Memories of the 150th – White Knuckle History

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The pursuit of history, if it may be called that, is most often done in quiet and contemplative settings. We imagine the historian perched over a stack of yellowed documents in the safe confines of a library, or perhaps in the reading room of some historical society with mahogany bookshelves and small reading lamps standing sentinel across long oak tables. It is a safe place, a controlled space, virtually devoid of danger…but also, consequently, of adventure.

Yet, every so often the study of the past necessitates journeying beyond the archives and repositories to the places where the history being studied was actually made. In the world of the National Park Service this is a frequent, and also a fundamental, occurrence. Occasionally it contains elements of danger and adventure. Such was the story of the creation of one of our 150th “Battle Experience Programs.”

It began with a logistical conundrum. How do you tell the story of the end of the first day of the battle of Gettysburg, the Union retreat through town, and the experience of Gettysburg’s civilians at the end of July 1st, 1863? The logical solution, and the one we would no doubt employ any other year, would be to address it in the same manner we do other battlefield stories – a ranger led interpretive program. Yet, 2013 wasn’t any normal year. During the more mundane battle anniversaries, the 148th for example, crowd sizes for ranger led programs number in the hundreds. How many would show up on July 1st, 2013? Furthermore, how can you tell the story of Gettysburg’s civilians and the retreat through the town without actually going into the town? Guiding a couple of hundred visitors through the labyrinthine streets of Gettysburg, at about 4:00 PM on July 1st, 2013, would be impossible. Stop lights and cars, crosswalks, and other pedestrians would play havoc with moving the group. Space on Gettysburg’s busy streets would be difficult to come by and the hustle and bustle of a thriving downtown would make communication extraordinarily difficult.

So what to do? To not tell the story would be to ignore an incredibly compelling and important element of the battle. The end of the first day cast long shadows over the remainder of the battle yet to be fought. Furthermore, the experience of the civilians of Gettysburg deserves to be told as much as the actions of the soldiers and generals involved.  The program would be offered; the shape it would take remained to be seen.

In the end we decided the best course of action would be to offer three “stations” in the town of Gettysburg. At each station a ranger would offer a brief talk on the significance of that particular spot or building. Each talk would be offered a number of times throughout the late afternoon. Visitors could then move from location to location at will, in any order, without having to navigate their way with four hundred other people.

The program could happen only by enlisting the help of the local community. Three organizations offered to open up their iconic properties for the anniversary program. Gettysburg College welcomed us and allowed the use of their beautiful campus. The Christ Lutheran Church on Chambersburg Street opened the doors of their sanctuary. The Gettysburg Convention and Visitor Bureau generously allowed us access to the Gettysburg Train Station. Visitors who participated in the program would be given the experience of exploring these historic places at the exact moment the tide of battle was sweeping through and past them, 150 years before.

With the framework for the program solidly in place it was now up to the three rangers involved in the event to begin the process of crafting meaningful interpretive programs for each location. What happened at the Train Station that afternoon? What did the members of Christ Church think when their holy place was taken over as a hospital? What did the students of Pennsylvania College see as they peered out the brick lined windows of the “College Edifice” as the surviving members of the 11th Army Corps streamed past their campus? More importantly, why should 21st century Americans care about any of this?

The research for this battle experience program was done in the way most research is conducted. It had its genesis in the park library and archives. Letters were poured through, claims files consulted, newspaper articles gleaned for new insights and poignant memories. The multi-faceted nature of the program though required a journey beyond the confines of vertical files and archival boxes, to the sites we would be interpreting on July 1st.

On June 22nd, 2013 Rangers John Hoptak, Caitlin Kostic, and I journeyed to the campus of Gettysburg College, the Gettysburg Train Station, and finally, Christ Lutheran Church. At each location we scoped the property, ironed out a number of important details, and addressed the myriad logistical components that each spot would involve.

