Take a history major, his teenage brother and his little sister. Mix with a congenial daddy driver and a minivan. Then add a Traveling Mom with a map and 24 hours free. That’s the recipe for our most recent family road trip, to Gettysburg PA.
For the history major, the trip was a no-brainer. After all, the small town and surrounding battlefields of Gettysburg are practically haunted with history. These are hallowed grounds, the bloodiest battle of the Civil War being fought here almost 151 years ago, one of the most visited military parks in the country.
The other kids may have needed a bit more convincing. The teenager was “cool” with hanging out with his big brother (who, with college graduation looming, has become a bit busy to join in on many family trips). But my daughter wasn’t too keen on empty battlegrounds and nineteenth century artifacts. But Gettysburg did hold out one appealing aspect – it was part of the National Park Service, which meant it participated in the Junior Ranger Program.
“Hey, you can earn a badge that Shea and Chase don’t have,” we told her, referring to her cousins in Florida, who have a collection of the program’s patches and badges. We knew right where to get her – by appealing to her competitive nature. She was in.
First Stop in Gettysburg: Information Central
Our first stop was the Museum and Visitors Center at Gettysburg National Military Park, which is located right on the battlefield grounds. The kids spotted a few barricades and several cannons even before we left the car. We checked in at the front desk, the “information central” for all we needed to enjoy our morning in Gettysburg. We picked up our timed entry tickets for the film, cyclorama presentation and museum (which were comped for us, but usually run $12.50 for a combo ticket covering all three). Then we headed to the back of the Center to get our daughter’s Junior Ranger activity guide (which was free).
The film, A New Birth of a Nation, set the tone for the visited. Narrated by Morgan Freeman (could it be anyone else?), the film took us on a journey back in time, explaining the events that took place in Gettysburg and their impact on the rest of the Civil War. The 22 minute film filled those of us who didn’t major in history in on what actually happened during the bloody three-day battle between the North and the South. It was like a “Cliff Notes” version of those of us who are years away from our old US History classes, and it helped us understand the scenes and artifacts we’d see later in the museum.
And it helped that, by editing a report in the Activity Guide, my daughter could earn one of the necessary eight points needed to earn the “Horse Soldier” designation, the top being offered at Gettysburg.
After the film, we were led into the room which housed the Cyclorama painting. We found a space on the platform and I immediately starting studying the Cyclorama, a 360 degree panoramic view of the grounds during the three day battle. The Cyclorama is officially
called The Battle of Gettysburg, and it depicts the Confederate attack on the Union army known as Pickett’s Charge.
From my place on the platform, I felt totally immersed in the sights, sounds, and even emotions of that pivotal battle. The presentation makes the battle come alive, as various places on the circular picture are spotlighted and gunfire and cannons exploded before my eyes. The entire Gettysburg experience became clearer as I stood within the line-up of the armies, with grey to one side and blue to the other, and heard the battle cry.
Certainly a must-do for anyone visiting Gettysburg, the Cyclorama allowed me to step back in time. I left with a greater understanding of why these grounds are so important, and how the sacrifices made back then still have impact on my life today.
Pieces of the Past
After spending as much time as we chose examining the Cyclorama, we followed the path to the Gettysburg Museum of the American Civil War, which is housed in the same building. The museum, which is immense in size and scope, led us through a dozen different galleries. Each gallery included artifacts, films and interactive displays that depicted the Civil War. For example, Room One was dedicated to the Impact of the War on a large scale, not merely what happened in Gettysburg. Room Seven offered insights into the Aftermath of the Battle, and included the Voices of the Aftermath Theater, where I listened to the story of the Gettysburg battle as told in the voices of the commanders, foot soldiers, and local citizens who witnessed it.
Of course, many of my daughter’s Junior Ranger Activities were completed as we viewed the Cyclorama and toured the museum. As my sons headed to the gift shop, we retreated to the on-site cafeteria to finish up her guide book and grab a bite. (Frugal mom alert – lunch was pretty ordinary, just burgers and fries, but rather pricey. Maybe a picnic lunch would have been a better choice.)
After our meal, we headed back to the Junior Ranger station so Libby could collect her patch and be sworn in as a junior ranger. We spent approximately three hours at the museum, and had learned a lot about the sacrifices made for our nation at Gettysburg.
That concluded the indoor portion of our journey. After the swear-in ceremony, we headed out into the rain to catch the bus for the outdoor portion, which I discuss in part two of this trip report.