Gettysburg Wants You

The thing about B&Bs is, you never know whom you’ll wind up eating breakfast with. Last November in Pennsylvania, I found myself handing over family-style plates of crisp bacon and blueberry pancakes to a couple of middle-aged geologists from Ohio: one was in a full-sized 19th-century–style corset, the other in a full officer’s uniform of Ohio’s 29th Infantry.

Ted and Kathy come as Civil War re-enactors to Gettysburg every year. Their conversation, I’d soon glean, rarely leaves the 19th century. In one lapse to the present, Ted said, seriously, “It’s a joke how many re-enactors have big gray beards and beer bellies. We need younger people.”

Then he gave me an offer I couldn’t refuse.

“We have an extra uniform. Do you want to parade with us?”
A 90-minute drive from D.C., this south-central Pennsylvania town of 7600 is a pretty quiet place except for July and November, when waves of wool-wearing re-enactors and plain-clothes history buffs march in. The Civil War’s biggest battle played out here July 1 to 3, 1863, and Lincoln gave his 272-word Gettysburg Address on November 19. Commemorations are huge affairs, particularly this year, when both turn 150.

I’ve been to both events — once to ask battle re-enactors how they decide who dies first — and had some memorable moments: seeing a dad holding his young son’s hand atop Devil’s Den at dusk, Boy Scouts leaking a “so cool!” at first glimpse of the 19th-century “cyclorama” painting in the museum. The real star is the battlefield itself, a national park site spread along a driving loop that follows the landscape of low-lying green hills, forests and wide-open fields that surround the town. Even most skeptics are affected.

Two hours after breakfast I changed into my Union-blue private’s get-up in my car, and hit the streets. Re-enactors were everywhere: popping into souvenir stores, huddling curbside, jay-walking. I peeked into a McDonald’s and saw people with fake rifles ordering Big Macs. When I made it to the high school parking lot, my rendezvous for the parade, a half-mile of troops in blue and gray were already lining up.

Shocked that I had found the tiny 29th group, Ted pointed my place in line, next to a 40-something who resembled Jeff Daniels (star of the film “Gettysburg”). He told me he’s a doctor in “real life” and has to double during re-enactments as a lieutenant and “medical relief”: “These guys think if they have a canteen they don’t need to worry about exposure.” Behind me, and quite immersed in the moment, a barefaced “corporal” in his late 60s broke character to share his dreams of living in Gettysburg some day: “Not going to happen though. Houses are 40 percent more expensive than in Ohio.”

After half an hour we began our march along central Baltimore Street, lined with century-old buildings and perhaps as many onlookers as paraders. I had no gun. My job was simply to keep in step and stare straight ahead,but I couldn’t help turning to look when we passed a “Robert E. Lee” in the crowd.

The march wound past McDonald’s and ended on the battlefield, where we lined up at the Angle, a low-lying stone barrier where, in recent years, a handful of Union and Confederate re-enactors have met to shake hands, a gesture that began with real veterans in the 1930s. I stood to the side and watched two dozen 21st-century bearded men shake hands and murmur pleasantries for a couple of minutes.

I’m drawn to Alamo stories of underdogs who lose. Now that my parade duties were fulfilled, I drifted from the pack to survey the main reason I had come: the wide field looming below. The spot where I stood, had been the goal of Confederate soldiers on the wild Pickett’s Charge. The damning defeat would push the South into a retreat that essentially lasted 21 months, untilLee’s surrender at Appomattox.

I wanted to walk Pickett’s Charge.

I changed back into my tourist/civilian outfit at my car, drove over to the “rebel side” and parked by the Virginia Monument depicting Lee on his horse. Only two other people were there, a 50-something woman talking with her male companion and pointing out significant spots: “Pickett was there. See? By the red barn?”

No one stood in that mile between, out there where — as Morgan Freeman says in the film at the visitor center — “the future of freedom hinged.” The field was filled with clumps of bush and soggy grass that rose gently. At first glance, it seemed far less imposing than I had gathered from reading “Killer Angels,” Michael Shaara’s fictionalized account of the battle. I started retracing rebel steps, bracing for a powerful feeling to come over me. I tried imagining bullets or cannonballs whizzing by, or just the itch of wool jackets on a hot July day. But, to be honest, reverence came on recollection. At the time, I was more concerned that the mud slopping over my shoes would soak into my socks.