At Christ Lutheran Church we were given an especially warm welcome by Volunteer Ron Rock and Pastor Stephen Herr. They spent the better part of an hour with us, patiently answering questions and sharing with us their knowledge of the church and the battle in which it figured so prominently. The original dimensions of the battle era floor plan were sketched out, original fixtures and architectural elements were highlighted, as well as the history of the congregation itself.

It was at the conclusion of our planning meeting that Pastor Herr offered to bring us up to the cupola of the church. The cupola of Christ Lutheran Church has been a landmark on the Gettysburg skyline since before the battle. This was to be a rare privilege, a brief visit to take in one of the most exclusive views in the borough. It was however a view that had to be earned.

The ascent to the cupola had to be done in near darkness. A variety of holes and hatches had to be squeezed through (none of which comfortably accommodated a ranger of the authors bulk). The footing was, in a word, treacherous. Pastor Herr informed us that the old ladder to the cupola had been replaced in favor of a much newer and sturdier model. While this may have been true, the sturdier model to which Pastor Herr referred was the bottom section of an extension ladder that had been screwed to one of the beams that lined the roof.

It is an established fact that Ranger John Hoptak has an inordinate terror of heights. Or perhaps, to employ a clichéd truth, he has a fear of falling. The climb to the top would be more than a simple act of upward movement. It would be an act of conquering a deeply held fear. Yet, how could anyone pass up such an opportunity? The 22nd of June, 2013 found John, Ranger Kostic and myself ascending a rickety ladder that led inexorably higher towards the cupola of the Christ Lutheran Church, which seemed to tower hundreds of feet above Chambersburg Street below.

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Volunteer Ron Rock lowers a hatch above the balcony.

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From the attic of the church a series of step ladders ascend ever higher. Careful navigation was required.

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The hatch leading to the cupola – as viewed from below.

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Perhaps the most challenging aspect of visiting the cupola of the church was squeezing through this opening. The hatch was clearly meant for a 19th century physique.

The view from the top was well worth the exertion. The town and surrounding countryside extended for miles in almost every direction. More impressive then the view though, was the simple experience of it.  In scrambling through the attic and belfry I interacted with the building in a way I never had before. In some small way it connected me with the people who had inhabited it 150 years before.  The white knuckle experience of three terrified rangers scaling an old ladder in the blackness of the attic of the Christ Lutheran Church remains one of my favorite memories of the 150th anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg.

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The view looking west. Visible in the distance is the Lutheran Theological Seminary and the South Mountains.

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Looking north. The campus of Gettysburg College and Washington Street are visible in the distance.

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Ron Rock, John Hoptak, and Caitlin Kostic take in the view from the cupola.

Hundreds of visitors joined us the afternoon of July 1, 2013 for the program. It was entitled, appropriately enough, “Yankees, Rebels, and Civilians: The First Day of Battle Ends.” They traveled to and from each site, explored the interior of the Presidents House at Gettysburg College, the restored Gettysburg Train Station, and of course the beautiful house of worship that is Christ Lutheran Church. The program itself lasted three hours. It seemed to end before it even began. Hopefully those in attendance were able to connect with the history of the battle, the town, and the nineteenth century soldiers and inhabitants of Gettysburg in a way they never had before. The rangers who took part in the experience that day certainly did.

                                                              – Christopher Gwinn, Park Ranger

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Visitors gather outside Pennsylvania Hall on the Gettysburg College campus. This building was known in 1863 as “The College Edifice.”

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Ranger Christopher Gwinn describes the experience of Pennsylvania College students on the morning of July 1st, 1863.

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The exterior of Christ Lutheran Church.

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Visitors listen as Ranger John Hoptak interprets the history of the building.

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The Gettysburg Train Station on Carlisle Street.

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Ranger Caitlin Kostic describes the retreat of the Union army on July 1st, 1863. The platform of the Train Station stands in the background.

About The Staff

Staff of Gettysburg National Military Park
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