The Preservation of the Gettysburg Battlefield
A Brief History of the Formation of the Gettysburg National Military Park
To navigate the vast Gettysburg National Military Park, the 21st century visitor is provided with over twenty-miles of well-marked, paved roads that wind through carefully manicured and cultivated fields, around trees and boulders and monuments. Choosing to leave the comfort of a modern vehicle, the visitor may wander through the meticulously maintained National Cemetery amongst the many rows of men who fell at Gettysburg and in the various wars America has fought since. Cannons that once belched forth projectiles of death now sit silent, mounted on painted iron carriages, some of the tubes even serving as nests for birds. Where regiments once locked in mortal combat, granite and bronze monuments now stand. And, a shiny new and extremely modern Visitor Center serves as a welcome to tourists from around the United States and indeed the world and houses the famous cyclorama painting, in newly restored air conditioned splendor.
There are other beautiful, well-preserved Civil War battlefields in America, but it is Gettysburg that has become our Civil War shrine – a place of peace and quiet contemplation, richly ornamented with one of the world’s largest collections of outdoor sculpture.
It was not always like this, of course. In July 1863, far from being a place of peace, Gettysburg was a place of almost unparalleled destruction, suffering, and death. This section examines how Gettysburg went from Hell on earth to America’s Civil War shrine.
Gettysburg – Prior to July 1863
Located in south-central Pennsylvania and officially founded in 1786 by James Gettys (who not so humbly named the town after himself), Gettysburg was the county seat of Adams County. With approximately 2400 residents in July 1863, Gettysburg was a farming community that boasted two institutions of higher learning: Pennsylvania College (later renamed Gettysburg College) and the Lutheran Theological Seminary.
During Lee’s “Second Invasion” of the North, Gettysburg became of strategic military importance because of the many roads that radiated from the town square, like spokes from the hub of a wheel. Gettysburg is also centrally located;
Washington, D.C. is 75 miles away, Baltimore 55 miles, Harrisburg 37 miles, Carlisle 27 miles, Frederick and Hagerstown 32 miles, Hanover 14 miles, and Chambersburg 25 miles.
The War comes to Gettysburg
The Civil War was in its third year when war came to Gettysburg’s doorstep. After winning yet another major victory at the battle of Chancellorsville in early May 1863, the Confederate commander, General Robert E. Lee, decided to invade Pennsylvania. Among Lee’s objectives were to live off the land (thus temporarily relieving Virginia and Confederate citizens of the task of feeding his army) and to hopefully win a victory that would secure foreign recognition and aid for the South. The oft-defeated Union army followed in pursuit of Lee’s army. On June 28 — the very eve of the battle — President Abraham Lincoln fired Joseph Hooker was replaced him with General George Meade.
The Invasion went splendidly for the Confederates at first, but in late June, Lee learned that the Union army was closer than he expected, and decided to concentrate his army in the vicinity of Cashtown and Gettysburg to prepare for battle.
Advanced units of both armies probed in an effort to find the enemy, and some minor skirmishing occurred between lead elements and other forces including the hastily organized Pennsylvania militia. Some of these militia or temporary (often called “emergency”) units are honored with monuments on the battlefield.
But the “real” fighting at Gettysburg began on Wednesday July 1, 1863, when Confederate troops under General Henry Heth ran into Union cavalry troops under the command of General John Buford on the ridges west of the town. While neither commanding general had planned to fight at Gettysburg, the chance meeting engagement soon spiraled into a pitched battle. Outnumbering the Union army and able to take advantage of good timing, Lee’s army was able to defeat and chase the Union force off the ridges located north and west of Gettysburg on the afternoon of July 1. The Union troops fell back to the hills and ridges located south of town and took up position there as both armies quickly brought up their forces. For the next two days, Lee tried unsuccessfully to attack and dislodge the Union army from its positions. Places like Little Round Top, Devil’s Den, the Wheatfield, the Angle, and the Peach Orchard took their places in American history.
Near the Angle on Cemetery Ridge, this tree known as the Gibbon tree is one of the few remaining witness trees that stood during the battle. It stood during Pickett’s Charge and has survived another 145 years of time.
Following three days of incredibly intense and bloody fighting that culminated with “Pickett’s Charge,” it became clear that Lee would not be able to dislodge Meade’s army. With his army badly wounded — it is estimated his army suffered nearly 28,000 casualties of approximately 75,000 engaged — Lee had no choice but to give up his Pennsylvania campaign and slip his badly wounded army back into Virginia. As rain poured on the night of July 4, he quietly disengaged and started home towards Fairfield and ultimately back across the Potomac into Virginia. Meade’s Army of the Potomac followed behind shortly thereafter in cautious pursuit. As quickly as they had come, the armies left Gettysburg.
Gettysburg would become known as the High Water Mark of the Confederacy; as one of the War’s pivotal turning points. Coupled with the fall of Vicksburg in the west on the Fourth of July, it marked the beginning of the end for the Confederacy, although the War would go on for almost two more years.
