Gettysburg: From Battlefield to Civil War Shrine

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Intriguingly enough, one burial crew discovered the body of a young woman dressed in the uniform of a Confederate private. Doubtless she was rolled hurriedly into a mass grave alongside her male comrades. Her name and her story remain unknown to this day.

Then there were the 20,000 or 30,000 wounded men, overwhelming the town and surrounding countryside, spilling out of churches, houses, and barns. Heroic doctors and nurses labored day and night while piles of amputated limbs bred maggots in the sun. Nevertheless, another 3,000 men died within the first few weeks, and they, too, were hastily put in the ground.

Four months after the battle, President Abraham Lincoln delivered his famous Gettysburg Address, declaring that these dead had not died in vain, that their self-sacrifice ultimately ensured "a new birth of freedom" in the nation. Most people since have chosen to understand this slaughter in his terms. This place called Gettysburg thus became "hallowed ground."

Meanwhile, visitors began arriving, often women, often from hundreds of miles away, seeking among the skeletal remains exposed in partially-eroded graves their sons or lovers, hoping to bring them home. Sometimes they found them; sometimes they didn't, and left knowing they were still out there, somewhere.

In time such ghastly spectacles disappeared. Most of the Union dead were reinterred in Gettysburg's new National Cemetery, and most of the Confederates were gathered up in the 1870s and sent to cemeteries across the South.

Most—but not all. Inevitably, bodies were overlooked. As the town regained some semblance of normal life, the farmers returned to plowing their fields. They harvested their wheat and gathered up tons of bullets, relics, and iron scrap. Within a few years the ground had given up most of its burden, except for those, scattered here and there, still seeded beneath the sod.

Day-Trippers and POWs

Decades passed. Then aging veterans began to return. They dedicated monuments to their valor on spots where they fought. Hundreds of granite and bronze men arose, some frozen on horseback, some aiming rifles, some raising bugles to stony lips. Such statues graced over 1,300 monuments. Carriage drives wound among them; the battlefield had become the retreat of the meditative tourist, a shrine for pilgrims.

For a while Gettysburg became an amusement destination. Trolleys carried day-trippers to a popular park on battle-scarred Little Round Top, offering expansive views and refreshment stands. Evening merrymaking occasionally got out of hand. Sometimes couples sought privacy behind rocks or monuments. The good burghers were scandalized. The dead, of course, said nothing.

In 1913, over 50,000 veterans returned for the 50th anniversary of the great battle. Tenting on the old campground, former enemies mingled and embraced, proposed toasts, and embellished stories. They clutched canes made from battlefield trees and remembered. The murmur of their conversations, spiked by occasional roars of laughter, lasted deep into the nights.

Another war came. In 1944, part of the battlefield was briefly used as a German POW camp. One night two prisoners escaped. They were captured shortly afterwards, at the exact spot where hundreds had died during the bloody culmination of Pickett's Charge, 81 years before.

By the 1930s, the National Park Service had taken over the administration of the battlefield. For decades following World War II, Gettysburg National Military Park (GNMP) played smiling host to millions. Each summer, kepi-clad children piled out of family station wagons to play among the rocks of Devil's Den or Little Round Top. They packed into the venerable Cyclorama, with its massive (26 feet by 356 feet/8 meter by 108.5 meter), encircling, Victorian era painting of Pickett's Charge, to experience yesterday's concept of virtual reality.

A stated goal of GNMP is "to provide our visitors with an experience they will not soon forget." That may be a challenge now that annual visitor numbers average roughly two million a year. Last week slow-moving cavalcades of cars and minivans crept through the Park, guided by audio tours while those inside sat in air-conditioned comfort.

The Once and Future Battlefield

Today GNMP is looking toward tomorrow. In ten years, the 150th anniversary of the battle should be a major observance. By then a planned U.S. $95 million museum and visitor center should be finished, featuring state-of-the-art interpretive exhibits and facilities for safeguarding an extensive collection of artifacts, documents, and historic photographs. And a refurbished, restored Cyclorama should still be enthralling audiences with its imaginative depiction of what the battle must have looked like to a participant.

Ten years from now, the battlefield itself might look very much as it did to a participant, for a major goal of GNMP is to restore the ground to its 1863 appearance—or at least its appearance before the first shot was fired.

Primarily, that means removing "visual intrusions" that might detract from the imaginative apprehension of the scene. Telephone lines are being buried and postwar structures bought and dismantled. Three years ago, in a victory lauded by preservationists, GNMP finally managed to acquire and demolish a huge 300-foot (90-meter) observation tower, built in the 1970s by private interests, that many had considered the most hideous of visual intrusions.

Re-creation of the 1863 scene means occasionally waging war against nature. Woods have reclaimed areas that were once field or orchard, and these "non-historic" trees are now being removed. It also means occasionally joining forces with nature. Increased grasslands should help certain sparrows and ground-nesting birds that have long been on the decline. The former killing ground may soon become something of a nature preserve.

This once and future battlefield, however, will be partly illusory. The great vistas—the generals'-eye views—may appear much as they did in 1863. But changes at ground level—the soldiers'-eye views—may be harder to arrest. Just a few years after the battle, one veteran bewailed that everything then had already changed, that the hollows in the ground that sheltered him had already vanished. Ten years from today, many more generations of leaves, grasshoppers, butterflies, and sparrows will have laid their minute burdens down. The accumulating debris of nature, slowly covering the debris of battle, will always be changing the ground.

And that means fewer and fewer bullets—or bones—will be found.

The Vision-Place

For decades following the removal of most bodies, skeletons were still frequently discovered around Gettysburg. Whether laying out avenues, excavating foundations, or digging drainage ditches, workers often stumbled onto unmarked graves. But as the 20th century wore on, such finds became increasingly rare.

Then in 1996 someone stumbled upon a skeleton exposed by recent rains. Forensic analysis indicated it probably dated from the battle. But there was no telling whether he had been a Union or Confederate soldier, only that it appeared to be a young man felled by a shot to the head.

How many more are still out there, overlooked and forgotten? Once there were thousands; but today, probably few remain. Historians who have studied the evidence guess they number somewhere between several dozen and several hundred. Buried only in bloody uniforms, without coffins, such soldiers have now mostly moldered into the soil, been scattered by the plow, or been washed away by the creeks.

This hallowed ground is mellowing with each passing season. Still, tomorrow shall surely be like yesterday and today in that people will still come here, drawn to this spot, responding to the same unheard bugle call. As Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, who won the Medal of Honor at Gettysburg, put it years after the war: "In great deeds something abides. On great fields something stays. Forms change and pass; bodies disappear; but spirits linger, to consecrate the ground for the vision-place of souls."

Mark Jenkins is a National Geographic Society historian and archivist.

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