The canons that dot the peaceful, rolling hills of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, have long been silenced, but the memories of the battle that took place here in 1863 lingers, echoing through the centuries via the hundreds of monuments and gravestones that have become permanent reminders.
But the history of this charming eastern Pennsylvania town is much more than the famous Civil War battle. There was life here beyond the soldiers, beyond the booming canons, beyond the tragedy on the battlefield. Civilians attempted to continue with their lives the best they could as the war raged on around them.
An exploration of this side of the town’s history adds a new dimension and understanding of the famous Battle of Gettysburg. The best way to do that is by visiting some of the town’s historic homes. Let’s explore five historic homes in Gettysburg that bring this side of its history to life.
1. Shriver House Museum
We often think of the Battle of Gettysburg in terms of the soldiers who lost their lives over those bloody 3 days in July 1863, but the civilian population also paid a heavy price. A visit to the Shriver House Museum re-opens the door to civilian life before, during, and after the battle.
The Shriver House was built in 1860 by 18-year-old George Shriver to not only begin a family with his wife Hettie, but also a new business, the Shriver Saloon and Ten-Pin (as in bowling) Alley. When the Civil War began, Shriver was called into service. As the battle in Gettysburg began, George’s wife Hettie fled their home with their two daughters for safety’s sake, only to find themselves right in the middle of the heaviest fighting at Little Round Top. When they finally returned home days later, they found it had been commandeered for use as a hospital.
Fast forward to the late 1990s, when restoration of the home began to bring it back to its original beauty. In the process, many fascinating artifacts were found and are now part of the museum’s collection.
Each room of the home looks like it has been frozen in time. Guided tours led by entertaining and informative docents dressed in period clothes take you through its history, including the basement saloon and the Confederate sniper nest in the attic. While the tour is only 30 minutes long, plan on spending at least an hour here to roam the 19th-century garden and museum.
The house and museum are closed in January for maintenance. They reopen on Valentine’s Day and President’s Day weekends in February, weekends only in March, then hours and dates vary for the remainder of the year. Visit the Shriver House website for a complete schedule and to purchase tickets. Be sure to book your reservation well in advance.
2. Farnsworth House Inn
The building that the Farnworth House Inn calls home pre-dates the Battle of Gettysburg by over 53 years. Construction began in 1810, with the now-familiar brick addition being added in 1833.
The inn is named for Brigadier General Elon John Farnsworth, who died along with 65 of his troops during the battle’s infamous Pickett’s Charge. During the battle, the house was used by Confederate sharpshooters to take down Union troops. Sadly, it is believed that 20-year-old Mary “Jennie” Wade was accidentally shot by these shooters, becoming the only civilian killed during the battle.
We’ll visit Jennie’s house in a moment, but right now, we are at the Farnsworth, where the event schedule is packed with fun and interesting experiences. Don’t miss the Haunted Cellar Presentation, where you will learn the history of the house and life in the mid-1800s. There are also spooky tours and presentations, like a reading of Edgar Allen Poe’s works, an exploration of the potential connection between Gettysburg and Jack the Ripper, and ghost tours and paranormal nights. Book your reservations online.
The Farnsworth is also a B&B. Visitors can spend the night in one of 10 authentically appointed rooms that will transport you back in time to the mid-1800s. Each room is double occupancy and well worth the experience. Reservations can be made online.
The Farnsworth also serves up incredible homestyle and fine dining. For the latter, enjoy amazing Pennsylvania Dutch–inspired dishes in the Meade and Lee Dining Room. The warm and comforting Maryland crab soup comes highly recommended as a starter, followed by the melt-in-your-mouth General Farnsworth’s Prime Rib served up with au jus and a side of horseradish aioli as the main dish. Everything is served by the wait staff dressed in period clothing. Reservations are required. Visit the Farnsworth website for information and hours of operation.
For something a little more homestyle, visit the beer garden and patio area or the family-friendly Sweney’s Tavern. Reservations are not required, but hours vary. Visit the website for the latest schedule.
3. Jennie Wade House
I mentioned 20-year-old Mary Virginia “Jennie” Wade earlier. She tragically became the only civilian killed during the battle when she was struck by a bullet while kneading dough in the kitchen. Jennie’s actual home, the Jennie Wade House, is a fascinating museum that takes you back to that fateful day.
The home has not changed much since the day Jennie died. It is decorated with historic artifacts and furniture of the period and is pockmarked with bullet holes from the battle. The only thing that has changed is that the home is now surrounded by modern buildings and a parking lot — but still, it is an interesting tour, brought to life by incredibly knowledgeable tour guides dressed in period clothes who know the history of Jennie, the home, and the events of the day inside and out.
There is a small admission fee.
4. Dobbin House Tavern
The Dobbin House Tavern is the oldest house in Gettysburg, dating back to 1776. Up until recently, the Dobbin House offered a fascinating 1-hour tour of the home, retelling almost 100 years of American history — from its earliest days to the Battle of Gettysburg, during which the home was used as a field hospital. A secret crawlspace was used to hide runaway slaves along the Underground Railroad. The tavern is hoping to restart the tours again in spring 2023 so you can once again roam through its authentically decorated rooms and antiques.
In the meantime, you can still experience the charm of the Dobbin House by dining in one of its two restaurants. For casual dining, try the stone-walled Springhouse Tavern for delicious sandwiches hot off the grill. I recommend the crabcake sandwich with Dijon balsamic mayo, lettuce, and tomato served on a brioche bun. Reservations are not required.
You can also experience fine Colonial-style dining at one of the candlelit tables of the Alexander Dobbin Dining Room. Hearty meals include the Roast Duck Adams County, which is roasted in Adams County apples and hard cider that warm the soul.
As with many restaurants around the country, staff shortages are causing increased wait times, and unfortunately, the Alexander Dobbin Dining Room has had to restrict the number of reservations they can take each evening. Make your dining reservation one week in advance at the very least.
5. Eisenhower National Historic Site
The 34th president of the United States and World War II hero Dwight D. Eisenhower — “Ike” — found respite from the rigors of the office and Washington, D.C., at his farm nestled in the Gettysburg countryside, next to the battlefield. Ike would often retreat to the farmhouse on weekends with his wife, Mamie, or bring world leaders to this tranquil setting for important discussions.
Today, Eisenhower’s farmhouse and outlying buildings are operated and maintained by the National Park Service, which offers insightful tours of the farm and illustrates Ike’s service to the country. Tour schedules are variable and can be found on the Eisenhower National Historic Site website. Only 40 people are permitted per tour, and they are on a first-come, first-served basis, so meet the park ranger in front of the Eisenhower home early to make sure you get in. There is also a self-guided tour option.
Site admission and tours are free.
Pro Tips: Visiting Gettysburg
Any time is a great time to visit Gettysburg and its historic homes — except during the winter months of January and February, when many attractions have limited hours or are closed altogether.
The most popular time to visit is during the battle’s anniversary weekend around the Fourth of July. There is so much to do and see, with dozens of reenactments, presentations, and special events, that it can be overwhelming, and if you are crowd averse, that’s not the time to plan your trip. The crowds are enormous.
Visit Destination Gettysburg for tips on visiting the town during the anniversary, and be sure to get tickets for special events 2 or 3 months (at least) in advance. The website will also give you valuable tips on what to do and see in the town any time of year.
While in Gettysburg, get to know the spooky side of the town by taking one of the many ghost tours offered by local paranormal organizations. Tours range from hour-long ghost walks down the darkened city streets to full-blown paranormal investigations.