Story and Photos by Allan D. Kissam, CityRoom Contributor
I am in Gettysburg, PA, visiting a deciding battleground in the U.S. Civil War. In 2013 comes the Sesquicentennial of the 1863 battle and its outcome largely decided if our perpetual union would survive.
I resist retelling the details of a battle that is documented elsewhere. Instead, I will concentrate on how to entertain a family while taking them to a historical destination.
What is it about this place that draws people for nearly 150 years? Gettysburg is considered the deciding battle by us today, but the Civil War went on for nearly two more years. Vicksburg, Mississippi, was strategically more important. Ahead was the burning of Atlanta and President Lincoln’s reelection that even he had doubts could happen. People recognise that at this battle, both sides put it all on the line as never before – the Confederates were well into Pennsylvania, a Union state. Washington, the Union capitol, was at risk if the Union lost. Important to the Confederates, a victory here could secure recognition by England. These facts are the setup for a drama that survives like Agincourt and Shakespeare’s King Henry V with the lines –
“From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.”
We are the future of their time, and yet we struggle in our own time as they did with divisive issues. As in so many things related to Abraham Lincoln, his words in 1861 are prophetic – “The struggle of today is not altogether for today; it is for a vast future also.”
I also think the answer to why Gettysburg draws people is that the Civil War is about good versus evil, and fascination with the belief system of men from both sides being so strong. Their motivation was so strong that they endured years of living like hobos, away from comforts and family, only to face a possibly torturous death.
That I just violated tradition, calling the civil war a contest of good versus evil, is not news to me. I went to college in Atlanta, segregationist Lester Maddox was governor, and they still played Dixie everywhere. However, even today, a Gettysburg park ranger at the visitor centre told me that some people walk out of the introductory film. It portrays in some scenes a view of human abuse and not the traditional Lost Cause theme, so I imagine facing the truth is difficult.
Talking with people during the tour stops, I discovered foreigners taking time to see this great battlefield. One man from Sweden was on his third trip. Foreign tourists and Americans, as if attracted to a majestical object, seem to flock to Gettysburg to get an answer to some unanswerable question.
I stayed at the Wyndham Hotel, located at the Gateway Gettysburg campus. This is a development of hotels, theatre, and restaurants. My room included a bar area, living room, bedroom, bathroom, and a 5×5 shower with side spray nozzles. The hotel offers a huge enclosed pool for the kids, and three restaurants to choose from (one providing pizza and family-food). Reasonable luxury is the best description of my accommodations with prices about $225, depending on the season.
I observed prices in the area at “econo-beds” to be nearly the same as the Wyndham and yet with nothing more to offer a guest. The Gateway Gettysburg campus includes a movie theatre across the parking lot. Between the pool, exercise room, pizza party, and theatre it is hard to get bored.
In the Wyndham’s 1863 restaurant, I enjoyed the spinach salad and Scottish salmon steak along with a glass of California Mirassou 2009 pinot noir. The spinach salad is with bleu, pecans, and a warm cider vinaigrette. My salmon steak was a thick cut but cooked to perfection throughout. The salmon plate is served with butternut squash risotto, asparagus, and a pecan relish. A special treat, compliments of the chef, was the pan seared scallop in an apple cider with rum butter sauce – really good. This fine dinner was about $39.00 total.
Executive Chef Claude Rodier, is French in both birth and degreed culinary education. He brings extensive experience in fine restaurants to the Wyndham hotel, including his most recent position as Executive Chef of Blackie’s Restaurant in Washington, D.C. Claude Rodier is bringing to the Wyndham his specialties in pastry and seafood.
A shuttle runs into downtown from the Gateway Gettysburg campus and takes about 5 minutes. I drove my car around the battlefield and found parking at all of the points of interest. However, around the centre of town where the tourists congregate the parking was difficult. A spot in town to visit is the Reid Winery tasting room (built in 1820) and it is the birthplace of Jennie Wade, the only civilian killed during the battle. Other winery tasting rooms in the centre of town are located amongst ice cream parlors and places to hang out for people watching.
The park visitor centre is located on the battlefield and its museum is excellent. The displays showed me artifacts of the period but also the battle flow is artfully brought into the display. From here, my choice was to walk the park, rent an official guide, buy a self-tour CD, or just follow the crowds and read the signs.
