Historic America

Gettysburg National Military Park

The Battle of Gettysburg was fought July 1–3, 1863 in and around Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, between Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and Union Maj. Gen. George Meade’s Army of the Potomac during the American Civil War. The battle ended in a Union victory and resulted in approximately 48,000 total casualties.

Gettysburg National Military Park preserves 3,965 acres and maintains approximately 1,328 monuments, markers, and memorials. Because the battle was fought in and around the town (home to 7,620 people and Gettysburg College), it would be impossible to preserve the entirety of the battlefield, but extensive efforts have been made to restore preserved land to its 1863 appearance. With 1-2 million visitors per year, Gettysburg is perhaps the most popular Civil War battlefield.

Battlefield tour guides are knowledgeable and well-trained. Applicants actually go through a process of written and oral exams, held every other year, before being licensed by the National Park Service. In 2008, the park built a new, $29.4 million visitor center with 20,000 square feet of exhibit space. It houses a cyclorama, galleries, temporary exhibit spaces, an archive, two theaters, a full-service restaurant, catering kitchen, classrooms, gift shop/bookstore, staff offices, and a conference room, and employs 85-105 full time employees. It’s truly impressive.

The Battle of Gettsyburg unfolded over three hot summer days. The first day was a disaster for the North and the Confederates drove them through Gettysburg, but by sundown they held good positions on the hills and ridges outside of town. On the morning of July 2, Meade ordered Maj. Gen. Daniel E. Sickles’ III Corps to occupy a position along Cemetery Ridge. Instead, he moved his corps forward onto slightly higher ground, but in doing so he created a dangerous salient. When two divisions of Confederate Lt. Gen. James Longstreet’s corps smashed into Sickles’ men, they fought stubbornly but were forced to retreat. A cannonball shattered Sickles’ leg, and he puffed on a cigar as he was carried off the field.

Recognizing the danger, Col. Strong Vincent of the Union army’s V Corps rushed his brigade to Little Round Top, a hill that commanded the terrain on the Union left flank. They arrived only 10 minutes before the Confederates. At the extreme end of this line was Colonel Joshua L. Chamberlain and his 20th Maine Regiment. After withstanding several attacks, and running out of ammunition, Chamberlain ordered a bayonet charge that broke the Confederate offensive and eventually won him the Medal of Honor.

On July 3, Lee ordered Longstreet to attack the Union center. “It is my opinion that no fifteen thousand men ever arrayed for battle can take that position,” Longstreet replied. In addition to Pickett’s Division, divisions under the command of Brigadier General J. Johnston Pettigrew and Major General Isaac R. Trimble also made the charge. They formed a front over a mile long. Pickett’s Charge (as it became known) was a disaster for the Confederacy. They suffered 6,555 killed, wounded, or captured, over 50% of the attacking force. Years after the war, when asked why the assault failed, Pickett responded, “I’ve always thought the Yankees had something to do with it.”

Lee, who believed his army could accomplish anything, was visibly shaken. He told returning troops, “It is my fault,” and never spoke of the famous charge again. Gettysburg ended Lee’s second invasion of the North, and was the costliest Civil War battle in terms of casualties. The Army of Northern Virginia never fully recovered.

Gettysburg National Military Park is open year-round, free to the public, from 6:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. from April 1 through October 31, and 6:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. from November 1 through March 31. The Museum and Visitor Center is located at 1195 Baltimore Pike and open daily from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Adult tickets are $15. The Film and Cyclorama includes A New Birth of Freedom, a film narrated by Morgan Freeman and sponsored by The History Channel.

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