Attendance is expected to skyrocket at Civil War museums and battlefields over the next few years. At Gettysburg they are predicting 4 million visitors this year alone. Almost certainly it will be higher in 2013 during the 150th anniversary of the battle. I have been visiting Civil War battlefields across the country for almost fifteen years and thought I’d offer some advice on how to get the most out of the experience.
Rule #1: The Visitor Center is not the destination
Pay any necessary fees at the Visitor Center. Get a map at the Visitor Center. Ask about the scheduled programming at the Visitor Center. Watch the introductory film if they have one at the Visitor Center. Look at the displays at the Visitor Center. Cool down and get a drink at the Visitor Center. Buy a few postcards and maybe a souvenir at the Visitor Center. Whatever you do, don’t confuse the Visitor Center with a trip to the historic site.
Rule #2: Take a ranger tour
A tour of the Sunken Road or the Hornet’s Nest will be that much more rewarding if you experience it under the guidance of a ranger. If it’s solitude you want, you can always go back by yourself.
Rule #3: Remember, it’s not a theme park
The real reward of walking a battlefield or visiting a historic building is walking in the footsteps of where history was made. I often tell visitors at Ellis Island that if you teleported an immigrant from 1911 to the immigration station today, a century later, he would know where he is. He would recognize New York Harbor, the Statue of Liberty across the water, and the Baggage Room and Great Hall where he was processed. It’s extraordinarily moving to stand at the top of Marye’s Heights looking down at where the Union troops tried over and over to take the hill away from Longstreet’s men. You’re walking where great and important events happened.
Rule #4: Be mindful
Major roads, even highways, often cut through Civil War national parks. When approaching an intersection, on foot, on bike, or in your vehicle, be aware and look both ways. Note, as well, that private property, even residential homes, are often located within parks. This is because over the decades the parks acquired battle acreage a little at a time. Eventually, in some areas, the parks came to surround private land. Moreover, interesting sites are often found outside park bounds. The First Shot marker, for instance, is a few miles west of Gettysburg in someone’s front yard. It is usually okay to visit such attractions if one follows proper decorum.
Rule #5: Don’t try to do too much
Only have one day, or even a few hours? That’s fine. See the one or two things that mean the most to you. The glass is half full. The best things about the national parks is their permanency. You can see more on your next visit.
Coming soon, part 2