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The Gettysburg Caress

It Has What America Has: Blood, Sweat, Schlock -- and Decency

By Hank Burchard
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 29, 1995
© The Washington Post

Gettysburg is grungy. Gettysburg's dingy. The whole town's awash in tourist schlock. It's also one of my favorite places on the planet, because it is what it is: the most American place in America.

Gettysburg fools Americans the way America fools foreigners who, misled by our movies and television, are generally surprised to discover that we're pretty ordinary, and generally quite decent.

So is Gettysburg. Underlying all the silliness and souvenirs is a hard-working community of 6,000 that's stuck in a time warp. Much the same can be said of all the United States, since all American history leads to or from the Civil War. But the Town of Gettysburg is both psychically and physically defined, outlined and fenced in by the battlefield that made the Pennsylvania Dutch hamlet forever famous.

Actually Gettysburg has long been living under false pretenses by claiming to mark the high tide of the Confederacy. The turning point of the war had come nearly a year earlier, at Antietam. That bloodiest single day of all had shown that the South could not carry the war to the North, and had given Lincoln a high point from which to launch the Emancipation Proclamation, elevating the Union campaign from a political to a moral cause.

Militarily, Gettysburg was a series of passionate blunders in which Lee and his lieutenants stubbornly shattered the Southern army against superior forces holding better ground. The significant event at Gettysburg came months later, when Lincoln addressed to his countrymen and to the world a few words that, as we have only lately begun to fully understand, expanded the Union cause from repairing to replacing our torn social fabric.

The force of that great battle and of those greater words remains palpable at Gettysburg. The effect is not diminished but enhanced by the intrusion of motels, garish "attractions" and fast-food restaurants upon the hallowed ground. The buses, vans and tourist campers crawling across the battlefield like giant bugs don't mar the view or dishonor the men who bled and died there. They help validate the sacrifice by testifying to the continuing vitality of the nation and to the enduring mystery and drawing power of the carnal passion that drives men to kill each other in the name of God and country.

But the best thing about Gettysburg is that it's not a bad place to spend a few days even if you don't give a tinker's damn about the Civil War. Spouses can go biking, hiking or antiquing, and tourist-friendly Adams County offers plenty of nonmartial sightseeing. Kids can romp freely through field and forest or electronic arcade, and waste their money on a grand variety of foolishness and junk.

This pluralism no doubt has prolonged many a marriage. My bride, for instance, awoke the morning after our wedding to the realization that not only were we honeymooning in Gettysburg, she was legally bonded to a freak who could recite the order of battle on both sides. After a long morning of battlefield touring she waved the white flag; the terms of our personal Civil War truce were discussed over dinner at a restaurant run by sympathetic ladies who knew what a fix my wife had got herself into. (The truce is in its 35th year.)

For Civil War buffs the attractions range from grand (the battlefield) through quaint (the National Park Service facilities) to cute (just about everything else).

The battlefield is always and forever awe-inspiring because of all the men who fought and died on it, of course, but also because it is possible for even the casual visitor to clearly understand how the events of those first three days of July 1863 unfolded. The same geography that shaped the course of the battle guides the eye over the ground, aided by an abundance of monuments, maps and markers.

There came the Confederates from the west; here stood the Yankee cavalry, barring the way until blue infantry came up from the south. Now come more Rebs from the north, turning the Yankee flank and forcing them to flee through the village . . . . If, like many of us, you had family on one or both sides in the battle, professional guides can walk you through what they went through, accounting for virtually every encampment and encounter of any unit, at any hour and minute, on any yard of ground. Gen. John Reynolds didn't die "at Gettysburg," he died here, at this edge of this wood, on this spot, marked by his men and then by a monument -- and now also by the hooves of the ever-proliferating whitetail deer.

You can take a tour bus or drive around the battlefield on your own. You can walk the ground, and sit and think on it. Go slowly, with a sharp eye, and you may find a fragment of reality: a lead bullet turned chalky from oxidation, an iron shell fragment crumbling to rusty dust, a brass uniform button corroded to a blackened pebble, a human tooth stained brown by earth or tobacco. Law and decency require us to let them lie.

