Biking in Gettysburg National Military Park

This Memorial Day weekend my family camped at Caledonia, a state park located about fifteen miles west of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.  We would still be there if severe thunderstorms hadn’t forced us to prematurely pack up and hightail it home late last night (we camp in a tent).  The majority of our time was spent in the National Military Park, getting up close and personal with one of the most important and bloodiest battles of the Civil War.  When we planned this trip, we weren’t purposely making the connection between Memorial Day and the great human sacrifice for freedom and unity that was displayed at Gettysburg during July 1 – 3, 1863.  Now that I think about it, though, it was a most fitting way to be reminded of the dear cost of liberty for all in the United States of America.

For the up close and personal experience we were looking for, we chose to take a guided bike tour of the battlefield with Gettysbikes.  After considering the ages and biking experience of the kids, we decided on the Yanks tour, a 3+ hour, 7.5 mile journey around the Union side of the battle.  Ninety-five percent of the riding took place within the park with only one serious hill (Little Round Top).  Our guide, Bruce, was excellent.  He was a conscientious bike guide and an encyclopedia of information.  He expertly narrated the three day battle in terms even the kids could understand and highlighted the human element with stories of the soldiers’ experiences which sparked my interest.

First, Bruce took us to the Pennsylvania monument, where he set the stage for the battle.  He explained that General Robert E. Lee was passing through the area in the hopes of attacking Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.  General George G. Meade, newly appointed by President Lincoln to lead the Union army, was attempting to intercept him.  The interception occurred in Gettysburg.  On the first day of the battle, skirmishes between the two sides occurred west of Gettysburg.  The day ended with the Confederate army routing Union soldiers guarding roads north and west of town.  Both sides took advantage of the first night to secure their positions.

{ Our fearless leader }

“If I could only go off somewhere and have a good cry, put on some clean clothes, get a letter from home… I would be ready to come back and die like a Christian.”

Sgt. Paul Vaughn, Connecticut 1863

To highlight the battles of the second day, we made stops at the Trostle Barn, the Peach Orchard, the Wheatfield, Devil’s Den, and Little Round Top.  Bruce discussed the bravery and folly of General Sickles (3rd Corps) and his failed attempt to defend the no man’s land of the Peach Orchard.  At the Wheatfield, Bruce painted a grisly picture of the reality of war – the deafening sound of cannon and rifle fire, the hand to hand combat where guns were used as clubs and spears, the cries of agony, the blinding haze.  So many men died at the Wheatfield it was said that a person could walk from one side to the other on bodies and never touch the ground.  At Little Round Top, Bruce described the nick of time arrival of the 20th Maine, which secured the hill for the Union Army.  This group of men only just arrived after marching 31 miles in 24 hours.  With a brief two hour rest, they were called up to take and defend Little Round Top.  Despite the fierce fighting, by the end of the second day of battle the Confederate and Union armies were in a stalemate.  Neither side had gained or lost much ground.

{The Trostle Barn – still showing the scars of cannon fire }

{ A Witness Tree (I loved this concept) – alive during the time of the battle }

{ From the Peach Orchard looking back toward the Trostle farm }

{ Taken from the Peach Orchard }

{ Monument to a fallen Colorbearer at the Wheatfield }

{ From Little Round Top looking towards Devil’s Den and the beginning of the Blue Ridge Mountains }

{ Honoring the Divisions who fought to secure Little Round Top }

{ From Little Round Top }

For the final day of battle, we followed Bruce to Cemetary Ridge to the point of Pickett’s charge.  The bravery of the Confederate forces is undeniable, but they suffered a great loss.  Of the 12,500 men who began the charge, only 5000 soldiers made it to the fence that bordered Emittsburg Road.  Only 500 of those men were able to penetrate the Union lines and they were immediately killed or captured.  A single board from the famed fence was peppered with over 200 bullets.  I’m amazed even a single man made it any closer to Cemetary Ridge.  The day ended with a Confederate defeat, causing General Lee to retreat back to the south along the Blue Ridge mountains.  General Meade cautiously pursued but did not engage in any more fighting in the Gettysburg or surrounding areas.

