Why I Keep Going Back to Gettysburg

by Scott Manning on June 27, 2013

Scott on Cemetery Hill Fall 2011 web

Next week, I will spend five days and four nights at Gettysburg. Over the past few years, I have been there more than two dozen times. Every time I visit, I bring people with me—family, friends, coworkers, Temple students—giving them tours that last the entire day.

I often have to explain my obsession, literally answering the question, “Why are you so obsessed?” Frankly, I am tame compared to some of the friends I have made recently. Yet, what is so special about Gettysburg? How can I find enjoyment traveling two-plus hours from Philadelphia to visit the same fields, ridges, and hills repeatedly?

At times, I feel I have an answer. For example, I find immense pleasure in learning and sharing history, especially warfare. Even more, I enjoy unfolding the story of battles chronologically for people, placing them in the spots where soldiers and commanders stood before they made decisions. I love to hear the reactions to men such as Sickles and heroes such as Reynolds or Buford.

Other times, I feel that accessibility comes into play. If I were in Maryland, my obsession would likely be Antietam. If I lived in Belgium, I would be taking dozens of trips to places such as Waterloo, Agincourt, or Crécy, to do the same routine. Or if I were in Scotland, my friends would get a heavy a dose of Stirling Bridge, Falkirk, and Bannockburn.

Then there is the fact that every time I go, I learn something new. Using modern maps, narratives, and contemporary accounts, I discover that what was the largest battle in this hemisphere is too big for me to fully grasp and appreciate, even after years of “obsessing.”

Yet, there is even more to Gettysburg. The tactics and maneuvers aside, the lead up to the battle is just as fascinating as the aftermath—the two armies moving north, unclear of each other’s exact positions and strengths, then one army fleeing for its survival, fighting the whole way through the rain just to get across the Potomac. Gettysburg remains a ruined town with thousands of poorly buried bodies throughout.

Then there are the effects on Pennsylvania, as those capable of leaving fled from Lee’s path, crossing the Susquehanna and packing Harrisburg with rich farmers and free blacks, escaping the approaching Army of Northern Virginia. Preceding all this was the governor issuing proclamations, calling on Pennsylvanians to defend their state. The amount of cattle, horses, pigs, and other loot that left with the Confederates is overwhelming, as you realize that Lee’s invasion of the North upset the region in ways that would take years to recover.

Why do I keep going back to Gettysburg? Because the campaign, the battle, and their effects on Pennsylvania are some of the most fascinating bits of history I have encountered.

If any of this sounds interesting to you, let me know, and I will take you there too.

{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Phil June 27, 2013 at 6:19 PM

My day there; the way you guided through the three days of battle; was fascinating and extremely enjoyable. It’s about the people; those who were there, what they were like, and what they did. It’s about the people; how that battle/the Civil War, affected our country, who we became, us. I would highly recommend others taking you up on your offer.

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2 Shane June 27, 2013 at 6:32 PM

Ive been to Gettysburg about 12 times. Studied the battle in a tactical level from a individual,regamental,divisional,core and army.I Would like to Follow you On your trip. I did lots of indavidual regament and brigade charges across the fields.Great way to see and live the park.Bring lots of maps.

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3 Randy R Glover August 8, 2013 at 12:27 PM

I went for the 1st time on the week of the 150th.I was captivated!I am from Massachusetts and will will return,probably next year.It was great to see and talk to other visitors that share my passionate interest of the civil war and this battlefield in particular.I believe that all Americans should see this remarkable place!

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4 Scott Manning August 8, 2013 at 1:07 PM

Randy, that is great to hear. The 150th was something special and I have struggled to put it into words, but I gave it a try.

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5 Angela August 8, 2013 at 12:53 PM

I have been to Gettysburg numerous times in the last five years…even dragging my husband there last November for our ten year anniversary. Accessibility is one factor…we live about 2.5 hours away….and my history crazed self finds that very convenient. But it truly is more than that. Absolutely true that you always learn something new every trip: the magnitude of the Battle of Gettysburg is immense. It pulls you in. There is something very reverent and peaceful about the town. Will I be back, despite visiting over and over again? By God, yes!!!

