The Gettysburg Experience

How Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, brings its stories to life

Confession: I used to hate history. I didn’t get the point of memorizing a bunch of dates and wars. But I loved watching movies like Cold Mountain and Titanic that brought history to life through stories. And then it clicked. History is an endless gulf of real-life stories for me to discover. Stories of heroism, risk, romance, betrayal, and adventure.

The start of my Gettysburg story

On a recent road trip from West Virginia to Pennsylvania, I visited a destination that delivers one of America’s biggest stories: Gettysburg. I had learned about the Battle of Gettysburg in school, but I didn’t remember much. I became thoroughly impressed how my short visit to Gettysburg brought the story to life and made me feel as though I was right there in the middle of the action on those three fateful days in July 1863.

As my husband and I drove into town toward the historic Gettysburg Hotel, we passed by monuments and roads that were part of the battlefield. After checking in to our hotel, which we chose for its central location, we walked to Food 101 where they use locally grown produce and fly in their Scottish salmon twice a week. You must try their house-cut truffle Parmesan fries. Oh. So. Good. We returned to One Lincoln Food & Spirits at the Gettysburg Hotel for after-dinner drinks and desserts before calling it a night.

The next day my husband had meetings to attend, so I had the day to myself to explore. I walked to The Ragged Edge Coffeehouse for coffee and breakfast where I ordered the snickerdoodle latte and swiss and mushroom quiche to enjoy in their dining room that resembled Luke’s Diner from Gilmore Girls. The locals gathered around the fireplace, sharing small tables and trading newspaper sections, discussing politics and local gossip.

When I’d devoured every last crumb of my quiche, I hopped in the Jeep and headed to the Gettysburg National Military Park. As I drove out of town to the museum and visitor center, I began to realize just how big the battlefield is. It surrounds the entire town. I was told to allot at least a few hours for this tour. I could have spent days here.

Gettysburg past

Among the many ways of delving into history at the military park, I opted for watching a film, seeing the Cyclorama, and touring the museum.

I started in the theater where Morgan Freeman narrated the film A New Birth of Freedom, a good overview of the significance of the Battle of Gettysburg, which only lasted three days, but was a turning point in the Civil War. From this film, I learned that Gettysburg was a major victory for the Union that ended General Robert E. Lee’s second incursion into the North. This was the bloodiest battle of the Civil War, leaving thousands of Union and Confederate soldier bodies scattered in shallow graves across these hills for months.

The battle ended on July 3, 1863, and President Abraham Lincoln returned on Nov. 19 of that year and delivered his famous Gettysburg Address at the dedication of the new Soldiers’ National Cemetery, where the bodies of the deceased Union soldiers were relocated.

After the film, I took an escalator to the stunning, highly detailed Gettysburg Cyclorama, a 360-degree oil-on-canvas painting (377 feet in circumference, 42 feet high) that put me right in the center of the battle. French artist Paul Philippoteaux painted this masterpiece in the late 1880s, standing close to where I stood to observe the painting in modern times. Lighting and sound brought the scenes to life as the battle stories were narrated. This was my favorite part of the tour—I’d never seen anything like this.

Next, I toured the museum, where I learned all kinds of interesting trivia like the fact that Abraham Lincoln, president of the Union, and Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, were both born in Kentucky only 80 miles apart. I then stopped in the museum bookstore where I nearly drooled over their extensive book collection. This bookstore is quite large and sells a variety of things including Civil War-themed apparel to toys as well as a driving audio tour of the Gettysburg battlefield. The self-guided auto tour is well marked, and took me past major sites like the Soldiers’ National Cemetery. I could have spent hours on this auto tour, and if it had been warmer, I would have walked or biked through the park. Next time!

Restaurant relay

At the end of the day’s tour, I was changed. How could I not be? Though the Civil War happened long before I was born, a feeling of sadness for our nation lingered within me—sadness that there was cause for the war in the first place, alongside the hope that we learn from our past and this Gettysburg story.

That evening, my husband and I split a bottle of wine over handmade pizza and pasta, followed by cannoli and bread pudding at Mamma Ventura Restaurant & Lounge. I felt myself bubbling over with excitement about what I’d experienced that day. Though I’m sure it would have been far more enthralling for him to visit these places in person, he listened patiently to the full download.

Gettysburg today

The next day,  I took in more of the town of Gettysburg before heading home. Across the street from our hotel on Lincoln Square, a bronzed President Abraham Lincoln greets a modern visitor. I couldn’t help but to snap a selfie with “Honest Abe.” The sign said Return Visit is the most true-to-life statue of Abraham Lincoln.

Fittingly, this statue is right in front of The David Wills House, former home of David Wills who was credited with proposing the Soldiers’ National Cemetery. President Lincoln was an overnight guest here the night before he delivered the Gettysburg Address.

Lincoln Square is a roundabout with four major roads that beckoned me to explore their shops in all directions. The House of Time has an impressive selection of vintage watches and clocks, many from the 1700s and at least one from the 1600s. Most of the watches come with a story and their selection expands beyond time keepers to Civil War collector items and antique keepsakes including a working Edison Phonograph with cylinders to play on it.

The Union Drummer Boy is another must-visit shop, where proprietors Bill and Brendan Synnamon have gathered an impressive collection of authentic Civil War artifacts for sale at various price points. I could imagine what life was like for the soldiers as you browse the artillery, uniforms, tintypes, artwork, flags, leather goods, and more.

I was content to browse the bookshelves of For The Historian, which held hundreds of military history books and miniatures.

I also stopped in Gallery 30 to shop products made by artisans from around the country. This cute, yet massive place offers jewelry, tableware, candles, and books alongside their famous hand-painted gourds, and a huge number of other handcrafted products.

The conclusion

At the end of the trip, I discovered you don’t have to be a history buff to get enthralled with history in Gettysburg—just someone who appreciates gaining a new perspective, or learning about a different way of life, or even simply someone who enjoys a fascinating story.

Now, take a Fresh Look at the First State.