There are two reasons Tom and I moved to Harrisburg when we were done at Fort Necessity. First, it is further east and makes lots of National Park sites easily accessible. Second, I am taking a weaving class at Red Stone Glenn, a fiber arts center close to Harrisburg. So, the day after we arrived in Harrisburg, we headed to the first National Park site on our list: Gettysburg National Military Park.
Despite working at several battlefields and national military parks, Tom and I had never been to Gettysburg. We just haven’t spent much time in this part of Pennsylvania – you know how you don’t do the things in your own backyard. Plus, Gettysburg is extremely commercialized and busy. The busier the park, the less time Tom and I spend in it. And, we like a place that emphasizes history, not a place trying to make money on the history.
Gettysburg National Military Park is everything we don’t like in a National Park site. The Visitors Center is run by The Gettysburg Foundation and it costs $10 per person just to see the movie and enter the museum. When you buy your ticket you can also get a ticket for a bus tour of the battlefield or you can hire a licensed battlefield guide for a personal tour. When we worked at Chickamauga, we often heard comparisons between Chickamauga and Gettysburg. Both battles were three days long. Both battles were costly in terms of casualties on both sides. But the way the park is interpreted is extremely different. Chickamauga is pure park service and Gettysburg is commercial. People who really like one style tend to be disappointed in the other.
We started our visit by finding a parking space in the third overflow parking lot. This was on a weekday in October! We walked to the Visitors Center and picked up the NPS brochure and a hiking trails map. Then we got in line to buy tickets for the things we wanted to do. Tom and I decided to do the self-guided auto tour of the battlefield rather than taking a bus tour. But we did buy a ticket to see the movie and visit the museum.
The movie was okay – a little heavy on the prelude to the battle and a little light on the battle itself. Immediately after the movie, everyone was herded into the Cyclorama. This was much better than the movie as it depicted the battlefield on the last day of the battle. With lighting, sound effects, and a 3-D theater, you could really get a sense of being in the middle of the battle. Unfortunately we only had about 10 minutes to see it before we were herded out so the next group could come in.
We checked out the museum and then headed back to the truck for lunch. Later in the day we did the self-guided auto tour and climbed the observation tower for a great view of much of the battlefield. We also drove through historic Gettysburg town, which was crowded with people hitting up restaurants and tourist shops.
Although Gettysburg was a big battle and an important victory for the Union, Tom and I do not plan to return to the battlefield. Too many people and too many people trying to make a buck. It was hard to get a sense of the battle itself.