GETTYSBURG, Pa. -- Nearly 150 years ago Gen. Robert E. Lee made a daring move -- taking his Army of Northern Virginia north into Pennsylvania, betting on a surprise military coup that would terrify Northern residents.
"He began to march toward the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania, with thoughts that a victory in the North would erode the Union's will to continue the fight" and bring freedom for the South, states a paper by the Gettysburg Foundation, a local historical group.
The day before his troops faced the Union Army of the Potomac -- June 30, 1863 -- Lee was "manifestly under great strain," author Clifford Dowdey wrote in a 1958 book, "The Death of a Nation." Lee had been out of touch for days with his famous cavalry commander Jeb Stuart and wasn't sure where the Union troops were heading.
The strain intensified as Lee prepared to go "through the circuitous mountain pass (west of Gettysburg) that led to the turnpike village of Cashtown and, eight miles east, to the unimportant crossroads town of Gettysburg."
But within 24 hours this once-unimportant town would have a permanent place in the nation's history.
When Union soldiers under the command of Gen. George Meade clashed with the Confederates here on July 1-3, 1863, it was the bloodiest battle ever fought on American soil, with 51,000 casualties -- 28,000 Southerners and 23,000 Union troops. That included 11,000 deaths -- 7,000 killed in battle and another 4,000 who succumbed to disease and infection over the following weeks. Other casualties included soldiers who were wounded, captured or missing.
The battle ended as a defeat for Confederates when they couldn't break through Union lines. That caused Lee to pull his troops back south to Virginia on July 4.
When the key Mississippi River town of Vicksburg fell to the Union, also on July 4, it was a double blow from which the South never recovered and was the turning point of the war.
150 years later
All of which means that July 2013 will be incredibly important -- to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania and the nation.
To mark the historic anniversary, several Gettysburg civic and economic groups have detailed plans under way that begin in January and will last most of the year -- until the 150th anniversary of President Lincoln's Gettysburg Address on Nov. 19.
They're getting ready for as many as 4 million tourists, historians and Civil War buffs who will come here, said Carl Whitehill of the Gettysburg-Adams County Convention & Visitors Bureau.
Groups involved include the Gettysburg Foundation, a nonprofit historical association dedicated to preserving the memory and significance of the battle; the Convention Bureau, the area's tourism promotion agency; the National Park Service, which maintains the 6,000-acre battlefield; the Lutheran Theological Seminary, which pre-dates the battle; and Gettysburg College, just outside the main square of town.
"This is an exciting time for Gettysburg," said Convention Bureau president Norris Flowers. The planned celebrations "will highlight not only the battle, but the fighting that occurred before and after Gettysburg, along with the heroic and tragic stories of the town's own citizens in 1863.
"Our visitors are always hungry for more history, and the anniversary commemoration will provide people with some lesser-told stories of the Civil War."
Gettysburg is used to being overrun each summer by visitors. A typical year brings 3 million people to Gettysburg and surrounding areas. That bumped up to 3.17 million this year, Mr. Whitehill said.
One of the important early events is set for April with a preview of a new $15 million Seminary Ridge Museum, built where the Lutheran Theological school is on Seminary Ridge. It was the scene of fierce fighting on the first day of the battle. Southern troops drove Union troops south and east through the town and onto Cemetery Ridge, a high point where Union troops fought on July 2 and 3.
Seminary Museum will officially open July 1, the 150th anniversary of the battle's first day.
Busy time for re-enactors
The heaviest concentration of events is from June 28 until July 7.
On June 28, the first event will be the re-enactment of a typical 1863 battle featuring more than 10,000 re-enactors who belong to the Blue Gray Alliance.
Two days later, a commemorative ceremony, "Gettysburg: A New Birth of Freedom," will be held on an outdoor stage near the spot where Meade had his headquarters during the fighting.
This ceremony will include "Voices of History," a reading of eyewitness accounts of the battle that were written by both soldiers and townspeople affected by the fighting.
The ceremony will end with a procession to the Soldiers National Cemetery, where luminary candles will be lit to denote more than 3,500 soldiers' graves.
The re-enactment of the actual battle, done yearly, will be held from July 4-7. About 400 horses and 100 cannons will be used.
Fifteen thousand people will be involved in the re-enactments, plus several thousand more "civilian interpreters" who will explain what's going on.
During these 10 days, several smaller towns near Gettysburg will mark their own roles in history. Fighting also occurred in mid-1863 in Hanover, Cashtown and Hunterstown, all in Pennsylvania, plus Union Mills, Md.
"It's important that visitors take the time to learn about these smaller battles that helped shape the major conflict in Gettysburg," Mr. Flowers said.
For example, Hanover, 15 miles east of Gettysburg, recently obtained a large electric map on the Gettysburg battle, which the Park Service decided not to place in the new Gettysburg visitors center. Hanover officials placed it in their downtown and hope it will become a year-round tourist draw.