After reaching the “Yankee side,” I encountered some laughing re-enactors in blue coats, half expecting credit for making the walk unharmed. They were swapping tales about their experiences as extras for “Gettysburg,” filmed nearby in 1993. One mocked the “high ground speech,” another actor Tom Berenger’s painfully fake beard. I asked how they had gotten into the film.

“Oh, they needed anyone and everyone,” one readily answered.

“Yeah, I was a college student here at the time.”

“I was an extra for both sides actually.”

“Me too.”

Did they get paid?

“Oh, no,” the beard critic said, as if it never really had crossed his mind before. “Guess they had to save the money for the crab cakes everyone was eating. It’s no wonder movies cost so much.”

I’d have volunteered for crab cakes. Anyone making a movie for Antietam?

My Gettysburg re-enacting “career” began at the breakfast table of Martin House B&B in nearby Fairfield. Park rangers give very highly regarded tours of the battlefield. There are many guidebooks and audio CDs for visiting the site. I enjoyed “The Battle of Gettysburg: A Guided Tour” by Edward Jackpole and Wilber Nye.

Gettysburg’s American Civil War Wax Museum Is For Sale

A favorite destination in America’s most famous Civil War battlefield faces an uncertain future as its owners are retiring and putting the building up for sale.

The American Civil War Wax Museum at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, was opened in 1962 and is selling for $1.7 million, the Evening Sun reports. Being a popular tourist attraction, the current owners say they are confident someone will buy it and keep it open.

The museum features more than 300 life-sized wax figures like these of Confederate Generals Joseph Johnston and Robert E. Lee shown here courtesy Flickr user cliff1066. Many of the figures are arranged into scenes of important moments in the Civil War.

In addition to the museum and a large gift shop, visitors can see reenactors demonstrating Civil War-era weapons and equipment most weekends from April through October.

Remarkably, the museum was founded by a Polish immigrant named C.M. Uberman, who moved to the United States shortly after World War II. This demonstrates the fascination this era of American history has for people all around the world. Here in Spain, history buffs ask me about the Civil War more than all other periods of American history combined. Hopefully if they make it to Gettysburg they’ll find the American Civil War Wax Museum alive and well.

Proposed casino near Gettysburg National Park denied license

The National Parks Conservation Association is applauding the decision of the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board to deny a license to a proposed casino near Gettysburg National Park. The Board felt that the gambling establishment, which would have opened less than a half-mile from the park, would be at odds with the solemn historical legacy and family friendly environment at Gettysburg.

The proposed casino sparked a great deal of debate in the communities surrounding the park. It was believed that it would bring a much needed boost to the local economy and provide new jobs, but opponents called the plan an insult to soldiers that fought and died there. The Mason Dixon Resort & Casino was to include 600 slot machines and 50 table games in its bid to lure visitors through its doors.

The decision comes as the park kicks off a series of events to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War. The Battle of Gettysburg is seen as the definitive turning point in that war, when Union forces turned back an invasion of Confederate troops, led by Robert E. Lee. It is believed that both sides combined for more than 51,000 casualties over the three day battle, which ultimately led to the North claiming victory over the South. President Lincoln traveled to the site some months later to dedicate a national cemetery there. His Gettysburg Address would become one of the most famous speeches in history.

So what do you think? Would a casino so close to Gettysburg diminish the historical events that happened there? Would it be an insult to those soldiers or is the need for economic development more important than that legacy? Personally, I’m glad that the casino was voted down. In my opinion, there are plenty of places to build a casino further away from a place that should be seen as hallowed ground.

[Photo credit: National Park Service]

Civil War 150th anniversary: Is Gettysburg America’s most tragic little town?

