We just returned from our summer vacation in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, over the weekend. It was a great place to visit for several reasons, but it was also not without its hardships. (Incidentally, if you want to read Melanie’s take on our trip, check out her blog posts on it, which she’s writing about day-by-day. We also talked about the trip on our podcast, Raising the Betts1.)

We were supposed to visit Gettysburg for a day or so last September at the end of our two-week, 11-state family reunion trip, but Ben got sick on the way to there from the Great Smoky Mountains and we had to cancel at the last minute. But we promised the kids that we would go back another time. I’m not sure why we picked Gettysburg in the first place; we’re not especially Civil War buffs, but it might just have been halfway from Tennessee to home. In any case, we’re much more interested in the Civil War now.

Heat and Other Weather Woes

Let’s get the not-so-good aspects out of the way first. We camp in tents on most of our vacations, partly because we enjoy the outdoors and mostly because we’re a family of 7 without a lot of money. Camping in a tent costs about a fifth of renting enough hotel rooms or getting an AirBnB. But the downside, of course, is that you are at the mercy of the weather. And we picked the wrong week to visit central Pennsylvania. Temperatures all week were in the 90s and at night, it was humid and still hot. Luckily, our new tent has sides that zip way open to provide excellent ventilation, but hot and humid is still hot and humid. And during the day, we had to stick close to the air-conditioned car. If I had to do anything more strenuous than sit and read a book, I ended up drenched in sweat and gross. And with the forecast showing even hotter temperatures on Friday night and record heat on Saturday, we decided we’d seen most everything we’d wanted to see and cut our trip short by a day and went home on Friday. My takeaway is that we don’t camp in July or August unless we’re in the mountains or by the sea.

As another cost savings, we had planned to avoid eating out as much as possible. For breakfast, I cooked eggs and bacon most mornings, which was awesome, and we had cold cut sandwiches for lunch every day. But dinner is where we had trouble. Our first day, Monday, we arrived late enough that, after getting the tent set up, it was too late to get dinner going, so we took a friend’s recommendation and went into town to the Lincoln Diner, a classic, old-fashioned diner that was near the train station where Abraham Lincoln arrived for the Gettysburg Address in 1863. The diner was good. Our main dishes were very good, my side salad less so with wilted lettuce and scant vegetables. No matter, overall I was pretty pleased especially by the price.

The next night, it rained at dinnertime. And then on Wednesday night. And Thursday night, it was just too dang hot. So we ate out at Appalachian Brewing Company (which was very good), a local Mexican restaurant (also very good), and Perkins Restaurant (serviceable). And on Friday morning, we packed up and ate breakfast back at Lincoln Diner (very good).

Camping by the Creek

Okay, all the negative out of the way. Let’s backtrack to the good stuff. We stayed at Gettysburg Campground. This was a nice place and the owners were very nice. We basically had the tent area mostly to ourselves during the midweek and the campground was pretty uncrowded in general. The best part is that our site was right next to Marsh Creek, a burbling brook filled with birds, including ducks and herons and maybe an egret. We also saw turkeys and heard a pretty cool owl nearby every night. The kids loved getting into the creek, wading around with nets, catching minnows and crawfish. Eventually I set up my camp chair right in the creek in order to cool off by dipping my feet in the stream. At night, it also masked campground noises to help us sleep.

We were using our new tent for the first time, the Coleman Connectable Tent2, which has a big, six-person dome and an attachable 3-person rectangular tent. It was mostly big enough for all of us, although my cot took up the whole 3-person tent. Melanie and the kids slept in the dome with the kids taking turns sleeping in my hammock one night each. I think we’re going to try to get another 3-person tent to connect to it so we have plenty of space. The one negative of the tent is the zippers, which were more difficult to zip than they should have been and were always catching on the tent fabric. Other than that though, the tent was easy to set up and great to use.

Gettysburg National Military Park

Of course, the reason we were there was to see the battlefield where the Union and Confederates forces met on July 1, 2, and 3, 1863 in what may have been the decisive action of the Civil War. The battlefield, now Gettysburg National Military Park, is remarkably preserved and well-marked because within days of the fighting ending, people were beginning to record what happened there in great detail. One of the most remarkable aspects to me was the proliferation of monuments depicting the location of every military unit along with plaques detailing how those units were deployed, including markers for left flank and right flank. There were also 400 cannons throughout the park and town, placed in the exact locations of artillery batteries during the battle and a number of state monuments, statues of military leaders, and more. It is extremely well-documented. In fact, there were so many monuments, it often felt like a cemetery, which in some ways it is. Yet, the fields and roads and buildings are much the same as they were in 1863, letting the visitor visualize just how the battle unfolded and what the soldiers would have seen as they looked out from their positions.

