Gettysburg National Military Park and Visitor Center

My Civil War buff husband had been longing for the day he could share his interest in Civil War history with his daughters (now eight and 12). That opportunity finally arrived when my Philadelphian friend invited us to spend a weekend together in Gettysburg with her two kids, also eight and 12. The Gettysburg National Military Park and Visitor Center tells the story of the Battle of Gettysburg, the bloodiest battle of the Civil War. Gettysburg was also the turning point of the war and inspired Lincoln’s most famous speech “The Gettysburg Address.”

Your first stop at the Gettysburg National Military Park and Visitor Center is the ticket booth. A basic combination ticket ($12.50/adults; $8.50/ages 6 to 12) includes the Cyclorama, Film, and Museum. Additional packages are available that include different ways to see the battlegrounds. Note: Keep your tickets as they will scan them at all three stops.

The 20 minute film “A New Birth of Freedom,” narrated by Morgan Freeman with the voices of Marcia Gay Harden, Sam Waterson and Anthony Chisolm, uses original stills and re-enactments to document the Battle of Gettysburg in the context of the Civil War. It is shown every 15 minutes beginning at 8:15am.

Next you go up an escalator to see the restored 1884 cyclorama. Cycloramas, large paintings in cylindrical rooms, were an early form of entertainment — the movie theaters of the 1800s. This particular cyclorama was created by Paul Philippoleaux. It is the largest painting on display in the United States, measuring 42 ft. high and 377 ft. in circumference. Through light and sound effects and a three-dimensional foreground, Pickett’s Charge (an infantry assault on July 3, 1863, the last day of the Battle Gettysburg) is stirringly brought to life. The 25 minute show seemed a mere 5 minutes. The cyclorama was by far the kids’ favorite part of the day. The film was their second favorite. Then descend by steps to the outside of the Gettysburg Museum of the Civil War.

The museum chronicles the Civil War from its beginnings to its aftermath in 12 galleries. Directly outside the Museum you will see an impressive collection of guns and buckles and two mannequins – one a Confederate soldier and the other a Union soldier. The first few galleries explore the causes of the Civil War. The middle ones deal with the battles. The Aftermath Gallery deals with the ramifications of the war. Two galleries are devoted to the Gettysburg Address. In the first, you can listen to a recording of the address; while the next talks about its contemporary reception. For example the Chicago Tribune described Lincoln’s speech as “flat dishwatery comments.” The final gallery describes the preservation of the Gettysburg Battlefield.

My 12 year old was particularly struck by a display and explanation of surgical tools and a panel with inflation rates. For example, from 1861 to 1865 a barrel of flour went from $4 to $425 (no, this is not a typo). I liked the displays of the difference between the army-issued supplies for Union and Confederate soldiers.

The museum’s collection holds over a million artifacts — around 1200 of which are on display. Noteworthy ones include Gen. Robert E. Lee’s stove, cot, medical chest, and field desk, a bronze cannon and shells from Fort Sumter. There are five theaters (with seats) with short films on different themes such as slavery and two theaters where you can hear quotes from battle participants.

The exhibition is peppered with interactive stations. One had bugle calls; another broke down the census of each state; and another had a map of the Battle of Gettysburg. A Special Exhibits Gallery has changing exhibits. The current exhibit is “Letters from Home” featuring original correspondence. It will be replaced by “Treasures of the American Civil War” sometime in the spring of 2013.

It takes a minimum of an hour and a half to go through the museum. Except for my older daughter, the three other kids, while initially engaged and excited, lost steam within an hour. If you read everything, you could easily spend hours at the museum.

Between 2 and 4pm daily, the Museum has kids carts to explore different aspects of the period. The subject our day was signal flags. The kids learned to spell their names using different flags. Other topics have included hoop skirts, weapons, and medicine. In addition, there are free Park Ranger led programs including two hour tours of the battlefield, programs on key events and daily life, and kids programs. A large sign is posted at the Visitor Center or check the website.

The museum bookstore has a wide selection of souvenirs especially books. A penny machine is outside the store. The bookstore carries a variety of CD audio tours of the battlefields. Because we were pressed for time, we chose to do the shortest CD audio tour called “Concise Audio Tour of the Gettysburg Battlefield” ($21.99) even though the recommended one with kids was the two hour CD with dramatic effects and music. The tour was 18 miles and included 16 stops. Stops are marked by stars. All of the adults enjoyed the commentary and found it well done and informative; all the kids found it dull. Next time, we would try the longer one.

The cyclorama and and possibly the film would appeal to kids six and up. I would only recommend the Museum portion for kids 8 and older. Be prepared for the kids to get restless before you are done exploring this fascinating museum.

If traveling with younger kids, I recommend you combine the Visitor Center with a more kid-oriented attraction. Both Land of Little Horses (see the Our Kids review) and Mister Ed’s Elephant Museum and Candy Emporium (see the Our Kids review) are a mere 15 minutes away. Our kids loved the miniature horses, Trevor the Donkey and the baby goats at Land of Little Horses but the arena show was very disappointing. Even more popular with our group was the unexpected treasure of Mister Ed’s. The charming town of Gettysburg itself has a number of smaller museums and historic houses, shops, and restaurants. All in all, Gettysburg was a perfect spot for an easy weekend getaway.

Additional Notes

  • Hours: 8am to 5pm (November 1 to March 31); 8am to 6pm (April 1 to October 31); closed Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day.
  • Admission is $12.50 for adults and $8.50 for children ages 6 to 12; 5 and under are free. Seniors 65 and over and military are $11.50. You can also add on a bus tour for a fee.
  • The snack bar had icees, pretzels, drinks, and candy. The refreshment saloon had personal pizzas (around $8), burgers and hot dogs. More period-authentic choices include soups, pot pies, and chili. There is also a pleasant terrace for outdoor dining.
  • There are water fountains near and both restrooms have changing stations.
  • Note: Backpacks and large handbags are not permitted in the Museum and Visitor Center.
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