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Civil War Diary

Gettysburg Preservation & Commemoration, 150 Years in the Making

John Miller
Emmitsburg Area Historical Society

July 1st, 2013, will mark the day 150 years ago that the Battle of Gettysburg started. The Battle of Gettysburg was an important battle in the American Civil War, and is one of the major turning points of the American Civil War. Since 150 years to the day the battle started, it’s hard to imagine what it was like during those three days in July. But yet, after the Civil War, veterans from both the blue and the gray would return to this Civil War battlefield. Reflections of days gone by, talks about the hard times and soldier life, and seeing old friends from other units that fought together. And yes, those same reenactments that many thousands of people will go see are rooted when those veterans returned to Gettysburg.

Gettysburg was an important battle, so much so, that within a month after the battle plans were created to preserve the battlefield. This is when Attorney David McConaughy created the Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association. On April 30, 1864, the GBMA became the official preservation organization of the battlefield when Pennsylvania legislation gave its approval for a memorial landscape at Gettysburg. The GBMA then created the guidelines for the placements of all memorials, monuments, and markers that would eventually be erected upon the battlefield.

As the war came to a close, the first unofficial reunion took place in 1865, when members of the 50th Pennsylvania Infantry encamped on Culp's Hill for the Soldiers' National Monument cornerstone ceremony. Four years later, Attorney McConaughy, organized the first veteran's reunion at Gettysburg. In 1878, the Grand Army of the Republic held their encampment at Gettysburg which featured several activities including hayrides, sack races, band concerts, balloon ascensions, picnics, and dances. This was also the year that the first memorials were placed on the ground. The first, marking the area where General Strong Vincent was mortally wounded, and the second marked the spot where Colonel Fred Taylor fell. A year later, the survivors of the 2nd Massachusetts Infantry erected the first regimental monument.

During the latter part of the 1800’s more monuments were erected upon the Gettysburg Battlefield by Union units that fought there. By 1882, the GBMA had exhausted their preservation funds, as 280 acres had been preserved. During the same year, several ex-Confederate officers were invited to Gettysburg to share information on troop positions. In 1885, as preservation continued, President Grover Cleveland attended the First Corps reunion, and was given a battlefield tour after his visit to the Gettysburg National Cemetery.

In 1886, twenty-three years after the Battle of Gettysburg, survivors of Confederate General George Pickett’s Division attended the reunion. During this important part of Gettysburg history, Union veterans were marking out positions and needed help with those they fought against. The New York Times wrote: "Now they are come together as friends and as citizens of a common country, having no resentments and cherishing no animosities."

In 1887, the US Congress appropriated funding to use to mark out various US Regulars. Since the GBMA’s charter was limited to the Union positions, no real efforts were made to include the Army of Northern Virginia and their role there.

By July of 1888, the Quarter-Centenary of the Battle of Gettysburg had arrived. Twenty-five years had gone by since the battle. Almost twenty-five years of healing between the veteran soldiers of the blue and grey. This commemoration also included several monuments being erected upon the battlefield. During this commemoration, there were enough veterans to recreate Pickett’s Charge. The Confederate veterans actually rode in carriages across the field until they came to the stone wall, where they shook hands with those formerly of the Union army.

In 1889, the GBMA petitioned members of Congress to authorize land purchases where the Confederate army was located during the three day battle. This petition also included marking the Confederate positions where those divisions, brigades and regiments fought. In 1892, plans were approved to convert Meade’s headquarters into a museum featuring artifacts from the battle.

The year of 1893 brought several threats to the preservation of the Gettysburg Battlefield, and because of this the Gettysburg Battlefield Commission was created. By 1895, legislation establishing the Gettysburg National Military Park had become Federal law. This law also provided the Park Commission with complete control of the battlefield. The lands owned by the GBMA were transferred over to the Park Commission. A major threat to the battlefield had been the electric trolley. The plans were to run a line deep into the battlefield which included Devil’s Den. The Circuit Court favored the trolley company. However, the case was overturned in 1896, by the Supreme Court when the Gettysburg National Military Park was enacted by law a year earlier suggesting that preservation was part of their responsibilities for its creation.

An actual park was underway, complete with roadways, and itinerary tablets to mark various positions of both the Union Army of the Potomac and the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. The War Department renewed their effort to preserve and mark Confederate battle lines. It was now important for the veterans of both armies who fought at Gettysburg to come together if Gettysburg was going to be part of their legacy.

In 1895, several tour guides were making a living on by providing tourists guided tours of the battlefield. By 1913, several complaints were issued by the public. As a result, the War Department began to regulate tour guides. Only those who were licensed would be permitted to give tours charging a fee. Soon a roster was issued for 100 licensed guides. In 1928, regulations for a guide uniform were approved, as well as business cards to be given to the public.

The year 1913, marked the 50th Commemoration of the Battle of Gettysburg. From July 1st through July 4th, thousands of Civil War veterans embarked on the town of Gettysburg. On June 28th, the New York Herald wrote: "Today fifty thousand veterans of the great War are moving on to take peaceful possession of the field where the ardor of youth they strove in such deadly conflict. No better evidence of healing of the nation’s wounds could be offered than the spectacle of men of the Grand Army and of the Confederacy striking hands on the spot where they made history."

During the Commemoration, many governors and veteran organizations spoke. Many activities were planned, and a recreation of the Pickett’s Charge was reenacted by 120 veterans of Pickett’s Division, and 180 veterans from the Philadelphia Brigade. The Confederate veterans charged over 100 feet of ground to the wall and shook hands with the Union veterans. The US military, boy scouts, and Red Cross were on hand to aide those ageing veterans. Wool blankets were handed out and over 650,000 meals were served.

On July 4th, President Woodrow Wilson spoke at the Gettysburg reunion. In his address, he said: "How complete the union has become and how dear to all of us, how unquestioned, how benign and majestic, as State after State has been added to this, our great family of free men! How handsome the vigor, the maturity, the might of the great Nation we love with undivided hearts; how full of large and confident promise that a life will be wrought out that will crown its strength with gracious justice and with a happy welfare that will touch all alike with deep contentment! We are debtors to those fifty crowned years; they have made us heirs to a mighty heritage."

Fifty years had passed since the battle and during the early 1900’s, these veterans who fought against each other during the three day battle were now part of a whole Union. They were not viewed as anything but Americans. As the Fiftieth Commemoration came to a close, preservation efforts of the Gettysburg Battlefield continued.

In 1922, the third remaining commissioner of the Park Commission had passed away and with that, the first superintendent’s position was born with Emmor B. Cope holding that title until his death in 1927. Cope was also the last remaining commissioner of the Park Commission.

1916 marked the year when the National Park Service was created. As early as 1923, attempts were made to have land owned by the war department transferred to the National Park Service. Those attempts had failed. It wasn’t until 1933, when the Gettysburg National Military Park was transferred over to the Department of Interior and administered by the National Park Service. This transfer occurred when President Theodore Roosevelt issued Executive Order 6166 which allowed the transfer of National Cemeteries and Battlefield Parks to the National Park Service.

Read Part 2

Read more about Emmitsburg in the Civil War