Preservation or National Necessity? Gettysburg National Military Park During the World Wars

By Jonathan Tracey ’19

The great battle in 1863 was not the only time that soldiers occupied Gettysburg. As a National Military Park, the land was administered by the War Department for decades before becoming part of the National Park Service in 1933. As such, the department could use the land for whatever purpose was deemed necessary. During both World Wars the government made use of the historic landscape where Pickett’s Charge took place, and mandated the registration of monuments for potential removal as scrap metal for the war effort. The government saw the threats posed by 20th century warfare to outweigh the value of a preserved landscape.

A Renault tank cresting a dirt hill near the Bliss Farm in 1918. Courtesy of Eisenhower National Historic Site.

In 1917, the fields briefly hosted a mass mobilization camp, but that was short lived. The more major encampment came in 1918. The fields of Pickett’s Charge had become home to Camp Colt, a training camp for the newly formed Tank Corps. Soldiers under the command of Dwight D. Eisenhower ensured that the sounds of war again echoed through Gettysburg. Infantry carried out drill, and trucks with machine guns and 3 inch naval guns used the Round Tops for target practice. Once tanks arrived, drivers honed their skills on the battlefield, accidentally plowing through dirt as they maneuvered over historic landscapes, including the remnants of the Bliss family’s farm. After the war, the buildings were demolished, but the camp still left a physical mark on the landscape. Years later, William Redding, a farmer who had leased his farm from the government prior to the war, filed a complaint that, despite the fact the government had promised to return the land to the original condition, “sewers, water courses, trenches, and other excavations” remained in the fields.

In 1944, enemy soldiers again arrived in Gettysburg. Instead of invading Confederates, these new soldiers were German prisoners of war, mostly captured in North Africa. Chosen for the isolated location, local labor deficiencies, and remaining infrastructure, the former grounds of Camp Colt became home to an unnamed POW camp. Many Gettysburgians were angered by this, but not necessarily because of the use of the battlefield. Instead, their complaints primarily focused on fears of violent German escapees or anger that jobs vacated by their loved ones in the armed forces would be filled by the enemies the former workers had gone off to fight. These prisoners worked in businesses around Gettysburg, filling American soldiers’ vacant jobs by cutting wood, picking apples, and working in canning plants. Interestingly, many of the work crews also helped clear brush from the battlefield, helping to restore the historic landscape that their camp was intruding upon.

The tents that comprised the WWII prisoner of war camp on the fields of Pickett’s Charge in 1944. Courtesy of Gettysburg National Military Park.

During the Second World War, Gettysburg’s landscape also paid a price during the scrap drives. Fences, markers, and even parts of monuments were split into categories based off “importance.” These categories would determine at what pace they would be removed if the situation became so desperate that the government absolutely needed the metal. Luckily, the situation never became so desperate to call for the removal of monuments, but Gettysburg did sacrifice “750 spherical shells, 14 iron guns, 1 bronze gun, 8 bronze howitzers, 26 bronze siege guns, and 38 bronze guns.” These were of post-Civil War manufacture, and deemed expendable. Modern visitors can still see the places where the spherical shells were once placed, such as the concrete foundations next to Cushing’s Battery at the Angle.

Ultimately, Gettysburg sacrificed parts of the historic and commemorative landscape during the World Wars. Fields were occupied by soldiers, weapons were discharged towards the Round Tops, military vehicles drove over previously preserved fields, and commemorative objects were removed for scrap drives. Were these sacrifices worth it? Should the government have found different places for military camps and different sources of metal, or was the integrity of Gettysburg’s landscape worth partially sacrificing in order to achieve military success? Imagine if modern prisoners from the War on Terror were brought to live on the fields of Pickett’s Charge today. During the World Wars, Gettysburg and the historical community were willing to consent to sacrifices for the war effort, but it is far less likely that these sacrifices would be accepted today.

The fields near Emmitsburg Road as they appear today, having mostly recovered from military occupation. Photo by author, 2017.

Sources:

“Camp Colt Damages.” Gettysburg Compiler, May 1, 1926.

Eisenhower, Dwight D. At Ease: Stories I Tell to Friends. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1967.

Hartwig, D. Scott. “Scrap Drive 1942.”

Murray, Jennifer. On A Great Battlefield: The Making, Management, and Memory of Gettysburg National Military Park, 1933-2013. (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2014).

