Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Gettysburg National Military Park, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania PART I

We were in Lancaster, PA on another of those days that seemed to be all too frequent during our travels this summer that was predicted to rain. We decided that this would be a good day to do something that we have never done with the Roadtrek but had done many times before we started traveling in the Roadtrek and that was to go to Gettysburg. This was a day trip. A day is really not enough to go to Gettysburg if you have never been there before. A visit can easily take two days - perhaps three. Our intention on this possibly rainy day was go to the NPS Visitors Center with its film, Cyclorama, and museum.We have been through the battlefield many times and knew that there would not be enough time to do that again on this trip and that was OK.

Gettysburg is about 75 miles from Lancaster to the west. There is a very direct route from Lancaster to Gettysburg going west on Route 30 and remaining on that same route right into the town of Gettysburg. I have always hated that route when we drove by car and I knew that it would be even worse in a larger vehicle like a Roadtrek - or any RV or Travel Trailer for that matter. Route 30 is fine until you get not too far from Gettysburg when it becomes a one lane each way road through small towns with slow speed limits and traffic circles. I will never forget the night years ago when we drove this back to Lancaster from Gettysburg in a severe storm with trees falling around us and barely able to see what was ahead. In good weather it is not much better. There is another route to Gettysburg that is far from direct but only adds five minutes to the trip and is completely on multi-lane highways that is just five miles longer but so much more comfortable to drive. This route takes you off Route 30 West right at Lancaster onto Route 283 up and across and around to Route 15 South and down right into the town of Gettysburg at Route 30. This is the preferred way to go and the drive from Lancaster is one hour and twenty minutes as opposed to one hour and fifteen minutes on the so called direct route. (I discussed this on an RV forum and had a number of locals and others who have driven both routes agree.)  We set out from Lancaster, stopped for lunch at a Wendy's as soon as we got off Route 15 in Gettysburg, and after a fast lunch we headed for the National Park Visitors Center.

There is a relatively "new" NPS Visitors Center in Gettysburg. We were there several years back when it first opened. The old Visitors Center's building is still in the center of town and was actually much better located in relation to the battlefield and the town itself - which is also a place to tour as much of it is as it was during the battle. The "new" Visitors Center is off on a much bigger plot of land. Building this meant moving the small museum that they once had and expanding with many more artifacts into a large facility, moving the Cyclorama - which I will explain as we go along, and creating a theater in which to show a film made for the site that briefly explains the battle of Gettysburg. Before we left we learned from their website that due to construction one of the parking lots for the Visitors Center was closed. We had some concern that this might be a problem but we ventured out to see what we would find.

There is an RV parking lot at the Visitors Center. This is a good thing, particularly while one of the parking lots is closed, as the parking lot for cars was a problem for the Roadtrek. Lanes were narrow and spaces were tight. We drove through this parking lot and could not have fit into any of the few spaces that were open. Even had it been less crowded the Roadtrek would really not have fit. We drove back out and back down to the RV and Bus parking lot which was a distance away from the Visitors Center building. One can walk or wait for a not frequent shuttle bus. We walked.

As you can see from the photo above the RV spaces are large. The spaces behind where we parked had a number of large RVs in them, what looked like another Class B, and buses. From this parking lot you can arrange a tour of the battlefield with a guide, by bus, or go on bicycles. There are all types of tours one can take of the Gettysburg Battlefield including one on horseback.

A paved cement path that was for the most part uphill went from this parking lot to the Visitors Center building - and the car parking lot. As I said there was a sign for a shuttle bus, but no sign of any shuttle, and we would have walked even if it was sitting there waiting. (And I made this walk twice, as once at the Visitors Center building, I realized that I left something in the Roadtrek and went right back down the path to get it. Meryl stayed inside.)

You come up to see this building - the "new" Visitors Center.

There is a cafeteria in the building with very high prices. There is also a very nice and large gift shop including an excellent book selection of books on the Civil War and the Battle of Gettysburg. They also sell driving tour CDs in the gift shop to play while you take the tour of the battlefield which needs to be driven (with whatever form of transportation) and cannot be walked due to distance and safety. And as I said above in this building is the musuem, the film, and the Cyclorama.

Let me explain a little about how to understand the Battle of Gettysburg that is vital to know for anyone going to visit Gettysburg. This is a very difficult battle to follow. The battle took three days. Each day was very different from the day before and over each day and over the three days the battle took place in a variety of locations - some of what could be considered battles all on their own taking place at the same time as each other. I visited Gettysburg as a boy and as a young man and never really grasped what had gone on there other than it was another Civil War battlefield. Without this understanding all you are seeing are big fields, rocky hills, and you drive on a winding road throughout it all. When I was younger I never really liked visiting Gettysburg. It took until my interest in history grew - and then one big thing that helped me  - and others I have discussed this with - to immensely finally understand and appreciate the battle in its entirety.  That was seeing the major motion picture, Gettysburg, which stared Jeff Daniels and many others. Like the long battle this film portrays, it is a long movie. It was filmed in Gettysburg - some on location and some on nearby farms that were part of the battle. (National Park Service is very strict about reenactments in any of their parks including prohibiting the firing of any arms towards anyone - including reenactors firing blanks toward an opposing force of reenactors. When you attend a reenactment of the Battle of Gettysburg it is held at a farm just off the NPS park.) This movie shows each day of the battle and significant events that took place on each day of the battle. It does not include all parts of the battle but watching this movie before going to Gettysburg will bring these fields and rocky hills to life for you. You will stand in places you see in the film and know exactly what happened on that spot. You will know why those involved in the battle did what they did. You will appreciate your visit so much more if you and your family watch this movie before you go. And as it happens this movie is now available as a bargain DVD for $5 in many places that sell bargain DVDs. This is not a documentary film - it is a Hollywood movie made for entertainment that was made well. The film is taken from a book named. The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara. So, I get nothing from the producers of the movie for telling you any of this - it is just a very easy way to have this whole complicated battle make sense and you will appreciate your visit to what is known as hallowed ground so much more.

OK - so we get into the Visitors Center and go up to the ticket desk. I recently got a National Park Service Senior Pass that entitles those who have it to go into National Parks for free along with up to four guest - who also get in free. I was thrilled to finally be able to get this. I was all ready to use this to go to the three attractions in the Gettysburg Visitors Center building which, frankly, is not something I had paid to do in the past. Touring the actual battlefield is free to all. At the ticket desk there was a sign that said that no passes are accepted. Really!?! My first big chance to use my pass and it was not accepted. OK - we bought the tickets - and could not even buy them for the senior price as that was 65 and over! So we plunked down $12.50 each and got our tickets.

With your tickets you move on toward an outer gallery with exhibits behind glass along the walls - various weapons, uniforms, insignias, etc. The entrance to the film is there and this is the first part of your visit with tickets. The film is titled A New Birth of Freedom and is narrated by Martin Freeman with voices by many well known actors. You are presented a brief introduction to the start of the Civil War as it moves quickly on to the Battle of Gettysburg and its aftermath. This battle took its tolls not only on both armies but also heavily on the people of the town. This battle moved from the battlefield into the streets of the town and into people's homes. You get a brief understanding of what took place here - though far from what is done with the movie I have explained above. The film is presented in a comfortable auditorium designed for the showing of this film. When the film is over you are escorted from the theater and to the entrance way to the Cyclorama, which is the next thing your ticket entitles you to see.

As I am writing here, I am realizing that this article will be almost as long as the battle itself so I better split it at this point and leave you here with the end of Part I and start on a Part II in which you will hear about the Cyclorama, the museum, and a very abbreviated drive through the battlefield.


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