GETTYSBURG NATIONAL MILITARY PARK, Pa. (USATODAY.com) - Like a general leading his troops into battle, tour guide Charlie Fennell stands tall on his Segway, snaking through the crowd that mills around an equestrian statue. His group follows on their futuristic two-wheeled vehicles, carefully avoiding bicyclists, motor coach passengers and a pair of locally rented three-wheeled scooters resembling circus clown cars.
"This is where Robert E. Lee became a hero," Fennell tells the Segway riders over a two-way radio, pointing to the memorial and explaining how the Confederate general took responsibility for the South's loss at the Battle of Gettysburg.
The group at the Virginia Monument numbers fewer than 100 today. It's nothing compared to the hundreds of thousands expected at the end of June and early July. Ten days of events will mark the 150th anniversary of what some call the most crucial battle in American history. More than 50,000 soldiers were killed, wounded, captured or went missing.
Tourists began arriving the day after the fighting ended on July 3, 1863. And from the beginning, this small Pennsylvania farming community has had to strike a sometimes uneasy balance between honoring the fallen and profiting from tragedy.
TOURISM IS PART OF THE SCENE
Over time, commercialism has taken many forms. Today, visitors can stop by the Adams County Winery to sample Rebel Red - a semi-sweet Concord with "a dry finish" - and Tears of Gettysburg, a white blend in production for 25 years.
A few blocks away along Steinwehr Avenue - a boulevard of toy gun and T-shirts shops and wax museums - hungry tourists line up at Hunt's Battlefield Fries, which announces its presence with a sign featuring jaunty Idaho spuds in blue and gray uniforms.Over at the cavernous National Park Service gift shop, visitors are tempted by Battle of Gettysburg pajamas with a stylized U.S. flag featuring stovetop hats instead of stars.
And nearly every night, the city is haunted by more than a dozen ghost tours ranging from historic walks to full-fledged Ghostbuster outings with energy meters and dowsing rods.
Bob Wasel, who started Haunted Gettysburg Ghost Tours 10 years ago, says the town is spook central. "There are 1,000 bodies still buried on the battlefield. If any place is going to be haunted, it's here." He says his customers, who each get use of paranormal-detection equipment, often find unexplained images in photos and mysterious sounds on their recorders. "The ghosts are friendly. They're happy that we're coming there ... telling their story."
Carl Whitehill of the city's visitor's bureau strikes a diplomatic tone. The tours can be a welcome evening activity in a town without vigorous nightlife. "We want everyone to be respectful, to follow the rules and learn history. If you come just to do the ghost thing, you are missing out."
Although the details may have changed since 1863, none of this is new, says best-selling Civil War novelist Jeff Shaara, who will be spending much of the summer in Gettysburg for the commemoration. "Whether it's Pearl Harbor, Valley Forge, the Alamo or Little Big Horn, there's that element of crass commercial. But that's capitalism."
The importance of Gettysburg isn't lost in the clamor of commerce, he says. "It is really easy to get away from the cotton candy and T-shirts and get the experience. You had almost 200,000 bodies descend on this place and wage the greatest battle in our history. You can feel it."
TOWN STRIKES A BALANCE
The town has long struggled, however, to keep the appropriate tone. Twice in the past decade, Pennsylvania's gaming board has turned down requests to build a casino here. But if blackjack by a battleground was too much, it doesn't mean that tranquility reigns by the former killing fields.
The commercialism starts literally next door. General Pickett's Buffets borders the pasture where the Southern commander led perhaps the most famous charge in U.S. military history across an open field on the Union line. In 50 minutes there were 6,800 casualties, and many believe the nation was saved when Northern soldiers held back the attack.
Restaurant owner Gary Ozenbaugh says he knows he sits next to hallowed ground, and although thousands may come daily for all-you-can-eat meatloaf, fried chicken and more, he keeps his building low-key, painted in neutral tones without balloons or flashing lights to attract attention. "I try to exist in a delicate location. I'm very respectful."
U.S. Air Force Lt. Joel Barnes, 26, of Roanoke, Va., says he's not bothered by businesses catering to tourists. He leaves for Afghanistan next month, but made a trip to Gettysburg to pose as a Confederate soldier for a picture at Gibson's Photographic Gallery, which uses 19th-century cameras and technology to create eerily convincing historic images.