Point/Counterpoint: The Gettysburg Battlefield Marathon

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By Jeff Lauck ’18 and Matt LaRoche ’17

Jeff: On November 6, the small town of Gettysburg will be swarmed by runners during the first ever Gettysburg Battlefield Marathon. The event has provoked heated discussion from many in the Civil War community, bringing up many questions regarding the use of our most hallowed grounds for recreational use. In this post, Matt and I will engage in a back and forth conversation about the concerns and advantages of the race. I’d like to begin by noting that the views that we each express in this piece may not necessarily be our own and that we may merely be bringing them up to contribute to the conversation surrounding the marathon.

My first concern about the marathon is an obvious one. The Gettysburg battlefield was the site of unspeakable horror and suffering. Is it appropriate that this sacred space be used for “fun” activities like a marathon? Runners will cross areas whose names have been immortalized for pain, agony, and death: McPherson’s Ridge, Little Round Top, the Wheatfield, the Angle. Few would view a marathon through the hallowed ground at Arlington National Cemetery as appropriate. Indeed, the Gettysburg marathon itself avoids the Soldiers’ National Cemetery. However, the Gettysburg battlefield is likely still a final resting place for hundreds of soldiers, so in reality, a marathon running through the battlefield is itself a marathon running in a massive cemetery. The battlefield was preserved as a memorial to those who fell. It should not now be trampled on by hundreds of runners in a spectacle marathon.

Matt: Well, Jeff, your point about the space’s sacredness is certainly well taken. However, I think the underlying question here may be what kinds of history we choose to preserve and commemorate, and why. No one can deny the world is an old and embattled place. Recognizing this begs serious questions of our traditional efforts at memorializing loss and sacrifice. First, what metrics determine what sufferings are legitimately worth remembering? For example, people the world over clearly feel a duty to remember their soldiers, but what about the civilian dead? Wars almost always cost more civilian than combatant lives, but the public’s imagination almost always centers on soldiers. Indeed, the ongoing scholarly debate as to the specific ratio is a testament to not just how overwhelming the reality of civilian deaths is, but also how little we like to think about this particularly senseless aspect of human conflict. Bringing civilians into the mix robs war of what glory it had, as one man’s honorable sacrifice is undone by a child’s meaningless slaughter. It becomes a story few really want to hear, and a serious problem for historical interpretation. And yet this is a key part of war’s story. Continue reading “Point/Counterpoint: The Gettysburg Battlefield Marathon”

The Moment We’ve all Been Waiting For: Lee’s Gettysburg Headquarters Opens

By Savannah Rose ’17

On October 28, 2016, the doors of the Mary Thompson house located on Seminary Ridge in Gettysburg opened before a crowd of over one thousand Civil War Trust members and Civil War enthusiasts. In 2013, the Civil War Trust purchased a portion of land on Seminary Ridge, land covered with a motel, a brewery, a restaurant, and the Mary Thompson house, which some know as the headquarters of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Since purchasing the land the Civil War Trust, in partnership with other organizations, has worked to restore the Thompson property to its 1863 appearance by tearing down numerous contemporary buildings and restoring the house used by Lee during the Battle of Gettysburg. This past Friday, I walked my way up to Seminary Ridge, excited to see the finished project after watching the spot’s restoration for years.

Visitors wait in line to enter the newly restored Mary Thompson House. Visitors will now see the structure as Confederate General Robert E. Lee would have seen it when he arrived on July 1, 1863. Photo courtesy of the author.
Visitors wait in line to enter the newly restored Mary Thompson House. Visitors will now see the structure as Confederate General Robert E. Lee would have seen it when he arrived on July 1, 1863. Photo courtesy of the author.

When I got to the top of the ridge, braving the cold and the wind, I found the attendees surrounding a small stone house. The scene seem so different than it did just a few years ago when I entered the restaurant that once stood on the site. The crowd amassed near the house where the 26th North Carolina Regimental Band stood with a small podium, filling the air with Civil War music. Lee’s headquarters remained closed as more people began to arrive. Continue reading “The Moment We’ve all Been Waiting For: Lee’s Gettysburg Headquarters Opens”

A Pohanka Summer: My Internship at Gettysburg National Military Park

This post is part of a series featuring behind-the-scenes dispatches from our Pohanka Interns on the front lines of history this summer as interpreters, archivists, and preservationists. See here for the introduction to the series.

By Savannah Rose ’17

Over the past eleven weeks, I have been interning with the Division of Interpretation at Gettysburg National Military Park. Throughout the summer, I have acted as a front line interpreter for the park, giving programs in numerous areas around the Gettysburg Battlefield. In addition to the knowledge I’ve gained about interpretation, I have learned more about my life goals as well, pushing me to pursue a career in the National Park Service. My experience at Gettysburg has given me an unforgettable summer with numerous new friends, lessons, and knowledge that I can utilize for the remainder of my life.

