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Gettysburg readies for 150th anniversary of battle

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GENARO C. ARMAS | May 26, 2013 08:43 PM EST | AP

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GETTYSBURG, Pa. — The commemoration of this year's milestone anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg will include amenities that soldiers would have relished 150 years ago.

A groomed path to the top of Little Round Top. Expanded cellphone coverage. Dozens of portable toilets.

The National Park Service and a cadre of community organizers are busily putting the finishing touches on preparations for the commemoration of the pivotal battle of the American Civil War that cemented this small Pennsylvania town's place in U.S history. Tens of thousands of visitors are expected for a 10-day schedule of events that begin June 29.

"I think we're ready," Bob Kirby, superintendent of Gettysburg National Military Park, said in a recent interview . "We're ready for what the world would like to see."

But that doesn't necessarily mean just flooding the historical 6,000-acre battlefield, and surrounding town, with the modern comforts of home. To help visitors better understand what happened at the Battle of Gettysburg on July 1-3, 1863, the National Park Service first decided to look back.

There were about 51,000 casualties – historical estimates put the total dead around 7,500 – at Gettysburg, considered a major turning point of the war after Northern forces turned away a Confederate advance.

In the years and decades that followed, natural and man-made changes altered the landscape The Home Sweet Home Motel that once stood across the street from a monument for Ohio soldiers just didn't provide the right feel. The forest that had grown in the distance from a Minnesota monument didn't accurately represent the thicket-laden terrain that soldiers encountered 150 years ago.

The battlefield rehabilitation process grew out of a master plan in 1999 that didn't set the 150th anniversary in 2013 as a deadline – though it was a welcome and timely coincidence. The rehab work, which is mostly complete, is concentrated on areas of "major battle action."

"You can't ever go back in time to 1863, but you can deal with the major features so you can better understand the story," Kirby said.

Other fresh elements have been added in recent years, including an airy visitor center that opened in 2008, operated by the Gettysburg Foundation on behalf of and in partnership with the National Park Service.

It's bound to attract scores of newcomers as well as repeat visitors. The park typically attracts 1.2 million visitors a year – a mark that park officials expect to easily exceed.

Margaret Eefsting, of Grand Rapids, Mich., returned recently for a weeklong trip to tour the battlefield, just three years after her most recent visit to Gettysburg.

"If it takes me all day, I will cover this battlefield," she exclaimed as she descended the path in the process of being freshly groomed at Little Round Top. The hill was the site of fierce fighting that gained extra notoriety in the 1993 movie "Gettysburg," which was based on the 1974 novel "The Killer Angels" by Michael Shaara.

"We missed so much the last time, and it was so hot, (my husband and I) didn't dare to get out of the car," Eefsting joked. "So this weather is better."

The park will be much more crowded, too, in a couple of months – about 200,000 visitors are expected for anniversary week in late June and early July, according to Carl Whitehill, a spokesman for the Gettysburg Convention & Visitors Bureau. Most of the area's 2,600 hotel rooms are booked, and visitors are also taking up rooms from as far away as Frederick, Md., about 35 miles south.

Some visitors may bypass the park entirely to attend either one of the two battle re-enactments taking place on the weekends bookending the midweek anniversary events. Such re-enactments are held on private property, not park grounds.

The summertime events are just one of the highlights of a 150th anniversary commemoration that's been in the works for years.

Another major gathering is planned in November for the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, which President Abraham Lincoln famously delivered at the dedication ceremony for Soldiers' National Cemetery. The address began with the words "Four score and seven years ago."

Kirby said an invitation has been extended to President Barack Obama to attend November's event.