It was the deadliest three days of the Civil War: July 1st, 2nd,and 3rd of 1863. The Battle of Gettysburg resulted in 51,000 casualties and the freeing of six million slaves. At the time of the battle, only 2400 people lived in the small town. By July 1st, 1863, Gettysburg was taken over by over 160,000 soldiers. Gettysburg was chosen because ten major roads intersected at the town and both the Confederate and Union armies believed they could more readily attack the other side.
The military park, the world’s largest outdoor museum and sculpture garden, covers 6,000 acres. Visitors will need to drive to many of the locations throughout the park. A well organized and marked auto tour is available. Each year over one million people explore Gettysburg Military Park. We always look for National Parks locations whenever we travel (read why here) and enjoyed spending a full day exploring parts of the park.
Traveling with Kids:
Plan to spend a full day exploring many elements of the park. It’s worth the time.
Consider purchasing combination tickets for several activities ahead of time- information here.
No outside food or backpacks are allowed inside the Visitor Center.
Wear sneakers; it will help with walking through the grounds and uneven terrain.
Bring the stroller for the toddler crew when walking through some areas of the park and on ranger led tours. You might want the stroller for the museum, as well.
The museum, film, and cyclorama areas are handicap accessible.
Restrooms and a large gift shop with an extensive book collection are located inside the Visitor Center.
Make sure to collect National Parks Passport stamps at the Information Desk. Children can pick up a Junior Ranger booklet to complete. See #2.
Pick up a “Today in the Park” guide that changes each season. It has timely information about special events and programs. It can also be found online here.
Investigate possible tours; there are bus tours, bicycle tours. Consider what will work best for your family. We took a ranger led car tour. The ranger drives your car for 2-3 hours and takes guests through many important parts of the park, all while narrating the chronological events of the battle. It was well worth the time and money and we felt like we had a very personal, very in depth understanding of the war. We highly recommend this way to see the park and learn about the Civil War and the Battle of Gettysburg.
There are a few dining options in the Visitor Center. The Refreshment Saloon is open from 10am-3pm and has lots of grill, pizza, panine, and soup options, as well as grab and go prepackaged food. The Cafe has snacks and drinks. There is also a candy and ice cream station. There is plenty of indoor dining tables and outdoor picnic tables located around the Visitor Center for picnicking.
10 Things Kids Will Want to Do at Gettysburg National Military Park
1. Attend a ranger led program. There are so many options offered each day (especially during the spring and summer peak seasons). Check here for daily programming. Most programs last one hour. The park does a good job posting signs designating where to meet rangers for programs.
2. Earn a Junior Ranger badge. Children can pick up a booklet from the Information Desk in the Visitor Center and complete activities at most of the sites included on this list. There are matching quizzes, maps to label, monuments to sketch, morse codes to decipher, and bingo games to complete with the auto tour. You can also download the booklet ahead of time here.
3. Watch the 20 minute introductory video and view the cyclorama. The film “A New Birth of Freedom” gives a chronological overview of the three days of the Battle of Gettysburg, shown in a large auditorium. Visitors then proceed up an escalator (or elevator) to a 360 degree oil on canvas painting that stretches 42 feet tall and 377 feet long- the longest painting on display in the United States. The painting depicts over 20,000 people and horses and was brought to Gettysburg in 1913 to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the Battle at Gettysburg. There is a 10 minute show set to music and lighting that describes Pickett’s Charge. Note: the cyclorama includes very loud gunshot noises and flashing lights and may scare young children.
4. Stop at some of the close to 1400 monuments on display throughout the military park. Each regiment in the army was allowed to construct to their own monuments since they were also responsible for paying for the construction. Monuments with square bases signified Union (the North) regiments and rounded based signified Confederate (the south) regiments. The largest monument in the park was built to honor Pennsylvanian soldiers.
5. Hike to get the best views of the park. There are three observation towers: Oak Hill, Culp’s Hill, and West Confederate Avenue. Climb to the top to get the best views, where visitors can see for miles on a clear day. Other popular spots include Little Round Top, Devil’s Den and Slaughter Pen, but be careful when exploring. Pay attention to signs warning visitors NOT to climb to specific areas.
6. Observe and differentiate the various fences and types of cannons preserved throughout the park. There are three types of fencing that have been maintained, restored, or rebuilt: Virginia Worm fence (loose and zigzagged), Post and Rail fence (more labor intensive and sturdier) and Hogtied and Horsehead fence (with wider posts to keep cows contained and rocks to keep pigs contained). There were three types of cannons, used for various purposes such as defense and to blast inanimate objects.
7. Keep an eye out for “Witness Trees”, which have been growing since the battle. They aren’t necessarily marked, so ask a ranger for a clue.
8. Pay respect at the Soldiers’ National Cemetery. Soldiers from the Civil War through the Vietnam War are buried in the 17 acre cemetery, as well as monuments honoring regiments and states of the war. There is also a plaque to commemorate where Lincoln gave his Address on November 20, 1863.
9. Tour the David Wills House, made famous by a visit from President Lincoln, who stayed over in November 1863 prior to giving his address. Wills was an attorney who organized speaking engagements for the event that included featured speaker Edward Everett of Massachusetts. (Lincoln was considered a secondary speaker.) There are six galleries in the home, including two rooms restored to what they looked like when Lincoln stayed in the home.
10. Play ‘I Spy’ while touring the Gettysburg Museum of the American Civil War. Spend at least 60-90 minutes exploring the museum, which is divided into five sections (Into Battle, Day 1, Day 2, Day 3, and Out of Battle) and chronologically follows the battle. There are over one million artifacts in the museum collection, although not every artifact is displayed at the same time, and lots of short films (in chronologically order) and touch screens throughout the museum. There are plenty of benches in front of each video clip and most videos are 4-5 minutes in length. Have kids look for the following 10 items that my children especially enjoyed:
Buckles, buttons, and plates from each state in the war. Check for your home state!
The complete uniform of a Union soldier and a Confederate soldier.
Numbers of Union and Confederate soldiers enlisted from each state.
Snare drum used in the Mexican War of 1846.
Various flags including a Palmetto Secession badge from 1860, First National Flag of the Confederacy in 1861 called “Stars and Bars”, vertical flag of the United States in 1861, and the Brigade Flag from Pennsylvania’s 148th Infantry.
Explanation of the organization of the army from regiment to brigade to division to corps to army.
Display of officer’s camp (the higher the rank, the more baggage allowed)
Color bearers- the most dangerous job in the army since capturing a battle flag the the color bearer was tasked with carrying was a major triumph.
Display of the Faces of Battle, with 23,000 Union soldiers and 28,000 Confederate soldiers killed in the Battle of Gettysburg
The glass window with the display of President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.
Tune in next week for more family friendly fun in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania!
Disclaimer: My family was given a media pass to explore the park. All opinions expressed are my own.