Exploring the Hallowed Grounds of Gettysburg
Remembered as the site of the American Civil War's bloodiest battle, Gettysburg National Military Park protects a now peaceful landscape. At the time of the Battle of Gettysburg, the outcome of the war was by no means certain, but the defeat of Lee’s army marked a turning point. Visiting Gettysburg National Military Park offers an opportunity to delve deeper into the history of the Civil War and its impact on our nation.
One score and more than 50 years ago, in the first days of July, Confederate General Robert E. Lee pushed his troops forward to Gettysburg, hoping to win a victory on northern soil and gain foreign recognition of the Confederacy. His hopes were soon dashed. After three days of dramatic battle, Union General George Meade defeated the Confederate army.
From July 1-3, nearly 200,000 Americans were engaged in a fierce struggle for the future of the country. Despite early successes, the Confederates could not pierce the Union “fish-hook”- shaped defensive line, although their attempts led to bloody clashes at places like Little Round Top, Devil’s Den, and Cemetery Hill.
The Battle of Gettysburg resulted in approximately 51,000 casualties and inspired President Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. Lincoln’s moving 2-minute oration, in which he memorialized the battle’s fallen and called for “a new birth of freedom” in the United States, remains one of the most famous speeches in American history.
Preserving Our History
The Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association, a concerned group of citizens and veterans committed to preserving portions of the battlefield, was created in 1864. Land holdings were eventually transferred to the federal government in 1895, when Congress officially designated Gettysburg as a national military park. The U.S. War Department was responsible for the park during this period, and a federally appointed commission of Civil War veterans oversaw the development of the park as a memorial to both armies. In 1933, administration of the park was transferred to the National Park Service, which continues to protect and study the area to this day.
Gettysburg National Military Park offers a variety of experiences, including opportunities to explore the battlefield. Regardless of the length of your visit, there are numerous options from which to choose.
- Visitor center: Make the National Park Service Museum and Visitor Center your first stop. Here you'll find a wealth of information about the park, including schedules for upcoming guided talks and tours. You can also watch "A New Birth of Freedom," an illuminating film narrated by Morgan Freeman that explores the Civil War era.
- Battlefield tours: Drive through the park and explore many of the battlefield landscapes on your own, free of charge. Guided battlefield tours are available for a fee and provide further insights into the history of Gettysburg.
- Hiking and biking: Many of the hiking trails provide a way to explore Gettysburg National Military Park on foot and begin at or near the visitor center. Bicycles are welcome on the park's roads, and designated trails are also open to horseback riding.
- The David Wills House: The historic David Wills House served as a central point during the difficult clean-up process following the battle, as well as the spot where Lincoln made his final edits to the Gettysburg Address. It opened to the public as a museum in 2009 in commemoration of Abraham Lincoln’s 200th birthday.
Growing and Preserving the Park
The landscape of Gettysburg National Military Park continues to evolve, thanks in part to the efforts of the National Park Foundation and the generous contributions of individual donors. These efforts include a recently donated a 75-acre tract of land that includes the historic George Bishop farm – one of the largest remaining unprotected Civil War-era farms in the Gettysburg area – in addition to portions of the James Ewing farm. These battlefield lands are now open to park visitors for the first time.
In addition to several historic structures, the parcel includes a sensitive riparian area that feeds into Marsh Creek. Designated an important bird and mammal area, it provides a habitat for Pennsylvania’s diminishing grassland species. Safeguarding these 75 acres from development will protect both Gettysburg and the Eisenhower National Historic Site, the home and farm of President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Just as Lincoln described the government, so can we describe the parks: “of the people, by the people, for the people.” Visiting Gettysburg National Military Park today can be a somber experience, but also offers a chance to gain new insight into one of the most complicated times in our nation's history.
Whether you are tracking down an ancestor who played a role in the battle, studying the events for the first time, or simply looking for a park to explore by foot, you’re sure to come away from the experience with a new appreciation for our country’s past when you find your park.