Destination profiles museums and historic sites in Pennsylvania.

The newly opened, $103 million Museum and Visitor Center at Gettysburg National Military Park, the result of a cooperative project between the National Park Service and the Gettysburg Foundation, places the American Civil War’s turning point in perspective, using exhibits, sound, video, and setting to give visitors a deeper understanding of the war and its impact. A decade in the making, the nearly 140,000-square foot facility brings to life one of the most tumultuous epochs in American history.

Gettysburg is the site of the most significant battle ever fought on American soil. For the first three days of July 1863, 165,000 men fought in grisly and blood-soaked combat to defend their beliefs. Nearly one-third — fifty-one thousand soldiers — became casualties on the battlefield. Four months later, on November 19, President Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865) delivered his Gettysburg Address at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery. Veterans returned to the site many times over the years. Gettysburg emerged as a symbol of reconciliation as more than fifty thousand Union and Confederate veterans returned to the battlefield to shake hands on the fiftieth anniversary of the battle in July 1913. On the seventy-fifth anniversary of the battle, in 1938, less than two thousand of the eight thousand surviving Civil War soldiers, whose age averaged ninety-three, traveled to Gettysburg for the dedication of the Eternal Light Peace Memorial by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Today, two million people visit Gettysburg National Military Park each year, many of them for the first time.

Serving as a gateway to Gettysburg, the center offers visitors a twenty-first-century museum experience that tells the story of the Battle of Gettysburg and its significance to the nation’s history within the context of the causes and consequences of the Civil War. The center showcases an extensive collection of objects, artifacts, and archival materials and provides visitors with a distinctive perspective on the Civil War through the words of its participants and spectators, including the Confederacy’s President Jefferson Davis (1808–1889) and Lincoln, Generals George Gordon Meade (1815–1872) and Robert E. Lee (1807–1870), soldiers, correspondents, artists, and civilians. Through a variety of interactive exhibits, immersive cinematic productions, and a cache of research resources, the facility provides a Civil War experience unlike any other.

Of the center’s twelve galleries, eleven are based on phrases excerpted from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, such as “Testing Whether that Nation Can Long Endure,” assessing General Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and the Union’s Army of the Potomac; “Now We Are Met on a Great Battlefield of that War,” examining each of the three days of the Battle of Gettysburg; and “The Brave Men Living and Dead,” presenting the aftermath of the battle and its impact on the community and surrounding Adams County. With more than three hundred thousand objects and artifacts and seven hundred thousand archival materials, Gettysburg National Military Park’s collection is among the most extensive in the world. The galleries feature a selection of these items — about fifteen hundred — to interpret the history of the American Civil War, including General Lee’s portable camp desk, a physician’s journal used to help loved ones locate the remains of thousands of Confederate soldiers after the war, and a sapling branch used as a crutch by George Kistler of the 140th Pennsylvania Infantry, after being wounded on the second day of battle. A special exhibits gallery hosts temporary and traveling exhibits, broadening the number and variety of topics covered by the museum.

Interactive stations and hands-on experiences throughout the museum’s twenty-four thousand-square-foot exhibit space help give visitors an understanding of the significance of the Gettysburg campaign. Five galleries feature brief video presentations probing the causes of the war, the three days of battle at Gettysburg, and the results of the war. “Voice theaters” feature readings of letters, diaries, and newspaper articles written by commanders, soldiers, civilians, and correspondents. The museum has also debuted a film entitled A New Birth of Freedom. The center houses the Refreshment Saloon, offering samplings of foods reflective of the era, a bookstore, and dedicated accommodations for groups, including a separate entrance, bus parking area, and bus drivers’ lounge.

The museum and visitor center will host a grand opening from Friday through Sunday, September 26–28, to celebrate the installation of The Battle of Gettysburg, the famous cyclorama, which is being restored. The colossal “in-the-round” painting — measuring 365 feet wide by 42 feet high — depicts the furious assault on Union forces by the Confederate infantry led by General George E. Pickett (1825–1875) on the final day of battle, known to generations of school-children as “Pickett’s Charge.” When it was unveiled in Chicago in late 1884, the painting brought veterans to tears. Executed by French military artist Paul Dominique Philippoteaux (1846–1923) and a team of twenty assistants, the enormous work required several years of extensive restoration after suffering decades of temperature and humidity fluctuations, faulty installation, improper storage, and poor maintenance.

Galleries feature several objects on loan from The State Museum of Pennsylvania, including a Union battle flag, a Confederate slouch hat found at Gettysburg after the battle, and a chair from General Meade’s headquarters. The Pennsylvania Capitol Preservation Committee has loaned a flag used by the 150th Pennsylvania Infantry, whose entire color guard became casualities on July 1, the first day of battle at Gettysburg. This state color was captured by Southern soldiers and presented to President Davis.

From Friday through Sunday, July 4–6, thousands of authentically uniformed Civil War reenactors will converge on Gettysburg for the annual Gettysburg Civil War Battle Reenactment. They will take part in two battles each day, mount a massive Pickett’s Charge, and demonstrate live mortar fire. The event includes an expansive living history village with all-day activities, a large and diverse sutler encampment, period music, entertainment, and a variety of refreshments.