hands several times during the battle, especially during the second day, and was the site of many deaths. A lot of the pictures you see of the Battle of Gettysburg are of bodies posed among the rocks here.
Naturally, since so much happened here, this is reported to be one of the most paranormally active spots in the country. Camera equipment frequently malfunctions, the sounds of gunfire, screams, and footsteps are often heard, and strange figures in Civil War garb seem to appear and disappear out of nowhere. There's also a strange spirit in a loose shirt and floppy hat who many called "The Helpful Hippie", since he likes to help tourists choose a good angle for a picture before mysteriouly vanishing.
Naturally, the park has a stellar schedule of living history events that's constantly changing. Whether you're learning about how the wounded were cared for (seriously fascinating, but decidedly not for the faint of heart) or you're interested in the cannons and artillery, or you want to go in-depth on troop movements (like Pickett's infamous and ill-fated charge) to find out why the battle was so bloody, why it was so important, and why it ended the way it did, they've got something for you. There are even children's programs that let them experience a little bit of what it was like to be a solider.
Lincoln gave his most famous speech, the Gettysburg Address, on November 19, 1863, four and a half months after the battle, in honor of the dedication of the Soldier's National Cemetary. The speech was surprisingly short, at a mere 10 sentences long and just over two minutes, and it came after an eloquent, yet rarely-mentioned two-hour long oration by pastor/politician Edward Everett. It's also a possibility that Lincoln was coming down with an illness, likely smallpox, the day he was set to give the speech. The exact wording of the speech is hotly debated, with 5 accounts of the speech containing slightly different phrasing. Despite all of this, the simple speech has gone down in history as one of the best, proving that sometimes, less actually is more.
The Dobbin House Tavern dates back to the 1700s, and is a totally Colonial-themed B&B with a few onsite dining options and a little General Store gift shop. The casual Springhouse Tavern restaurant serves up cocktails that early Americans would have enjoyed (lots of rum and brandy) along with sandwiches, soups, and salads, and is located in the former runaway slave hideout. There's also the fancier Alexander Dobbins Dining Room, with a larger menu of dinner offerings. Expect lots of candlelight and costumed servers. You can also stay the night in the little cottages on site for a really immersive historical expierence.
The Jennie Wade House holds a very strange distinction when it comes to history. Thanks to a freak accident, the small home became the site of the Civil War's only direct death of a civilian. On July 3, 1863, 20-year-old Jennie Wade was in her sister's kitchen, hard at work making bread for hungry Union soldiers, when an errant bullet from a Confederate sniper pierced her heart. Jennie died instantly. The bullet had managed to make its way through two wooden doors before hitting Jennie and coming to rest in her corset. Many believe that Jennie's spirit still haunts the house to this day.
The Confederate sharpshooter who accidentally shot Jennie was actually posted in the nearby Farnsworth House Inn, another historic home that's open to tourists. The house was originally built in 1810, with an addition tacked on in the 1830s, so it's pretty old. You can still see bullet holes in the walls from the Battle of Gettysburg, and it served as a hospital for wounded soldiers right after the battle ended. Lincoln's funeral procession even passed by the house.
Today, it's named for a Union brigadier, Elon Farnsworth, who led an ill-fated failed charge (which is often overshadowed by General Pickett's infamous charge) that cost him his life, and the lives of his 65 men. They offer B&B rooms done up to Victorian perfection, along with an onsite tavern and elegant dining room where you can grab a bite to eat. There's also a seasonal beer garden, and they periodically offer evening events where costumed interpreters spook the pants off tourists with the tales of ghostly sightings across town.
The Shriver House Museum is a fascinating stop that looks at the Battle of Gettysburg through a few different and totally unique lenses. Not only will costumed interpreters tell you what life was like for a civilian family with a member at war to live through the battle, but you also get to learn about how the battle has affected the town even today. For example, in 1996 (not that long ago, when the house was being restored) Civil War-era bullets were discovered throughout the home, medical equipment was also found in the building from the time it spent as a hospital after the battle, and other objects like toys, letters, pictures, and household objects were unearthed as well. They're now on display in the perfectly-decorated museum.
As you can see, the battle not only had a lasting effect on American history but on the town itself. For three long days, the town was rocked and its citizens were put through hell, but everyone in the town, and in the army, pulled together and turned the tide of the war. Learning about the stories of various individuals really adds perspective and depth to what might seem like an overwhelming and technical event in US history. You'll be surprised at just how engaging and interesting a trip tp Gettysburg can be!
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