The small town of Gettysburg, near Pennsylvania’s border with Maryland, seems an unlikely spot for a battle of significance. However, in the summer of 1863, Union and Confederate forces clashed here, in what is called by some historians as the turning point of the Civil War. Whether you agree with that statement or not, there is no doubt of the battle’s effect on history. Now a National Military Park, Gettysburg’s location in the rolling hills of western Pennsylvania makes it the perfect place to take a fall socially-distanced educational trip with your family.
Gettysburg is at the top of most history enthusiasts’ lists when naming battlefields that they would like to visit. It is certainly one of the best preserved and most visited battlefields, with the town’s tourism focused almost exclusively on its presence. I had first visited Gettysburg as a 20-year-old college student in 1996 and was excited to now take my children to see the rocky battleground where so many lost their lives.
In 1863, Confederate General Robert E. Lee crossed into Union territory for a second time to bring the battle to the citizens of the North, who until this point, had been mostly physically removed from the battles. With Lee’s native Virginia the site of a majority of the battles, at least in the eastern front, its land was ravaged and barren. By taking the battle to the North, Lee thought that he could reinforce his supplies and possibly threaten Washington, DC. Until this point, Lee’s army had won most of the major battles in which it had fought, and its leaders thought that this push into Union territory might be the show of strength they needed to force the US government to capitulate to their demands for a separate country based on enslaved labor.
Little did Lee know that this battle would be the first defeat in a slow-moving decline of his army’s strength and prowess. He also didn’t realize that at the same time, the western front of the Confederacy would collapse with a defeat at Vicksburg. Just think, within the span of a few days in early July of 1863, the Union emerged victorious at both Vicksburg and Gettysburg, portending the end of the rebellion.
Gettysburg has become sacred ground to Americans, as the fierce fighting and blood shed on its ground literally saved the Union from defeat and ensured the eventual freedom of millions of enslaved people. Every American should visit Gettysburg at least once to give thanks to the brave men (and women!) who sacrificed so much for freedom.
Gettysburg National Military Park is a great place to bring your kids. Most of the battlefield tour can be done in a car so even the youngest of children can sit in their car seats while you view history. The battlefield is spread over 24-miles of roads and hundreds of acres so I recommend spending one night in the town to ensure that you see it all. I will describe the entire tour below but will also give a shortened version of the tour at the end for those who can only spend a few hours there.
Begin your tour at the impressive and beautiful National Park Service visitor center (note the opening days and hours due to the pandemic).
If the center is closed, you can still visit the tour roads – brochures are available in a kiosk outside.
Be sure to purchase tickets for the film, museum, and cyclorama in advance to ensure that you can see all three during your visit. The tickets for the cyclorama can go fast so buy those as soon as you know your travel dates. Tickets are sold through the Gettysburg Foundation, where you can also schedule car, bus, or bike tours of the battlefield. On our next visit, I want to bike the battlefield!
I recommend starting your tour with this multimedia experience, which will last about 1 hour. Aim to reserve tickets in the morning, have lunch, and then head out for the battlefield tour. No worries if you cannot snag morning tickets, you can start the driving tour using the map, which will loop you back to the visitor center about 2 hours into the tour. You could then have lunch and view the movie/cyclorama before finishing up the tour.
For children ages 10 and up, I recommend getting tickets for all three activities (film, museum, and cyclorama). For younger kids, feel free to skip the museum, which has interesting artifacts but is not a must-see for kids under the ages of 10, especially with COVID restrictions preventing the interactive exhibits.
Depending on your child’s attention span, the 22-minute film, narrated by Morgan Freeman, is a great way to introduce your children to Gettysburg. After the film ends, your tour guide will lead you into the cyclorama, the 377-foot painting of Pickett’s charge that is a must-see for all ages!
In this experience, the battle comes to life using lights, sounds, and narration. Note that there are some loud battle sounds, which might startle younger children. My kids were enthralled with the experience!
After you finish with the visitor center, head out to your car to begin your driving tour of the battlefield (don’t forget to pick up the NPS map). Your kids will also want to check out the extensive gift shop, located near the entrance! The visitor center also has a help desk for any of your other Gettysburg tourism needs. Inquire here to learn more about the licensed guides that are available to enhance your tour.
Before you begin your driving tour, be sure to download several recommended apps that will bring the battlefield to life during your tour:
- American Battlefield Trust’s Gettysburg app: Has great videos, pictures, and interviews about many tour stops. There is an additional app for the July 2nd sites. These apps are free and can be used even if you’re not at the site – perfect for a virtual field trip! The apps are GPS-enabled to show you where you are on the battlefield but they do not automatically play. They work best for the places you actually stop the car and get out to view the site. The apps are very interactive so they are great for tech-savvy kids to use.
- Action Tour Guide app: I downloaded this $7 app for our tour, and it worked really well. It is GPS-enabled so that you hear about the items of interest as you drive by, no need to push start on any buttons. Other apps like this include: the Gettysburg Story app and the Gettysburg Driving tour app.
Leave the visitor center parking lot – don’t miss a chance to get your child’s picture with President Lincoln before you leave!