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The author’s program at the Soldiers National Cemetery began near this spot at the Rostrum. Photo courtesy of the author.

Continue reading “A Pohanka Summer: My Internship at Gettysburg National Military Park”

Special Collections Roadshow — Episode Ten: Union Uniform

By Meg Sutter ’16 and Megan McNish ’16

Stay tuned for Part Two!

Special Collections Roadshow was created by the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College in the Spring of 2014. It normally showcases various artifacts from Special Collections at Gettysburg College. For our tenth episode, we went on the road to the Gettysburg National Military Park. Thank you so much to the park staff, specifically Andrew Newman for letting us film an episode on an enlisted man’s uniform in their facility! #FindYourPark #GettysburgNMP

What I Saw of the Rally: A Few Observations from the Confederate Flag Protests

By Jeff Lauck ’18

The normally quiet town of Gettysburg was once more disrupted by battle when two groups of protesters went head-to-head over the memory of the Confederate flag. Since the tumult and confusion of that fateful Saturday two weeks ago, many have weighed in on the day’s events with varying degrees of accuracy and distorted perceptions of reality. The following is my account.

I first heard about the pro-flag rally a couple months ago when the Gettysburg chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans received a permit to protest on the Gettysburg National Military Park grounds. I did not think much of it, mostly because my spring break was scheduled to begin the day before the rally. About a week later, I learned that there would be a counter protest against the Confederate flag. This seemed a worthy reason to push back my spring break plans by one day.

We gathered near the Lincoln statue outside Stevens Hall, inspired by the statue’s intent to serve as a forum for discussion on our nation’s continued problems with race relations. There were about 20 of us, holding signs with slogans like “Heritage of Hate” and “The Battle is Over! Surrender the Flag!” Dr. Scott Hancock, a professor of history and Africana studies at Gettysburg College, reminded us that the “flaggers” were exercising their freedom of speech, just as we would be. When speaking about the flag, he encouraged us to say that we supported a more holistic interpretation of the flag, one that included the centrality of slavery to the Confederacy and the flag’s use by many white supremacist groups since the end of the war. After taking a photo in front of the Lincoln statue, we marched over a mile up to the Eternal Light Peace Memorial where the flag rally was to be held.

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After gathering at the Lincoln statue, we marched up to the Peace Light, getting honks of approval from cars that drove by. Photograph by the author.

Continue reading “What I Saw of the Rally: A Few Observations from the Confederate Flag Protests”

“We Can Never Forget What They Did Here”: What Draws People to Gettysburg?

By Jen Simone ’18

“I am so sick of hearing about the Civil War every single day.”
“I didn’t expect there to be so many history nerds at this school.”
“I don’t get why so many tourists come to a little place like Gettysburg.”

I hear constant complaints from fellow Gettysburg College students about how tired they get of hearing about the Civil War. What did they expect coming to Gettysburg College, situated in one of the most visited historic towns in America? More importantly, what is so wrong with hearing about the Civil War so often? I decided that I wanted to investigate—why are so many people drawn to this small town in rural Pennsylvania? What draws millions of people to take time out of their busy lives to explore this special place? I’m hoping that my findings will convince college students that it is worth exploring this history-rich town and maybe for once, get them to stop to read the interpretative markers while they’re out jogging on the battlefield instead of simply passing by.

What draws people again and again to this battlefield? Photograph by author.
What draws people again and again to this battlefield? Photograph by author.

I conducted my whole investigation by walking up to random people I met in town and asking them all the same simple question: “Why are you here?” I expected to get very similar answers throughout all of my interviews and was ready to keep a tally of people visiting because they are either history buffs or because they have never been to Gettysburg before and just thought they should visit and see what all of the hype is about. I was shocked, however, for no two responses I received were the same. Continue reading ““We Can Never Forget What They Did Here”: What Draws People to Gettysburg?”

Report from the Headquarters: A Reflection on the Lee’s Headquarters Public Forum

By Elizabeth Smith ’17

On October 6, approximately seventy people gathered at the Gettysburg Visitor’s Center to attend a public forum discussing the future of the site commonly referred to as Lee’s Headquarters. The property is located on Buford Avenue near the Lutheran Seminary and the Seminary Ridge Museum. On July 1, 1863, the area was the site of several artillery pieces, part of the Union retreat route through the town, and on July 2nd and 3rd, it would serve as Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s headquarters. After the battle, the site would serve as one of the first automotive tourist spots for the millions of visitors who traveled to view the first day’s battlefield. Small cottages, motels, and eventually the Quality Inn would emerge to cater to the mass of tourists.

