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Gettysburg National Military Park Experience

TCM packs up their 2012 Travel Lite 1000 SLRX Ultra and explores the battlefield and state-of-the-art visitor center at Gettysburg National Military Park.

Gettysburg National Military Park

We keep our truck camper rig in a nearby gated storage lot and it always feels like we’re breaking it out of jail when we go on a trip.  And where would a newly freed truck camper rig want to go first?  To the fuel station of course!  We were delighted to find that fuel prices have continued to drop this Spring.  We paid about twenty cents less than we paid about six weeks ago.

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Free, fueled, and ready to go, we drove west to Gettysburg National Military Park.  It’s embarrassing to admit that Angela had not been to Gettysburg National Military Park since a high-school field trip and I, born and raised in Philadelphia, and son of a high school history teacher, had never been.  What’s more embarrassing is the fact that Gettysburg is only about an hour and fifteen minutes from our home in Lancaster.  Perhaps you can relate to the fact that many of us seem to ignore what’s in our own backyard, but will drive across the country to see similar attractions.

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When we arrived at Gettysburg National Military Park, we were immediately challenged by our own motto, “Go Anywhere. Camp Anywhere.”  The truth is that the parking spaces in the regular visitor center parking area were just too short and tight for our truck camper rig.  They would be fine for our Ford Focus, but not our Dodge 3500 DRW and Travel Lite 1000 SLRX Ultra.  Sometimes go anywhere means, “Go around the corner and find something a little bigger”.

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Fortunately, there’s a fantastic RV and bus parking area a few hundred feet away.  In fact, the parking spaces in the RV and bus lot are too big and seem more appropriate for a Class A motorhome than our svelte lash-up, but I’m starting to sound like Goldilocks picking porridge.  Just park the rig already and get into the visitor center!

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We have been to literally dozens of National Parks, Monuments, Preserves, Recreation Areas, Seashores, and Parkways throughout the United States and Canada and have never seen a visitor center as impressive as the Gettysburg National Military Park Museum and Visitor Center.  The $103 million facility opened in 2008 and you could literally spend a entire day, possibly two exploring the fantastic Civil War museum alone, never mind the amazing theatre, world famous Gettysburg Cyclorama, and the museum book store.

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Give yourself extra time to explore this beautiful facility.  You will regret it if you have to rush through.

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Just outside of the visitor center is a charming statue of Honest Abe.  Being an honest guy myself, we had a quick, decidedly one way conversation.  Let’s just say the old, “A penny for your thoughts” didn’t go over very well.

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The first item on our visitor center agenda was the Morgan Freeman narrated film, “A New Birth of Freedom”.  When we approached the theater, we discovered a large contingent of middle-school aged kids buzzing with field trip fever.  Lucky for us, a Ranger directed the half dozen or so adults in line to the top of the theater’s stadium style seating.   As we walked in, the Ranger said, “The best seats in the house are the top seats anyway”.  She was right.

The theater itself is quite impressive with an extremely wide curved screen.  It reminded us of an IMAX theater, but the screen is not as tall.  In twenty-two minutes, the film presents an overview of the events leading up to the Civil War, the Battle of Gettysburg, and the events that followed.  It’s a powerful presentation and made us excited to learn more about Gettysburg and the museum under our feet.

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After the film, we were led up a set of escalators into the Gettysburg Cyclorama, a 360 degree, twenty-two foot tall cylindrical painting of “Pickett’s Charge” that puts you in the middle of the battle.  The painting was completed in 1883 and has quite the history itself having been lost for decades, rediscovered in 1965, purchased by investors in 2007, and then finally put back on public display at the visitor center in 2008 after a full restoration.  Given the size and delicacy of the painting, it’s incredible that it’s here, hopefully now preserved for the ages.

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Like the rest of the visitor center, you could spend a very long time with all of the stories being told in the Cyclorama painting.  It’s a sobering testament to the horrors of the Civil War, and the enormity of the event that took place here 150 years ago.

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One of the most amazing facets of the Gettysburg Cyclorama is how it blends with a diorama around its base.  In the above photograph you can see a well on the left.  Half of the well is in the painting, and half is part of the diorama.  The stone and wood fence on the right side is also half in the painting and half in the diorama.  The detail is phenomenal.

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Following the Cyclorama, it was time to meet our Licensed Battle Field Guide, Paul Marhevka.  After the Battle of Gettysburg, local residents began to offer battlefield tours.  Some of them were well informed and respectful of the facts and history, and some of them were not.  To ensure the quality of the battlefield tours was of the highest calibre, the Federal Government created a testing process in 1915 to properly license battlefield guides.  Today, Paul is one of over 150 licensed guides who give thousands of tours each year at Civil War sites.

Paul joined us for a two hour trip throughout the battlefield in our truck camper.  He was a really good sport as our truck’s back seat has been removed necessitating that the three of us sat cheek to cheek in the front bench seat.  Paul said that our camper was not the first truck camper he had accompanied for a battlefield tour and that he much preferred truck campers to the big motorhomes some folks brought.

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As we turned right out of the visitor center parking lot, one of the first things Paul pointed out were the bronze Civil War building plaques.  These plaques identify which buildings in and around Gettysburg were standing during the battle in July 1863.  It’s incredible to see how many structures were here in 1863.

Paul then told us the tragic story of Mary Virginia “Jennie” Wade.  Remarkably, Jennie was the only civilian killed directly during the Battle of Gettysburg.  She was struck by a minie ball as she made bread in her sister’s house.  The very next day, Jennie’s mother baked fifteen loves of bread with the dough Jennie had made.