And so the armies and the active fighting left the town of Gettysburg. But Gettysburg would never be the same. Over 50,000 soldiers became casualties at Gettysburg. Wounded men filled every available public and private building. And although some of the dead were buried before the armies departed, many dead soldiers remained laying all over the fields surrounding the town. Burial crews interested mainly in speed set about burying the dead, but the rains quickly washed away the few inches of soil that had been used to cover these shallow graves. The people of Gettysburg begged for help, and just a week after the battle, Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtin visited Gettysburg. Curtin expressed formal interest in making sure Pennsylvania’s fallen soldiers were properly buried, and Gettysburg attorney David Wills went to work to purchase 17 acres of land next to Gettysburg’s existing Evergreen Cemetery. Fairly quickly, it was decided that this new burial ground would be for all dead Union soldiers, not just Pennsylvanians. Thus, the land Wills purchased would eventually become the Gettysburg National Cemetery, formally dedicated on November 19, 1863 with an address by President Abraham Lincoln. The National Cemetery, completed in March 1864, is the final resting place for 3,512 Union soldiers who fell during the battle. Established formally as a National Cemetery on May 1, 1872, the cemetery also is the final resting place for soldiers killed in other American wars as well.
While Wills went to securing the land that would become the National Cemetery, another Gettysburg attorney named David McConaughy began a different mission – securing key land around the battlefield in order to preserve it.
McConaughy envisioned public ownership of the battlefield and a grand battlefield park. He felt that there could be “no more fitting and expressive memorial of the heroic valor and signal triumphs of our army…than the battlefield itself, with its natural and artificial defenses, preserved and perpetuated in the exact form and condition they presented during the battle.” To that end, he purchased portions of East Cemetery Hill, Culp’s Hill, and Little Round Top. These lands were eventually sold at no profit to the newly formed Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association, established in 1864. The GBMA’s stated mission was to mark “the great deeds of valor … and the signal events which render these battlegrounds illustrious.”
With the support of the State of Pennsylvania, the GBMA began slowly purchasing land in and around Gettysburg. In 1880, the Grand Army of the Republic (a fraternal organization composed of veterans of the Union Army who had served in the American Civil War) gained control of the GBMA. The GAR began holding reunions of veterans at Gettysburg, which in turned renewed interest in creating a grand battlefield park. The GBMA set about laying out avenues, purchasing land, and encouraging veterans group to erect suitable monuments of historical accuracy to mark what happened at Gettysburg.
Since the battle, Gettysburg has always faced threats of commercialization, a concern that plagues the park to this very day. In reaction to some of these threats to the battlefield, in 1894, former General Dan Sickles, who had commanded the Army of the Potomac’s Third Corps and lost a leg at Gettysburg, championed a bill that gave the War Department the power to condemn land at Gettysburg so that it could be preserved as part of the battlefield park. The new law survived a challenge that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Justice Rufus Peckham, writing for the Court, held that public ownership of the battlefield was appropriate and explained why:
The battle of Gettysburg was one of the great battles of the world. The numbers contained in the opposing armies were great; the sacrifice of life was dreadful; while the bravery, and indeed heroism, displayed by both the contending forces, rank with the highest exhibition of those qualities ever made by man. The importance of the issue involved in the contest of which this great battle was a part cannot be overestimated. The existence of the government itself, and the perpetuity of our institutions, depended upon the result. Valuable lessons in the art of war can now be learned from an examination of this great battlefield in connection with the history of the events which there took place. Can it be that the government is without power to preserve the land and properly mark out the various sites upon which this struggle took place? Can it not erect the monuments provided for by these acts of Congress, or even take possession of the field of battle in the name and for the benefit of all the citizens of the country for the present and for the future? Such a use seems necessarily not only a public use, but one so closely connected with the welfare of the republic itself as to be within the powers granted Congress by the Constitution for the purpose of protecting and preserving the whole country. It would be a great object lesson to all who looked upon the land thus cared for, and it would show a proper recognition of the great things that were done there on those momentous days. By this use, the government manifests for the benefit of all its citizens the value put upon the services and exertions of the citizen soldiers of that period. Their successful effort to preserve the integrity and solidarity of the great republic of modern times is forcibly impressed upon everyone who looks over the field. The value of the sacrifices then freely made is rendered plainer and more durable by the fact that the government of the United States, through its representatives in Congress assembled, appreciates and endeavors to perpetuate it by this most suitable recognition. Such action on the part of Congress touches the heart and comes home to the imagination of every citizen, and greatly tends to enhance his love and respect for those institutions for which these heroic sacrifices were made. The greater the love of the citizen for the institutions of his country, the greater is the dependence properly to be placed upon him for their defense in time of necessity, and it is to such men that the country must look for its safety. The institutions of our country, which were saved at this enormous expenditure of life and property, ought to and will be regarded with proportionate affection. Here upon this battlefield is one of the proofs of that expenditure, and the sacrifices are rendered more obvious and more easily appreciated when such a battlefield is preserved by the government at the public expense. The right to take land for cemeteries for the burial of the deceased soldiers of the country rests on the same footing, and is connected with and springs from the same powers of the Constitution. It seems very clear that the government has the right to bury its own soldiers, and to see to it that their graves shall not remain unknown or unhonored.
United States v. Gettysburg Electric Railway Company, 160 U.S. 668, 681-83 (1896).
Less than a year later, on February 11, 1895, President Grover Cleveland signed another bill championed by Sickles that established the Gettysburg National Military Park. At this time, the GBMA deeded to the Federal government over 800 acres of land and 300 monuments. Under the auspices of the War Department, more avenues were added, additional monuments and tablets were erected to aid in interpretation of the battle, observation towers were built, and the park generally improved. In 1933, control of the park passed from the War Department to the U.S. Department of the Interior and the National Park Service where it remains today.
And that is a brief history of how the Gettysburg National Military Park came about.
So that’s the history of the park, but what about the monuments? That’s the subject of the next article. Move on to section two and read about the Memorializing of Gettysburg.