Photograph by J. Stephen Conn, via flickr.com.
Photograph by J. Stephen Conn, via Flickr.

The forum began with information relating to the work and reports that have already been completed regarding the Lee’s Headquarters site. These reports detailed what, if any, adverse effects the demolition of the buildings currently on the site—specifically the old Quality Inn motel—would have on the environment and future archeology. The tentative answer is that the removal of the motel would have no such effects. Representatives from the Civil War Trust, the organization that purchased the land, spoke about their goals for the Lee’s Headquarters’ site. Their mission is to either demolish or remove the buildings on the site to another location in order to restore the view of the first day’s battlefield, replant the orchard that use to be on the site, put in period-accurate fences, and create a simple battlefield trail that will tell the story of the battle, the headquarters, and the tourist industry that thrived in the years following the battle. Continue reading “Report from the Headquarters: A Reflection on the Lee’s Headquarters Public Forum”

Making a Statement: The Alabama Memorial at Gettysburg

By Matt LaRoche ‘17

This post is part of a series featuring behind-the-scenes dispatches from our Pohanka Interns working on the front lines of history this summer as interpreters, archivists, and preservationists. See here for the introduction to the series.

Every generation has plenty to remember about its time spent shaping the human story. But despite this, some generations are better at writing their stories than others. Or perhaps some generations leave more unfinished work for their descendants to sift through. Either way, the legacy of the Civil War still lays heavy on our shoulders. Here at Gettysburg, in particular, the memory of the nation coalesces around a few days in a July long gone. The remembrance began the day after, with letters home, official reports, and raw thoughts scrawled across diary pages. But the years kept coming. New people and new events shaped the nation, while old people and past events faded, their specifics murky, and their significance uncertain. New generations knew the war meant something, but what? That is the question that every generation since has sought to answer in the style and sense of its time. The further time crept from the trial of the Civil War, the more new people with new interests and new agendas could proclaim their answers on old fields with new monuments and new speeches.

 The Alabama State Monument at Gettysburg was dedicated in November 1933, and eschews any mention of the causes or results of the war, focusing solely on themes of heroism and duty. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The Alabama State Monument at Gettysburg was dedicated in November 1933, and eschews any mention of the causes or results of the war, focusing solely on themes of heroism and duty. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Kirk Savage’s article, “The Politics of Memory: Black Emancipation and the Civil War Monument,” examines how this trend shaped the immediate post-war years. By revealing how a template Civil War monument emerged to serve both sides after the war—a very select celebration of unbroken white manhood on both sides—Savage helps illustrate the fundamentally political nature of memorialization. After the war, both North and South began to enshrine the war in the most emotionally and politically efficacious ways possible. While monuments still reflected some level of sectional divide, they almost universally ignored the black perspective on the war and its significance, regarding it as irrelevant, if not outright toxic. Northern and Southern political interests could largely coexist so long as they both ignored this key dimension of the war years and their aftermath. People North and South could still take solace in knowing why their loved ones died by attaching any one of a number of explanations to the same stock pedestal, with the same marble soldier set to stand tall on that explanation for eternity. This tacit agreement left much unresolved baggage for later generations. Continue reading “Making a Statement: The Alabama Memorial at Gettysburg”

Vandalism and Symbolism

By Steven Semmel ’16

The world of social media has been buzzing over the topic of the Confederate flag, creating a scary divide of opinions over it. The whole debate/argument started over the shooting in Charleston, South Carolina. The shooter had the Confederate flag posted all over his social media sites, creating some disturbing images of hatred. Instead of focusing on the race war the shooter was trying to start, many focused on the Confederate Flag he had in his pictures online. Tempers flared and many sought the removal of the Confederate flag from in front of the Capital Building in Charleston during the funerals of the victims.

However, this was just the beginning. Soon many people wanted more, to remove the flag all across the country. Apple, Amazon, eBay, and Walmart joined the event by removing Confederate flag items from being sold. The announcement made many people feel that their “Southern Heritage” was being suppressed and people were “too soft and offended by too many things in today’s society.” Then the Gettysburg National Park Service announced the removal of sole Confederate flag merchandise from their book store. The same people now thought that the government was trying to oppress the Southern perspective of the Civil War and were going to remove Confederate flags from all museums. The people for the removal thought it was about time that the flag was removed because it stood for slavery and a national divide. They also brought in the argument that Germany banned the Nazi flag from flying, so why was the Confederate flag still flying to this day. But what does this flag mean and what is the appropriate way to respond to this debate? Continue reading “Vandalism and Symbolism”