Gettysburg — A Flight to History

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Within about an hour's flight of most population centers in the Northeast, Gettysburg is one of the most accessible and most interesting and moving Civil War historical sites. A visit offers an opportunity to explore both the battlefield, site of the largest, fiercest and deadliest battle in the war, as well as the National Cemetery, made famous by the "few appropriate remarks" of a guest invited at the last minute to its consecration ceremony. The airport experience is nothing short of charming and delightful.

I admit it: until a few years ago, I found Civil War history tiresome; there were too many battles, too many deposed Union generals, and too many political facts to master. Now, midway through my fifth decade, I have the patience, the curiosity and the time to try to understand something of this most troublesome episode in our American experience. But nothing makes history come to life quite so much as a battlefield visit. Where to start?

 In the Northeast, one of the most accessible battlefields is also one of the most famous. Gettysburg is about 180 nm. from the New York metropolitan area, and about 35 nm. southwest of Harrisburg, the state capital of Pennsylvania.

Flying in to Gettysburg

In a way, time has stood still at Doersom Airport (W09). Although not quite antebellum, the airport has been in the family of its present owner, Donald E. Doersom, for 70 years. Without government support, the owners (justifiably, I would argue) charge a nominal $6 fee for landing and parking. Mr. and Mrs. Doersom live on the premises, pump the avgas, do the repairs, give the airport advisories on Unicom, and run the taxi service.

Doersom has a single narrow (40') paved 3,096' runway (06/24), reasonably flat, obstacle-free and in good condition, but no instrument approach and no lighting. (The nearest airport with an instrument approach is Carroll County, MD [W54], about 18 nm. away). Doersom is 209°/29.2 DME from the HAR VOR, and open most of the year. According to Mrs. Doersom, the aerodrome closes in the winter months and is then appropriately NOTAMed. On a busy day in the autumn, which is the "big" season there, they'll have 12 to 15 aircraft arrivals, she says (on a perfect Saturday in early September, we were the only customers). Parking is on the grass near the FBO. Mr. Doersom meets you at the pump, arranges your rental car or bus tour, gives you directions, and is generally as helpful as possible. 100LL was $2.20/gal. (including tax) at the date of this writing.

Getting Around

There are two excellent ways to get to the center of the action, the National Park Service Visitors Center: rental car, and Mrs. Doersom's car.

Probably the best way to see Gettysburg is with a rental car, because it permits easy access to numerous sites, a personalized guided tour from a licensed battlefield guide ($25), and opportunities visits to interesting places that are not close to the battlefield. Economy Car Rentals (717-334-8485) will meet you at the field if you call to reserve.

But for a mere $11 (for both drop-off and pickup), Mrs. Doersom will drive you to the few miles to the Visitors Center and pick you up later.

With a car, it is possible to follow the self-guided auto tour, you can easily drive around the battlefield in two or three hours. At most of the numbered stops, markers describe significant action during the three days of battle. Auto tours conducted for a fee by licensed battlefield guides begin at the Visitor Center.

What To See and Do

From either car or taxi, walking the battlefield, as thousands of soldiers once did, can be very exciting. The High Water Mark Trail (about a mile) begins at the Cyclorama Center, showing regimental monuments, part of an artillery battery, the ground defended by Union soldiers in repulsing Pickett's charge, and General Meade's headquarters. There are three longer trails used by the Boy Scouts for the Heritage Trails program.

Park Rangers lead walks, give talks, and present programs at various locations on the battlefield to help you visualize the personal impact of past events. The Visitor Center and Gettysburg Museum of the Civil War has orientation displays, Civil War exhibits, current schedules of range-conducted programs, and the Electric Map presentation that shows, through the use of colored lights, troop movements during the battle. Admission ($2) is charged for the map program.

The highlight of my trip was a 45-minute walking tour of the National Cemetery by Park Ranger Randy I. Cleaver. It helped fill in some gaps in my knowledge of the political situation of 1863 and really made me think long and hard about why the North just didn't let the South go.

The Cyclorama Center has exhibits, a ten-minute film, "From These Honored Dead," and the Gettysburg Cyclorama, a painting by Paul Philippoteaux of Pickett's Charge displayed with a sound-and-light program inside a large circular auditorium. Both the film and the Cyclorama program are presented regularly; admission ($2) is charged only for the Cyclorama program.

From the Visitors Center, you can also take a shuttle bus to the Eisenhower National Historic Site, the only place Ike and Mamie ever called home. Also, if you're hungry, you don't have to go far — McDonalds, Hardees, KFC and Howard Johnson are across the street from the cemetery, in unseemly proximity to this sacred site.

