Revered as hallowed ground, a place consecrated in myth and reality, where an unimaginable struggle took place between similar people over dissimilar ideals. Blood was spilled. Slaughter was wholesale, brutal, unforgiving, and seemingly without end. Lives were destroyed; property lost; and ideas, faiths, morale, and honor decimated. Then, as now, the Battle of Gettysburg, July 1 to 3, 1863, joins a very short list of moments in U.S. history that shapes how we see ourselves as Americans. Even though the war continued for two more years, Gettysburg marked a turning point, the “high water mark of the rebellion.” After a series of successful campaigns, the loss at Gettysburg put General Robert E. Lee on his heels; his armies routed back to Virginia; and his second campaign into the north in ruins.

In 1863, the battle itself was not seen as anything more than another conflict in a war that had consumed thousands of lives and affected countless more. It wasn’t until four months after, even though the ground was still littered with the debris of battle and the scars of war, when Abraham Lincoln dedicated the Soldiers’ National Cemetery with a two-minute, 271-word address that galvanized Gettysburg in the minds and hearts of Americans then and ever since.

Gettysburg remains one of the most popular historical destinations in the United States, with nearly three million visitors each year. And for some, that visit is a pilgrimage of sorts. People whisper. They seem to walk delicately over the trails and through the museum, not to disturb ghosts that may still linger. During an especially beautifully painted autumn morning, the breezes pick their way through the new-growth trees like the generations that have lived, grown up and died since the battle took place. One hundred and fifty years is a long time, but visiting Gettysburg is like stepping back through the ages.

General Lee’s plan was to push into Pennsylvania and put the war on the front steps of the North itself, reduce the pressure on besieged Vicksburg, and threaten Philadelphia, Baltimore and perhaps even D.C. His ulterior motive was to give his war-ravaged home state of Virginia a much-needed rest, especially after his tactical loss at Antietam the previous year. Lincoln had pressured Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker to pursue Lee’s army into Pennsylvania.

Neither army expected to find the other where they eventually did, and the battle began most accidentally. Confederate Maj. Gen. Henry Heth sent Brig. Gen. Pettigrew to the small town of Gettysburg, 8 miles from where they were bivouacked near Cashtown, in search of shoes. He returned and reported seeing a concentration of Union soldiers (under Brig. Gen. John Buford). Despite Lee’s orders not to engage the Union forces until the entire army was concentrated, Lt. Gen. A.P. Hill took a much larger force than was needed and decided to reconnaissance the town.

Visiting Gettysburg Today

While visiting the Gettysburg Battlefield, be prepared to spend a good portion of the day. There is plenty to see and do as well as miles of roads that will lead you around to the significant points at the battlefield. Start with the 22,000-square-foot visitor center, home to nearly three million artifacts concerning the battle, the 20-minute film “A New Birth of Freedom,” and the freshly restored Gettysburg Cyclorama (painted by Paul Philippoteaux in 1884, it depicts “Pickett’s Charge”). There are ranger-guided programs and special battlefield tours available. One specifically interesting stop is the Soldiers’ National Cemetery and the site of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

Though there is a fee to visit the museum, film and cyclorama, exploring the battlefield itself is completely free of charge. Consider taking advantage of a battlefield guide, who will give you a full tour of the battlefield from your RV, or consider one of the many bus tours with shuttle services to many of the campgrounds. However, for an up-close-and-personal experience of the 1,328 monuments sprinkled across the 5,989 acres, nothing beats going by car and taking your time.

Since this year marks the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, expect higher than normal crowds. On July 1 to 3 this year, nearly 300,000 people packed into the park to watch the milestone year’s reenactments.


Where to Camp

Dozens of campgrounds are dotted around Gettysburg, providing easy access to the battlefield and the quaint town of Gettysburg. Here are some recommendations:

Artillery Ridge Campground
30 sites, full hookups (50 amp): Fishing, horse rental, game room, Wi-Fi, pool, playground, volleyball/basketball
www.artilleryridge.com

Drummer Boy Camping Resort
400 sites on 95 acres, full hookups (50 amp): Pool (250-foot waterslide), fishing pond, store, tour bus stop, game room
www.drummerboycampresort.com

Gettysburg Campground
250 sites, 116 full hookups (50 amp): Pool, mini-golf, fire rings, Wi-Fi, playgrounds, store, shuffleboard/horseshoes
www.gettysburgcampground.com

Gettysburg KOA Kampground
Full hookups (50 amp): Pool, mini-golf, tour bus stop, store, bike rental, Wi-Fi
www.koa.com/where/pa/38114

Round Top Campground
288 campsites, full hookups (50 amp): Pool, store, Wi-Fi, tennis, mini-golf
www.roundtopcamp.com


Sources

Gettysburg National Battlefield
www.nps.gov/gett

Gettysburg Visitor’s Bureau
www.gettysburg.travel

Gettysburg Monuments
www.gettysburgmonuments.com