Gettysburg and the American Civil War
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The town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania today lives on two events which happened 150 years ago. The first was a battle fought over three days in July 1863, midway through the American Civil War. The second was a speech made by President Abraham Lincoln at the inauguration of the military cemetery, built to accommodate many of the dead, a few months later.
The war was fought over the issue of slavery. The North East states of the Union as far south as Pennsylvania wanted to abolish it, but the cotton and tobacco growing economies of the southern states depended on it. The Southern States therefore broke away from the Union and formed the Confederacy. The civil war started in the south and for two years it was fought in the Southern States with the Confederate army having the upper hand. In 1863, under the command of General Robert E Lee, they pushed north into the Unionist State of Pennsylvania but their advance was stopped at the Battle of Gettysburg. This was the turning point in the war which lasted two more years before the Confederate States surrendered. Three days of fighting at Gettysburg left 51,000 men dead, wounded or missing.
In order to bury the dead the people of Gettysburg had to create a new military cemetery. President Abraham Lincoln was invited to the inauguration ceremony in November 1863 and was asked to say a few words. After the keynote speaker, Edward Everett had spoken for two hours, Lincoln said 277 words in two minutes which are now regarded as the greatest speech in American history. It's the one which contains the words "The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here” and ends with “ ……. we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Gettysburg National Military Park Museum and Visitor Centre was opened in 2005, and in great American tradition, it tells the story of the Battle of Gettysburg very well. Our visit started in the excellent theatre with an audiovisual presentation telling the story of the battle. It gave a good understanding of the issues at stake and the sequence of events. After the film, visitors are ushered up the elevators to the cyclorama to see the painting of Pickett’s Charge on the third day of the battle. This Confederate charge led to their defeat. The wall painting is 42 feet high and 377 feet in circumference, and was painted by a French artist, with a team of helpers in the 1880s. It is now mounted on the inside walls of a circular auditorium. Here we were treated to another audio visual presentation based on the painting, with canon and musket fire accompaniment. It was very effective.
The third part of the visit was a walk through the exhibition of war paintings, guns, and artefacts. Anyone with a particular interest in the battle could spend far longer than the two hours or so we spent here, but we wanted to visit the National Cemetery where Lincoln gave the Gettysburg Address, and to take the open top bus tour of the battlefield.
The cemetery is built on the hill from which the Union troops repulsed Pickett’s charge. It’s very much what you’d expect. Soldiers from different Union states have their own sections, no Confederate troops were buried here. There are many memorials, the main one, the Soldiers’ National Monument, is a granite column topped with a statue of “Genius of Liberty”. There’s also a monument to President Lincoln. Since its opening, the cemetery has been extended to accommodate veterans from World Wars 1 and 2, and the Korean and Vietnam wars. It’s very well cared for by the National Parks Service.
After lunch we took the open top coach tour of the battlefield. There are hundreds of memorials, large and small, to individual units, platoons, corps and regiments of both sides spread out over an area of perhaps 50 square miles outside the town. There is only one memorial dedicated to the armies of both sides, it has a tall column with an eternal flame on top. President Kennedy and his wife Jackie visited this memorial in the late 1950s. Our guide told us that they were invited to return in November 1963 for the 100th anniversary of the Gettysburg address, but they had already accepted an invitation to be in Dallas that week. She also said that Mrs Kennedy’s idea to have an eternal flame to mark her husband’s grave at Arlington National Military Cemetery, came from here.
The bus stopped only twice on the one and a half hour tour. It’s difficult to take photographs from the top of a moving bus so afterwards we drove around the battlefield ourselves. There are way markers and signposts around the tour route between the major memorial sites, so it’s easy to make a self-guided tour. And it’s easy to stop to look at the monuments and in our case to talk to people dressed in Confederate army uniforms who had come to camp here for the weekend. They had half a dozen tents and a couple of campfires on which they were cooking food. They belonged to some sort of re-enactment society. I spoke to one lady dressed like Scarlet O’Hara and commented that she seemed out of place on the battlefield. She replied that it was not uncommon for officers to take their wives with them into battle, for example General Custer was a case in point. I couldn’t help but note that we were a long way from Little Bighorn.
We enjoyed our day in Gettysburg and learnt a lot about the battle in particular and the American Civil War in general. The museum is outstanding, as you would expect for an American National Memorial, and the battlefield is very well presented. I have no hesitation in recommending this as an interesting and educational place to visit.
22 people found this review helpful
This review is solely based on the opinion of a Silver Travel Advisor member and not of Silver Travel Advisor Ltd.