U.S. Civil War battle site still inflames passions, anchors diverse tourist draws in region
Renae MacLachlan has read countless books about the Battle of Gettysburg, is working on her own and has led about 6,000 tours of the battlefield over her two decades as a guide, yet she remains humbled by the vastness and complexity of the story.
“You’ll never know it all,” she said as she got behind the wheel of our SUV and pulled out of the visitor’s centre for the 6001st tour, give or take, of her career.
More than a century and a half after this pivotal battle, American passions about it still run hot and deep. Some 1.1 million people visited Gettysburg in 2016, more than any other Civil War site. Few Americans are more committed to the understanding and remembrance of the story than the 160 guides who must undergo a strenuous vetting process before being certified.
MacLachlan says she was “hypnotized” by Gettysburg from the day her mother brought her for her first visit at age six.
For the two and a half hours as we drove around the battlefield, she scarcely took a breath as she recounted in captivating detail the highlights of the bloody three days, ending on the Cemetery Ridge where she told how Union soldiers fended off Pickett’s Charge, crushing Confederate hopes of a successful invasion of the North.
While the battle is long finished, issues persist. In front of the Robert E. Lee statue, a partisan stood guard with a confederate flag, making his own point of defiance only a few days after the violent confrontation over another Lee statue in Charlottesville, Va.
History is not only debated but celebrated throughout Gettysburg. We stayed at the lovely Baladerry Inn B&B on the edge of town, where the farmhouse acted as a field hospital during the battle. Co-owner Judy Caudill helpfully pointed out the spot where the outline of a wounded soldier’s bloody footprint is still visible on the hardwood floor.
At the Springhouse Tavern in the basement of the Dobbin House, built in 1776, Pennsylvania cider nicely washed down a hearty portion of crab cakes. We also found good eats at Fidler & Company Craft Kitchen in nearby Biglerville, a BYOB place, where we brought our own bottle of Pennsylvania wine to wash down a main course of duck breast from a nearby farm.
We found ourselves in Pennsylvania through happy necessity: we needed to drop our daughter at a weeklong gymnastics camp, which offered the opportunity for a few days of driving through a cascading array of picturesque vistas and visiting locales that touch on the heart of American history, nature and culture.
After Gettysburg, we headed to the Laurel Highlands — a longtime playground of the moneyed class from nearby Pittsburgh. Many are drawn to the luxurious Nemacolin Woodlands Resort, where we were hosted in an elegantly capacious room with a view of the private airstrip.
The property was bought at auction 30 years ago by Joe Hardy, a billionaire whose colourful private life has often made headlines, including a brief marriage to a 20-something resort employee when he was in his 80s.
Hardy spared no expense in equipping Nemacolin with a cornucopia of attractions: two golf courses, a ski hill, a small zoo and a multimillion-dollar art collection scattered throughout the buildings and the grounds.
Nemacolin is an elegant base for exploring some of the Laurel Highland’s attractions, both natural and man-made. The extraordinary Frank Lloyd Wright-designed house, Fallingwater, is a mere 20-minute drive away. His mad, inspiring masterpiece set on a waterfall is now owned by the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, which offers expert tours where you are politely but firmly advised to take no interior pictures and to touch nothing.
Just down the road is Ohiopyle State Park, dominated by the picturesque Youghiogheny ( YOC-Kuh-gain-ee), River, popular with white water rafters. I opted for a drier choice, renting a bike for an easy, but eye-filling ride along the well-maintained Great Allegheny Passage — a trail that runs from Pittsburgh down into Maryland, with a connection to Washington DC.