For this 150th anniversary of the Civil War, which begins in April, Gettysburg is offering visitors a far better time than the Blue and Gray soldiers had in this Pennsylvania town. The Battle of Gettysburg (1863) was the bloodiest battle ever fought on American soil, a turning point that transformed General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate forces from the chasers to the chased. But today, as the sesquicentennial approaches, the only chaser I find in Gettysburg is the water alongside my scotch at the Dobbin House Tavern.

The old Dobbin House offers lodgings as well as dining, so between this place, the 19th-century Gaslight Inn (fab breakfasts, Yorkie bellman), the Gettysburg Hotel (a member of Historic Hotels of America), and more, this walkable town is a swell place for a romantic weekend. Or for family visits, what with the Land of Little Horses Farm Park, anniversary events that include re-enactments, American Civil War Museum (good wax figure tableaus, bad hairpieces), and General Pickett’s All-You-Can-Eat Buffet (“KIDS PRICES TOO!”). Or for offbeat sightseeing, thanks to various ghost tour operators, segway tours, the Victorian Photography Studio (you’ll look swell in a bustle), and shops like The Horse Soldier, where I’m tempted by a flintlock pistol that costs $41,250. Mind you, it’s a beautiful pistol.The What-if Questions
But amid this mix of antiques and kitsch, let us not, as Abraham Lincoln put it in his Gettysburg Address, forget what they did here: In July 1863, an accidental encounter escalated into a bloodbath with 165,000+ troops. After three days of thunderous fire and hand-to-hand combat, 23,000 Union soldiers were dead, wounded and maimed, or unaccounted for. Lee’s formerly victorious Confederate Army of North Virginia lost at least 28,000 troops — one third of its manpower – and, in effect, the war.

So despite its pleasures, Gettysburg strikes me as a somber place, one where a modern traveler whose idea of discomfort is a flight delay can contemplate the real suffering and courage of the men who fought here. Gettysburg inspires what-if questions, too; e.g., if the battle had gone the other way (and it almost did), when/how might slavery have ended?

The town is almost surrounded by Gettysburg National Military Park (pop. 8,100), with its split-rail fences and gently rolling farmland. How to imagine this peaceful expanse covered with noise and corpses? Start at the park Museum and Visitor Center, where a Gettysburg How-To film offers a solid orientation to the town and battlefield. The Visitor Center will also arrange tours of the battlefield as well as visits to the nearby Eisenhower National Historic Site.

Shackles and Knapsacks
But first spend a few hours at the Visitor Center museum. Paul Philippoteaux’s cyclorama of Pickett’s Charge (1884), a 377-foot(!) painting in the round, is famous for both its size and its excruciatingly detailed portrayal of the climax of the battle. The best part of the museum, though, is its 12 galleries, which employ weapons, posters, photographs, uniforms, voiceovers, computers, and maps to tell the story of this battle and the entire war. You lift a set of shackles, and later, a soldier’s knapsack. Heavy, everything was heavy.

Much of the gear was rudimentary, too; not for nothing were the hastily made uniforms called sack coats. A soldier’s tent reveals what a poor shelter it was. And the rifles: It took nine steps to reload some of them, so once a soldier had shot one bullet, his rifle was, in effect, a club or a bayonet holder. Desperate troops shot, stabbed, and clubbed other Americans here. I read a sentence from an 1863 newspaper: “Every name [of a fallen soldier] is a lightning stroke to some heart, and breaks like thunder over some home and falls a long black shadow upon some hearthstone.”

After visiting the museum, you might pick up a (free) map for a self-guided auto tour of the battlefield, but do that after you’ve gone around with a licensed guide. The two-hour $55 private tour with a guide is the best deal in Gettysburg. You get your own historian, someone whose knowledge and anecdotes will not just make sense of this chaotic battle, but leave you wanting more.

The Accidental Battle of Gettysburg
It was west of the town, near the Lutheran Theological Seminary, that Rebel brigades stumbled upon Union troops on July 1, 1863. Hard to believe that there was fierce fighting around this quiet, brick seminary, but it was fierce indeed. Suddenly suffering heavy casualties, both sides used the building as a hospital that day. General Lee was no fan of Union General Sherman’s scorched earth tactics, which is why Gettysburg’s buildings were not destroyed when the Confederates chased the Federals through the streets. Eventually, the Blue line retreated to Cemetery hill, southeast of town.

