Few men had a greater influence on the preservation and development of the Gettysburg battlefield than John Bachelder. Bachelder came from New Hampshire and earned his living primarily as an educator and artist. He was thirty-five years old when the Civil War began. Although interested in military things, he did not volunteer for service, probably because of his health, but he did attach himself to the Army of the Potomac in 1862 during George B. McClellan’s Peninsula campaign. Bachelder wrote that besides sketching and painting the army in the field he intended to “wait for the great battle which would naturally decide the contest; study its topography on the field and learn its details from the actors themselves, and eventually prepare its written and illustrated history.” At the unsuccessful conclusion of the Peninsula campaign, Bachelder left the army and returned home, but not before asking the friends he had made in the army to keep him apprised of any movement that might lead to the decisive engagement he sought. The moment he received word of a battle at Gettysburg, Bachelder sensed that this was the great battle he had waited for. He left home immediately and arrived on the battlefield only several days after the battle ended. He would spend the rest of his life devoted to studying, preserving and marking the field.
If a single monument were selected to represent Bachelder and how he viewed the battle it would be the High Water Mark monument at the Copse of Trees on Cemetery Ridge, along Hancock Avenue. Bachelder worked harder to have this monument erected than any other on the field. Several years after the war, perhaps in 1868 or 1869 Bachelder came upon Basil Biggs, a farmer whose property included the Copse of Trees, who was busy cutting the trees down. “I expostulated with him,” wrote Bachelder, about the trees’ historic value, but Biggs, who had lived west of Gettysburg during the battle and had helped re-bury Union dead to the Soldiers’ National Cemetery after the battle, was unmoved. Then Bachelder tried a different tack. He explained that “I suggested to him that if he cut them, then he was only getting for them their value as rails, whereas, if he allowed them to stand to mark the spot he would eventually get ten times as much for them.” Biggs was a shrewd businessman as well as a successful farmer and this line of argument worked. He spared the trees and in 1881 sold seven acres to the Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association (GBMA) for $125 an acre, plus an additional $475.12 for damages to his property caused by the opening of what would be called Hancock Avenue. The Association began to lay out this avenue in 1882. The significance of the clump of trees was known to relic hunters, and with the opening of the avenue and access to this area of the battlefield they began cutting branches to make souvenir canes. In 1885 Bachelder recommended the Association erect an iron fence to enclose and protect the trees. The motion failed, as did a subsequent one in 1886. In 1887 Bachelder submitted his motion in writing, and this time it passed unanimously. At the same meeting, John Vanderslice, a member of the Board and the driving force behind the expansion of the Association’s activities on the battlefield, recommended that Bachelder “prepare an appropriate and suitable tablet descriptive of the engagement and the commands engaged at the copse of trees where Pickett’s Division assaulted the Union line, said tablet to be placed upon a metallic post thereat.” The idea for a High Water Mark Monument was born.
Bachelder decided that something grander than Vanderslice envisioned was more appropriate, and at a meeting of the GBMA’s executive committee on September 25, 1888, he offered a resolution for a bronze tablet “setting forth the movements of the troops at the copse of trees” be erected. The committee approved the proposal unanimously, but the chairman remarked that there were no funds for such a memorial and another commented that all that was really needed was a “small tablet bolted to the fence.” Bachelder had something more impressive in mind, but later related, “I certainly did not realize the immense amount of thought and labor which its completion would involve; nor did I then contemplate such an expensive structure.”
It took Bachelder four years to realize his dream of a High Water Mark monument. He personally prepared and discarded more than twenty different designs, “made the contracts, visited legislatures, secured appropriations and paid bills precisely as though it was my private enterprise.” Since the GBMA had made it clear that there were no funds for a monument Bachelder had to find the funding or pay out of pocket. When the monument was finished and dedicated on June 2, 1892, Bachelder learned that the monument appropriations account was overdrawn by $2,025 and that he had omitted from the roll of commands honored the companies of the U. S. Sharpshooters, who had participated in the repulse of Longstreet’s Assault. It also developed that the cast iron cannon balls used in the monument design were rusting badly, having been scarred in their transportation to the foundry that assembled the monument. With characteristic vigor Bachelder tackled all problems, appealing to the states whose commands were honored on the monument to appropriate funds, adding the sharpshooter companies to the monument legend and replacing the cast iron balls with bronze balls. Most states responded so that in his report on the construction of the monument Bachelder reported he had a small surplus of funds available for the perpetual care of the monument.
The final design Bachelder settled on was of an open book supported by pyramids of cannon balls and flanked by two Napoleon cannon. The legend he prepared was not interpretive, it addressed neither the cause nor the consequence of the battle or war except obliquely in the inscription for “Commands Honored,” which stated, “In recognition of the Patriotism and Gallantry Displayed by their respective troops who met or assisted to repulse Longstreet’s Assault,” then listed those states that had made contributions to the monument’s preparation. In all places on the legend the July 3 attack was referred to as “Longstreet’s Assault,” and Bachelder identified that “This Copse of Trees Was the Landmark Towards Which Longstreet’s Assault Was Directed July 3, 1863.” If Bachelder believed that because these words were now etched in bronze that they would endure, he was mistaken. The term Longstreet’s Assault was displaced by the more popular and catchy “Pickett’s Charge.” What did stick was the name Bachelder gave the monument, which was in turn applied to this place on the battlefield and ultimately, to the battle itself: the High Water Mark of the Rebellion. This, Bachelder proclaimed, was where the rebellion turned. He wrote with evident pride that the idea of naming the Copse of Trees the High Water Mark of the Rebellion “was mine.”
Between the iron fence he erected around the Copse of Trees and The High Water Mark Monument, Bachelder transformed this part of the battlefield. He also helped transform how we view the war and Gettysburg’s prominent place in it, in popular memory to this very day.
D. Scott Hartwig