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6 Scott Manning August 8, 2013 at 1:07 PM

Angela, it sounds like you and I have the same bug. However, I am not sure I could convince my wife to spend an anniversary there. Thank you for commenting.

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7 Gettysres August 8, 2013 at 1:34 PM

Nice article, but you should really have given some attention to the TOWN of Gettysburg and not just the battlefields (although the town was battlefield too, as there was fighting all through the streets). I LOVE the battlefield but there is so much more to Gettysburg than just the fields and monuments. The town is historic with many buildings still showing signs of battle damage (including embedded shells in the walls of some homes) and there is so much to see and do there. You can download a free Iphone app to do a self-guided tour of town and some of the historic buildings, or hire a Licensed Town Guide to take you around (similar to the Licensed Battlefield Guides that operate from the Visitor Center, although these obviously concentrate mainly on what happened in town, who lived where, etc). You can visit the Train Station where Lincoln arrived at the night before he delivered the famed Gettysburg Address, and visit the house (now a museum) where he slept at (and even see his bed!). Plus there are many many more great attractions, antique stores, restaurants, etc to visit in town. The examples i have given are just that – examples, because there are many more wonderful things to see and do in the town of Historic Gettysburg, and many people (believe it or not) come to Gettysburg just for the town itself, and the battlefield is a bonus! It’s America’s Greatest Small Town!

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8 Keith Duff August 8, 2013 at 1:59 PM

You speak for so many of us.

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9 Traci August 8, 2013 at 2:07 PM

I go to Gettysburg because I feel the historical connection to my ancestors. My sons have known since they were young that they had family fight at Gettysburg. It is so very important to know where we come from as a society in order to fully understand where we are going…and it is beautiful in its own tragic way.

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10 Linda August 8, 2013 at 2:20 PM

About 2 months ago, a friend gave me the book Killer Angels. Before that day, I couldnt care less about Gettysburg. All I knew was there was a battle there and once upon a time, I had to memorize the Gettysburg Address.
Since then, all I can think about is the Battle of Gettysburg and its heroes on both sides. I want to walk and see what they saw and hear what they did. I haven’t gone yet and will do so before August is gone.

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11 Gettysres August 8, 2013 at 3:01 PM

Good for you! Just one word of advice from somebody who knows: Don’t believe everything you read in that book, it is a work of FICTION after all. Especially when it comes to Joshua Chamberlain and the actions of the second day on that small granite spur. Ask any Historian or Park Ranger and they will tell you what i am going to tell you: His role has been blown way out of proportion and he alone was not responsible for saving that hill and/or the Union army at Gettysburg. They were many other equally-heroic soldiers there on that day, not just on that hill but on other parts of the field too. Hardly anybody had even heard of Chamberlain before that book was released in the 1970s. Similarly, the strategic importance of Little Round Top has also been blown out of proportion along with Colonel JLC. A lot of historians today actually believe that Culp’s Hill was more important, and that the actions by people like George Greene were equally – if not more – important than those of Joshusa Lawrence Chmaberlain’s. Don’t get me wrong, i like Chamberlain, but i’m just being honest. It is because of that novel, Ken Burns’ TV series “The Civil War”, and Ron Maxwell’s film adaptation of aforementioned novel, entitled “Gettysburg”, that the myth of Little Round Top and Joshua Chamberlain has endured. But, talk to the right people and you’ll discover the truth about both (albeit some Park rangers still perpetuate the myth because some of them choose to tell a good story and what people want to hear rather than debunking a myth). Enjoy your visit.

