Nearly 30 years ago, while attending a course at the Army War College in Carlisle, Pa., I had the good fortune of participating in a “staff ride” at Gettysburg National Military Park. This was part of a leadership training program that featured the decisions that Northern and Southern commanders made during the three-day battle of Gettysburg.
This crash course of instruction crammed what took place on all three days into a roughly eight-hour tour of the fields and hills where these events unfolded. It was an experience not soon forgotten.
In the three decades since, the lure of the battlefield has drawn me back innumerable times. Anywhere from five to 10 trips to Gettysburg per year has been the norm.
Therefore, last week, on March 23, it was not unusual to be driving the 180-mile distance from Bethany Beach to Gettysburg to attend an event at G.A.R. Hall, Cpl. Skelly Post No. 9, Grand Army of the Republic. In 1880, local Civil War veterans purchased the building, built in 1822, as a Methodist church, to serve as post headquarters.
The trip to Gettysburg weaves its way across the Chesapeake Bay, through Maryland and into Pennsylvania, a few miles below Littlestown. From there, it is a pleasant drive over rolling hills past quaint little communities, such as Two Taverns, before reaching the Baltimore Pike, leading straight into the heart of Gettysburg and the national battlefield.
Accommodations had previously been made at the Gaslight Inn on Middle Street, just two doors away from G.A.R. Hall. The traditional ambiance of the inn helps set the mood for visiting this historic town.
The program at G.A.R. Hall about the battle of Gettysburg began at 7 p.m. Entering the main room of the building, replete with artwork commemorating the monumental events that took place on July 1, 2 and 3, 1863, is a step back into that era.
Following the two-hour program, my companion and I had dinner at the Pub & Restaurant on the Square. From its windows, one can imagine the turmoil occurring on the first day of the battle on the square as Confederate soldiers pursued Union troops through the town — driving them down Baltimore Street onto the heights a short distance to the south.
The following morning, after enjoying a delicious breakfast served at the Gaslight Inn, we embarked on a driving tour of the battlefield. Although done at least a hundred times before, inevitably something new is discovered about the battlefield every time.
Driving out Chambersburg Street, a left turn took us through the cluster of Lutheran Seminary buildings. The structures that existed in 1863 had become the center of combat on July 1 as the Union First Corps retreated from the area around McPherson’s barnyard back toward Cemetery Ridge.
Farther on, we turned down Confederate Avenue, viewing the open fields across which, on July 3, more than 12,000 Rebel troops marched toward the Union lines that were belching murderous artillery, as well as small arms fire, during what has become known as Pickett’s Charge. About midway along this avenue, a memorial representing the state of Virginia stands in its prominence with an equestrian statue on top of Army of Northern Virginia commander Gen. Robert E. Lee.
Continuing farther down and crossing Emmitsburg Road leads eventually to Big and Little Round Top, two prominent hills at the south end of the battlefield. From Little Round Top, the view is spectacular, looking across the battlefield with the majestic South Mountains as a backdrop in the distance.
The next stop was the Visitor Center, to view displays and film presentations describing the evolving events during the carnage at Gettysburg that numbered some 50,000 casualties (killed, wounded and missing or captured). Individual films describe each day of the battle, as well as the aftermath.
With time passing quickly, it was soon necessary to end the tour in order to return home because of other commitments. Nonetheless, much was covered in the brief 24-hour period at Gettysburg.
This romance with Gettysburg and the important events that took place there, affecting the future of our nation, is unending. Whether for a single day or longer, it is always memorable to visit the small town in south-central Pennsylvania that, unknowingly, in 1863 would become a symbol of freedom for generations to come.
Tom Ryan is the author of the multiple award-winning “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign.” Signed copies are available at Bethany Beach Books and Browseabout Books in Rehoboth Beach, or contact him directly at email@example.com or through his website at www.tomryan-civilwar.com.