I did not purchase a tour CD for my car. I found that the audio tour road signs and notes on the free map to give me enough information. Unexpected were the helpful people that study this history and could tell me details beyond my knowledge. I simply listened to someone explaining to their partners and when appropriate asked my question. These self-educated experts enjoy sharing their knowledge and even point out what to go see across the fields. However, my advantage is I have been here before and studied the battle in films and books. Licensed guides or a bus tour can be hired at the visitor centre, and the self-guided audio CD is supposed to be excellent.
Seeing the battlefield takes a full day by car including pulling over to walk around. Many people take a second day or a good part of it. For example; I could see the “angle” from the road in my car, but it was a good 100 yards away. I had to get out and stand at this critical spot – the angle is the point of the Union lines where the now famous Picket’s charge focused while advancing under deadly cannon and rifle fire.
Another famous spot is the Little Round Top bayonet charge by the Union 20th Maine Regiment. Despite seasons passed since the Civil War, visitors continue to love their fighting men of the period. I came to walk the famous grounds again (last visit was in 1973) and I was touched by and photographed this note left behind on the 20th Maine monument at Little Round Top.
gburginfo.brinkster.net is a web site that I found with lots of photographs and interesting things to look for at the battlefield. Most of this is not offered in tours and car maps.
civilwartraveler.com/audio/podcasts.html is a podcast site that has free tour guides for important points throughout the major civil war battles.
What else to do – Wine & Music festival anyone?
I had to focus on what will induce my wife to come along on another trip before the Sesquicentennial. She is not into the historical tours, although many women are as engrossed in the activity as are the men.
Wonderfully, there is a Wine and Music Festival going on every September at the Gateway Gettysburg campus. The Wyndham has special offer packages for the Wine & Music Festival. I have more to see in the area and this is enough to get her interested, plus the shopping at the Gettysburg downtown square.
A day trip down highway 15 from Gettysburg is the city of Frederick, Maryland. Here is the National Museum of Civil War Medicine, the Monocacy Battlefield fought by General Lew Wallace (later the author of Ben-Hur), and a great place for lunch.
I had seen many of the same display at Gettysburg as in the Medicine Museum, except for the section on injuries and treatment of wounds. Displayed are shattered bones showing the longitudinal fractures caused by a Minie ball. Pictures of soldiers show the horrible damage and how elementary plastic surgery let men continue in life including marriage and children.
I found the Monocacy Battlefield (1864) to be less engaging than others, and probably so because it was a feint to draw Union forces away from besieged Richmond. On my next trip, I will be taking in the 1862 Antietam Battlefield about 35 minutes drive to the west. This is where the horrors of modern war were captured on photographs for the first time by Matthew Brady. The display of these photographs in Washington, D.C, was shocking and drew huge crowds. It is possible to drive from Gettysburg in the morning, see the museum in Frederick, have lunch, and go over to Antietam for four hours of viewing before returning to Gettysburg.
Even today, after many years, my wife asks me if the bugs got on me during my walking around. I had dragged her through these places 40 years earlier. Yes, battles are fought outdoors and sometimes it is hot. I remembered to wear my hat, walking shoes, have bottled water, and use sun block. Wonder what it was like for the men wearing wool uniforms in the humid 87 degree temperature at Gettysburg, July 3rd, 1863?
Private Pilot Airport Information
Gettysburg Regional Airport (W05) has a 3,100′ x 60′ single runway and no services. It is possible to land and park without a hassle, just bring your own gas. Enterprise Car Rentals in Gettysburg is (717) 337-9000.
Nearby is Frederick, MD, providing full services. A suggestion is to do the Gettysburg trip in reverse. Start at Frederick with the Civil War Museum, see nearby Antietam, then have dinner in Gettysburg at the Wyndham Hotel. Or fly up to Gettysburg and call for a rental car.
Frederick Municipal Airport (KFDK) has two asphalt runways, 5,220′ x 100′ and 3,600′ x 75′. Elevation is 303′. Noise abatement procedures are required. Phone is (301) 600-1457.
Another treasure at Gettysburg? Lincoln’s Lost Treasure, a family-friendly, fun-for-all interactive day tour!
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