I grew up in Pennsylvania, near Valley Forge and Independence Hall, two of the most exalted places in American history. But it was always a little town to the west that stole the show - Gettysburg, where thousands fought to the death for the very soul of our country.
And yet, despite numerous school field trips and family visits, Gettysburg and its sprawling Civil War battlefield always left me a little cold. I know that's heresy, especially for a native Pennsylvanian. Even worse, one of my ancestors was a Civil War veteran.
I did appreciate and respect the momentous events of the battle that took place there July 1-3, 1863. But the site of the biggest battle of the Civil War has long attracted commerce and historians in equal parts, it seems. And all the jarring modern encroachment made it hard to develop anything more than intellectual appreciation for the Battle of Gettysburg.
However, during two recent visits, I discovered that the town and the battlefield are undergoing changes that give a profound sense of meaning to those amazing three days.
For the past decade, the National Park Service and the private, nonprofit Gettysburg Foundation have been working to restore the battlefield to its original condition. This is being accomplished by, among other things, removing a motel and relocating the visitor center, which had been built on land where almost 1,000 men died.
There are new ways to see the battlefield, too - on horseback and by bicycle. The town of Gettysburg is much improved, also, with a beautifully landscaped square and fascinating walking tours. Not to mention that the area around Gettysburg is a pretty drive, especially in the fall.
On Friday, the park service and the foundation will unveil their latest success - a restored Victorian masterpiece known as the Gettysburg Cyclorama.
The Cyclorama, a 12Â¿-ton painting-in-the-round, depicts the final moments of Day 3 in the battle, when Confederate Gen. George Pickett's soldiers made their ill-fated charge at Union troops.
The unveiling of the restored painting also officially opens the battlefield's new visitor center. To mark the occasion, the center will exhibit - for three days only - one of Abraham Lincoln's manuscripts of the Gettysburg Address.
The Cyclorama, a magnificent work that measures 377 feet by 42 feet - longer than a football field if stretched out - was displayed at the old visitor center site, but never correctly. The room it was in was too small for it, and the 1884 painting was dirty and had been chopped off at the top to fit.
But after five years of painstaking restoration - 1.4 million square inches cleaned with what looked like big Q-tips - the painting now hangs at full size in the new visitor center. And it's glorious.
To create the work, French artist Paul Philippoteaux assembled a team of the best horse painters, portrait painters and landscape painters. But I recall the Cyclorama from long-ago visits as a big, boring circle. Then I saw it again in August for a preview visit, and I was captivated. Cleaned of more than 100 years of dirt, the painting glows, and it lives.
Panel-by-panel, Philippoteaux's artists transform mere paint into anguish, desperation, pain, death, determination. When I ascended the Cyclorama's viewing platform, I felt the battle rage on all sides, and the experience had a sobering power. I finally understood why Civil War veterans wept when they saw the painting.
Philippoteaux wanted to create more than a powerful piece of art, however. He wanted viewers to experience the battle as much as possible, so his design included a three-dimensional diorama that "continues" each panel right up to the viewing platform.
In one scene, for example, painted wagon ruts continue seamlessly onto the diorama. In another panel, the artist painted a tripod with only two legs - the third being a real piece of wood in the diorama that completes the scene.
Though the Cyclorama is a powerful new addition, the building that houses it - officially the Museum and Visitor Center at Gettysburg National Military Park - is worth spending several hours in all by itself.
The center's bookstore/shop is spacious, well-organized and classy. There's a new introductory film narrated by Morgan Freeman. The airy cafeteria features the usual modern fare plus some Civil War-era recipes. I especially liked the roasted peanut soup with hardtack crackers.
I liked the visitor center museum best of all, though. I'd characterize the old museum as "stuff in a case." This one uses that "stuff" to tell compelling stories - and not just about the Battle of Gettysburg.
One exhibit features the litter that carried Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson from the battlefield at Chancellorsville, Va., - bloodstains still visible. Another displays the cannonballs that started the hostilities when they were fired on Fort Sumter, S.C. Were those iconic objects always so prominent? Not that I can remember.
Each day of the battle has its own room, giving visitors the sense that they are moving through history as it happens. Throughout, touch-screens allow visitors to "participate," by learning about signal flags on Little Round Top or interpreting different bugle calls.
The town of Gettysburg - a crucial piece of the story that was missing before - has its own room as well.
The battle began on July 1, just north of Gettysburg. On that first day, the Union lines broke. Union soldiers raced through the town's streets and Confederates tore after them, both sides firing as they ran.
Union troops burst into houses to hide, the Confederates right after them to drag them out as captives. Sharpshooters hid in attics, and desperate citizens were pinned down in their homes.
