Family-Travel Destination Spotlight: Gettysburg National Military Park

Oh no, we don’t want to LEARN over spring break!  Can’t we go to a water park, the beach, or somewhere fun?!?  So many of our family trips are purely for entertainment and recreation, how would the kids react when they discovered we were heading to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania?  The site where one of the most significant battles on United States soil was waged; the scene of a critical turning point in the American Civil War, where over 51,000 American soldiers (both Union and Confederate) lost their lives, and the spot for one of the most eloquent speeches delivered by a U.S. President.  Our visit to Gettysburg made this historical locale real, and crystallized the brutality of a battle fought so close to home.  Of all the family trips we’ve taken, our journey to the fields, museums, and monuments of Gettysburg National Military Park, is perhaps one of the most meaningful.

Gettysburg National Military Park

Evie contemplating life (and death) atop Little Round Top at Gettysburg National Military Park

I was a huge Civil War buff as a kid.  Don’t know why, but was fascinated with the history, battles, and stories of the era, right down to memorizing the dates and locations of Civil War battles: Fort Sumter, Bull Run, Shiloh, Antietam, Gettysburg…  I knew the names and dates, but never actually visited any of the sites myself.

Before arriving at the Gettysburg National Military Park Museum & Visitor Center, our family was struck by the hundreds and hundreds of monuments throughout the fields; described by the Gettysburg Foundation as “one of the largest collections of outdoor sculpture in the world.”  Each monument represents the courage, honor, and sacrifice of the individual soldiers, regiments, and states represented in the battle.  Simply humbling…

Gettysburg National Military Park

North Carolina Monument depicting their soldiers advancing during Pickett’s Charge – Gettysburg National Military Park

Gettysburg National Military Park Museum and Visitors Center

First stop, National Park Visitors Center – a good place to get oriented to the battlefield and the sites we would see.  We quickly toured The Gettysburg Museum of the Civil War, and made reservations to see the film and Gettysburg Cyclorama later in the afternoon.  The museum was impressive and filled with Civil War artifacts and details of the battle and its larger context in the war.  However, we had an impending Gettysburg Battlefield tour reservation, and decided to come back later in the afternoon to let the family explore deeper.

Gettysburg National Military ParkGettysburg National Military Park

Licensed Gettysburg Battlefield Guided Tour

A special feature of the battlefield tours are step on guides you hired at the visitor center.  These trained and licensed guides ride with your family in your own car and share their perspective and narration throughout the battlefield.  These guided tours last approximately two hours and start at $65/vehicle (not including a tip).  It’s important to note that this is YOUR time and tour, and you can direct the tour guide as to what you are most interested in seeing – be it a chronological tour, the route General Lee took, involvement of New York troops, the monuments themselves, or whatever.  Make sure you express to your guide what it is you would most like to get out of the tour.

Gettysburg National Military Park

Our guide was a grandfatherly gentleman who steered us to significant points as they would have occurred during the three day battle.  There were multiple stops to get out of our car, stretch our legs, check out a monument, and get fresh air.  Our 16 year old daughter was fascinated by the detail provided by our guide, and peppered him with questions from beginning to end.

Gettysburg National Military Park

Eternal Light Peace Memorial – Gettysburg National Military Park

Gettysburg National Military Park

Virginia Memorial, General Robert E. Lee depicted on his horse near the site where he watched troops advance during Pickett’s Charge – Gettysburg National Military Park

Gettysburg National Military Park

Our licensed battlefield guide near the Confederacy’s “High Water Mark” at Gettysburg National Military Park

 Film, Gettysburg Cyclorama, and Museum

Following our guided battlefield tour, we headed back to the visitors center for the film, cyclorama, and museum exhibits we previously skipped.

The 20 minute film, “A New Birth of Freedom,” was narrated by Morgan Freeman and led you through the events of the Battle of Gettysburg.  The theater exit led directly into the Gettysburg Cyclorama a massive 360 degree oil painting with three-dimensional props that inserted us directly in the middle of “Pickett’s Charge.”  Once you entered the cyclorama auditorium, lighting and sound effects reenacted the ill-fated Confederate advance.  Photos do not do justice to this restored 1884 masterpiece.

