The bucolic farm scene spread out before me as I hustled to set up the camera and tripod in predawn darkness. The unfamiliar crisp air added to my thrill of being surrounded by uninhabited hallowed grounds that make this place so special. Behind me, another scene was unfolding, a brilliant pink sky illuminating a swath of light fog across the green pastures. Rustic criss-crossed fences served as the perfect foreground for the scene and there were no utility poles or lines to rudely interrupt it. This was photographic heaven to me; no people, no cars, no noise, only beautiful farmland. My only opportunity to photograph a landscape here, my mind was focused on the technical and aesthetics of creating an image worthy of Gettysburg National Military Park. I wasn’t exactly thinking about the history of my photo subject as I hit the shutter button. My primary thoughts were on creating a good composition that included the full moon before it set over the bright red barn and the brilliant pink sky before the colors and fog disappeared into daylight.
As I framed a farm scene through my camera’s viewfinder, I wasn’t thinking about the Sherfy family that were forced to give their farm to confederate soldiers who in turn made a hospital from the large barn. Nor was I thinking about the union soldiers who stormed the farm and burned everything in sight, including the barn. As I took one shot after another, I gave no thought to the Sherfy family who fled their home and then returned after the battle to rotting corpses and charred fields. It was only later in the day that I gave serious thought to the Sherfys and many other citizens of Gettysburg. Now, every farm on the national park battlefield is a replica or a monument built for the park.
Ever since leaving the low country and working our way north along the Appalachian Mountains, I had fallen in love with the rolling farm country that comprised much of our route. Gettysburg would be a special display of that idyllic countryside with its cannon replicas and numerous monuments to soldiers and their commanders. And I wanted to photograph it. But of course, our primary reasons for being here was to immerse ourselves in the history of the Civil War and enjoy our national park service at its best.
Recently coming from Fort Sumter, we were primed for Gettysburg. Our campground, Artillery Ridge was conveniently located a very short distance from the national park’s visitor center. Having only two days to take it all in, we opted for the combination bus tour and cyclorama film on one day and then the next, we attended a ranger-led tour and drove around on our own through the park. The entire park experience was intense, and we spent a lot of time listening and reading. As I learned more, I realized why Civil War reenactments are a big deal here. But it also became clearer to me why these grounds are a national park. These things cannot be forgotten and although the battle of Gettysburg took place over 150 years ago, the park brought it back to life in such a breathtaking way.
I was taken in at how such a profound and horrific event in American history could be presented in a way that satisfied both the casual tourist and the Civil War history fanatic. It’s all there, entertainment as well as in-depth history lessons and battlefield analyses. The park lays it out for us to interpret and feel on our own. I wonder if visitors, like myself who never experienced Civil War firsthand or do not have ancestors who did, leave there with a piece of humanity they did not have before. I feel I did.
There I stood with tripod and camera standing on the very ground where tens of thousands of men lost their lives fighting their neighbors and where commanders made good and bad decisions that ultimately led to the defeat of the confederate rebellion. I left Gettysburg with a few good images and a deeper understanding of the Civil War, but I also came away with a sense of hope for our country that seems to be steering off course. We are in a time when cavalier mention of “starting a civil war” does not cause dismay but instead is shrugged off as the divisiveness among Americans cuts deeper each day. We all need a history lesson now more than ever.
RV and travel issues, concerns and tips
Issue 1: If your rig is wired for 50 AMP, opt for 50 AMP spaces even if they cost you more than a 30 AMP space. When temperatures outside rise above 90 degrees like they did when we were in Gettysburg, that 50 AMP can make all the difference in AC comfort. We reserved a 30 AMP site to save a few bucks, but immediately upgraded to 50AMP once we arrived. Well worth having when you want that AC running smoothly.
Tip 1: If you plan to visit Gettysburg, these are my recommendations. First, stay at Artillery Ridge Campground; it’s expensive but well worth it for the location. Second, I highly recommend you spend at least two full days. We had 2 days for the park and I wanted at least one more day. The ranger-led tours are numerous and well worth it to plan your days around them. Third, I also highly recommend you reserve a personal tour guide by car or a take the less expensive bus tour. We opted for the bus tour and although we were two among 50 or so people, the tour guide was outstanding. Guides are typically locals that know the Gettysburg battle inside and out. You can ask them any question and they will have an answer. And last, you MUST see the cyclorama painting, that was a highlight of our visit.