{ General Meade and his war horse Old Baldy }

{ From Cemetary Ridge looking towards the Pennsylvania monument }

{ Describing Pickett’s Charge }

{ Looking toward Emmitsburg Road from Cemetary Ridge }

“Ye advocates of war, come here and look, and answer what compensation is there for this carnival of death.”

Philadelphia Public Ledger, July 15 1863

Of the original 91,000 Union and 75,000 Confederate fighting men, 51,000 became casualties (dead, wounded, missing or captured) by the end of the battle.  For every man who died on the battlefield, two more died of disease in the days and months that followed – all of whom were Americans fighting for freedom of one kind or another.

The park is beautifully maintained in a state similar to the time of the battle with open fields, picket fences, and patches of wilderness.  As I leisurely rode from site to site through the park, smelling the honeysuckle and warm grass, feeling the heat of the sun, and seeing the haze of humidity, I was able to really experience the natural world those soldiers existed in.  In the heat of the day, I understood how hot they must have been in their wool uniforms, how the heat must have exhausted them, and how thirsty they must have been.  The eerie quiet of the Wheatfield created a blank canvas for imagining the hellish struggle that took place there almost 150 years ago.  On Little Round Top’s perch, I could feel the elation of the 20th Maine as they took possession of the very spot where I stood on my own shaky legs.  Because Bruce did such an excellent job detailing the battle, I could look out across the fields and dells and “see” the battle unfolding.

The bike tour does not require outstanding athletic ability or bike riding skills and offers a high return on investment.  Our group of ten contained a toddler (who slept in a child seat on the back of her mama’s bike for most of the tour), three kids (belonging to me), and a senior citizen of average physical ability.  I highly recommend it for anyone the least bit interested in digging deeper than a cursory car ride through the park, stopping at the biggest monuments and climbing on the rocks at Devil’s Den (not that those aren’t enjoyable pursuits).  My entire family felt that it was a very worthwhile way to spend an afternoon.  We are still talking about it and anyone who has a teenager in their family knows that says volumes about the caliber of the tour.

All the quotes in the post come from exhibits in the museum at the Visitor’s Center – another highly recommended attraction at the Military Park.  I’m going to close this very long post with one final quote.  I believe it defines the power of Gettysburg National Military Park  as well as the importance of a Memorial Day, a time to remember and honor anyone who has given of themselves to protect this great country and the beliefs that formed its foundation.

“In great deeds something abides.  On great fields something stays.  Forms change and pass; bodies disappear; but spirits linger…

And reverent men and women from afar, and generations that… we know not of…[are]…drawn to see where…great things were suffered and done for them…”

Maj. Gen. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, Gettysburg 1889

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5 comments

  1. I have a friend who lives fairly close to Gettysburg which is good because he is constantly drawn back to Gettysburg to walk the grounds. I think he’s reincarnated from that historic time, but that’s a whole other story. He recently told me that you can also now ride the whole battlefield on horseback if the weather is decent. I think he’s planning on doing it this summer.

    I used to live in Maryland and would love to ride that historic spot. I can’t think of a better way to try and get the whole feeling of the battleground then by horseback. And remember, thousands upon thousands of horses payed for our war with their lives so it just seems fitting that this would honor that memory as well.

    • Although we didn’t see anyone on horseback when we were there, I knew it was an option. I agree that it would be an incredible way to tour the battlefield. Our biking guide was very quick to point out that the fields were littered with men and horses. It must have been a gruesome sight. I think any means of touring that gets you out of the car (walking, biking, or horseback riding) will definitely provide a more meaningful experience of Gettysburg. Thanks for taking the time to read the post!

  2. I’m was looking for some information for bicycling in Gettysburg (thinking about doing it on Saturday) and came upon your post. I know that it’s a couple of years old, but it was still very helpful. Thanks for the information and recommendation. We may take the tour instead of going it alone.

    • Gettysburg is great for bicycling and is certainly doable on your own. What makes the bike tour so enjoyable is all the history and background information the guide provides. For the very first time in my life, I grasped the sequence of events that took place on the battlefield and picked up lots of interesting tidbits in the process. We took the shorter tour because our kids were younger but would love to do the longer tour some time. I’m so glad that our experience was helpful to you. Whatever you decide to do, I hope you have a wonderful experience!


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