Now begin the driving tour following the NPS map self-guiding tour information, which also corresponds with the driving apps tour. Be sure to visit the sites in the order listed on the NPS map.
The driving tour will last 2-3 hours, taking you from the first surprise skirmish north of town at McPherson Ridge through the deadly Pickett’s Charge on the last day of the battle. The drive is mostly along one-way tour roads with dozens of statues and memorials along the sides so you can go as slow as you would like. There are plenty of places to park along the route as well.
Before your tour, read books about Gettysburg with your kids and find several spots that interest them. My must-see spots include:
McPherson Ridge: The place where the battle began. You can sense the impending wave of soldiers coming over this very field.
Seminary Ridge: The imposing brick seminary building (now a museum) that is aptly described in the novel, The Killer Angels, served as a lookout position for Union General Buford and then was a hospital for the wounded. Just driving through the seminary campus gave me goosebumps!
Virginia Memorial: Along the Confederate lines, you can clearly see the field where Pickett’s Charge occurred on July 3, 1863. There is even a hiking trail that you can take through the field if you have older kids.
Little Round Top: If you don’t get out at any other stop along the tour, get out here! You can park at the summit and walk on a paved trail along the rocky ridge where so much fierce fighting took place. This is the site where the Maine 20th Infantry, led by Joshua Chamberlain, held the Union flank and charged down the hill, described in breathtaking detail in The Killer Angels. Be sure to hold tight to little ones’ hands at the top of the hill!
Devils Den: This drive through a boulder-strewn field is an option off of the main tour road (this road is very windy). It feels other-worldly and gives you a good perspective of just how futile any charge up the adjacent hill (Little Round Top) would be. We visited during a hot summer day and could just imagine the agony of the soldiers fighting in the July heat while wearing their wool uniforms.
High Water Mark: Standing on this spot, you can visualize the infamous and doomed Pickett’s Charge coming across the field.
Soldiers’ National Cemetery: This is the final resting place for the thousands of soldiers who lost their lives at Gettysburg. It is also the site of President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, which took place at the dedication of the cemetery in November of 1863.
If you take your time on the driving tour, it will take your family 2-3 hours (yes, it really does take this long!). If you listen to the Action Tour Guide driving tour and do not stop at all, it will take 1 hour. With younger kids who may not like being in the car, opt for this shorter tour, only stopping to get out at Little Round Top. By driving slowly, you can see most of the statues and expansive scenery from the car (Little Round Top is one of the exceptions to this).
Part of the driving tour will take you through the small town, which is lovely and charming. There are many interesting historical stops in town to see if you have the time:
- David Wills House (currently closed due to the pandemic)
- Rupp House History Center (currently closed due to the pandemic)
- Gettysburg Train Station – where President Lincoln arrived before his speech
- Gen. Lee’s headquarters
- Eisenhower National Historic Site (building closed due to the pandemic; grounds open and audio tour available) – check off another Presidential site from this list!
- Gettysburg Heritage Center
- Gettysburg Museum of History
- Shriver House Museum
- Jennie Wade House – the house where one of the saddest stories of the war took place. Amazingly, only one civilian was killed in the battle, Jennie Wade, a 20-year-old woman who was shot while kneading dough in her sister’s home.
Gettysburg is a place that I encourage all families to visit. While the major sites can be seen in a few hours, the entire experience would make a great fall weekend getaway. It is a good place for a virtual field trip for school as well. Plan your trip today!
- NPS tour: Free
- Museum, film, and cyclorama: $15/13 and up; $10/ages 6-12; free/5 and under (ticket prices for museum only are $9/13 and up; $7/ages 6-12)
- Recommended: all ages
- Tour time: 3-4 hours total
- Gift shop located at visitor center
- Transportation: Best seen by car. You can also see the battlefield on a bus or bike tour.
- Dining options: The visitor center has a small cafe for a quick bite to eat before your tour. Its restaurant is currently closed during the pandemic. There are several places in town to eat, including family favorites Ernie’s Texas Lunch, Lincoln Diner, and the Blue and Gray Bar and Grill.
- Nearby hotels: Destination Gettysburg, the town’s tourism site, is a great place to check on hotel options. We stayed 1 ½ hours away at The Salamander Resort in Middleburg, VA.
- Nearby attractions: Gettysburg playground, National Civil War Museum, Antietam National Battlefield, Harpers Ferry, and Hersheypark
Books to Read:
Be sure to check out my Civil War book list on Bookshop.org, an Amazon alternative that supports independent bookstores.
Specific must-reads for Gettysburg visits include:
- 14 and up:
- The Killer Angels
- Two Girls of Gettysburg
- Tillie Pierce: Teen Eyewitness to the Battle of Gettysburg (includes a Google Earth walking tour of the corresponding historic sites)
- The Battle of Gettysburg As Seen by Two Teens: The Stories of Tillie Pierce and Daniel Skelly
- The Colors of Courage: Gettysburg’s Forgotten History: Immigrants, Women, and African Americans in the Civil War’s Defining Battle
- Hallowed Ground: A Walk at Gettysburg
- 10 and up:
- 6 and up:
All links are affiliate links with either Bookshop.org or Amazon.