The Park Service visitor center is wonderful, probably because it wasn't planned or built by the government. It was built as a private museum to house the collection started by Gettysburger John H. Rosensteel a few days after the battle. His heirs, other aficionados and appreciative veterans steadily expanded the collection until 1971, when it was donated to the nation. The Park Service has wisely kept the place essentially what it has always been: a quirky, florid, sentimental Victorian temple devoted to unabashed hero worship. In its way it tells more about the Civil War and our civil warriors than the most thorough and judicious factual account.

Not that facts are lacking. There's a book and gift shop that's the equal of many a Civil War library, plus an electric map show ($2) that gives a quick overview of the battle; in the nearby Cyclorama building there's a 26- by 356-foot panoramic view of Pickett's Charge, painted over a century ago by Paul Phillippoteaux and dramatized by a sound-and-light narration ($2) [Note: as of July 1996, the admission fees for the electric map show and Cyclorama are $2.50 each.].

But the best $20 you can spend in Gettysburg is to hire a licensed battlefield guide who'll go with you in your own car. You'll get an account that's so vivid you'd think the guide was "present on the field," plus plenty of fascinating factoids; these folks are professional Civil War buffs, and they know their stuff. Such as the serially purloined pair of shoes in which three men died in two days; the 16-foot fence board that somebody counted 836 musket holes in; the Gettysburg boy who came home to die in the yard of the house where he was born, fighting for the invaders . . . .

Back in town, you're on your own. Gettysburg isn't a very big place, and tourism ranks behind farming as the area's leading industry, so there's a small-time, shopworn air about such places as the National Civil War Wax Museum, the Colt Firearms Museum, the Hall of Presidents, the Soldiers National Museum, the Lincoln Train Museum and so forth. But there's an earnestness in the presentations, along with a certain endearing ineptitude, that keeps you from resenting having paid the typically modest admissions. This is genuine, home-grown gimcrackery, as opposed to Disney worldliness.

Ways & Means

Editor's Note: WashingtonPost.com has checked the information below, which appeared with the original article, to ensure that it is current as of July 1996.

Getting There: From the Beltway, take I-270 to Frederick and U.S. 15 north. On a good day it will take an hour or so.

Getting Around: The first Gettysburg exit (Business 15) takes you straight to the Visitor Center of the Gettysburg National Military Park (97 Taneytown Rd., 717-334-1124), which is just where you want to go to find out anything you want to know about the battle and the battlefield. It's also the place to hire a licensed guide -- but get there by 8 a.m., as reservations are not taken for individuals, only groups -- and the launching point for tours of the Eisenhower National Historic Site, the farm where Ike and Mamie Eisenhower lived out their days in the only home they ever owned.

Food, Lodging, Info: For local information and advice on accommodations, continue on 15, which becomes Route 34, through Lincoln Square to the Gettysburg Travel Council office in the old railroad depot (35 Carlisle St.). Of course, if you were on the ball, you called ahead (717-334-6274) and a handy packet is already yours.

By now you're hungry as a horse. If you don't mind tobacco smoke, the Dobbin House Tavern (717-334-2100) is nearby at 89 Steinwehr Ave. The 1776 building is charming and the food and service are fine, but I had to abandon a half-finished meal when the smoke got too thick.

My favorite Gettysburg eatery is Herr Tavern and Publick House (800-362-9849), a reconstructed prewar hostelry that stands on U.S. 30 west, not far from where the battle began. The food and service are excellent, the bar is outstanding, and the prices are reasonable. There are also a number of very attractive period-style rooms, with individual baths, starting at $65 a night.

For lunch, I like General Lee's Family Restaurant, right next to Lee's Headquarters on Route 30 eight blocks west of Lincoln Square. The place serves what may be the best hamburgers and cheeseburgers in America, and perhaps the second- or third-best fries. The bar isn't bad either, except for a drink called Pickett's Punch, which is a fraud. Gen'l Pickett may have been bloodthirsty, but he was a teetotaler.

© The Washington Post Co.

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