Three Days in July

Tuesday, May 08, 2012 Road Junkies 0 Comments

Hanover, PA to Hagerstown, MD 
Although this trip has been about seeing sites related to U.S. history in general, because of the area we've traveled, we have visited many locations related to the Civil War.  So it was fitting that we include Gettysburg, PA, on our agenda.

When we arrived at the visitor center at Gettysburg National Military Park, we found a ticket concession selling admission to a tour, museum, and/or cyclorama.  Hmmm.  We started at the gift shop to stamp our National Park "Passport," where we were amazed at the array of items for sale, including $4,000 replicas of Robert E. Lee's field desk, made with wood from "battlefield trees."  There were also hiking sticks made with wood from "battlefield trees," even specifying whether the wood came from a Confederate or a Union field position.  Wait.  This is a national park gift shop?

We were a bit confused.  So we headed to the desk with the INFORMATION sign.  There we met a friendly U.S. park ranger.  "What about our NPS pass?" we asked.  "Does it gain us admission to anything here?"
"The lobby," he replied.  Then he informed us that the NPS has partnered with a private vendor to operate the various activities at the site.  However, he did offer to usher us through a back door to the museum, and we happily accepted.
Two hours later, we left the excellent museum after seeing only a tiny portion of the park's more than one million artifacts from the Battle of Gettysburg.  The museum's interpretation of the battle provided an informative context of its importance within the war and in the broader picture of U.S. history, as well as detailing the events of the battle in archival documents, arms, and relics from the battlefield
In three days of fighting at Gettysburg, about 7,000 soldiers and 3,000 horses died on the battlefield—almost three times the population of the town.  More than 25 square miles of ground were littered with bodies.  No one present had ever seen death on such a scale. 
Gettysburg was the deadliest battle of the war.  "We could not open our windows for weeks because of the horrible stench," one Gettysburg resident was quoted as saying.  An exhibit at the museum puts faces to the names of some of the Americans who were killed in the battle.
Furnishings from Lee's HQ tent
The stove, cot, medical chest and field desk that traveled with General Robert E. Lee during the invasion of Pennsylvania are among the many artifacts on exhibit at the museum.  Lee's modest headquarters did not reflect his importance to the Southern cause.  In contrast, General Meade, the Union commander at Gettysburg, set up his HQ in a local farmhouse.
An entire room of the museum was devoted to Abraham Lincoln's acclaimed "Gettysburg Address."   While the speech through the lens of history is praised for its classical elegance and heartfelt emotion, it was roundly criticized for its brevity and "inappropriateness" by some newspaper accounts in the days after it was delivered.
Relics at The Horse Soldier
By the time we left the museum, rain was steadily falling.  After checking out and rejecting the visitor center restaurant, we went to the car and put together an automotive picnic of peanut butter sandwiches and a small bag of chips (something we rarely eat, purchased at the visitor center for $1.59).
Then we walked in the rain to the Soldier's National Cemetery where that 10-sentence, two-minute speech was delivered.  Although the visitor center was crammed with more than 500 tourists, only three other people were strolling in the foot-traffic only cemetery on this rainy day.
We continued our Gettysburg visit with part of the 24-mile driving tour, stopping at some of the critical locations and the sites of various state memorials before visiting The Horse Soldier, a local military memorabilia shop, to look for a letterbox. The business was started by a local couple in 1970 from relics their kids found on the family farm.  They set up a card table in their living room and sold artifacts from there before opening a shop.
Photos of soldiers who died in the Battle of Gettysburg
The collection of items in their inventory was remarkable, from the Civil War era and other periods.  We ended up getting a good look at much of the merchandise as we wandered around the two-room shop for half an hour searching for the letterbox.  After the first 15 minutes, we asked the shop owner a coded question which would tell us if she was aware of the letterbox.  She was but told us we had to locate it ourselves.  At that point, we felt we had to spend whatever time it took to find it because she was so earnest and really wanted us to "win the prize."  And what a prize it was.  The stamp was an intricate carve, specific to Gettysburg and its history.  By the time we finally located it and stamped in, we felt quite obligated to make a purchase from the kindly shop owner and we did.

Gettysburg is full of shops catering to the tourist industry.  With more than 3 million visitors  per year, tourism is the top industry in Adams County.  Regardless of the profusion of tourist shops, we found the national park's interpretation of those awful three days in July, 1863, to be dignified and profound.

A short drive from Gettysburg took us to Hagerstown, MD, where we learned that the internet service at our hotel was down.  Ah, well, in light of what we had just learned about, it was less than a minor inconvenience.