No sooner did I get back from the Oregon trip with my daughter, elder son and three grandchildren, than Rick and I packed and headed off with a couple from our Bible study to see Philadelphia and Gettysburg. We’d been planning this trip for almost two years, eager to get a taste of history with the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg.
We arrived in Philadelphia and checked into the Penn’s View Hotel within a few blocks of the old city and its historic buildings. We had one day to wander before we headed to Gettysburg for the re-enactment. We headed for the Visitors’ Center for maps, and visited Philosophical Hall, the Congress Hall, Christ Church Burial Ground (Benjamin Franklin’s grave), walked by Betsy Ross’ house and went to Christ Church (where several founding fathers worshipped).
Having heard of traffic jams, we checked out at 5 a.m. and drove the 110 miles to the re-enactment site. No traffic. Beautiful countryside. We arrived early and waited for the gates to open. We had purchased grandstand tickets ahead of time, so we headed for the big tent and attended the worship service. The message had been giving during the Civil War (but was cut from 2 hours to 20 minutes), enjoyed singing old time hymns and received fans that had Gettysburg on one side and Jesus on the other with the messages: “Three days that changed American history” and “Three days that changed human history”. Boy oh boy, did they come in handy! The temperature was rising fast!
At 11:00 the cannons started firing as the “Battle: Come On You Wolverines” began. Swords drawn, the Union and Confederate Cavalries had their battle right in front of us. Foot soldiers came up the hills. Rifles were firing. The smoke of battle filled the air.
The day was getting hotter, and I do not do well in heat. (I’m cheering those re-enacters who wore wool uniforms and did battle!) I sought the refuge of shade beneath the overhang of a beverage and food trailer. I had to crawl under (in a skirt!) and flopped on my back like road kill. I wasn’t the only one under there. I kept hoping my blood temperature would drop from 150 to 98.6. Well, that may be a slight exaggeration… But what do you expect from a fiction writer?
Rick, Mac and Loretta made it into the stands to bake in the heat for the re-enactment of Pickett’s Charge. I ventured out, went up the steps and knew if I joined them, they’d be calling paramedics to haul me out. I headed for shade at the end of the grandstands and stood among the ladies in Civil War crinoline dresses where I got a “front row” seat to the blasting cannons, officers shouting orders from horseback, and the charge. Men were falling dead and wounded, thankfully later arising again.
Two minutes after the re-enactment ended, the skies opened. It didn’t sprinkle. It poured! By the time we (and thousands of others) reached our cars, we were soaked to the skin and shivering. And here’s where the traffic jam started. Fortunately, Mac saw another way out and took it. We fired up Ms. GPS who got us to the Battlefield Bed and Breakfast where we squished our way in the door and stood dripping. The gentleman in charge ushered us to our rooms for hot showers and a change of clothes.
Every morning, someone came in period costume and give a lecture at 8 a.m., followed by a sumptuous breakfast (that rendered lunch unnecessary). The father of a friend acted as our guide on the battlefield(s). Barry had been through all the classes and always had a passion for Civil War history and Gettysburg in particular. He took us all over, explaining who was leading which group where and how the battle progressed. We found a monument to General Sykes (my sister-in-law’s antecedent) as well as markers showing where his men went. We visited the cyclorama and museum in the visitors center and wandered the town, imagining what it must have been like for a town of 2400 to find themselves in the middle of a three day battle in which 51,000 men were killed or wounded, most left behind. Imagine fields where over three thousand dead horses and mules lay rotting in the July sunshine. Imagine a line of wagons carrying the wounded away that stretched 17 miles! And men crying out, “Let me die!” Only one quarter died in combat. The rest died of disease, infection, starvation. Imagine a war where more than 650,000 Americans were killed. That’s more than the combined deaths of Americans in World War I, II, Korea, and Vietnam.
Back to Philadelphia. We checked into Morris House (that boasts two signers of the Declaration of Independence) and is only two blocks from Independence Hall and next to Washington Square. Rick and Mac were up early to get tickets into Independence Hall. The visitor center only gave out 1200 a day, and it’s the height of the tourist season. And HOT and HUMID. We lined up to see the Liberty Bell and enjoyed the museum. We toured Betsy Ross’ house and walked Elfreth’s Alley (the oldest residential street in America) where hatters, tailors, firemen, a sea captains, mantua makers, shoemakers and shopkeepers lived.
We took a day trip to Valley Forge, and spent another day visiting Edgar Allan Poe’s house (closed for restoration), the Eastern State Penitentiary, a grim place with a grim history. (Al Capone had Persian carpets in his cell!) We visited and did a quick run through the U.S.S. New Jersey, a battleship that was in service in Vietnam at the same time Rick was a Marine in Da Nang. We got lost and found again at the Longwood Gardens. Gorgeous! I could have stayed there for a week.
If you take a trip to Philadelphia, be sure to eat at the City Tavern. Order the honey-glazed duck or the crab cakes. Awesome! The servers are in period dress. Even better: the restaurant was a favorite eatery for George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe. They have Martha Washington’s recipe for chocolate mousse cake! Delicious!