When Gov. Curtin traveled to Gettysburg shortly after the battle concluded he quickly realized the need for a formal and more fitting place to bury the dead. David McConaughy, a prominent citizen, offered the land adjacent to the Evergreen Cemetery, of which he was the president, for that purpose. He faced strong resistance from another local citizen, David Wills, who fought to keep the burials of the soldiers separate from those of the town. Wills’ plan won out and the Union dead would now be laid to rest adjacent to the Evergreen cemetery but distinctly set apart. While McConaughy lost out on the chance to have control of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery, he was quick to pursue other avenues.
A local lawyer and former student under Thaddeaus Stevens, McConaughy was active in politics and had helped to organize the local YMCA. He had represented the Republican Party as a delegate in the 1860 National Convention and was a strong supporter of President Lincoln. During the battle of Gettysburg, McConaughy, and a group of Gettysburg residents, created a citizen-spy organization that worked in conjunction with the Bureau of Military Information, an intelligence gathering arm of the Army of the Potomac.
McConaughy’s loss of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery did not deter him from pursuing his dream of creating a lasting memorial to the men that died at Gettysburg. Rather, he looked for areas of the battlefield that stood not only as visual reminders of the conflict, but that also created picturesque landscapes. Some of his early purchases were parts of Little Round Top, for its complex breastworks, and the bullet-riddled faces of Culp’s Hill- each of which would had evoked an instant emotional experience by the battlefield visitor. In an article for the Adams Sentinel, McConaughy called finally articulated his intent and called for the creation of the battlefield to eventually be supported by state-wide committees. By 1864 McConaughy had organized the Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association (GBMA) and was on the way to achieving that vision of a large and fitting memorial to the men and battle at Gettysburg.
The ultimate goal of this vision included the creation roadways or “avenues” throughout the battlefield, the planting of trees and landscape elements, the erection of pieces of art and even rules on how visitors would experience the battlefield. However, the vision needed strong financial backing and McConaughy had to sell this idea to anyone who would listen. He knew he needed big names to attract supporters to his cause and had hopes of securing Generals George Meade and Winfield Scott Hancock as members of the board. He also desired Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and John Greenleaf Whittier to put pen to paper and immortalize Gettysburg in their writings. He even used his position as part of the state legislature to secure funding ($3,000 in 1866 and again in 1868) to help create a landscape that would draw visitors from near and far to this memorial field.
When mineral springs were found on the battlefield McConaughy saw opportunities to capitalize on the aging ranks of soldiers. The creation of the Gettysburg Lithia Springs Association in 1866 (of which McConaughy was an incorporator) and the erection of the Springs Hotel in 1869 further propelled McConaughy’s dream of an idealized landscape. But what McConaughy was probably not ready for was the beginnings of a backlash from the commercialization of these sacred fields. Both the New York Herald and the New York Tribune ran articles that blasted the GBMA’s efforts as money-making schemes. Even Gen. Alexander Webb noted that efforts seemed to be drifting away from the battle and more toward the pockets of individuals.
Unfortunately, while McConaughy’s efforts had been focused on commercial enterprises, his efforts to create beautifully landscaped fields and include tasteful artwork and sculpture were falling extremely short. By the 1870s little had been done to erect monuments on the field. McConaughy had been able to erect some of the breastworks, place wooden informational placards and erect some cannon on the field. But funding sources outside of the state of Pennsylvania were practically non-existent. Eventually, the Philadelphia chapter of the Grand Army of the Republic purchased a majority ownership of the GBMA. By 1880 they had wiped out the GBMA’s remaining debt and now were the numerical majority of the board of directors. With this, McConaughy was out of the picture while another, John Badger Bachelder, entered.
John Badger Bachelder was born in New Hampshire in 1825, attended the local military academy and later became a professor at the Pennsylvania Military Institute in Reading, PA. When the Civil War began he took an interest in creating paintings that accurately depicted the battles and would attach himself to the Union army. He was present for the Yorktown, Peninsula, Fair Oaks and Seven Day’s campaigns but had to return to New Hampshire for his failing health. Though he left with the understanding that he should be called on if there was another campaign, he missed the battle of Gettysburg and arrived a few days afterward. Upon arriving on the field Bachelder probably did not realize that he would be spending the next two decades researching, erecting monuments and creating this memorial landscape.
By 1883 Bachelder was appointed the Superintendent of Tablets and Legends under the GBMA. He worked closely with veterans to help place monuments on the field, though this was not always easy. The combination of Bachelder’s confidence, and many times over-confidence, and the veterans’ first-hand accounts now recounted twenty years post-battle presented challenges in creating an accurate battlefield landscape. Bachelder would be responsible for implementing policy which dictated that monuments should be placed where attacks were launched rather than where they culminated- obviously of much more benefit to the Union veterans than their southern compatriots.
To increase awareness of the efforts of the GBMA, the GAR hosted week-long encampments almost every summer from 1880-1894 to bring veterans back to the battlefield. During this time the GBMA was also able to construct avenues over which the hacks, or carriages, transported the veterans and their families over the fields. There were continued efforts to purchase land and in 1882 the GBMA moved forward to purchase a now famous wheat field as well as additional portions of Little Round Top. And having received $5,000 from Massachusetts for placement of monuments, the GBMA now focused their attention on securing land over which these men fought.
By 1884 the GBMA had also purchased land to the east of town where Gregg’s cavalry fought to fulfill the requests of veterans from the 3rd Pennsylvania Cavalry for a monument. The Association also moved forward with efforts to create a new avenue from Oak Ridge via Reynolds’ Grove to the left of the Union 1st Corps line. Two years later, in 1886, they continued improving the area with the inclusion of an avenue for the Union 11th Corps line of battle.
And though the new efforts of the GAR-controlled GBMA were somewhat more focused on preserving the landscape and establishing lines of battle, a new complicating factor came into play- the Gettysburg Electric Railway. A majority of the land that surrounded the GBMA parcels was private farm land and was by no means guaranteed to be incorporated into the GBMA and could be sold to the highest bidder. The GBMA argued that this intrusion was desecrating the landscape over which men lost their lives as blasting was needed to allow the tracks access to portions of the field. A number of newspapers noted the destruction and potential upheaval that the Railway’s trolley would have on efforts to preserve the landscape, while in subsequent paragraphs fearing that if too much of the field was destroyed the economic impact would be substantial. Eventually the controversy would come to a head in 1896, after three years of fighting, with a decision by the Supreme Court deciding that the government did have condemnation authority to protect areas of historical significance.
By 1895 the GBMA had run its course and a new era of management of this Gettysburg landscape would be ushered in. A bill introduced to Congress on December 6, 1894 by Representative Dan Sickles would eventually be signed into law on February 11, 1895. With that, the GBMA ceded control of 522 acres, seventeen miles of avenues and 320 monuments to the United States War Department and the idyllic and tranquil landscape imagined by David McConaughy would find itself transformed into one of order, precision and regimentation.
Angie Atkinson, Supervisory Park Ranger