The Battle of Gettysburg in 1863 was three days of brutal fighting, which ended with more than 50,000 casualties. The battle is the bloodiest in US history. Composite by Coffee or Die Magazine.
Since the late 1800s, historians have flocked to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, to collect artifacts from the American Civil War’s bloodiest battlefield. Those archaeological endeavors have sprouted numerous exhibits in or around Gettysburg, where the public can view various war memorabilia.
But no individual collector or museum possessed an archive comprehensive enough to capture the sheer magnitude of the battle that saw more than 50,000 Union and Confederate troops perish in just three days of fighting. That is, not until 2008, when the Gettysburg Foundation opened the Gettysburg National Military Park Museum and Visitor Center.
The 139,000-square-foot Gettysburg National Military Park Museum and Visitor Center includes a gallery space, two movie theaters, and a restaurant or “refreshment saloon,” among other amenities. More important, it houses one of the nation’s largest collections of Civil War memorabilia and the iconic Gettysburg Cyclorama (which the museum claims is the largest painting in America). Guests can also tour the 6,000-acre battlefield located within the park and view 1,300 monuments, historic markers, and memorials.
Considering a trip to the Gettysburg National Military Park Museum and Visitor Center? Here are some more reasons why every Civil War history buff should make the pilgrimage.
Why Was the Battle of Gettysburg Important?
The Battle of Gettysburg in 1863 marked a major turning point in the American Civil War. Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, right, failed his invasion of the North in an attempt to strike a crippling blow against the Union Army. Composite by Coffee or Die Magazine.
On May 6, 1863, Confederate Army Gen. Robert E. Lee defeated the Union Army of the Potomac in Chancellorsville, Virginia. The unexpected victory left Lee believing his army was “invincible” and that he could beat the Union Army on its own turf — i.e., on Northern soil. Lee convinced Confederate commanders to approve his strategy. In June, he and his 75,000-strong army marched across the Potomac River into Maryland toward southern Pennsylvania.
After the loss in Virginia, President Abraham Lincoln fired Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker as commander of the Army of the Potomac. Lincoln did so because of Hooker’s unwillingness to confront Lee’s army. Replacing him was Maj. Gen. George Gordon Meade, a veteran of two wars and several prior Civil War battles.
Meade’s first order authorized his army to pursue Lee through Pennsylvania. Lee had already managed to advance past the border town of Gettysburg. Learning that Meade could threaten the rebels’ supply lines to the south, however, Lee turned his army around and prepared his forces for battle.
On July 1, 1863, a Confederate division dispatched a scouting party to Gettysburg to search for supplies. To their great surprise, the rebels discovered two Union cavalry brigades encamped in the town. Outnumbered and outgunned, the Union forces retreated under fire to Cemetery Hill, the northernmost sector of their defensive perimeter.
An illustration depicting the famous assault, now known as Pickett’s Charge, which saw nine brigades of Confederate rebels cross nearly a mile of open ground to penetrate Union lines on the third and final day of battle. Wikimedia Commons photo.
The Battle of Gettysburg had begun. The Confederates and Union soldiers fought for three consecutive days. On the third day, Lee ordered nearly 15,000 infantry troops to assault the center point of Cemetery Ridge, the Union’s primary defensive position.
The famous assault, now known as Pickett’s Charge, saw nine brigades of Confederate rebels cross nearly a mile of open ground to penetrate Union lines. They initially succeeded in breaching the perimeter. However, Meade’s 6,500 soldiers ultimately managed to repel the attack with cannon and rifle fire. As the Confederate casualties mounted, Lee decided to abandon the effort and retreated back to Virginia.
Lee’s aborted invasion of the North marked a significant turning point in the Civil War. His army was never able to recover its military might. Meanwhile, the Union victory increased morale in the North and sent a clear message that the Confederacy’s goal of becoming an independent nation was hopeless.
President Abraham Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg Address speech framed on display at the Gettysburg National Military Park and Museum. Wikimedia Commons photo. Composite by Coffee or Die Magazine.
