A brief but fierce thunderstorm broke overhead as we neared Gettysburg, bringing to mind the sound of cannon fire and cataclysm. This was a long-envisioned visit for me and the CE, both of us having fallen a little ways down the rabbit hole of learning about the American Civil War.
A few years back, I delved into a lengthy book about the Battle of Fredericksburg and was gripped by a desire, no, an ineluctable need, to go there and see the Sunken Road where so many Union soldiers perished in December of 1862. There is something electrifying about stepping into history that way, and we agreed over dinner overlooking the Rappahannock River our last night in Fredericksburg that Gettysburg had to be the next stop on our quest to re-trace the tragic war between the states.
It took longer than we would have liked to get there. Life happens. We elected not brave the crowds during the 150th anniversary year in 2013, and then 2014 somehow slipped away from us. We finally blocked off a few days this past late May for a visit, and drove into the lovely town of Gettysburg, freshly bathed from the rainstorm, with sunny skies overhead and American flags waving proudly from every nook and cranny of the Civil War-era buildings around Lincoln Square.
If you are contemplating such a visit yourself, here are a few things to consider:
1. Read all about it! More than 50,000 books have been written about the American Civil War, and some estimate that nearly half of those focus on Gettysburg alone. The Killer Angels (355 pages), the fictional but historically scrupulous account by Michael Shaara, is an inspiring place to start. I haven’t seen it yet, but the film Gettysburg, adapted from Shaara’s novel, is a favorite for pre-visit preparation. Stephen W. Sears’ Gettysburg (640 pages) is considered by some to be the quintessential book on the subject. For a briefer, succinct and elegant overview of the battle, Bruce Catton’s Gettysburg: The Final Fury is a fast read at 128 pages. Studying a good map before your visit will also be helpful. The Civil War Trust offers an ingenious animated map that covers all three days of the battle.
2. How long to allot? Where to stay? If your interest level is tepid or you have a car full of squirrely kids who just want to run across the field with a flag and re-enact Pickett’s Charge, then a brief visit might be sufficient. But if you have a scholarly or passionate interest in this battle that was the critical turning point of the war, you will want to immerse yourself for a day or even two. Heck, some people just pull up stakes and move to the lovely town Gettysburg in order to sate their passion for this most poignant moment in American history.
We planned a two-night visit, and then began to research lodging. There are manifold options; on the advice of a friend we ultimately chose The Gettysburg Hotel. It is not perfect but it is more than adequate and it has a stellar location on Lincoln Square. Some people choose to bunk closer to the battlefield, but since some of the fighting on the first day of the battle took place right on Baltimore Street, our in-town location permitted a history lesson as we walked to dinner.
3. Where to eat? The historic Dobbin House Tavern may be as close to fine dining as you will get in Gettysburg. I ordered a glass of a house drink labeled “shrub” – a colonial concoction of sparkling wine flavored with an infusion of fruit juice and vinegar! It sounds odd, but it was very refreshing.
We lunched one day at Cafe Saint-Amand on Baltimore Street. There is no Starbucks in the town center, so Cafe Saint-Amand is your best (and possibly only) bet for a morning latte. We also dined at The Pub & Restaurant across from our hotel on Lincoln Square and enjoyed very friendly service from our waiter, Nick, for dinner on our second night at One Lincoln.
And while dessert is not an approved menu item for me, we couldn’t resist a visit (okay, two visits) to Mr. G’s Ice Cream Parlor on Baltimore Street, a gathering place for locals and tourists alike.
4. Consult the experts. I tend to glaze over at the thought of guided tours. Too much commitment. I get antsy. But visiting Gettysburg without a tour guide would be like asking Dante to navigate the Inferno without Virgil. Whatever you think you know about the Battle of Gettysburg is a speck in a gnat’s eye compared to the cornucopia of knowledge a Licensed Battlefield Guide has in his pinky finger.
I’d read that you can swing by the Visitors Center and engage a guide on the fly, but our hotel desk clerk advised that we would need to arrive promptly at 8 a.m. to guarantee guide availability. I’m all for getting an early start, but wasn’t sure I would be properly caffeinated by 8 a.m. Fortuitously, on the evening of our arrival in Gettysburg, we happened into local bookstore For the Historian, where knowledgeable proprietor Larry Weindorf gave us a card for battlefield guide Larry Korczyk.
Korczyk assured us that any number of licensed guides could provide the same level of expertise and enthusiasm as he did, but we can’t imagine a more lively-narrated or comprehensive tour than he provided. He tailored the tour to our interests and provided an unforgettable survey of the epic Battle of Gettysburg.
History lifted off the page over the day and a half of our tour. A visit to Gettysburg instilled for us a new appreciation of what it cost to hold our nation together and assure that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Next up: highlights of our battlefield tour