Gettysburg National Military Park

Gettysburg Cyclorama – Gettysburg National Military Park

Gettysburg National Military Park

Gettysburg Cyclorama – Gettysburg National Military Park

 

Notice the cannon, well, and fence in the photos below; those are all foreground props in front of the painted artwork that gave the scene a life-like quality.  The level of detail in the Gettysburg Cyclorama was astounding, and is a don’t miss attraction at the visitors center.

Gettysburg National Military Park

Gettysburg Cyclorama – Gettysburg National Military Park

Gettysburg National Military Park

Gettysburg Cyclorama – Gettysburg National Military Park

Seminary Ridge Museum

After a day spent exploring the Gettysburg Battlefield, museum, and visitors center, we took a second day to visit two additional Gettysburg sites related to the battle.  The first – Seminary Ridge Museum, a brand-new museum that opened on July 1, 2013 – 150 years to the day from when General John Buford climbed to the top of the building’s cupola to survey the approaching Confederate forces.

Seminary Ridge Museum, Gettysburg

What made this museum particularly compelling was its service as a field hospital for wounded soldiers (both Union and Confederate) during and after the battle.  Approximately 600 soldiers were cared for behind these walls, by doctors, nurses, Seminary and community members for months after the July battle.  Many soldiers did not recover from their wounds and died within the Seminary.

Seminary Ridge Museum, Gettysburg

The exhibits within Seminary Ridge Museum depicted hospital conditions and how the wounded were cared for by doctors and nurses at the time.

Seminary Ridge Museum, GettysburgSeminary Ridge Museum, GettysburgSeminary Ridge Museum, Gettysburg

Seminary Ridge Museum made a powerful impact on the entire family, and was certainly a highlight of our visit to Gettysburg.  The exhibits were a sobering (but tactful) reminder of how the battle impacted the city of Gettysburg long after the 3-day battle, and how a population dealt with waking up to 50,000+ casualties laying in their midst.  I definitely recommend adding a visit to this museum on your Gettysburg itinerary.

Soldiers’ National Cemetery

Our final stop of Gettysburg Historical Sites was Soldiers’ National Cemetery – the final resting place for many of the Union soldiers killed during the Battle of Gettysburg.  Of course, Abraham Lincoln dedicated the cemetery in November, 1863 with his immortal Gettysburg Address and promised “these dead shall not have died in vain… that this nation… of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from this earth.”

Soldier's National Cemetery - Gettysburg National Military Park

Soldier's National Cemetery - Gettysburg National Military Park

Lincoln Speech Memorial at Soldier’s National Cemetery – Gettysburg National Military Park

Soldier's National Monument at the Cemetery - Gettysburg National Military Park

Soldier’s National Monument, near the actual site where Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address – Gettysburg National Military Park

 

Gettysburg was certainly a different type of vacation destination – more reflective and thoughtful than our usual theme park visits.  However, the visit will almost certainly have a longer lasting impact on us compared to a three minute ride on a roller coaster.  We learned about and experienced the Battle of Gettysburg from many different perspectives: film, painting, museum, and actual sites.

Gettysburg National Military Park

That being said, Gettysburg is more than just a Civil War town.  Gettysburg is a living, breathing, active community with more to offer than just somber Battlefield sites.  In a future post, I’ll outline some other family-travel attractions in Gettysburg we enjoyed together as a family that may appeal to your family members as well – especially if they have little or no interest in visiting a Civil War battlefield (like my wife).

DISCLOSURE: Our family was hosted by the Gettysburg Convention and Visitors Bureau and received complimentary admission to the museum and visitors center (including the cyclorama), a licensed battlefield guide, and admission to the Seminary Ridge Museum.  However, all opinions expressed are those of the author.  For more family travel news, reviews, and trip reports, be sure to follow Adventures by Daddy on Twitter and “like” our Facebook page, too.

About Dave Parfitt

Married, father of two girls, and living in the heart of the Finger Lakes. I'm a runner with a PhD in neuroscience and a passion for travel.