To experience the battlefield properly, especially if you are not a historian of the war, you need some kind of guide. You can hire a licensed battlefield guide to drive you around the park in your own vehicle or you can take a bus tour with the guides. We opted for the self-guided tour with a book and CD/app. The app would have been great, but I never could get the tour to download, even after I got home. But we listened to the CD in the car, which includes narration from one of the most renowned of the guides and instructions when to start and stop the CD as you drive about.

A little tip: Finding the locations can be a little confusing if you’re just following the map given out at the visitor center, but I found that all of the locations are in Waze, so you can enter locations like “Auto Tour 1, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania” or “Devil’s Den, Gettysburg,” and it will lead you right there.

The audio CD tour is about 2 hours and you can do it in an afternoon, including taking the opportunity to get out and walk around after listening to the description. We ended up doing it in two parts because it was so hot and we got worn out. Next time, I would like to get out and walk around more and take more time.

I know I said I was done with the negatives up above, but please indulge me once more. The National Park Service has a “4th graders go free” program where kids who are in the 4th grade or the homeschool equivalent and their families get free entrance to National Parks each summer. Unfortunately, that doesn’t apply at all to Gettysburg. Which is a shame, because everything costs money. Sure you can drive around the battlefield for free and there are some cool displays of weapons and uniforms in the visitor center, but that’s about it for the freebies. There’s an introductory film, a cyclorama (360-degree painting with a narration of the battle) and a museum in the visitor’s center which are $15 per adult and $10 per child or $80 for our family. There’s the David Willis House in the center of Gettysburg town, which is the house where Lincoln stayed before the address, and that costs $7 per adult and $4 per child or $37 for our family. And there’s the Eisenhower National Historic Site, the farm where President and Mrs. Eisenhower vacationed while in office and then later retired to that is right next to the battlefield, which costs $9 per adult and $5 per child or $43 for our family. We opted to spend $30 on the audio CD/app/book tour of the park and were going to spend the money on the Eisenhower farm before we cut our trip a day short, but for a large family on a budget, we had to make some tough choices.

The Battlefield Experience

As for the battlefield itself, it was amazing. And the kids were also awestruck by it too. Before we went, I had emphasized several times that Gettysburg is not a playground, but as Lincoln described it, it is hallowed ground where thousands of men bled and died and so we had to be respectful at all times, which they were (not that they didn’t run about in high spirits in places or laugh and have fun). But it was incredible to stand at Little Round Top and look out over the Valley of Death to the Devil’s Den or to sit at the edge of the Wheatfield and imagine the slaughter or to stand next to the monument that marks where Colonel Amistead fell during Pickett’s Charge, arguably the high water mark of the rebellion.

Other highlights included the monuments to Massachusetts regiments, including the unique memorial to the 20th Mass., which consists of puddingstone from New England on pedestal; the immense Pennsylvania Memorial, which has a steep spiral staircase inside that takes you to the top and gives you an incredible panoramic view of the battlefield; the statue of Fr. William Corby, the Holy Cross priest who was chaplain of New York’s Irish Brigade who gave absolution and a stirring call to courage before the battle3; and the eternal flame peace memorial dedicated in 1938 by President Franklin Roosevelt for the 75th anniversary of the battle, which brought together Union and Confederate veterans for the last time where both were honored for their sacrifices and service and where old resentments were put to rest in service of unity and peace.

At the end of our visit, we knew that we’d only scratched the surface, and we promised that we would return to visit again, but in the spring or fall when we wouldn’t be melting from the heat.

Elizabeth Ann Seton Shrine

When we were planning the trip, we noted that Emmitsburg, Maryland, was only 8 miles away and so we included a plan to visit the National Shrine of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton. So on Wednesday, we drove the 20 minutes to the shrine to get to know America’s first native-born saint a little better. The shrine is gorgeous. They have a very nice introductory film on her life (starring Star Trek: Voyager‘s Kate Mulgrew as St. Elizabeth!) as well as a museum with artifacts and greater explanations of her story as well as information on her beatification and canonization. They have several buildings on the grounds that are the original homes on the property where St. Elizabeth and her children and community first started her school and lived, but the weather was turning and we would have had to walk in the rain to visit them. But we did spend time in the Basilica itself, praying at her tomb and visiting the Blessed Sacrament.

