I’m thankful I had the opportunity to visit Gettysburg National Military Park three times this year with my various groups. Gettysburg is where my nerd-odyssey began at the tender age of 7. We were visiting the battlefield on a family trip. We took a horseback ride through the park. I remember it well enough to recall that my horse’s name was Judge - and that it was the beginning of my fascination with American history. It will always be a special place to me.
In 2018, I only had one group pay a visit to the park. 2019 has proven more abundant.
Nuts & Bolts. If your group needs chow, there is one food court option and two major restaurants. The food court is found at the Outlet Shoppes at Gettysburg. It’s a food court - like many in this world (good for a greasy slice of pizza or a quick burger). The better eats can be had at the historic Dobbin House Tavern and/or General Pickett’s Buffet. Dobbin House has the advantage of being a historic inn (founded in 1776 it was later a station along the Underground Railroad). They’ve also got a little country store and a fella who stops by occasionally to impersonate Abraham Lincoln to the delight of diners.
General Pickett’s Buffet doesn’t have the cool back story of the Dobbin House, but it does have my deep appreciation. You see, during my inaugural Gettysburg trip of 2019, I inadvertently left an important envelope at the buffet checkout counter. It contained the tickets to my group’s Broadway show! By the time I discovered my mistake, we had traveled all the way back to Washington, DC. In 48 hours we had to be in New York City - I despaired of being able to retrieve the tickets in time. The owner of the restaurant was kind enough to personally drive the tickets to a halfway point between DC & Gettysburg - Frederick, MD. We met at a gas station and the swap was made. As a result, I now pledge my undying loyalty to General Pickett’s. Plus they have a Battle Theater & gift shop!
Off-the-Wall. If you’re looking to kill some time before your battlefield tour, look no further than the wonderfully kooky Civil War Tails diorama museum. I had a half hour prior to a battlefield tour, and this strange gem fit the bill nicely. It’s basically an old house stuffed with battlefield dioramas. Instead of model soldiers waging war atop paper mache landscapes, however, it’s miniature cats. That’s right … thousands upon thousands of tiny cats locked in a titanic struggle for Union. Created by the sister team of Rebecca and Ruth Brown, the museum is a fun mashup of their two loves; Civil War history and felines.
The Reason You’re Here. The centerpiece of the journey will always be the well executed visitor center experience followed by a tour of the battlefield. The visitor center begins when you take your group into the movie presentation (narrated by the mellifluous Morgan Freeman). This is followed by a sound and lights show amidst the famous cyclorama painting. Afterwards, the group has time to explore the in-depth museum and amble around the gift shop. Groups are admonished to leave all bags aboard the bus and arrive early for their scheduled movie/cyclorama time.
Leaving the visitor center behind you, almost every motor coach group visiting the battlefield will be joined by a licensed battlefield guide. They’re Civil War Uber-nerds who climb aboard your coach to take you on story filled trek through hallowed ground. Battlefield guides are no joke. They’re the only people legally allowed to conduct compensated battlefield tours. The testing process to become a guide is extremely demanding and the competition among aspirants for a limited amount of irregularly available licenses is intense. The good ones are a wealth of info; the great ones truly make the story come alive for your group.
Where Do You Come In? As a tour guide, it’s up to you to navigate the group around when you’re not being led by a battlefield guide. Once they’re onboard the coach, you instantly become window dressing (which is just as well since it’s fun to turn the reigns over to a true subject-matter expert and let them run-the-show for a bit). You can strut your stuff, however, when it comes time to take the group over to the national cemetery and tell the story of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Typically, the cemetery is not on your battlefield guide’s site list - so you’ll have time to shine here on your own. Oh, and take them to the cat museum.
Once Upon a Time. The current battlefield experience differs from the one I recall in days of yore.
When I was a slightly older kid, I remember another battlefield visit with my folks that didn’t involve horses. The old visitor center still stood atop Cemetery Ridge and we made sure to see the venerable battlefield electric map. We then had a battlefield guide hop in our car with us for a nerdy adventure. I believe that somewhere along-the-way, toy soldiers were purchased. Memories!