When the battle ended on July 3, the war moved elsewhere. The townsfolk, however, were handed a disaster far worse than Hurricane Katrina.
The battle left about 8,000 dead men and 3,000 dead horses decomposing in the July heat. The living posed an even greater burden. The town, with a population of only 2,500, was left with about 30,000 wounded to care for.
That "civilian experience" is now well-represented in the museum and in the town, and that's another reason that Gettysburg seems so compelling now.
Several blocks from the main square in Gettysburg, visitors can tour the Shriver House, where docents tell the story of one family touched by the battle and the war. The town also offers licensed tour guides, who accompany you on walks along charming streets that exploded into bloody mayhem 145 years ago. At $10 for a 90-minute tour, it's a bargain.
Although the town still has tourist-overloaded sites to the south, with competing "ghost tours" and deafening truck traffic, clearly there has been a strong effort to treat these hallowed spaces with more honor and meaning, and it succeeds brilliantly.
These days, when you ride a horse through the fields where so many died so bravely, or stroll the streets where North battled South for every block, you won't need to have someone conjure up ghosts for you. For me, the dead - and their profound sacrifice - will never be missing from Gettysburg again.
if you go Getting there Gettysburg, Pa., is slightly more than an hour from Baltimore and its near suburbs. Drive to Westminster and then take Route 97 North.
Lodging Wyndham Gettysburg Hotel, 95 Presidential Circle, Gettysburg, Pa., 717-339-0020. I used hotwire.com and got a great deal on the almost-new Wyndham, for $75 a night. Typical hotel rooms in the area go for $120 or so per night. Outside the Wyndham, a movie theater and two restaurants are just steps away. The hotel's aptly named restaurant, 1863, is wonderful. Wyndham offers several discounts on its Web site, but rates generally start at about $179 a night.
Carlisle House B&B, 148 S. Hanover St., Carlisle, Pa., 717-249-0350. Another option is to stay in pretty Carlisle, 20 miles up the road, home of Dickinson College and the U.S. Army War College and the center of fall-foliage drives. Rates at the Carlisle House B&B start at $109 a night and include a private bath.
Comfort Suites, 10 S. Hanover St., Carlisle, Pa., 800-704-1188. This hotel, also in the historic section, has family-friendly rooms. Rates start at about $112.
Dining Dobbin House Tavern, 89 Steinwehr Ave., Gettysburg, 717-334-2100. Authentically Colonial, this restaurant offers first-class food at moderate prices. I had a wonderful veal entree and dessert for less than $30. Make reservations - it's very popular.
Appalachian Brewing Company, 401 Buford Ave., Gettysburg. A little less expensive than Dobbin House, this local chain offers wonderful microbrews and fantastic pub food.
Ernie's Texas Lunch, 58 Chambersburg St., Gettysburg. Cheap and fun. A Texas Hot Wiener (a big hot dog with chili and onions), fries and a diet Coke set me back only $4.44.
Attractions Gettysburg National Military Park,1195 Baltimore Pike, Gettysburg; nps.gov/gett or 717-334-1124, ext. 8023.
The Gettysburg Cyclorama. The Cyclorama painting depicting the Battle of Gettysburg has been restored over the past five years and will be unveiled on Friday. A "Party Like It's 1863" gala celebration will be held on Saturday at the new Museum and Visitor Center, featuring period attire and entertainment. Tickets are $100. Details at gettysburgfoundation.org.
More information Gettysburg Foundation, P.O. Box 4629, 1195 Baltimore Pike, Gettysburg, Pa. 17325.877-874-2478; gettysburgfoundation.org.
5 things to know before you go The Gettysburg visitor center is new and improved. Stories of the battle and the war are told compellingly in every area, the restored Cyclorama is a masterpiece, and the cafeteria offers several Civil War dishes.
You can ride a horse onto the battlefield. An audio tour while you drive around may be the easiest way to see the sights, but consider a ride on horseback through the fields. The "you are there" feel is much stronger.
Walking tours set the pace. Gettsyburg's town square is charming. Licensed guides lead fascinating walking tours from the Best Western Gettysburg Hotel on the square.
President Eisenhower's house is in Gettysburg. This was the only house that Dwight D. Eisenhower ever owned, and it remains a touchingly personal place. Tour tickets can be purchased at the visitor center.
There's more to Gettysburg than Gettysburg. The surrounding countryside is lovely. Nearby Carlisle is one historic town that never lost its sense of place, and it's at the center of gorgeous fall-foliage driving. Closer in, find one of the few remaining round barns in the country and Adams County Winery. The inevitable outlet shopping is in Gettysburg, too.