On Nov. 19, 1863, four months after Meade defeated Lee, Lincoln stood on the battlefield and delivered a 272-word speech that would become known as the “Gettysburg Address.” Appearing before a crowd of about 15,000 at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery (now called Gettysburg National Cemetery), Lincoln began by evoking the signing of the Declaration of Independence 87 years earlier.
“Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” Lincoln said. “Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure.”
Lincoln’s wartime elegy received a mixed response at the time. Newspapers toeing a political party line either bashed his speech or praised it. Ultimately, the speech succeeded in strengthening the connection between civilians impacted by the war and the soldiers on the front lines. It would be remembered as one of the most famous presidential addresses in American history.
The Gettysburg National Military Park Museum & Visitor Center houses an impressive American Civil War collection of approximately 1.2 million artifacts, manuscripts, and artwork. Wikimedia Commons photo.
The National Military Park Museum and Visitor Center encourages visitors to begin their Gettysburg tour with the Film, Cyclorama & Museum Experience. Adult tickets are $18.75; service members on active duty get in for free. According to the museum, it takes an estimated minimum of two hours to explore the entire exhibit.
The film component of the exhibit is a screening of A New Birth to Freedom. The 22-minute movie, narrated by Morgan Freeman, features Lincoln’s immortal address for visitors to hear before they head to the Gettysburg Cyclorama. The cyclorama is a massive, 360-degree painting of Pickett’s Charge.
Beyond the movie and interactive exhibits are displays featuring a vast collection of Civil War artifacts, such as bullet-pierced furniture, artillery pieces, and ammunition. The museum houses 1.2 million artifacts, manuscripts, and artwork, which will undoubtedly intrigue everyone from children to hardcore history geeks.
After the museum experience, licensed battlefield guides await nearby to lead scheduled tours around the 6,000-acre battlefield. The tours typically last around two hours and can be done by car, bicycle, or bus. The guides are Civil War historians, there to provide perspectives about the battle, the larger context around it, and the strategies employed by both sides during the skirmishes.
In addition to American Civil War history, tourists can visit the farm of former World War II general and 34th president of the United States, Dwight. D. Eisenhower. Wikimedia Commons photo. Composite by Coffee or Die Magazine.
Apart from its Civil War history, the town of Gettysburg is also famous for having been a second home for President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Eisenhower’s affinity for the historic landmark began in 1915 while he was a cadet at the US Military Academy at West Point. His class visited the town that spring to study the famous battle.
Three years later, Eisenhower returned to Gettysburg with his wife, Mamie, and their son, Doud. He was appointed commander of Camp Colt, which belonged to the Army Tank Corps Training Center and was located on the sacred grounds of Pickett’s Charge. From there, Eisenhower went on to have a storied 31-year career, rising to the rank of five-star general and serving as the supreme allied commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force during World War II.
Dwight D. Eisenhower enjoyed playing golf so much he even had the Professional Golfers' Association of America install a putting green in front of his home in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service.
After the war, Eisenhower bought a 189-acre farm near the Gettysburg battlefield. In the 1950s, while serving as the 34th president of the United States, he would usually spend weekends and holidays at the farm. Some of his favorite activities included playing golf at the Gettysburg Country Club and shooting skeet at his personal range. When Eisenhower suffered a stroke in 1955, he used his Gettysburg farm as a “Temporary White House.”
Today, the Eisenhower National Historic Site is preserved by the National Park Service. Among the many interesting features of Eisenhower’s property is his famous putting green, which was installed by the Professional Golfers’ Association of America in 1955.
Visitors can reach the Eisenhower house by shuttle from the Gettysburg National Military Park Museum and Visitor Center. This year, holiday tours will run throughout December on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. Additional tours are scheduled for spring 2023.
Matt Fratus is a history staff writer for Coffee or Die. He prides himself on uncovering the most fascinating tales of history by sharing them through any means of engaging storytelling. He writes for his micro-blog @LateNightHistory on Instagram, where he shares the story behind the image. He is also the host of the Late Night History podcast. When not writing about history, Matt enjoys volunteering for One More Wave and rooting for Boston sports teams.