The Army did not leave Gettysburg in 1863. In fact, the American Civil War was only the beginning of the vibrant military relationship fostered within the National Military Park. For the course of some three decades, beginning in 1895, the battlefield was administered by the U.S. War Department—the predecessor of the contemporary Department of Defense. Within that span of time the site was not only a commemorative landscape for veterans or a destination of leisure for tourists, but a proving ground for the rising stars of the United States Military.
One could often find cadets and staff members trekking the battlefield, attempting to gain some comprehension of terrain and tactics for incorporation into their own careers. Such was especially true for the senior class trip from West Point in 1915. Among the cadets were nearly sixty officers-to-be who were generals by the end of the Second World War. They included a humble, homespun boy from Missouri named Omar Bradley and an ambitious young man fascinated by military history named Dwight D. Eisenhower. The excursion helped ignite Ike’s lifelong passion for study of the Gettysburg battlefield. His trip to the park as a cadet was not his last.
As America became embroiled in the ghastly horrors of the First World War, the War Department once again looked to the national parks under its domain—including Gettysburg. These valuable resources provided both historical context and acreage for training. At Gettysburg, this mentality culminated in the creation of Camp Colt—the new home for a new branch of the military—the U.S. Army Tank Corps. The commandant of the massive facility was none other than the twenty-nine year-old Eisenhower. The complex that spanned the entire field of Pickett’s Charge was an immense one, hosting some 10,000 soldiers over the course of 1917-18. Scores of primitive vehicles, including French Renault tanks, rolled through and across the entirety of the battlefield, inflicting unmeasured levels of damage upon the ecological landscape of the park. The park was a memorial and commercial endeavor, but so too was it a utilitarian one, just as General Daniel Sickles intended when he crafted the park’s founding legislation. But not all was lost. In an immediate sense, Eisenhower was rather disappointed during his tenure at Camp Colt. Unlike his classmates, Ike’s hopes of proving himself on the field of battle faded with each passing month of garrison life. Yet in the long term perspective, Ike’s time as an officer on the Gettysburg battlefield helped mold his diplomatic and innovative leadership techniques that later defined his role as Supreme Allied Commander.
The end of the Great War did not bring an end to the armed forces’ role in the park. In fact, some sought to utilize the historic landscape to further promote the military’s supremacy. In the wake of the costly World War, many governmental leaders desired to downsize the military in the hope of discouraging future bloodshed on such a scale. Within this mission was a proposal to abolish the United States Marines Corps. As a promotional tactic to save the Corps, Marine leaders devised a plan for a lengthy field exercise and demonstration that would rally public support for the institution’s continued existence. Gettysburg was to be one of the locations of this grand spectacle. On the fifty-ninth anniversary of the battle in 1922, the Marines exhibited their strength with tanks, vehicles, biplanes, and even observation blimps (of of which was shot down on the southern edge of the battlefield). Spectators, including President Warren G. Harding, were rightly impressed. The Corps lived on. Not only was the United States itself feasibly saved at Gettysburg in 1863, but so too was the Marines Corps six decades later.
Colorful episodes of military history endured at Gettysburg past the Great Depression and through the Second World War. Park Historian Frederick Tilberg frequently offered staff rides for Army Air Corpsmen, U.S. Infantry, and even special guests such as Chester Nimitz. Tilberg simultaneously struggled to save the park’s many monuments from being claimed as scrap materials for the war effort. While saving all of the regimental monuments, not all of the War Department tablets and ornamentation could be spared. Approximately one quarter million pounds of iron materials were seized from the park and recycled into military equipment and ammunition. The park’s visitation concurrently dwindled as gas rationing prohibited motorists from vacationing to the park.
The war’s outreach upon Gettysburg did not end there. In the former Civilian Conservation Corps camp located in McMillan Woods, Camp Sharpe was established. Named in honor of George Sharpe, the Civil War’s chief of the Bureau of Military Information, the top secret facility specialized in psychological operations and propaganda dissemination. In the nearby Lee-Meade Inn, War Department cartographers created classified maps utilized in various military campaigns of the war. Perhaps most colorful of all was the establishment of a German prisoner of war camp on the fields of Pickett’s Charge, where several hundred soldiers from the Afrika Korps and Normandy were housed as they labored in Adams County orchards by day. Multiple escape attempts and manhunts occurred within this time. Ironically enough, one of the most daring plots unsuccessfully unfolded on July 3, 1944—the anniversary of another blunder on that same field in 1863.
One can still discover many hidden treasures and stories regarding the World Wars history of Gettysburg. Many of these tales can be uncovered at the neighboring Eisenhower National Historic Site, especially during its annual WWII Weekend held in mid-September. To experience the most compelling aspect of this saga, however, one must trek to the Soldiers’ National Cemetery. Not only is the site the burial ground of the 1863 dead, but so too is it the final resting place of nearly 2,000 WWII veterans—many of whom were killed in combat. Laid to honor in the same location where Lincoln delivered his Gettysburg Address, these individuals too gave their “last full measure of devotion” so that an ideal bigger than themselves could long endure for our benefit.
You can join Jared on Wednesday July 31, 2013 for a Hike with a Ranger program focusing on the unique WWI and WWII History of Gettysburg National Military Park. This free tour will begin at the National Guard Armory on West Confederate Avenue at 9 a.m. and conclude in the Soldiers’ National Cemetery at approximately noon. World War living historians will be accompanying the march.