Next year's commemorations will finish up with two events in November, marking the 150th anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address on Nov. 19, 1863.
One of the best ways to learn about events at the National Military Park is to hire Licensed Battlefield Guides, a group of 155 private citizens specially trained and tested about the battle.
Becoming a tour guide is not easy, however. Of 150 to 200 applicants who start the testing process, only five or six will actually become licensed guides. A guide must pay $360 a year for a license and buy his or her own uniforms.
These guides provide walking or audio tours, each typically lasting two hours (although they can be extended to up to nine hours for special groups). For an auto tour, the guide asks to drive the visitor's car around the military park while explaining the history so visitors can see all the monuments and famous locations without being distracted by driving. Auto tours cover places featured in all three days of the battle; walking tours are not as extensive.
In addition there are bus tours, provided by either the park service or by private tour companies that arrive with travelers. The park service also can arrange bicycle, motorcycle or even Segway tours.
Two-hour walking or auto tours are $65 (for one to six people) or $90 for a group of seven to 15. National Park bus tours are $30 per adult and $18 for youths age 6 to 12. Visitors can also board a bus at the Visitors Center for a two-hour trip to see President Eisenhower's home and farm nearby. That costs $7.50 for those 13 and older.
The private tours are booked through the Gettysburg Foundation, www.gettysburgfoundation.org or 1-877-874-2478 or locally at 1-717-334-2436. The tours start at 8 a.m. daily. Reservations are strongly urged.
Visitors also have the option of getting a map or CD at the Visitors Center bookstore to take their own tours.
A lot of battlefield guides are retired college professors, police officers, military, lawyers, doctors, business people and other professionals. One is Paul Marhevka, 60, who's been a guide for 11 years, the first seven part time and the last four full time. He used to own and run a woodworking manufacturing plant, as well as owning and operating a fleet of trucks. His dad started the business in 1965. He took over as CEO in 2001 and sold the company in 2008 to become a full-time guide.
Mr. Marhevka led a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter and photographer on a recent tour. The first question a guide usually asks is what state the visitor is from so the guide can show them the areas of the battlefield where soldiers from that state fought. They also inspect the state monuments built to honor soldiers who died or were wounded from each state.
"We ask visitors what they would like to see and to do," Mr. Marhevka said. "If a visitor is from Philadelphia, or Pittsburgh, or Syracuse, N.Y., we show them monuments to those troops. Many visitors have ancestors who fought in those units. We highlight the exploits of soldiers from those areas. We show them where the soldiers from their city fought."
On the first day of the battle, Southern forces chased Union troops from Seminary Ridge, northwest of the Gettysburg square, back through the town, to hilly positions south and east of the square.
As a result, for the second and third day of the battle, Union forces were in a strong position on four pieces of high ground. The Union line was called the "fish hook'' because it was curved at the top and then went straight south.
It consisted of four parts that reinforced each other. The first was Culp's Hill (the most easterly point), near where the Observation Tower is now. Then the line moved westward to Cemetery Hill; then it curved southward along an elevated ridge called Cemetery Ridge and ended at a strategic high point called Little Round Top.
That was a key hill that allowed Union infantry to shoot downward at Confederates advancing across a plain from their headquarters on Seminary Ridge, several hundred yards to the west.
A famous section of Cemetery Ridge was called "The Angle," consisting of a long series of large stones that are arranged at a right angle atop the ridge. Union troops, many of them from Philadelphia, shot down at Confederates who tried to advance across the level ground, including Confederates in Gen. George Pickett's unsuccessful "charge" on Day 3.
Pennsylvania had 69 infantry regiments (each with 250 to 400 men), nine cavalry units and seven artillery batteries, a total of 34,530 troops, Mr. Marhevka said. Of those, 1,182 men died, 3,177 were wounded and 860 were missing.
Little Round Top is popular for visitors from Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania, Mr. Marhevka said, for that's where the 155th regiment from Pittsburgh Zouaves fought.
They were soldiers of French origin whose uniforms were markedly different from other Northerners -- baggy pants, short, open-fronted jackets, sashes and an Oriental fez instead of a blue military cap.
"That's what's so much fun about being a guide," Mr. Marhevka said. "Many visitors don't realize they had ancestors who fought here. And if they do remember a name of an ancestor, we can often find it at the bottom of a state monument, especially if they know what regiment the soldier belonged to.
"I had one woman who knew her great-great-grandfather was from Virginia and had been in the 10th Virginia regiment. So I took her to Culp's Hill on the battlefield because that's where that Virginia regiment had fought.
"People get excited seeing the names of their ancestors," he said. "I've had ladies start to cry to see a relative's name on a monument. It means a lot to them."
Tom Barnes: firstname.lastname@example.org. First Published December 2, 2012 5:00 AM