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Gettysburg Family Vacation Fun Experiencing History with Kids. As we walked toward the center of the National Cemetery our pace was slowed by the sound of a young voice. “Four score and seven years ago our forefathers…” the voice paused, “Grandpa are you listening? “ Gettysburg is a destination with for all ages to make memories together.

Ask any 10-year old what they think of when they hear the word Gettysburg and more than likely the answer will be President Abraham Lincoln. Not always is the connection made to the American Civil War  or even to the battle because it is the Gettysburg Address that is most often memorized. The voice of the boy we heard in the cemetery was connecting what he knew with what he saw, a real place. So, as our day progressed we did the same.

Our day began shortly after seven at the cemetery.  I was surprised at the number of other parents there with their children.  We walked along the pathways that divide the grave markers of the soldiers. The long shadows cast by the marble sculptures made them seem gigantic. From our guidebook we read that a total of 3,555 Union soldiers are buried here. We already knew that this is where President Lincoln gave his Gettysburg Address on November 19, 1863.  To properly bury the Union soldiers who died at Gettysburg, there is a  "Soldiers Cemetery" was established on the battleground near the center of the Union line. Kid’s note: Don’t miss the cemetery because it is where Abraham Lincoln spoke. It is also the place where some of the movie Remember the Titans was filmed.  From our guide I learned that in early July of 1863, more men actually fought and died at Gettysburg, than any other battle ever fought in North America!  It was a three-day and did not end the war.

After eating our donuts on the grass near the image of Mr. Lincoln we crossed the street to the interpretive center. Each of us had facts about the events leading to the battle and so it was our goal fit names with the actual places. The magnitude of this historic event is difficult to comprehend but as a teacher I know that there is no substitute for a first-person experience to complete the learning cycle.

The Gettysburg National Military National Park Interpretive Center on Cemetery Hill is the ideal starting place. Plan to spend at least two hours at the center viewing artifacts, movies and different programs. We all knew that it was the site of the largest civil war battle ever waged in the Western Hemisphere even though it lasted only three days. The Battle of Gettysburg began on July 1, 1863 concluded with the climactic "Pickett's Charge". The Union was victorious and General Robert E. Lee was successfully turned back. For us the tone was set when we heard that at this battle there were more than 51,000 casualties and 172,00 men were involved in the battle. It still is the bloodiest battle ever fought on American soil.

To see exactly how it happened, get tickets for the electric map presentation in the auditorium at the center. Observers sit in a theater-in-the-round setting and get a bird's eye view of the campaigns run by each side. In about 30-minutes the story is told by recreating the battlefield landscape in miniature. Colored lights mark the movement of Lee's army as they progress closer to Gettysburg. The commentary continues as lights representing the Union troops block the path.  Older children will understand and enjoy the diorama of the battlefield strategies. Kid's note: Cool but not for little kids. This is a place that is for adults. Mom’s note: The center is scheduled to be torn down and rebuilt on a less historic site. The gift shop is a must because they have exceptional learning materials that will be useful once back in the classroom.

From the center National Park Rangers give guided walks through the cemetery and memorial site throughout the day. On the day we were there it was very busy and I am told that is always the case in the summer.  Author’s note: Get a plan at the start and stick to it because it is easy to get distracted.

The Cyclorama Center, is a short walk from the visitor center, is also worth visiting. Purchase a ticket for a 20-minute sound and light program of Pickett's Charge.  Visitors stand beneath a colossal circular painting on the ceiling of the center. It's hard to visualize, but it's neat. The imagery is impressive and the presentation is interactive so there is a sense of being there.

To get a little perspective, Gettysburg is not just a battle site; it is also a city. Gettysburg National Military Park incorporates nearly 6,000 acres, with 26 miles of park roads and more than 1,400 monuments, markers, and memorials. The battle was fought around the surrounding countryside so to understand the complexity a tour of the battlefields is necessary.

There are several different ways to tour. For families interested in getting the most out of the field trip I recommend hiring a tour guide.  Guides can be arranged at the Gettysburg Battlefield on a first come first serve basis. The guide will drive your car through the 18-mile area and explain what happened.  Our guide was very knowledgeable and used language our 9-10 year olds could understand.  He was very friendly, informative and sincere during the trip.  We were able to get out of the car and take many photos.For more information check out the website at www.gettysburgfoundation.org.

Still another way to absorb the history of the area is to buy an CD and tour the battlefield areas on your own. The CD we purchased explained exactly where to go and when to turn. It also indicated what to look at, and explained what happened at each of the major sites.  The CDs can be purchased many places and are $20. Mom's note: It's also helpful to have a cooler with the right kind of drinks or snacks because once you begin the driving tour it is better not to break concentration.

Discovery point: This location is best suited for families with children aged eight or older. Once onsite the experience can be gauged to the age. It is a spot that offers plenty of activities and tours. While in the area I learned from others about more touring options for families. On horseback:From one of the rangers I learned that there are tours available on horseback by National Riding Stables, 610 Taneytown Road, (717) 334-1288 www.artilleryridge.com. By motor coach: Best suited for mature families, there is a tour by bus found at www.GettysburgAddress.com
 
Vacation Planning Details 

The Gettysburg National Military Park. 1 (717) 334-1124 or www.nps.gov/gett

The Gettysburg National Cemetery. Visitor Information (717) 334-1124 www.nps.gov/getc 

The Schriver House. During the siege Confederate sharpshooters occupied this house. Today it is a museum dedicated to explaining the civilian side of the battle. 309 Baltimore St. (717) 337-2800.

The Wills House. This is where President Lincoln stayed the night before he delivered the Gettysburg Address. The last details to his historic speech were made at this house. Center Square (717) 334-8188.

What else is there?

On a farm in Pennsylvania: The area surrounding Gettysburg is great for families wishing to enjoy rural America. Rolling hills and meadowlands provide a tranquil backdrop. There is little traffic and no lines. The summer season allows fruit and vegetable stands to thrive. In this area farm stays are popular and really perfect for young families. A reliable source for finding the perfect family fit is  www.pafarmstay.com.
 
Humerhaven Farmstead. Seven resident kids act as guides and hosts. They have llamas, miniature donkeys, sheep, goats, ducks and pot belly pigs. For guests they offer a comfortable two-story cottage. (717) 589-7748 or  Bonnie or Gary at gschubert@tricountyi.net 

Olde Fogie Farm. This organic farm is in Southeastern Pennsylvania. They welcome kids in the summer and have plenty of llamas and pet pigs, emus and horses. They allow children and parents to gather eggs and bottle-feed little animals.1(717) 426-3992.
 

Content by lLisa Kamps based on site visit in 2010. Updated copyright 2013.

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