Gettysburg with Kids
This summer marks the 150th anniversary of the battle that turned the tide of the Civil War. Are your children ready for a living history lesson? BT shows you how to do it right.
For a summertime visit to a place as big as Gettysburg (a typical auto tour covers 24 miles), a friendly guide and some kid-friendly activities may be as essential as sunscreen, insect repellent, and water. Sanders recommends that you consider booking a personalized tour of Gettysburg. You can book a Licensed Battlefield Guide in advance ($65, booked at least three days in advance), or take your chances with a first-come-first-served sign-up each morning at 8 a.m. The guide can accompany you in your car on a two-hour battlefield tour—it's essentially like having a teacher along for the ride to lead you to the most important sites and answer your family's questions. Gettysburg also offers free summer ranger field programs—sign up first thing at the visitors center information desk as space is limited, and pick up Junior Ranger activity booklets.
Your Gettysburg itinerary
The most common approach to Gettysburg National Military Park is to start at the visitors center and museum, then embark on the 24-mile self-guided auto tour (an annotated map shows you the route and points out the major battle sites along the way). While the museum is a must-see with an extensive collection and interactive education stations, and visitors should try to plant their feet on key spots around the park, such as the site of Pickett's Charge (the doomed Confederate attack that turned the tide of the three-day battle), there are other, better ways for kids to really experience Gettysburg. "My recommendation is for families to find a specific person, or a specific regiment that they are interested in learning more about," says Sanders. Families who "walk in the footsteps" of a real Union or Confederate soldier can even—thanks for the power of social media—read the letters and battle accounts of those soldiers via Gettysburg's Facebook page. Each Wednesday through the end of the year, the page spotlights a person involved in or affected by the battle of Gettysburg. As many families have experienced when visiting a museum dedicated to, for instance, immigration, or tolerance, or slavery, sometimes tracking the progress of just one person through a difficult chapter of history is far more rewarding than trying to understand the bigger picture, especially for grade-school children.
"For example, if a family is coming from Alabama, they could research the 15th Alabama Infantry and follow their path from July 2, 1863 as they launch repeated attacks on the end of the Union line, occupied by the 20th Maine Infantry," Sanders suggests. "Or if a family is interested more in the farmers and civilians, they could learn about the John Slyder family, and then visit their farm at the base of Big Round Top, or Abram Bryan, a free black farmer whose house and barn was located near the very center of the Union line on July 3." Got a dog? Tell your kids the story of Sallie, the canine mascot of the 11th Pennsylvania Infantry, and a visit her monument near Oak Ridge.
Let the little ones take the lead
Whether you decide to take your children to Gettysburg during this anniversary year or sometime down the line, I hope you'll give the little ones the elbow room to experience the place on their own terms—as Sanders suggests, and as my own parents did for me all those years ago. You may not entirely understand why your child is, say, fascinated by a particular field, or artifact, but be assured that they are processing this complex chapter in our history the very best they can. A visit to Gettysburg is not a time for lectures. Whether they come home with a solid sense of history's sweep or just the indelible memory of one soldier's few days on this rolling farmland, you'll have ignited a spark.
Gettysburg National Military Park, Museum and Visitor Center entrance at 1195 Baltimore Pike, Gettysburg, Penn., visit nps.gov/gett for special anniversary-year events. Admission to the park is free, museum $12.50 adults, $8.50 children 6+, free for children under 6.