In the midst of the Civil War, Gettysburg turned into an unwilling central player in the conflict during the first three days of July 1863. Located 50 miles northwest of Baltimore, Gettysburg was -- and still remains -- a small town in Pennsylvania. Perilously close to the Maryland border, Gettysburg became the focal point for General Robert E. Lee's Northern Virginia Army.
In an attempt to move the fighting out of Virginia and into the north, Lee advanced toward Gettysburg. The battle began July 1, and reached a climatic and bloody end with Pickett's Charge. The Union's Army of the Potomac prevailed though, fending off a second invasion by Lee's army.
In November of the same year, President Abraham Lincoln honored the dead at the battlefield. In a dedication ceremony, Lincoln recited his most famous speech, The Gettysburg Address. It was his hope that the nation would honor the fallen and reignite the Union cause to heal a war-torn country.
A "Soldier's Cemetery" was established to bury fallen Union soldiers. The site was designated near the center of the Union line on the battleground. State funds were used to purchase the grounds and properly re-inter soldiers.
In 1895, legislation was passed, designating Gettysburg National Military Park as a memorial to the battle's soldiers. Today, there are more than 7,000 interred in the Soldiers' National Cemetery, with more than 3,500 from the Civil War alone. Though it is now closed to burials, the cemetery has veterans from every US war and conflict.
Landscaped by National Grange founder William Saunders, the cemetery was completed in 1872 and promptly relinquished to the government for caretaking. The War Department to the National Park Service assumed responsibility in 1933.
The 5,733-acre park boasts incredible vistas of rolling hills, woods and streams. Visitors should plan on an entire day at the battlegrounds, a minimum of four hours. Sturdy walking shoes and comfortable clothes are also recommended. Those who prefer not to hoof it can also tour the grounds by bike or car. There are 26 miles of park roads and the town offers numerous bike rental facilities.
The National Park Visitor Center offers more than 40,000 Civil War artifacts -- including weapons, uniforms, flags, photographs, maps, manuscripts, blueprints and items from the war's African-American troops. There is also a virtual camp life exhibit, illustrating the typical soldier' s day to day life using actual relics from the time. Summer guests can take advantage of free ranger-led programs and walks (there is a charge for this service the remainder of the year) and the more adventurous can venture out on their own self-guided tours.
Children's exhibits and ranger programs are also offered throughout the year, and includes the Junior Ranger Program for students. The Visitor Center offers pamphlets outlining the skills and requirements needed to acquire a Junior Ranger Certificate. Additionally, the park offers special programs for school groups as well.
Several spots that shouldn't be missed include Devil's Den, a spooky rock crevice where many soldiers attempted to hide from the enemy. It is said several of them actually got stuck in the tight spaces and died there. Much of the grounds is also considered haunted.
Dog lovers are sure to be touched by the beautiful bronze statue of the majestic Irish wolfhound. The prone wolfhound rests at the base of a Celtic cross between the Rose farm and Wheatfield. The work of WR O'Donovan, the wolfhound is a tribute to the fallen soldiers of New York's Irish Brigade. There are also several other stories of heroic Civil War canines at the park as well.
Hours: Gettysburg National Military Park is open year-round. There is no fee for entrance to the park, National Cemetery, or park buildings. Park grounds and roads are open daily. The Gettysburg National Cemetery is open at dawn and closes at sunset.
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