Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The costs and rewards of visiting Gettysburg

If you come to Gettysburg to see the Civil War battlefield you may have a lot of questions. One of these could be, "Where the $%#@! is the visitor center?"

That, at least, was one of our first questions as we followed some oddly confusing directional signs that didn't lead very directly to the visitor center of Gettysburg National Military Park. We eventually did find the center, tucked well away in some woods, but it only prompted a new set of questions.

Options at the visitor center
If you're expecting your usual National Park Service visitor center with a free museum and movie, you're going to be disappointed to find that almost everything here has a price. That's because, while the battlefield is owned and managed by the Park Service, the center is actually run by the Gettysburg Foundation.

Admission to see the movie, museum and a giant painting called the "cyclorama" is $12.50 for adults and $8.50 for kids (AAA discount is available). If you're well-versed in Civil War and Gettysburg history, you could skip this and go directly to the driving tour of the battlefield. But for most people, the movie and museum are good introductions.

The Morgan Freeman-narrated film is a decent overview of the battle, while the Cyclorama is a presentation of Pickett's Charge – the key moment of the battle – tied to an impressively huge 360-degree painting. The best part, though, is the museum, which gives a thorough accounting of not just the battle of Gettysburg, but the events that preceded and followed it.  It has nice mix of static displays and videos.

The battlefield
The next step is to take the driving tour of the battlefield (you can pay for a bus tour if you'd like). It was raining the day we visited, so that discouraged us from getting out of the car at many of the stops, but I always enjoy visiting the actual places where history happened.

I was struck by the size of the battlefield. It took us two hours to drive the tour route, and if you choose to stop more than we did, it could take twice that. You can appreciate how fighting could be taking place at one end of the battlefield without soldiers at the other end even being aware it was going on (apparently there was no Twitter).

Not every spot on the driving tour rang with meaning to me, but it was good to see the site of Pickett's Charge from both sides and to see why the height and position of the hill known as Little Round Top made the battle for it crucial.

How much of an impression did the visit make on my kids, ages 9 and 11? It's hard to say, but I was pleased to discover that the phrase "Pickett's Charge" had found it's way into my son's vocabulary as we talked later that day.

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