"The Civil War was the most important event in American history, the crossroads of our being,” says documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, whose 1990 The Civil War won 40 major television and film honors. “And it was one hell of a crossroads. It really forces us to reflect about the meaning of four horrible years in our national life, where, in order to become a nation—we didn’t know it at the time—we needed to tear ourselves apart. In the Civil War, we come in contact with the greatest President we’ve ever had—Lincoln. We come closest to losing our country. If I had to pick the one site of the Civil War for kids to see, it would have to be Gettysburg, the greatest land battle ever fought in America.”
Envision the battlefield, ten miles from the Maryland border in Pennsylvania on July 1 to 3, 1863: Little Round Top, the Wheatfield, Devil’s Den, Peach Orchard, Culp’s Hill, and Cemetery Hill. At Gettysburg, at least 45,000 Americans were killed or injured—more than in any other Civil War conflict.
“Think of that,” says Burns. “Almost one percent of our American population lost. A difficult thing to communicate to kids. I think children are taught best indirectly.”
It is here that the Union crushed Robert E. Lee’s Rebels after his win at Chancellorsville two months earlier. Four months after Gettysburg, President Lincoln honored the Union fallen and redefined the war’s purpose with his stirring "Gettysburg Address." When the South fell, slavery was outlawed in every state.
Just walk the field with your children. Smell the grass. Feel the sun—which often caused oppressive heat—but know that the battle was fought under mostly cloudy skies. Head up the gentle slope of Cemetery Hill, where the "Gettysburg Address" was delivered, and where Union artillery repelled all Rebel approaches. Barely 40 feet high, the ridge includes the Angle’s stone wall and the copse of trees that figure in Pickett’s Charge. Take in rugged, boulder-strewn Big and Little Round Top and seek Plum Run Valley between them and Houck’s Ridge, a place that became known as the Valley of Death.
Imagine what it must have been like to heft a soldier’s load in wool clothing and heavy leather shoes or boots (though many soldiers went barefoot): a ten-pound gun, 80 rounds of ball cartridge, a pound of powder, and five pounds of lead. A soldier—a boy often as young as 16—also carried a foot-square, waterproof canvas haversack with three days’ rations; a three-pint canteen (plus apples, blackberries, and other forage); and a knapsack laden with woolen blanket, shelter tent, winter clothing, tin cup and plate, knife, fork, spoon, perhaps some stationery, photographs, a journal, and a Bible, plus tobacco and pipes, and the usual toiletries kit (though the chance of encountering an actual toilet was slim).
“Gettysburg was the turning point of the Civil War,” says Burns. “It’s this extraordinary three-day battle in a place that has been so well preserved that you can stand on its hills or walk its fields or climb among its boulders and feel as if the ghosts and echoes of our almost inexpressibly wise past are available as teachers—and that’s a very special thing.
“The Civil War soldiers accidentally made us a country, made us a nation, not a union or collection of states,” Burns continues. Come to the battlefield prepared to tell your children about what happened there. “Read just a little bit,” recommends Burns. “Maybe it’s just the "Gettysburg Address," that beautiful piece of writing. Maybe it’s Bruce Catton’s or Shelby Foote’s extraordinary accounts of the essential Battle of Gettysburg. Come armed with something that gives you a new appreciation of the lay of the land.
“I remember having read the novel The Killer Angels,” Burns concludes, “having not been to Gettysburg, and then coming here, and suddenly realizing I was in the middle of Pickett’s Charge, and then running across the field, sort of reexperiencing the terror and the joy of that terrible, ill-fated attack. Special. Moving. Something a child needs to understand.”
Know Before You Go
Insider Tip: Print out “The Best Field Trip Ever!” planner from the Gettysburg Foundation website and let the kids choose their own adventure as an infantryman, a doctor, President Lincoln, or a civilian. They can also focus on pivotal battle moments.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
Books for Parents:
- Complete Gettysburg Guide: Walking and Driving Tours of the Battlefield, Town, Cemeteries, Field Hospital Sites, and Other Topics of Historical Interest by J. David Petruzzi (2009): This guide includes the battleground’s hidden gems, army field hospitals, and obscure sites often overlooked. It provides detailed walking and driving tours for the main monuments, such as the National Cemetery, or for heading off the beaten path to see rock carvings.
- Hallowed Ground: A Walk at Gettysburg by James M. McPherson (2003): Pulitzer Prize winner James McPherson presents the military history of Gettysburg from the point of view of a seasoned Civil War historian. With concise facts and anecdotes of war generals during battle struggles, this book debunks Civil War myths often thought to be true.
Books for Kids: Gettysburg by MacKinlay Kantor (1987): For young readers this book includes the exciting and emotional tales of Civil War generals awaiting battle and recalls the rebels, tyrants, and spies involved in the battle.