GETTYSBURG, Pa. — Every night, tourists in this farming community, site of the bloodiest battle ever fought in North America, stroll city streets on commercial ghost tours.
But visitors don’t need to pay to hear about ghosts. They only need to walk the 6,000 acres of battlefields, or simply step inside the brilliant new visitors center. Ghosts are everywhere.
These ghosts are the sad, soulful memories of the more than 34,500 young Americans killed or wounded by other young Americans on the first three hot – and horrific – days of July 1863. Anything beyond a casual reading of that bloody to and fro causes you to mourn the victims, almost 150 years later.
More than 1.8-million people come each year to Gettysburg National Military Park, a swath of rolling Pennsylvania countryside, to roam the land. A visitors center opened in 1974, but it could accommodate less than a fourth of the tourists. Its technology in displaying just a fraction of the million artifacts – diaries in fading ink, soldiers’ Bibles, rifles and cannon – was out of date.
Worse, though, was the realization that an adjacent parking lot and a building housing a deteriorating 1880s wrap-around painting of a famed battle sat atop the land where an estimated 971 soldiers had been killed.
After years of planning and construction, in 2008 a $103-million museum and visitors center replaced it, on land that saw no major combat.
The financing came from an unusual blend of public and private funds, with nearly three-quarters of it from individual and corporate donations.
“We have absorbed all the operating costs of the visitors center and museum,” said Dru Anne Neil, director of communications and marketing for the nonprofit Gettysburg Foundation, “freeing the Park Service to spend its dollars to interpret this place to the visitors.”
That interpretation includes more than an hour of films that explain not just the battle but also the history of America, from the Revolution to contemporary times.
A 22-minute film has a few scenes with costumed actors, but largely depends on the filmmaking techniques that Ken Burns made so familiar in his PBS series The Civil War.
In this introduction, narrator Morgan Freeman gently intones, “Freedom, like power, will always be contested.”
Deftly, his closing lines repeat one of the phrases from President Lincoln’s immortal speech, delivered a few hundred yards away: “Now, we are met on a great battlefield of this war . . .”
Beyond twin theaters showing this film are 12 galleries covering about 24,000 square feet. Each gallery uses a phrase from the Gettysburg Address as its theme.
But first, a sign tells those entering: “The Civil War was fought over three issues – survival of the Union, the fate of slavery and . . . what it means to be an American.
“The war resolved the first two issues. The nation struggles with the third to this day.”
Strokes of lightning
The museum makes strong use of writings from the period. Some of these are audio narrations, most are presented as signs by various displays.
Nowhere is this more effective than at the entrance to the galleries:
“The South is determined to . . .make all who oppose her smell Southern (gun)powder and taste Southern steel.”
— Jefferson Davis, in his inaugural speech upon becoming president of the Confederate States of America, in February 1861.
“Every name (of a dead soldier) is a lightning stroke to some heart and it breaks like thunder over some home, and it falls a long black shadow upon some hearthstone.”
— The Gettysburg Compiler newspaper, four days after the battle.
I found a couple of galleries distinctive. One features actor Sam Waterston, the museum’s voice of Lincoln, reading the Gettysburg Address in a raspy tenor.
Lincoln didn’t give that brief speech until more than four months after the two armies had withdrawn. The Confederate wagon train carrying the wounded stretched an estimated 17 miles.
But left behind in the fields, orchards, rocky clefts and forested hillsides were 7,708 dead or dying soldiers, and thousands of dead horses and mules. So another memorable gallery describes this unimaginable aftermath thrust upon the 2,400 residents of the crossroads town.
See their faces
The display of artifacts is imaginative and helps the visitor understand facets of war or a soldier’s life:
– Gen. Lee’s camp cot, writing desk and small stove show how simply the Confederate commander lived.
– Three vertical plastic cases filled with shell fragments front a timeline and explanation of Union weapon efficiency at the famous Pickett’s Charge.
– A small wooden slat bears the scrawled name of a dead Union soldier. It had been tied with a leather thong to his wrist, identifying him for burial. Around it are letters written to his father by the soldier’s colleagues.
Wall displays hold rank upon rank of rifles from among the 28,000 recovered on the battlefield. About 23,000 of them were still loaded — and had not been fired by their wounded or frightened owners.
One wall is covered with photographs of 1,000 soldiers, 500 from each side. Each of these men was killed, wounded or captured. They represent all who fought here.
“We want people to get out and walk the battlefields, experience it and leave wanting to learn more, to come back.
“This place is so special in our history.”
If you go
The Museum and Visitor Center is open daily, except on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day. Entrance to the museum is free. Timed tickets to the 22-minute A New Birth of Freedom have varying fees for different age groups.