Back-to-school mode means you’ve probably already looked at the calendar for upcoming long weekends and vacations. We suggest a learning trip to Gettysburg.
We know. Getting kids excited about something “educational” is tough. But hang with us on this.
We like Gettysburg for a few reasons:
1. Some argue this was the battle for the soul of the country. In short, a big deal.
2. Abraham Lincoln never goes out of style.
3. The ability to walk, see, hear and even taste history totally blows school out of the water.
Gettysburg is especially important for 7-8th graders whose curriculum includes the Civil War. Of course, it can be a tough topic, so how do you set up your kids for the experience? The six-hour ride gives you plenty of opportunity.
“It’s not a happy event, but it’s a monumental event that needs to be talked about, especially with what’s going on today,” said teacher Rick Pyszczek, Jr., who’s also president of the Niagara Frontier Council for The Social Studies.
Pyszczek says it’s important that kids understand the issues of the North and South at that time too. While the overall idea that Civil War was about the moral issue of slavery is true, many folks forget that it began as conflict about states’ rights. Gettysburg was the turning point in the Civil War.
“Gettysburg really changed the course of history,” said Pyszczek, who notes one of the best tools to use is Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address that kids will be already be familiar with.
“The tone of the short speech reminds us to remember what happened, talks about what the ‘after’ will look like and asks how to bring people together,” said Pyszczek. “It also asks, ‘where do we go from here?’”
Pyszczek likes Gettysburg for the “it happened here” aspect too. The battle occurred July 1-3, 1863.
“Something as simple as the geography tells the story. Men running up a steep hill. If you visit in July, you can feel the oppressive heat the men battled in. You can’t learn that from a book.”
Tales of lesser-known, human stories often don’t make history books either. Yet Pyszczek warns against drowning the kids in information. “Go for big ticket items. Take the less is more approach.”
Here we list our top recommendations for your trip. Do some or all, depending on your time.
To that end, we also leave you with a quote from Abraham Lincoln: “Upon the subject of education…I can only say that I view it as the most important subject which we as a people can be engaged in.”
The Gettysburg National Military Park Museum and Visitors Center
Treat the museum as your battle headquarters for suggestions #1-3. The staff is unbelievably helpful.
1. Film, cyclorama & museum
Definitely invest in the Film, Cyclorama and Museum Experience ($15 per adult 13+; $10 kids 6-12; 5 and under free). The excellent short film “A New Birth of Freedom” sets the stage for what you’ll see.
From there, see the “Battle of Gettysburg” cyclorama. It’s a giant circular painting that was the IMAX of the 1880s. It traveled the country to be put on display.
Finish with the museum, which takes visitors through before, during and after the battle. Let the kids find their way at their own speed, even if it’s quick. Short films throughout the exhibit are perfect for explaining what they are seeing. If there is one thing to point out, it’s the slave shackles at the entrance. It brings the reality into focus.
2. Battlefield tour
The battlefield with its monuments won’t mean a thing unless you have it explained. Two options here are a bus tour or licensed battlefield guide in your vehicle. If you have the room, the vehicle tour is economical ($75) and the guide can interact with the kids on a personal level. Bus tours make stops where the guide takes visitors on to the field. Cost is $35 per adult 13+; $21 youth (6-12); 5 and under free.
3. Free (yes, free!) Ranger tours
The battlefield is also a national military park. Take advantage of free ranger-led hikes, walks and talks. The awesome information desk can help you map it out. Ranger schedules are online, so have the kids figure out what to do. Some events start at the museum while others are actual sites on the battlefield. Tours last anywhere from 45 to 90 minutes. With names like “Hardtack, Mud and Marching: The Life of a Civil War Soldier,” and “Cannoneers To Your Post: Join The Artillery,” you can’t miss.
Things to do in town
4. David Wills House
The David Wills House is part of the national park, but located in town. Lincoln arrived at the nearby station and walked to attorney David Wills’ home, where he stayed the night before the Gettysburg Address. (Wills was the man charged with cleaning up the battle and burying the dead in the new cemetery.) The museum tells the story of the Gettysburg Address. See the small bedroom Lincoln stayed in where he put the final touches on the speech. (Ironically, he wasn’t the main speaker of the cemetery dedication.) You’ll also hear the Gettysburg address read out loud.
5. Ghost tours
The casualties — killed, injured and missing — were enormous. The town had to deal with the aftermath when the armies pulled out. Ghost tours tell the stories the courthouse filled with wounded soldiers or the church where amputations occurred, and paranormal events that have taken place. Whether you believe or not, the ghost tour at least prevents the kids from vegging out back at the hotel on their phones. The Destination Gettysburg website provides several options, including the original Ghosts of Gettysburg tours.
6. Farnsworth House
We love the historic Farnsworth House (401 Baltimore St.; farnsworthhouseinn.com) period dining choices like “Goober Pea Soup” (peanut soup) and game pie. Don’t worry, there are also things like chicken pot pie and pork chops, and a kids’ menu. Dinners come with Jennie Wade bread. Shot through the door baking bread for the soldiers, she was the only civilian killed during the war. The Farnsworth House also offers tours, ghost walks and performances in its creepy Mourning Theater in the basement. Supposedly occupied by a Confederate sharpshooter during the battle, you’ll see the bullet-riddled walls outside.
Plan your trip
Columbus Day weekend falls on the first weekend of Gettysburg’s National Apple Festival (Oct. 6-7; 13-14).
Gettysburg’s Remembrance Day (Nov. 17), the weekend before Thanksgiving, features a parade, re-enactors and a ceremony at the cemetery. Dedication Day (Nov. 19) is the anniversary of the Gettysburg Address and includes a wreath laying ceremony, keynote speech and reciting of the Gettysburg Address.
Several hotels have indoor pools, but also consider Roundtop Campground (180 Knight Rd, Gettysburg, Pa.). Open year-round, it has fully furnished and equipped cabins and cottages.
Story topics: Out & About