They also had a small exhibit on Civil War sisters, about the service by the Daughters of Charity during the war as nurses for wounded soldiers throughout the south, but also in Gettysburg. Within days of the battle, sisters from Emmitsburg had gone to the battlefield to help the wounded and they had several great stories of their courage and spiritual guidance to the soldiers. One story spoke of St. Francis Xavier church, the Catholic parish in Gettysburg, so we decided to go there next.

The church is still the same underlying structure, but it was heavily renovated in the 1920s with a somewhat Art Deco style popular then. However, the stained glass windows date to the 1950s, including images of St. Francis Xavier and St. Elizabeth and the sisters tending to the wounded. These were beautiful. We also found out that the original church had been consecrated by the then-bishop of Philadelphia, St. John Neumann.

The Confederate elephant in the room

Of course, I can’t finish this recollection without talking about the elephant in the room. In the last couple of years, public sentiment has turned very hard against anything connected with the Confederates. It’s not just the Stars and Bars being removed from over state capitals, but statues of Confederate figures have been pulled down and even monuments to dead Confederate soldiers are being removed, all in a reaction to a perception in the rise of white supremacy in the wake of President Trump’s election4

But it doesn’t seem that the anti-Confederate fervor has reached Gettysburg yet. It’s not just the battlefield where monuments and Confederate symbols still exist, but even in town where restaurants and shops carry the symbols of both sides in their windows and on their signs. At the park visitor’s center gift shop, you can buy shirts with the Stars and Bars on them alongside the Stars and Stripes, which I did inadvertently5. When Lucia picked out a blue Union soldier hat, the boys picked out grey Confederate ones of their own. As we drove home on Friday through Pennsylvania, New York, and Massachusetts, we stopped at various places, me in my new shirt bearing both flags and the boys in their new hats, and I wondered how other people would react. No one did and I don’t recall any dirty looks, but I also wasn’t looking for them.

As I wrote above about the eternal flame monument dedicated in 1938, a previous generation learned that in order to accomplish the goal of the war–to preserve the union–we had to let go of our prior grudges. And it was the men who faced each other over the battlefield, who once tried to kill each other in battle, who were able to shake hands and stand side-by-side and lead everyone else in reconciliation. Whereas today, it seems there are some who are more interested in driving us apart, re-creating the repudiation and anger and violence. They should visit the bloodiest battlefield of our bloodiest war and be reminded, as I was, of the cost of such division because if we’re not careful, we’ll return to a time when brother faced brother over the barrel of a gun and if that happens the slaughter of the first Civil War will be surpassed by the slaughter of the second.

On a Happier Note

Let’s not end this on such a gloomy tone. Our last full day in the park, we visited the Gettysburg National Cemetery, where many of the soldiers were buried, but also many who fought in subsequent wars as well. There is also an imposing monument in the middle of the cemetery marking the location where Lincoln gave his address while looking out over the battlefield.6 As we endured a sudden rain shower while huddled under a tree, Melanie read the Gettysburg Address to the kids and then we walked among the graves of the dead, arranged by their home states. The largest section, of course, was set aside for the unknowns.

You’d think visiting the site of such death and destruction would be a sad and gloomy endeavor, but it wasn’t because it was also the site of much courage and bravery and I left with a feeling of gratitude toward those who were willing to shed their blood in order to secure our Union in a fight that ultimately led to the emancipation of tens of thousands of enslaved brothers and sisters.

It also leaves me wanting to learn more about the Civil War, so I’ve started watching the classic Ken Burns documentary and I’m planning to again watch the Gettysburg movie. And then I’ll dig into some books about the war. And I look forward to returning to Gettysburg again some day.

  1. What?! You didn’t know we had a new podcast? Where have you been?
  2. We got the tent for free to keep in exchange for an Amazon review.
  3. He would later become president of the University of Notre Dame.
  4. A phenomenon which I think is entirely manufactured by politicians and the media who created a self-fulfilling prophecy.
  5. I bought a water bottle with a shirt in it, not realizing the Gettysburg logo on the shirt had both flags.
  6. Turns out that even though a sign in the cemetery says this, in reality, the address was given in an adjoining cemetery, not at the location of the memorial.

Domenico Bettinelli, Jr., is a father of five and husband, a Roman Catholic, born in Boston, educated at Franciscan University of Steubenville, who has worked in Catholic media--print, broadcast, and online--since the mid-90s. Find out all about Dom on his About Me page. He is also the CEO of the StarQuest Production Network at sqpn.com. All opinions on this site are solely those of Domenico Bettinelli and do not reflect the opinions of anyone else. See the disclaimer for further details.