GETTYSBURG -- Connecticut resident George Sipprell stood in the cupola of the new Seminary Ridge Museum and gazed out on the breathtaking view of the hilly terrain where Northerners fought Southerners on July 1, 1863, exactly 150 years ago Monday.
"The view is spectacular," said Sipprell, who was in the cupola with several friends. "We are just ecstatic."
He learned more than a year ago that the Seminary Ridge Historic Preservation Foundation, working with the Adams County Historical Society and Evangelical Lutheran officials, had decided to renovate the old red brick, four-story seminary building, which was erected in 1832.
The renovation project was intended to educate Americans about the battle and honor soldiers from both sides who fought, were wounded and died on the first day of the three-day clash that changed the course of the Civil War.
Reserved: Sipprell sought reservations from Seminary Ridge officials in early 2012, hoping to be among the first people to climb the narrow wooden staircase from the fourth floor of the old seminary into the small cupola, which can hold a dozen or so people at a time.
He got his wish, as he and his friends were the very first visitors to enter the cupola, where Union Gen. John Buford, on the morning of July 1, 1863, saw Confederate troops streaming from the west toward Gettysburg. He ordered his badly outnumbered cavalry troops to dismount and block the advancing Southerners, putting up such a fight that it took the attackers nearly all day to finally capture Seminary Ridge, a hill just west of town, where the Lutheran Seminary still sits.
Buford also ordered Union cannons to fire at the Confederates. To be historically accurate, on Monday five groups of blue-uniformed Union re-enactors loaded five Civil War cannons and at 8 a.m. fired 25 deafening cannon blasts. Several hundred visitors were on hand to watch and cheer, many holding their ears due to the pounding noise.
More to see: Also awed by the new museum -- with dozens of rooms devoted to Civil War soldiers, the fight against slavery and other moral issues of the 1860s, the medical care for the wounded and details of the July 1 fighting -- were Texas residents Keith and Marlene Spring.
When you learn about the pain and suffering that both sides endured, "it shows that battle is not glorious at all. It's horrific," Keith Spring said. "To be shoulder to shoulder with your brothers in arms and have to do what they did is unimaginable to me. It went far beyond what they signed up for" when they joined the army.
Funding: Another Texas resident, Houston businessman David H. LaCook, was one of the speakers, along with Gov. Tom Corbett and U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., who addressed the crowd on hand for the opening. LaCook gave an oversized check for $150,000 to Seminary Ridge Museum officials, a private donation from his company, FabEnCo Founding Fathers Foundation.
It was just one part of the $15 million in funding from federal and state governments, private foundations, individuals and bond money used over the past year to repair and update the old seminary classroom building.
"The Seminary Ridge Museum allows us to understand better the pivotal decisions made on that first day of the battle," Toomey said. "The Civil War is in many ways the defining experience of American history, keeping the nation together and ending slavery."
He and Corbett both made their way up the narrow staircase that leads to the cupola atop the building. "You had to stand up there and look at the beautiful countryside and try to think what it looked like 150 years ago," Corbett said.
The view: Several visitors said one of the best things about the cupola is that it gives people a 360-degree view of Gettysburg -- from where the Confederates advanced from the west, to the downtown less than a mile away to the east, and even the area southeast of town where Union forces massed on Cemetery Ridge and fought off the Southerners on days two and three of the battle.
After the first day, the seminary quickly became a makeshift field hospital for treating the wounded -- more than 600 troops from both sides -- and it remained a hospital until September 1863.
In July 1863 the building was called Schmucker Hall, after then-seminary president Samuel Schmucker, a Lutheran pastor. The house where he lived still stands a couple hundred yards down the road that runs past the new museum.
The walls of the museum contain 10 new paintings of battle scenes and oversized quotations from soldiers and Gettysburg residents of time. One is from teenager Lydia Ziegler, whose family lived on the first floor of the then-seminary and who watched as wounded men were brought in for care.
"It was a ghastly sight to see some of the men lying in pools of blood on the bare floor," she said.
Life-size human replicas fill several of the rooms, many of them covered in fake blood, to show what it looked like on the first day of battle. During renovations, walls were removed and several letters from the wounded soldiers found inside them.
About 50 years ago, the one-time seminary had fallen into such disrepair that there was a chance it might be torn down, Lutheran church officials said.
The building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973. Church officials decided to donate it to the Adams County Historical Society, which worked with other history buffs and other fundraisers to raise the money to restore it.
Tickets to the museum are $9 for adults and $7 for senior citizens and children 6-12. There is an additional $20 charge to walk up into the cupola. Further information is available at www.seminaryridgemuseum.org.