A Gettysburg battle plan: The field as it once was

Posted: June 24, 2013

GETTYSBURG - During the monumental battle fought here 150 years ago, Powers Hill played a key role as a signal station and artillery position guarding the main route to Washington.

Over time the fields turned to forest and few visitors made the short trek up the boulder-filled hill at the southeastern corner of Gettysburg National Military Park for the view.

Because there wasn't one.

Before last year you could not see the battlefield for the trees. Today, after trees have been clear-cut, a nonhistoric house demolished, and a small parcel of land purchased, a visitor can stand beside the boulders, look out across the Baltimore Pike clear over to Culp's Hill and understand exactly what was at stake.

"Seeing the landscape as soldiers saw it is paramount to understanding the battle," said Garry Adelman, director of history and education at the nonprofit group Civil War Trust and a licensed battlefield guide for 20 years.

Powers Hill is just one project among many that the National Park Service has undertaken in the last decade or so to bring back the battlefield and help expand visitors' understanding of what took place here.

Over the next two weeks, tens of thousands of visitors and reenactors will converge on Gettysburg to mark the 150th anniversary of the great battle.

In the last decade, the park service has erased modern intrusions from the 6,000-acre battlefield at a rapid pace, demolished an observation tower, a motel, a car dealership, modern houses, and most recently the controversial Cyclorama building. Overlooking the field of Pickett's Charge - the Confederates' final assault on the third day of the fighting. the building was the subject of a 15-year lawsuit.

The park service has also uncovered Civil War-era farm lanes and stone walls, replanted orchards, and rebuilt fences. The work is part of a comprehensive, multimillion-dollar project to rehabilitate features within the park boundaries. Park officials eschew the word restoration because they feel it is impossible to perfectly re-create the historic landscape.

Early park planning, driven by a single-minded philosophy of the victors to preserve only what mattered to the North, opened up huge swaths of the battlefield to development.

Before the U.S. War Department took over the park in 1895, veterans' groups that oversaw initial land acquisition believed that only Union battle positions should be preserved.

Commercial interests began snapping up property along Confederate lines, building tourist cabins, diners, even a roller rink. As the 50th anniversary in 1913 approached and again with the 75th anniversary in 1938 and the centennial in 1963, more development came. In addition, many private properties remained within park boundaries, so many in some spots that whole villages like the one named Pinchgut cropped up.

"There was a struggle over whether this would be a historic or amusement park," Adelman said.

The National Park Service took over battlefield management in 1916 with a very different approach: that the only way the full battle story could be realized would be to preserve Confederate positions, too. Thus began the nearly century-long process of reclaiming the battlefield, tearing down commercial structures.

Gone are the Home Sweet Home motel, which sat on Steinwehr Avenue at the edge of Pickett's Charge; a Ford dealership, which was the last commercial enterprise within the park's boundaries and stood where the Union Army's 11th Corps was overwhelmed on July 1, 1863; and the 300-foot-tall observation tower - the subject of court battles that predated its construction in 1974 - that was finally seized by eminent domain and demolished in 2000.

The park service also works with the remaining landowners to secure easements ensuring that the property still in private hands will not be developed.

"Every quarter acre is very important," said Adelman.

Because of its prominence, Gettysburg among all Civil War battlefields has attracted more private resources to help drive land acquisition, said Adelman, whose group has played a lead role in helping purchase so-called outparcels, privately held properties in the park.

But at the same time, the park management bears the burden of being the most scrutinized.

While Gettysburg has not faced some of the major commercial projects that have threatened several of Virginia's most important Civil War sites - the Disneyworld theme park once envisioned at the Manassas battlefield in the early 1990s or a Wal-Mart near the Wilderness in more recent years - battlefield preservationists nonetheless have found themselves in a succession of skirmishes over the last eight years to halt construction of a planned casino near the southwestern corner of the battlefield.

Developers two years ago lost their bid for a casino license and the project was shelved.

Two years ago, the park with private funds completed purchase of the 100-acre Gettysburg Country Club, on the western edge of the park where Confederate and Union troops clashed on the battle's first day. The rehabilitation strategy there is essentially planned neglect.

Park spokeswoman Katie Lawhon said they were letting the once well-groomed greens go fallow as the park winds down its rehabilitation to-do list.

This spring, the park finally demolished the massive Cyclorama building that stood along Cemetery Ridge at the heart of the battlefield.

The concrete structure was erected in 1963 to house the historic Cyclorama painting depicting Pickett's Charge, now displayed in the new visitors center a mile away.

Lovers of modern architecture and the son of its famed architect, Richard Neutra, fought until the bulldozers arrived to preserve it, arguing that it, too, was now part of the historic Gettysburg landscape.

Removing the building has allowed the park service to reclaim Ziegler's Grove, where Union soldiers repelled Gen. George Pickett's forces on the battle's final day.

Lawhon said future plans for the park will be less noticeable to the average visitor: maintaining the landscape, keeping tree growth at bay, caring for the orchards, and repairing fencing.

On a recent tour of some of the park's rehabilitated sites, Lawhon paused to point out two features once lost to history: the replanted apple orchard and newly uncovered Trostle Farm lane, near where Union Gen. Dan Sickles, his leg shattered by a Confederate cannonball, had sought cover with his troops.

Under siege by Confederates, with no access to water, the soldiers stuffed themselves with apples to quench their thirst while they awaited supply troops using that farm lane.

"They were tearing unripe fruit off the trees," Lawhon said. "We know that because so many soldiers wrote about it in their diaries," she said.

Standing by a swamp white oak - one of the remaining "witness trees" that stood during the battle - Lawhon explained how bringing back the historic landscape enhances the visitor's experience.

"You can see how Sickles would have taken shelter in the orchard, how troops brought artillery cannon pieces up Trostle's lane to help him," she said. "And why he made the decisions he did."


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Contact Amy Worden at 717-783-2584 or aworden@phillynews.com or follow @inkyamy on Twitter.

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