“For days after the Battle, locals heard a sound like popcorn popping as dead bodies bloated and expanded, causing buttons to burst off of uniforms all across the Battlefield,” described Renae MacLachlan, our Licensed Battlefield Guide.
With this graphic start to our tour, I knew we were in for more than just a bland description of monuments when we headed out to visit Gettysburg with a Licensed Battlefield Guide.
“During the Battle the bullets were flying so fast and thick it sounded like thousands of hornet nests, yet after the battle no birds could be found, they were all scared away,” continued Renae. “People lay dying for days as they only saved those worth saving, not burying the last person until April of the following year — the stench could be smelled as far away as Harrisburg.”
Maybe she started off with a description of sounds and smells of the Battle of Gettysburg to capture our attention, or maybe only by applying our imagination to all of our senses could we begin to fathom the scale of this devastating battle.
“The sulphur from gunpowder burnt the inside of soldier’s and local’s noses and affected their sense of smell for up to five years after the battle.” Renae didn’t just tell us about the battle logistics, she took us back to that day and helped us imagine what it was like to be a soldier and a civilian during the Battle of Gettysburg.
Driving by the Battlefield earlier that day all I saw were monuments of all shapes and sizes lining the roads that criss-crossed the area, but I couldn’t make any sense of what was important and meaningful, or even why there were so many. Now there are many ways to visit the Battlefield, including commercial bus tours, self-guided CD-narrated auto tours, segways, bikes, and even horseback tours. And maybe all of them capture those moments in history as vividly, but it is hard to imagine you could get the same tailored experience as you do with a Licensed Battlefield Guide.
I asked Renae what it took to become a Licensed Battlefield Guide and she gave me a glimpse into the effort it takes to attain this position. It isn’t just for history buffs. In addition to reading and studying a stack of books, candidates are screened to see how they interact with visitors, including families. They need to know how to engage the know-it-all history buff while still making it interesting for their teenage kids, and how to keep the attention of school-aged children by making the historical sights accessible to all ages and interests. Not only that, she needs to know the location of all 1,320 monuments and memorials to help visitors that are looking for certain states or ancestors.
That’s nearly 6,000 acres of land to cover in just two and half hours in a way that is meaningful, engaging and educational. Not an easy job, but they do it and they do it exceptionally well because they aren’t just guides, they are storytellers.
The story begins with the approach of Lee’s army, thinking they would encounter just a few Union soldiers and surprised by the size and strength of the force they encountered. We literally saw the advantage that the high ground afforded Union General Meade, as we embarked on a path following the three-day battle step-by-step.
Suddenly the monuments began to make sense as we started to identify which belonged to which army based on the location and the direction they were facing (matching the position of the appropriate army and regiment.) We learned how regiments customized their monuments with symbols like a Celtic cross or their dog mascot. Renae also described how to identify which of the 410 cannons were original versus reproductions.
With Renae driving our car, we were able to focus on all the information she was relaying, while feeling free to look around and imagine the armies marching across the fields. And even though I wasn’t driving, we were still able to stop and explore any of the areas we thought looked interesting, including climbing up to the top of Little Round Top, scrambling around the rocks at Devil’s Den, and taking in the view from the top of the Pennsylvania Memorial.
Somehow she knew that my 10 year-old daughter would be especially interested in any monuments with animals and that she would be impressed to learn that it was Rhode Island cannons that helped stop the final charge of Confederate soldiers to win the Battle.
In case you haven’t surmised it already, I couldn’t have been more impressed with our visit to Gettysburg with a Licensed Battlefield Guide. At a cost of only $65 for vehicles with 1-6 people, I can’t imagine that a bus or other tour would provide a more personalized or cost-effective option.
If you are visiting Gettysburg National Military Park with your family, you can reserve a guide by calling at least three days in advance of your visit at 1-877-874-2478.
Note: Our guide was provided compliments of Destination Gettysburg but the opinions shared are my own.