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12 Darlene August 8, 2013 at 2:28 PM

I feel like you speak for me too. I have been going to Gettysburg at least twice a year for about 20 years! I am fascinated and absorbed with every visit. Explaining going to my friends is always a trial, their favorite joke is “It’s kind of like watching a Titanic movie, isn’t it? I mean you know the boat is going to sink, right?”. Trying to explain how compelling it is to see the fields and town, and that really I learn something new every single time I go, is ongoing. Not to mention the fact that the more we understand about our history, the easier it can be to understand our present and future. From the three hour drive from Delaware began at 4am, to the arrival within the town, to the arrival of sunset and the three hour drive back home (full of the memory and the new information that is always learned on every trip) arriving home about 1am, every trip is memorable. My last trip was my first overnight, five days and four nights, for the 150th, and it was magical and yet, I’ll be going back in November and again next year!!!!!

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13 Sean Seffer August 8, 2013 at 2:46 PM

Gettysburg is fascinating in so many respects to me. First and foremost the Union won a battle defending Pennsylvania and defeating the “mighty” General Lee. The timing was critical on so many levels, from the coincidence of the site itself coming together to the different terrains and skirmishes within the battle itself and what brought about the decisions causing them. I think reading ‘Killer Angels’ in the 1980′s really drove it home for me. The outcome of the battle certainly was one of major consequence for both sides. I believe the British no longer had faith in defending “King Cotton”….especially coinciding with Vicksburg. The town of Gettysburg and battle field is also SO well preserved and quite beautiful….the monuments and cannon give one the feeling it could have all taken place not very long ago. It’s very easy to imagine how things came together when touring. Simply captivating!

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14 Doug Torborg August 8, 2013 at 2:54 PM

Scott, I have been going there for over 40 years. Since my father and mother started taking me there as a child in the early 1960s. I was really into American History and the Civil especially Cettysburg. I finally got back there after not being able to go for the last 10 years. After having 3 hip repalcements and being in rehab. Which really took allot out of me and have to use a wheelchair most of the time now. But while in rehab I told my wife during that time if I get out before the 150Th Anniversary we were going. Even though in a wheelchair we went. And it was like I never left in remembering everything about the battle and area. And it was aslo the first time my wife has gone to Gettysburg. And now knows why I have always talked about it and the reason I have a large collection of books and other items that are from there. Now she is a Gettysburg History Buff. Every day while we were there after we did the auto tour she new all the basics of the battle and was telling me tinds I didn’t know from years ago. Because every night before going out the next day to tour during the 150TH week. I would tell her what we were going to tour. And after I fell asleep ahe would stay up and look up on the lap top everything about the battle and where we were going the next day. But she also is now toatally fasinated about every aspect of Gettysburg. And was really taken in just like you and I are about just being there and standing on the same ground where it all happened. We are already setting a date to go back in two years. Would be going back next year but mt step son is Graduating High School. Wish that we lived as close as you do to Gettysburg. Living in extreme up state New York is a little further away than where you live. It’s nice to see someone else that has the compassion as you do about everything there.

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15 Bethany August 8, 2013 at 4:43 PM

My family and I visit Gettysburg every year at least once. Ive been going since I was a baby, and im now 22. I enjoy going down there bc of the locals, the visitors, the scenery, the history and more! Its an incredible place and overwhelms me with emotions that are not describable with any words I can think of. We just went July 23-26. Its a 3 hour drive for us from Johnstown. We left at 5am and got down there right as everything was opening up. I enjoy walking in town after a hot day to get some dinner at The Avenue and then pop into the many stores with trinkets, books, and suvenirs. Afterwards, we get some ice cream. and even though those shops didn’t exist during the battle, town was still there. No matter what, anywhere you stand you could be standing where someone lost their life. Oct 9, 2012 my then boyfriend proposed to me on top of the culps hill tower! Talk about a beautiful sight with gorgeous scenery! :) I think that’s why its extra special to us now and we will continue to go back and take our future kids there. Gettysburg is amazing, and if people treat it with respect and kindness, the monuments and all will be around for many more years to come!

