View Comments
Gettysburg a potent symbol
A re-enactment of a battle in the American Civil War / Picture: Veronica Matheson

As Steven Spielberg's film Lincoln leads the race to Sunday's Oscars with 12 nominations, the small Pennsylvanian town of Gettysburg marks the 150th anniversary of President Lincoln's historic "all men are created equal" address that was made there in November 1863.

In that short but powerful speech Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president of the United States said: ". . . that these dead shall not have died in vain; that this nation shall have a new birth of freedom, and that this government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

Those words came just months after the three-day Battle of Gettysburg that was a turning point in the American Civil War.

There, General Robert E. Lee's Confederate Army of 75,000 met General George G. Meade's Union Army of 97,000 men in the fiercest battle of the four-year war over State rights and slavery. It was the only major battle of the Civil War that took place in the north of the country and resulted in a Union victory.

When I drive into Gettysburg it is crowded with Civil War soldiers wandering the historic streets and the vast National Military Park nearby. It turns out that these costumed folk are passionate Civil War enthusiasts who regularly re-enact the bloody skirmishes of the Gettysburg battle from July 1-3, 1863.

One man in serious dress-ups - these antique costumes cost thousands of dollars and are as authentic as can be - tells me he puts on his military costume and turns back the clock to yesterday.

"It is a tonic for the stresses of the 21st century", he says. "I go back home to Chicago after the battle and I am a new man."

Renae MacLachlan, a licensed battlefield guide, tells me that Gettysburg is more than an epic battle in an epic war.

"It stands as the symbol of President Abraham Lincoln's charge to bring about equality for all Americans. Here, brave men gave their last full measure of devotion and turned the tide of the Civil War."

Today visitors tour the Gettysburg battlefields on horseback, by car or bus, and on foot to visualise what happened on those fatal three days that left 51,000 dead, wounded or missing.

Hundreds of cannons, markers and statues flesh out the deadly battle at locations with descriptive names such as the Valley of Death.

These days Gettysburg has a population of about 8000 residents, yet the town always appears far busier as it welcomes 2.9 million visitors annually.

A massive Battle of Gettysburg Cyclorama, by French artist Paul Philippoteaux at the Gettysburg National Military Park Museum recreates Major General George Pickett's charge that sealed the course of the battle, and is accompanied by cannon and gunfire in a dramatic sound-and-light show that runs daily.

With so many dead spirits from the battle, it is no surprise that the ghost business is booming in Gettysburg which is rated one of the most haunted places in North America. There are nightly ghost walks around the town, as well as a haunted trolley and ghost train ride.

While President Lincoln is best known for his ties with Gettysburg, a later American president, Dwight Eisenhower, loved the area so much he settled on a farm nearby when he left office, and there are now tours of the property.

FACT FILE

Qantas flies to Los Angeles and on to New York, see qantas.com.au.

Gettysburg, 340km south-west of New York, is best toured by hire car and it takes no time to switch mindset to drive on the right-hand side of the road, webcarhire.com/car-hire-usa.htm. Actor Morgan Freeman narrates the film A New Birth of Freedom at Gettysburg National Military Park Museum where the Battle of Gettysburg Cyclorama is also housed. nps.gov/gettysburg. For more, see gettysburg.travel.

Gettysburg will commemorate the 150th anniversary of the battle with 10 days of ceremonies, re-enactments and activities from June 28-July 7.

The movie Lincoln, starring Daniel Day-Lewis, is screening in Perth.