8:25 PM EDT, June 25, 2013
GETTYSBURG, Pa. — If history can be believed, I spent a remarkable three days in this cradle of Civil War history.
I stood in the bedroom where Abraham Lincoln slept the night before delivering the Gettysburg Address. I touched the hole left by the bullet that killed the only civilian during the three-day Battle of Gettysburg. And I ate dinner in a hotel west of town where Confederate leadership holed up for a week at the time of the battle.
One-hundred-fifty years after the Civil War's most famous battle, history endures in handsome, charming Gettysburg with unlikely size and scope. The town of 7,500 has done a masterful job of preserving its famous battle in many forms: sites, food, shopping and even lodging.
The town's June 28-July 7 celebration of the 150th anniversary precedes its honoring of Lincoln's address from Nov. 16 to 19. But the town has outfitted itself as an essential stop for history fans all year long.
The battlefield: An obvious and fascinating must is visiting the main Gettysburg battlefield (1195 Baltimore Pike, 717-334-1124, nps.gov/gett), on the south edge of town. Its rolling green fields are unbelievably pastoral for a place where an estimated 50,000 soldiers were killed, wounded or left missing. The weather needn't be perfect for a battlefield tour — you don't have to leave your car — but the sun on your neck and tasting the sweet, grassy air makes the battlefield come alive.
That's why I shrugged off the standard tours, by bus and car, to join a bicycle tour from GettysBike Tours (717-752-7752, gettysbike.com), located in the visitor's center parking lot. (Tours by carriage, Segue and horseback also are available.)
I joined Bruce Rice, one of about 155 licensed battlefield guides, to spend about 31/2 hours pedaling through the battlefield's quiet power.
We passed trees and barns that witnessed the battle and hundreds of monuments of all shapes and sizes erected in the years after the battle. Far more Northern monuments than Southern fill the landscape; history is indeed written by the winners.
"If you touch a monument, you're touching something someone who fought in the battle of Gettysburg touched when they came back as veterans," Rice said.
Ten-year-old Christianna Weissbach asked Rice why a red rose leaned against the towering marble monument to the Pennsylvania soldiers.
"The rose is there because people treat this as a big cemetery," Rice told her.
Beyond the battlefield: What makes Gettysburg worth visiting for two or three nights, rather than just one, are the museums and Civil War-related shops in the town itself. The day after biking across the battlefield, I stopped by the David Wills House (8 Lincoln Square, 877-874-2478, davidwillshouse.org) where Lincoln slept the night before his famed address reaffirmed the North's commitment to a war that would last 11/2 more years.
Restored from previous incarnations as an antique and dry-goods store, the Wills House essentially is a museum about Lincoln's visit to Gettysburg for the dedication of a battlefield cemetery, as well as the havoc that the battle wreaked upon a town where virtually every building — many of which still stand — was pressed into service as a hospital.
Equally fascinating is the Jennie Wade House (548 Baltimore St., 717-334-4100), where a 20-year-old Wade became the battle's lone civilian death while she stood in her kitchen. As the story goes, a bullet passed through the building's red front door and struck Wade as she kneaded bread dough. Visitors can tour the three-level period-furnished home, culminating with a look at a plank of wood bearing the dark splotches purported to be Wade's blood.
Gettysburg shops also can double as museums, with artifacts, books and trinkets (T-shirts and shot glasses) dedicated to the sympathies that still exist for both the Union and the Confederacy. There is, in fact, no shortage of dangling Confederate flags in the shops in town.
Union Drummer Boy (34 York St., 717-334-2350, uniondb.com) is particularly fascinating, with shopping that ranges from a cap worn by an Ohio Union colonel ($4,950), a Confederate canteen ($950) and a drum pounded by a 14-year-old boy from the 22nd Illinois Infantry ($5,500). Shop owner Brendan Synnamon said his clientele is broad.
"Some people collect from the regiment their relative was in. There are physicians who collect medical artifacts, and there are architects who collect drafting and topographical items," Synnamon said. "There were 600 variations of Civil War bullets. You could collect them and never get them all."
Eating and sleeping: A town so history-steeped includes food and accommodation that can imbue your stay with Gettysburg's lore even further. The town claims more than three dozen present-day inns and hotels that stood during the battle, "many of which were once Civil War hospitals used to treat the thousands of wounded left in Gettysburg."
Among them are the Brafferton Inn (44 York St., 717-337-3423, brafferton.com) where Civil War-inspired oil paintings hang on the walls and a bullet remains lodged in a fireplace mantle in one of the guest rooms, supposedly from the battle.
Food options include One Lincoln (1 Lincoln Square, 717-338-5455, onelincoln.net), on the ground floor of the recently, and immaculately, renovated Gettysburg Hotel (hotelgettysburg.com), whose menu has what are believed to be some of Lincoln's favorite foods, such as chicken pot pie and a dessert composed of apple pie, apple slices and slices of cheddar, brie and smoked Gouda cheeses.
The food isn't quite of the Civil War era, but period dress is part of the charm of Dobbin House (89 Steinwehr Ave., 717-334-2100, dobbinhouse.com), which was built in 1776 as a family home. And General Pickett's Buffet (571 Steinwehr Ave., 717-334-7580) is at least named for the battle if nothing else.
For a truly historic experience, head northwest of town to the Cashtown Inn (1325 Old Route 30, Cashtown-McKnightstown, 717-334-9722, http://www.cashtowninn.com), which owner Jack Paladino calls "the only 100 percent Confederate house on Union soil." The seven-room hotel, which boasts an impressive restaurant with a modern menu of beef, chicken and fish, was a Confederate headquarters during the battle, and Gen. Robert E. Lee is believed to have been there for as long as an hour, Paladino said.
With rooms named for Confederate luminaries, the hotel among the pastoral hills outside of town is particularly popular with Southerners.
"I've had men come through my door and cry," Paladino said. "It's very special for some guys if they find out their grandfather or great-grandfather was tangibly connected here."
I had no one in the fight, but three days here made me realize that anyone living in the United States is connected to Gettysburg.
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