Gettysburg National Military Park Gettysburg, Pa. Visited: April 9, 2006 NPS Site Visited: 283 of 353 NPS Website; Local Website
WHAT IS IT? Site of the most famous battle fought on United States soil. The dramatic Civil War fight occurred from July 1-3, 1863 and took more than 50,000 casualties.
BEAUTY (6/10) Over the last fifteen years, groups like the Friends of the National Park at Gettysburg in accordance with the NPS have slowly but surely worked to bring the battlefield back to its 1863 appearance and feel. The most famous two removals were the Stuckey’s Restaurant that once sat in the middle of Pickett’s Charge’s route and the 307-foot monstrosity known as the Gettysburg National Tower that disturbed horizons in all directions.
Currently, there is nothing to upset the views of the beautiful Pennsylvania countryside other than 1,300 granite monuments and 400+ cannons. The biggest and the best Civil War memorials are here at Gettysburg. Do not let the Chickamauga or Vicksburg people tell you otherwise. The best of the best is, of course, the towering ivory white Pennsylvania Memorial, which sort of looks like the arc de triomphe topped with a dome upon which stands Nike, the winged goddess of victory.
HISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE (10/10) Throughout his schooling, Michael never understood the oft-quoted metaphor of Gettysburg being the high tide of the Confederacy. His teachers would point to the ground where Pickett’s charge ended and say, “Look, right here is the high tide.” He gets it now, sees the powerful imagery but only grudgingly agrees with this eastern-theater-centric vision of the Civil War.
The historical strength of Gettysburg lies in metaphor and symbolic imagery. The ebbs and flows of the battle itself encapsulate the tidal patterns of the war as a whole. The battle was fought over three scorching hot days and saw the most casualties of any fight in American history. Once battle ended, the skies emptied and it rained a deluge. It was July 4th, the day of American Independence.
Four months later, on November 19, Abraham Lincoln came to the former battleground to dedicate the National Cemetery. His speech, the Gettysburg Address, is known to all Americans and memorized by most middle school students.
CROWDS (3/10) An early April Sunday morning, 9:30 a.m. to be exact. We thought we would elude the crowds. No siree Bob. Busload after busload of people were being dropped off and parking spaces around the Visitor Center were hard to find. What summer must bring!
The battlefield auto tour was thick with bumper-to-bumper traffic. We should have walked.
EASE OF USE/ACCESS (4/5) The current Gettysburg NMP Visitor Center is located just south of downtown Gettysburg along Pa. Route 134 (Taneytown Road), a few miles from U.S. Route 15. If you do not have a map, the easiest entry is from the south. The Pa. Route 134 exit will take you directly north for about 2 miles. The VC is on your left.
Gettysburg, Pa. is located along U.S. Route 15, a pleasant 90 minute drive north of our nation’s capital, Washington, D.C. The nearest beautiful metropolis is Harrisburg, a quick 40 mile jaunt to the northeast. So if your coming to Gettysburg, also make the trip to Harrisburg. Give us a call and we will show you the ins and outs of our fair city.
The Gettysburg Battlefield is comparatively easy to maneuver. The fighting took place over three days, but much of it was isolated within a three-mile radius. You will not be driving to the ends of the earth like at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania, Richmond and Petersburg.
CONCESSIONS/BOOKSTORE (4/5) What if they built a bookstore, stocked it with every imaginable Civil War book and frequently brought in authors to sign and discuss their works. Doesn’t that sound great? Now, what if they stuffed said bookstore with triple the room’s capacity making it impossible to walk around the store and browse the collection. Well, that is Gettysburg.
Existentially, do the books even exist if you can’t get to them?
COSTS (2/5) The website boasts that entry into the Gettysburg NMP is “free of charge”. True, but the electric map costs $4 per person. The Gettysburg NMP is the only battlefield in the NPS that charges for its electric map presentation, which is easily the worst electric map we have ever seen. Couldn’t they have replaced the burnt-out bulbs?
“Licensed Battlefield Guide” tours run anywhere from $45-$135 depending on the number of people in your party. We did not begin to research this option. There are no free guided Ranger tours at Gettysburg. Guided auto-tour cassette tapes cost between $10 and $15. If you intend to learn anything at the Park, it could get expensive.
RANGER/GUIDE TO TOURIST RATIO (2/5) The day after our visit, April 9, 2006, the local newspaper, the Gettysburg Times, wrote that federal budget cuts to the National Park Service would mean probable job losses for at least three Park Rangers. In the past ten years, federal budget cuts have forced Gettysburg NMP to fire 12 full-time staff members and 24 part-timers. In those same ten years, the Park has seen nearly 20 million visitors. The visitation rate has not declined. These stories regarding Gettysburg NMP has become so commonplace that the Harrisburg paper does not cover them any longer.
While federal NPS jobs are being cut, a much needed new $100M Museum and Visitor Center is being built less than a half-mile from the current location. “How could this be?” we wondered. Like Mount Rushmore N MEM’s new VC construction, the building is being built entirely through private funds. Private funding, private building initiatives and self-guided learning are the future of the National Park Service. Educational Park Rangers are a thing of the past.
Luckily, we did find one Ranger lurking among the help desk with dozens of volunteers. He answered a few of our questions about the new Museum before having to stop because of a barrage of other tourists’ questions. They all wanted to know where they could get something to eat.
Admittedly, one person per every group touring the Battlefield carries himself like an expert. Hands pointing, pompous posture and a know-it-all gleam. It is almost like being at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. So if you do have a Civil War question, just cozy on up to the tourists next to you and ask them. There is a high probability that one of them is dressed as a Civil War soldier. We are sure they would be pleased to answer your question.
TOURS/CLASSES (3/10) The best part about the tours/classes at Gettysburg NMP is that a new Museum will be opening up in the near future.
In the mean time, buy one of the 18 million books written about July 1-3, 1863.
FUN (6/10) The great thing about Gettysburg NMP is that it is possible to walk much of the battlefield in one day’s time. About three years ago, we walked down the third day Union line, across the field where Pickett’s charge occurred, down the Confederate line, through the Peach Orchard, Devils Den and the Wheatfield, up Big Round Top and Little Round Top and back to the Visitor Center. That is everything right there.
This year we drove the same area; felt rushed, crowded and did not enjoy our trip nearly as much. If you have the time and the stamina, we suggest walking. You won’t shed the crowds physically but you may be able to separate yourself from them mentally. Your concentration can focus on the battle, the troop movements and the historical impact rather than worrying about finding a parking space and the slow driver in front of you.
WOULD WE RECOMMEND? (8/10) The Gettysburg NMP is an iconic American destination and the crowds are commensurately large. Sadly, the current infrastructure matches neither the area’s historical prominence nor its 2M people per year tourist influx. The new $100M VC set to open in 2007-08 should fix the situation. We say wait until then to come.
Right now, the museum is bad, the cyclorama is closed for renovations, the crowds are thick and the Ranger help is small. And who knows, perhaps by 2008 there will have been a decision made regarding the proposed Gettysburg casino. Video poker, slot machines, old town Gettysburg, Abe Lincoln, brother fighting brother and the turning point in the Civil War = fun for all.
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