The Battle of Gettysburg — A Refresher

In spring of 1863, the Confederacy found itself in a situation that called for action. The Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, commanded by General Robert E. Lee, had defeated the Union forces at Fredericksburg in December, 1862, and again at Chancellorsville in May, 1863; but the nature of that ground gave Lee little opportunity to follow up his advantage. Thus Lee began moving his army north in early June, hoping to draw his enemy to a better battleground and hoping to find desperately needed supplies in the rich Pennsylvania farmlands, which up until then had been untouched by the War. Lee also reasoned that one or more decisive victories in the North would increase pressure on the Northern government to seek a peace agreement with the South. Thus, Lee and his army pushed their way into Pennsylvania during June and eventually converged in Chambersburg, about 30 miles west of Gettysburg.

Both General Lee and General George Gordon Meade, commander of the Union Army of the Potomac, had chosen different areas in which to engage the other's army. But chance brought the two forces together at Gettysburg on July 1, 1863. This first day's battle was a definite, but indecisive victory for the Confederates. They came with greater numbers initially from the west and the north, pushing the Union forces back through town. The disorganized Union troops retreated but regrouped on the high ground south of town — on Cemetery Hill, Cemetery Ridge, Little Round Top, and Culp's Hill — and formed a defensive line shaped like a fishhook.

On July 2, the Confederates struck both ends of the Union line. They hit hard, first at Little Round Top and then at Culp's Hill and Cemetery Hill; but with high ground and craggy rock formations in their favor, the Union troops held out against these attacks. On July 3, General Lee again attacked the Union forces. But this time Lee struck at the center of the Union line since the fighting on the previous day demonstrated the strength of the Union flanks. In this massive attack, now popularly known as Pickett's Charge, the Confederates lashed out at the Union troops on Cemetery Ridge. But the Union Soldiers held once again and pushed the Confederates back to their original position on Seminary Ridge.

The Battle of Gettysburg was over.

The broken remnants of the Confederate army retreated back to Virginia. The three-day battle left a staggering toll of 51,000 casualties (wounded, killed, missing, or captured) divided nearly equally between the two armies. The Confederates never again reached the military strength that they held at Gettysburg, yet the war raged for two more long years.

After the Battle

To me, the most interesting events at Gettysburg occurred after the battle. Immediately after the battle, Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtin visited the battlefield, ostensibly to see with his own eyes the closest reaches of the Civil War into northern territory. He was appalled at what he saw: thousands of fermenting bodies, with gas-distended bellies, deliquescing in the July heat. Curtin charged David Wills, a local lawyer, with cleaning up the horrible aftermath of the battle: wounded soldiers crammed into every available building, and thousands of swollen dead strewn among hundreds of bloated dead horses. With the approval of Governor Curtin and the eighteen states whose sons were among the dead, Wills quickly acquired seventeen acres for the national cemetery and had the Germantown landscape architect, William Saunders, draw up a plan. Burial began not long after.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, William Cullen Bryant and John Greenleaf Whittier — the three most notable poets of the time — all declined to attend the dedication ceremony. On September 23, Wills invited the venerable Edward Everett, the nation's foremost rhetorician, to give an oration at the dedication ceremony planned for October 23. (Everett had been an editor, ambassador, president of Harvard, Secretary of State and a U.S. Senator — in short, one of the most distinguished men in America, who could hold audiences spellbound with his speeches of two hours or more.) Everett accepted, but, needing more time to prepare, persuaded Wills to postpone the ceremony to November 19.

On November 2, 1863, now several months after the battle (July 1-3) and six weeks after the invitation to Everett, Wills invited President Lincoln to make a "few appropriate remarks" at the consecration of a cemetery for the Union war dead.

Although Wills wrote his invitation to Lincoln only three weeks prior to the dedication — prompting speculation among historians about his and Governor Curtin's motivations — there is evidence that Lincoln was fully apprised of the affair in early October.

Lincoln accepted the invitation, obviously viewing it as an appropriate time to honor all those who had given their lives in the Civil War. He may also have seen the dedication as an opportunity to reveal his evolving thinking about the War, as a fight not only to save the Union, but also to establish freedom and equality for all under the law. His speech was carefully prepared (contrary to customary fiction, and not written on the back of an envelope), and it contained one noteworthy mistake when Lincoln intoned, "The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here." The ideas of freedom and nationhood are central to the speech Lincoln gave at Gettysburg, which, despite its brevity, as opposed to Edward Everett's long-forgotten two-hour oration, has become one of the most memorable of all time.

Doersom Airport:

  • (717) 334-2474

Gettysburg Convention and Visitors Bureau:

  • (717) 334-6274

Visitors Center at Gettysburg NMP:

  • (717) 334-1124

Places to Stay:

  • Best Western (337-2000)

  • Gettysburg Inn (334-0030)

  • Eisenhower Inn and Conference Center (334-8121)