"They're not doing any harm to the battlefield itself. They're not building houses on Culp's Hill," he says, citing a strategic landmark.
Instead, the latest addition to the city's tourism industry is the $13.3 million Seminary Ridge Museum, which opens July 1. The carefully restored 1832 building stands on the Lutheran Theological Seminary campus, where some of the first shots of the battle were fired. Visitors will be able to stand in the building's rooftop cupola for a view of the landscape that shaped the engagement.
The fact that the vista may include a convoy of Segways doesn't concern Gayle Underwood, a retired teacher from Pensacola, Fla., who has visited Gettysburg more than 12 times, and took her first ride on one last week.
She says the two-wheeled vehicle enhances a tour. It's quiet and non-polluting and unlike a car or bus, lets you experience the open air and terrain of the battlefield. "This is the next best thing to walking."
Gettysburg's longtime mayor, William Troxell, isn't concerned either. "General Lee came here on a horse. Things change. These are modern times and we have to adjust," says Troxell, 86, whose great-great-great-grandfather is considered the first settler of Gettysburg.
Indeed, Abraham Lincoln had similar thoughts. Although he couldn't envision Segways or slot machines, the 16th president seemed to anticipate what the battlefield would someday face when he visited four months after the clash to deliver his Gettysburg Address.
"The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here," Lincoln said, "have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract."
Events marking the 150th Anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg:
This year features scores of events marking the battle, with most running from June 28 to July 7 and the focus on the actual battle dates, July 1-July 3. Major activities include:
Celebrate History Music Festival. American Civil War Wax Museum, culminates with grand finale on July 5 at 7 p.m. June 29-July 5. gettysburg.travel/150/event.asp
Sacred Trust: Talks and Book Signings. Gettysburg National Military Park & Visitors Center. More than a dozen authors and historians will speak. June 29-30 and July 5-7. GettysburgFoundation.org
150th Gettysburg Reenactment. Watch the battle play out with weapon demonstrations, lectures and even a Civil War Ball. June 28-30.Bluegraygettysburg.com. Another major reenactment runs July 4-7.Gettysburgreenactment.com
Gettysburg: A New Birth of Freedom commemorative ceremony. This evening event will include a keynote speech by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, dramatic readings and a candlelit procession to the national cemetery. June 30. Nps.gov/gett
Opening of the new Seminary Ridge Museum. July 1.SeminaryRidgeMuseum.org
Independence Day Parade. Downtown Gettysburg. Gettysburgcivilwar150.com
Confederates take the Shriver House. A reenactment at this downtown house museum, which tells the story of how civilians were affected by the battle, July 6.Shriverhouse.org
If you go ...
Getting there: The three airports serving Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, are all within a two-hour drive of Gettysburg. There's also air service to Harrisburg. Penn., about an hour away.
Where to stay: During the anniversary events, some rates will be higher and room availability limited. The city's grandest inn, the 119-room Gettysburg Hotel(hotelgettysburg.com or 866-378-1797) has presided over the town square since 1797. It recently underwent extensive renovation. Rates start at $149 per night. The boutique Federal Pointe Inn (federalpointeinn.com or 717-334-7800), occupies the city's former high school. Rates from $199. On the outskirts of town, the Eisenhower Hotel (eisenhower.com or 717-334-8121) is a conference center and motel with rates from $89.
Where to eat: Dating to 1776, the Dobbin House Tavern, (dobbinhouse.com) serves crab cakes, steaks and pasta in an authentic Colonial setting. Adjacent to the Gettysburg Hotel, One Lincoln (onelincoln.net) serves updated classics like three-cheese French onion soup, heirloom tomato salads, burgers and flat-breads. You'll find fast, inexpensive and tasty offerings at General Pickett's Buffets(generalpickettsbuffets.com), where tilapia, jambalaya and house-baked brownies up the standard fare.
Getting around: During the middle of summer, Gettysburg traffic would try even Abraham Lincoln's patience. Freedom Transit (ridethetrolley.com) offers free service around the city. You can tour the battlefield by bus, bike, Segway, horse and scooter
Information: Gettysburg.travel; gettysburgcivilwar150.com