GETTYSBURG, Pa. - At the windswept crucible of the Gettysburg battlefield, visitors stand under the famous Copse of Trees and think of the day a nation — its fate resting on those slender branches — bent but did not break.
The oak tree copse was the landmark used by Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee and his troops on the third and decisive day of Gettysburg, the fulcrum battle of the U.S. Civil War.
"Aim to reach the Copse!" the troops were told as about 14,000 marched in close formation across the undulating terrain in the sweltering mid-afternoon heat on July 3, 1863.
Ahead of them, Union infantry stared back from behind stone walls, waiting to kill them.
Reach the copse and breach the centre of the Union line, Lee figured, and they deliver a staggering, perhaps mortal, blow to Union hopes for victory.
It was not to be.
Withering gunfire and cannon blasts ripped his men apart. Bodies collapsed on one other until the field ran red with blood. Skulls were shattered, torsos exploded into orphan limbs.
Still, the South wouldn't yield. Troops stumbled and surged ahead, coming close to the trees only to fail and fall back, never to challenge again.
Four months later, then-president Abraham Lincoln came to Gettsyburg to commemorate a cemetery for the war dead and, in his address, delivered about 270 of the most famous words in the history of Western civilization.
Each year, more than a million people visit the Gettysburg National Military Park, but park spokeswoman Katie Lawhon says those who have already visited need to come again to enjoy a new museum and rehabilitated 2,400-hectare battlefield.
"The combination of these two efforts has vastly improved the visitors' understanding of the battlefield," said Lawhon.
"We have been working to bring back missing features that affected the fighting: we've replanted orchards, we've rebuilt miles of fences, we've reopened fields and meadows over which Confederate infantry attacked the Unions lines."
The US$103-million museum, which opened in 2008, is the beating heart of the park.
The best way to start the Gettysburg day, says Lawhon, is to watch a 22-minute movie describing the war and the battle, narrated by Morgan Freeman, and then walk upstairs to view the massive 130-year-old cyclorama painting depicting the final climactic battle at the Copse, known as Pickett's Charge.
The oil-painting cyclorama, as long as a football field, was painted 20 years after the battle by French artist Philippoteaux and his team. It has recently been restored, and the experience is heightened by light, sound and a 3D diorama foreground.
Around the museum, the battlefield itself is spread out and sprawling in a rough 38-kilometre circle, with fences and memorials and cannon lines stretching in all directions. Visitors can take their own vehicles or have a battlefield guide drive them around. There are also two-hour bus tours.
Those who want a battlefield guide tour should reserve by phone or online, said Lawhon, especially given that 2013 is the 150th anniversary of the battle and multiple events are planned to honour the sacrifices on both sides.
Planning is always recommended at Gettysburg. Those who arrive unsure of what to see and how long it will take to see it can become overwhelmed and fatigued.
The battle sites are diverse, tagged with names both prosaic and horrific: Devil's Den, the Peach Orchard, Little Round Top, the Wheatfield, the Slaughter Pen.
On the battlefield, there are 1,328 memorials, cairns and monuments. In the museum there are 12 galleries, 300,000 objects and artifacts, along with interactive exhibits and video presentations.
Afterward, there is a refreshment saloon, a museum bookstore and gift shop.
In town, the David Wills House opened three years ago to allow visitors to see the bedroom where Lincoln stayed the night he tweaked the final drafts of his famous speech.
"Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation conceived in liberty," Lincoln wrote.
"We here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain … and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth."
The power and precision of the words momentarily stunned the crowd into silence, causing Lincoln to immediately remark the speech was "a flat failure."
"Lincoln gives meaning to the losses at Gettysburg by tying it to the forefathers and by tying it to that (American) experiment in democracy," said Lawhon.
The 16th president reminded Americans that day, she said, that "we set the world on fire in terms of democracy (and) we're going to let that die at Gettysburg?
"That's what makes it so meaningful today."
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