The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.
– Abraham Lincoln, 16th President, from The Gettysburg Address
In early August, our family went to Philadelphia for our summer vacation. Back in February when we discussed destinations, my son, Jacob, had returned from his eighth grade 76’er trip to Washington, D.C. As predicted, he had a wonderful time, enjoying the traveling with friends and the freedom that goes with it, and learning and appreciating U.S. history. I presented two choices. The first choice was Moab, Utah, and the state and national parks in the region (Arches, Canyonlands, and Bryce National Parks and Dead Horse Point State Park) – gorgeous places I visited briefly when returning to California after getting my MA from Syracuse University way back when. The other choice I offered to Jacob and Isabella was Philadelphia for a further deep dive into U.S. history. (My goal is to give them a taste of major cities and national parks in the U.S. before they leave the nest.)
My first trip to Philadelphia was in June 2011 when women’s clothing retailer Anthropologie sent me and other members of a year-long consumer focus group to its headquarters. I spent three fun days with wonderful like-minded women and great hosts, but while a smaller group of us had a whole day to tool around Old City, I didn’t get to any museums or historical sites. I had an incentive to return. While there in 2011, we were referred to a great area of Old City with fabulous vintage and unique shops, so count that as the second incentive. Lucky for me, both kids voted for Philly. Our itinerary comprised a visit to Gettysburg and Amish Country (Lancaster, Bird-in-Hand, and Intercourse), Baltimore’s Inner Harbor and a game at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, and then on to Philadelphia and its historical sites and a Phillies game at Citizens Bank Park. Characteristic of our family vacations, we packed in a lot in nine days.
‘Three days in July’
David went to Gettysburg in 1989 while on a 2-month work project outside of Philadelphia. Upon his return this summer, he noted that the national military park was nothing like it is today. For starters, the Gettysburg Museum and Visitor Center (1195 Baltimore Pike, Route 97, Baltimore, MD 17325, 717.338.1243) was erected just seven years ago. It’s a beautiful 22,000-square-foot building that houses the museum, two theaters, a resource and education center, bookstore and refreshment saloon.
The 12-gallery museum houses numerous Civil War artifacts, interactive displays, and films that provide an enlightening glimpse into the three-day battle. We viewed the Cyclorama, a massive 377-foot-wide-by-42-foot-high oil painting by French artist Paul Philippoteaux, who spent months researching the battle to depict Pickett’s Charge, the Confederacy’s infantry assault against Major General George G. Meade’s Union positions on Cemetery Ridge on July 3, 1863, the third and final day of the battle. Philippoteaux and his team of assistants took a year to complete the painting in the late 1880s. Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s attack failed and it cost him more than 5,000 soldiers in one hour. Our guide pointed out that Philippoteaux had included Lincoln’s body being carried by two men – mirroring the president being removed from Ford’s Theater after his assassination.
We missed out on the battlefield tour with a licensed guide, instead opting for a two-hour bus tour. We made a handful of stops along the expansive battlefield, including the Eternal Light Peace Memorial, the North Carolina Memorial (states who sent their men to battle erected memorials where the men were stationed), and Little Round Top. States tried to outdo one another in the size of their memorials. Tennessee erected the last monument in 1982. The monument at the Eternal Light Peace Memorial features stone in the upper portion hailing from Maine and stone at the foundation from Alabama, symbolizing the reunification of the country. The dedication ceremony in 1937 was attended by Civil War vets who were in their 90s and 100s.
We had an excellent bus guide who provided us with more information than we could absorb. Here are some things I remembered. Despite the 51,000 casualties piled up on both sides, Gettysburg lost only one civilian to the battle: a young woman who was struck by a stray bullet while making bread in her kitchen. Our guide told us that parents of a 13-year-old boy who was watching the battle from his upstairs bedroom window yelled at him to get away. As he was heading downstairs, a bullet shot through the window he had just left. An effective cautionary tale for parents to share with their kids at opportune moments! Lee’s retreat was 17 miles long, mostly comprising his wounded soldiers. We didn’t take the Eisenhower home tour, which was nearby. Eisenhower retired to a farm and later died there.
By unfortunate chance, Gettysburg was the meeting point between Lee, who was marching his Army of Northern Virginia westward from Fredericksburg, VA, and the Union Army of the Potomac under Major General Joseph Hooker, who was following Lee. Because Lee’s cavalry, under Major General J.E.B. Stuart, was detained with a raid around the Federal Forces, Lee did not know Hooker’s whereabouts. The main battle began on July 1st. Although outnumbered, the Federal forces held their position until they were driven back south of Gettysburg. Overnight, the main body of the Union army, commanded by Major General George G. Meade, arrived to bolster their comrades.
On July 3rd, Lee’s artillery opened a two-hour “thundering” bombardment of the Union army on Cemetery Ridge on Cemetery Hill. The Union army held their ground. Lee ordered some 12,000 Confederate soldiers to advance across the open fields in the ill-fated Picket’s Charge. The battle was over, with, as I mentioned before, Lee losing more than 5,000 of his men within an hour. Our guide painted a gruesome picture of having to dispose of the bodies, many of whom could not be identified (they didn’t have dog tags back in the day), in mass graves and unmarked graves. Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtin got land commissioned for a proper burial ground for the reinterred Union dead. Within four months of the battle, 17 acres became the Gettysburg National Cemetery.
Lincoln gave his famous speech when the cemetery was dedicated on November 19th, 1863. Edward Everett, the principal speaker, droned on for more than two hours. Lincoln’s 272-word speech took two minutes to deliver. Everett later told Lincoln: “I should be glad if I … came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.” Eventually 3,500 Union soldiers came to rest in the cemetery.
I must admit that I looked upon this part of our trip as a parental obligation to contribute to our kids’ history lesson. I figured that we would stay a couple of hours and hastily tour the museum and battlefield. We were there for nearly seven hours and we could have stayed longer. I was impressed by the museum and the presentation of information. The monuments were as sobering as they were majestic. The stories were vivid and stirring, allowing us to transport ourselves to the past, as we stared across the vast expanse of land. It was one of the highlights of our family vacation for Jacob, and I admit it was for me, too.