Reinforcements arrived for both sides, so heading south through the battlefield on Steinwehr Avenue aka Emmitsburg Road, you see cannon — and plenty of them – that the Rebels had in place by July 2nd. Look to the northeast, and there’s Cemetery Hill; pan to the southeast, and you’re following Cemetery Ridge to a hill called Little Round Top. This was the Union line.

When you drive to Little Round Top, stand on its boulders, and peer down at the fields, you understand that General Meade’s Federal troops, forced to retreat, had lucked into a more defensible position. Even so, on July 2nd, Union defenders lost thousands of men in the wheat field and peach orchard below Little Round Top. Standing watch at Little Round Top is a bronze statue of General Gouverneur K. Warren, who saved the day for the Union by moving reinforcements from behind the line to shore up the exhausted troops. That night, both armies were kept awake by the moaning and crying of wounded men in the fields that separated them, just yards away.

Pickett’s Charge: a Rebel’s Gamble
Midway along the Union line looms the largest of the 1,400 monuments in the park, a dome-topped temple erected by Pennsylvania. But a smaller monument honoring one Philadelphia regiment is more dramatic: A bronze soldier, protecting a comrade, holds his rifle like a Louisville Slugger and swings for the fences.

Pickett’s Charge is often viewed as a high-risk dash across open ground by southern troops who, by July 3rd, felt frustrated by their failure to have dislodged Federal troops from the high ground. Standing north of the Pennsylvania monument and looking west across the fields, you’re reminded that this is actually undulating land, so the Rebels had some protection. Besides, Pickett’s 12,000 troops were attacking the weak belly of the Union line, just 7,000 northerners near a copse on the ridge. Even so, Pickett was gambling, and the Federals shot thousands of Confederates in these green fields before the inevitable hand-to-hand combat. In two hours Pickett lost half his men, the farmland was covered with the dead and dying, and the Confederates had to retreat.

Further north lies the Soldiers’ National Cemetery, where 6,000 graves are arranged in sweeping arcs. Some of the dead are forever nameless, but I notice the marker of an Ohioan named George Nixon, father of nine children. I wonder what became of that orphaned family. Guide Wayne Motts tells me that one descendant was Richard M. Nixon.

The Gettysburg Address — But Where?
An obelisk indicates where Lincoln stood when he dedicated the cemetery on Nov. 19, 1863, but historians believe it is misplaced. You see, his Gettysburg Address was so short (ten sentences) that the photographers never got a chance to document exactly where he stood.

The president’s beloved son Tad was dying of yellow fever, and Lincoln, who had a fever, may have been fighting the disease. His wife had begged him not to travel. Yet he went, because he needed to urge a war-weary nation to stay the course, so “these dead shall not have died in vain – that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom.” That it did, but not before this young country had lost 602,000 soldiers. (In World War II, the U.S. lost 417,000.)

And so we go to Gettysburg, not only for its gracious inns, shops, and such, but to remember the brave men who struggled here, without whom this nation, and probably this planet, would have been a very different place.

Opposition growing to Gettysburg casino

The fight for the future of Gettysburg National Military Park is heating up once again. Four years ago, the local community and thousands of history buffs stopped plans to construct a casino on the outskirts of town, and now a new attempt to build a casino is starting the battle once again.

David LeVan, who is behind the casino project, says it will bring much-needed jobs to the area, which despite getting more than a million visitors a year has a spiraling unemployment rate. Opponents say it’s disrespectful to the sanctity of the historic site and that casinos are “predatory” businesses that rarely deliver the economic boom they promise. The anti-casino group has set up a website and an online petition.

The Evening Sun, a regional paper, conducted a poll and found the majority of residents approve of the casino, but the poll was widely criticized by casino opponents as biased, prompting an angry editorial defending the poll.

It’s difficult to see who will win, but in the meantime you might want to check out some of these lesser known battlefields, none of which have casinos. Yet.%Gallery-73514%