by C.W. Buff
How does a self-guided walking tour of Downtown Gettysburg sound to you? YOU decide the pace. YOU skip what doesn’t interest you. You can even incorporate meals, wine tasting, museums, shopping and exploring historic homes along the way, or spread it all out over several days if you prefer. A tour featuring historic buildings and fascinating firsthand accounts of the battle from the people who lived it. That is the premise of this self-guided tour.
I happen to live less than an hour’s drive from the Lincoln Statue in the Square and have personally visited Gettysburg as a tourist/Civil War buff more times than I can count going all the way back to the 1970s. I have eaten at many of the restaurants, stayed at local hotels, campgrounds and bed and breakfasts and spent hours and hours roaming the museums, the battlefields and the downtown area. Although I recommend seeing and doing all of it; by far the part of the battle that fascinates me the most is that which occurred in town.
In July 1863, nearly 170,000 Union and Confederate soldiers of the Civil War collided in Gettysburg, a town of only 2400 citizens. That’s about 70 soldiers for every single civilian! The result was the largest military battle that has ever occurred in North America. Only three days later, there were an estimated 50,000 soldiers that were missing, wounded or killed. The impact on the town and the people living there was extraordinary. Fighting raged street to street and house to house as Union troops retreated from the Confederates; all while the locals hid in their homes and watched helplessly as the soldiers fell in their streets and yards. Private homes, churches and public buildings were commandeered and became places of grisly primitive surgery, as amputated limbs stacked up like firewood. Sharpshooters utilized every conceivable place of hiding to fire upon the enemy, while artillery rounds whistled overhead.
Amazingly, many of the involved buildings from yesteryear are still present today, and some still display battle damage. Soldiers and citizens that lived it immediately documented in books, journals and letters what they witnessed, and the firsthand accounts are gripping. There are historical signs posted throughout the town, but I found that some of the most interesting details were absent, probably due to limited space. I also learned early on that although these signs offer snapshots of the events; many people walk away feeling like they only know part of the story.
That’s why my favorite way of experiencing the Battle of Gettysburg is exploring in town on my own and then doing research afterwards. Consequently; during my many trips there, I have become familiar with a particular walking route downtown that showcases many of these buildings and personal accounts. It is a 2 mile walk that many would find to be both fun and interesting, but best of all; this route offers a beginning, a middle and an end that flows nicely and is easy to digest, even for children. This handbook also includes a brief overview of the war and this battle to read before you arrive.
I am not claiming to be an expert, and there are undoubtedly countless people that are far more knowledgeable on these subjects than I am. I’m merely a lifelong Civil War buff and frequent tourist of Gettysburg. If you crave extreme depth or thrive on the tiniest of intricacies of this conflict, this tour is probably not for you. But if you would enjoy a beautiful stroll through town, featuring battle-damaged buildings and firsthand accounts, and a nudge towards some of the best Civil War Exhibits, Museums, Restaurants and Accommodations; then this handbook could be just what you are looking for. From a tourist insider who has “been there and done that.” So grab that camera, put on those comfortable walking shoes and come to Gettysburg!
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