Even those who know little of the Civil War have heard of the formative Battle of Gettysburg. On July 1,1863, in a small Pennsylvania hamlet, the Battle of Gettysburg began. The Union Army successfully countered the last Confederate invasion of the North.
Today, it is a place that memorializes the challenges of living out our nation’s founded principles, making Gettysburg a popular stop for school groups visiting the historic East Coast.
Like two heavyweight prize-fighters, the Army of Northern Virginia, led by Robert E. Lee, squared off against George Meade’s Army of the Potomac. For three days, approximately 175,000 Americans were locked in mortal combat. As rolling farmland turned into great killing fields, the fate of a nation hung in the balance.
Months later, Abraham Lincoln would dedicate a military cemetery upon this hallowed ground and deliver one of the seminal speeches in American history – “Four score and seven years ago…” In short, Gettysburg is a pilgrimage for every American to connect the sacrifices of that time that were made in order to preserve a nation.
The journey begins at the Gettysburg National Military Park Museum & Visitor Center. The highlight of the stirring introductory video that sets the scene for guests is an immersive sound and light experience inside the Cyclorama - the mammoth circular painting which depicts the scene during Pickett’s Charge, which was the battle’s height.
Make sure to use the bathrooms before boarding the bus and beginning your group’s battlefield tour.
When your group is assembled, a Licensed Battlefield Guide will board your motor coach and lead your group around the sprawling park. These guides are the only people allowed to conduct paid tours of these hallowed grounds. Licensed battlefield guides have a truly exhaustive knowledge of the battle, including the terrain, tactics, and ongoing impact of the Civil War. Questions are encouraged, and these guides rarely disappoint.
The tour experience lasts approximately two hours, which includes narration while on the bus and disembarking in two to three places that offer an opportunity to learn about key turning points in the places where they happened. One key stop is at Little Round Top, a hill whose rocky heights held the key to the entire field. The second day’s fight for the summit was one of the battle’s most dramatic scenes.
Another important stop is Cemetery Ridge, where Pickett’s ill-fated charge was dashed against the lines of Union blue, ensuring the Confederacy’s defeat. If time allows, groups may make additional stops, including Gettysburg National Cemetery where President Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg address.
With so much to offer, groups often spend a full day and night here, although some groups pair the Gettysburg experience with a visit to Pennsylvania Dutch Country or an afternoon drive to another destination city along the historic East Coast.
The SCHOOL TRIP SPOTLIGHT is written by NationsClassroom's licensed tour managers and guides. Written from their years of experience with student groups, the articles feature exciting attractions from the most popular student travel destinations on the historic East Coast.
Originally published April, 2018, updated July, 2020