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16 Sherry R August 8, 2013 at 4:50 PM

I love Gettysburg. I have traveled there every year, sometimes 3 times a year for the past 10+ years. The essence of the sacrifice for not only our country but mankind resonates through the charming streets and across the peaceful fields. I am from Ohio and have a 6 hour drive but not once have I ever hesitated the trip to see my beloved Gettysburg. I have brought numerous people and explained the battle, the stories and shared in their new found love for the town. I will never stop going, learning, investigating the different stories and heroes that fought here. It has captured my heart.

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17 Shelly August 8, 2013 at 5:20 PM

Me,too.

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18 Kevin Thompson August 8, 2013 at 7:23 PM

In 1963, my parents took me there for the centennial. I was ten years old and it is one of my earliest memories. I have photo’s from that trip and have duplicated those pictures many times over the years. I have had the pleasure of sharing the Battle
field with my son’s, and I look forward to sharing that hallowed ground with our grandchildren when they are old enough(Just a couple more years if God grants me the time). Something in me stirs when I walk those fields… it is a timeless haunting power and struggle that still resonates from that sacred place….

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19 Denise August 8, 2013 at 8:52 PM

Except for the revolutionary war this was the only war fought in our country and it wasn’t all that long ago history wise. It’s walking the hallowed ground and knowing what happened ,you can see it all in your minds eye. The town itself is beautiful and great to walk around but also the countryside is so wonderful. I love to drive out of Gettysburg and see the farms, the orchards, the vineyards and the history follows you wherever you go. My husband and I come to Gettysburg from NJ at least once sometimes several times a year for the last 25 years. We love it. We have friends who don’t understand it but if they came they would feel it too.

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20 Bill Deater August 8, 2013 at 10:34 PM

Scott, I envy you in the fact that you live only two hours away. I live in Michigan and I have visited Gettysburg twice and plan to o gback again. I’ve studied the Civil War since I was a child and read numerous accounts of the battle but it never fully registered until I actually visited the battlefield. Standing atop Little Round top it all makes perfect sense.
To me the battlefield also has a certain mystical feel as well. When I am there I can almost hear the sounds and see the soldiers engaging one another.
I made it out for one day during the 150th re-enactments and thoroughly enjoyed myself, I just wish I had had more time. All the more reason to return again. Maybe I’ll see you there.

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21 Scott Manning August 9, 2013 at 6:58 AM

Randy, Angela, Gettysres, Keith, Traci, Linda, Darlene, Sean, Doug, Bethany, Sherry, Kevin, Denise, and Bill—Thank you all for taking the time to stop by and share your Gettysburg experiences yesterday.

When I wrote this, I did it for folks who had never been, or who maybe went and had a mediocre experience. The goal was to let them know what they’re missing. Passion is infectious and it can convey a lot to the uninitiated. My short post could not do what all of you just did, which is provide over a dozen heartfelt testimonials from all walks of life on Gettysburg. Now when I try to drag a friend or coworker, I can say, “Don’t take my word for it. Look at what these folks had to say.”

Thank you!

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22 Brian W. Schoeneman August 9, 2013 at 9:29 AM

I keep going back to Gettysburg because Scott keeps taking me.

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23 Tammy Hewson August 14, 2013 at 10:26 AM

Nice post. :) I live in North Syracuse, NY. I love Gettysburg. My grandparents( now Deceased) used to take me and my brother &sis when we were young (1970′s) . My grandfather was all about Gettysburg (He used to make miniature Towns and Battlefields). He & My grandmother are buried in the Cemetery there on Steiwher Ave. I have only been back twice since i was a child, that was on my Honeymoon & anniversary! I made my husband go there. we stayed at the Colton Motel which is the only place we stayed when i was a child. I have very fond memories of gettysburg and can’t begin to explain why. I have pics of Fantasy Land , Lincoln Train Museum , Civil war Wax museum. My fav place was the Lincoln Train Museum( Loved the train ride), & the wax Museum. Also, Loved eating at the Lincolon Diner. I can still remember the smell of the civil war museum ! I had planned on bringing my twin boys there when they were old enough but still havent got the chance, they are 15. I never have a car that is in good enough shape to get there. but someday soon i will rent one and go. lol I think everyone should go there at least once!

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