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Paul then took us out onto the battlefield where we found stone and bronze monuments of various shapes and sizes scattered across the landscape.  Paul explained that soldiers returned to the battlefield after the war and left behind these monuments to honor the soldiers who died or were wounded during the battle.  The monuments were often placed exactly where the soldiers had fought and were a place where veterans met each year to mark the anniversary of the battle.

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Down the road from where we first stopped, Paul told us the story of John L. Burns, a seventy year old veteran of the War of 1812 who volunteered and fought for the Union Army during the battle of Gettysburg.  John was wounded several times during the fighting and left behind by the Union soldiers.  By convincing the Confederates that he was a non-combatant, he survived and became a national hero.  President Lincoln requested to meet John when he came to Gettysburg to give his Gettysburg Address.  John’s bronze statue stands approximately where he fought during the conflict.

The rest of the time with Paul flew by as he shared one battlefield story after another.  He truly brought the Civil War and the Battle of Gettysburg to life and took great care to answer our questions.

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It would be impossible to even hint at the breadth of Paul’s knowledge or begin to tell the full story of what happened at Gettysburg in the course of this article.  If you’re interested in American History, we highly recommend a tour with a licensed battlefield guide.  For information including rates and availability, visit the website for the Association of Licensed Battlefield Guides at http://gettysburgtourguides.org.  You can even request a tour with Paul.  He likes truck campers.

After Paul’s tour, Angela and I had lunch in the visitor’s center cafeteria.  The prices were a bit high but it got us fed quickly so we could enjoy the museum just across the hall.

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The outside entrance area of the museum has enough artifacts to see to be its own museum including hundreds of shells, rifles, and pistols.

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There’s also a complete Union and a complete Confederate uniform on display.  Even before you get into the museum, the quality of the artifacts and their presentation is superb.

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Once inside the museum, the curators present the environment in the United States that led to the Civil War.  As your eyes read the quotes and catch the newspaper headlines you can feel the tension mounting between north and south.

As you walk deeper into the museum, there are multiple opportunities to take in a short video, study a display of day-to-day artifacts, or learn from the interactive displays.  This is truly a state-of-the-art museum that should satisfy even the most passionate enthusiast of the Civil War or the Battle of Gettysburg.

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After the main part of the museum, we passed another exhibit called, ”Letters From The War”.  This exhibit is drawn from the from the Gilder Lehrman Collection of more than 12,000 Civil War soldier’s letters.  The exhibit takes a deeply personal look at the individual human experiences of the war.  It’s also a stamp collector’s paradise as they have on display many of the envelopes the letters were contained in.

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Before we left the visitor center, we walked through the museum bookstore.  For anyone who’s interested in the Civil War, this has to be one of the most impressive and complete collection of current Civil War books you will ever find.

When we asked Paul if he was still learning new details about Gettysburg, he mentioned the quantity and quality of books that are coming out, even today, about this pivotal moment in American history.  He added that he reads a book on Gettysburg or the Civil War for at least an hour everyday.

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After the museum, Angela and I got back into our truck camper and retraced the route Paul had taken us on through the battlefield.  The battlefield is very truck camper friendly with roads that take you to most of the major sites and plenty of pull off opportunities should something catch your attention.  We were at Gettysburg during the week and it was busy, but not so busy that we couldn’t stop and see what we wanted to see.

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Upon completing our second tour through the battlefield, it was time to head to Gettysburg Campground.  Gettysburg Campground is the host for the NorthEast Truck Camping Jamboree this September 12-16.  We’re already signed up for the rally, but we thought we’d check out the campground and meet the owners, Robert and Patricia Adams.

We were delighted to learn that Robert and Patricia are a truck camper owners and had their Lance Camper parked a couple hundred feet from the main office.  Robert told us that he’s always wanted to go to a truck camper rally, but he can’t leave their campground during the camping season.  With the rally in September, the rally is coming to them and they are very exited to camp and rally with us in their Lance.

Gettysburg Campground is also set up very well for a truck camper rally with plenty of shaded sites, a large pavilion with covered outside seating, a volleyball net, and all the other amenities we expect from a quality campground.  We can’t wait.

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A bit of road magic happened when Robert suggested we try the Springhouse Tavern at Dobbin House, just a few miles from the campground.  Built in 1776 by Reverend Alexander Dobbin, Dobbin House is the oldest standing structure in Gettysburg and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  Like many buildings in the immediate area, Dobbin House was used as a temporary field hospital during the Battle of Gettysburg.  Dobbin House may also have been the first stop on the Underground Railroad north of the Mason-Dixon Line.

The parking in front of the Dobbin House is a little tight for a truck camper, but we were able to park on a side street about two blocks away.  As we descended the stairs to the Springhouse Tavern, we felt like were were walking back in time.  The tavern features stone walls, dark wood paneling, and 19th century furnishings, all lit by the flickering glow of candlelight.  The wait staff bring it all to life with their period costumes and menu items that could be unchanged since the tavern opened.  I had the house cider and a roasted chicken.  The food was good, but the ambience was better.  If you’re going to Gettysburg, make reservations, and spend an evening in the 19th century at Dobbin House.

After dinner, we headed back to the campground, plugged in, and relaxed.  We had absorbed everything possible for one day and we were tired.  With my head on the pillow I could hear the gentle flow of the water rushing past our camper and the wind rustling through the trees.  Good night.

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The next morning we awoke to the sun beaming into our camper.  A fisherman was fishing the creek.  The birds were chirping above.  The squirrels were doing whatever squirrels do.  And we had to get back home and get to work.  We packed up the camper, unplugged the electric, thanked Robert and Patricia, started the truck, and headed home.

We’ll be back to Gettysburg this September for the NorthEast Truck Camping Jamboree.  We’re hoping the rally attendees take at least a day to explore the Gettysburg National Military Park visitor center, museum and battlefield.  It’s an experience that should be on everyone’s list.

 

 

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