The Boy Scouts of America at Gettysburg, 1913

Little Round Top

The summit of Little Round Top in 1910, ready to receive visitors in 1913. (Gettysburg NMP)

It was the fiftieth anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg and the celebration planned was unique- a huge gathering of Civil War veterans, at least forty thousand of them! The Pennsylvania Commission that was busy planning the reunion and anniversary events had been tapping every source available to support the event when discussions began that spring as to personal assistance that maybe required for the veterans attending the reunion. Directional signs with police and military personnel directing traffic and pedestrians appeared to be adequate but the problem was the Great Camp. It was massive and despite the named streets and state sections, was confusing. In May, Army officers advised the Commission that a “Camp Information Service, with a staff of guides, was all important because the vast extent of the (Great) Camp and its thousands of tents all exactly alike would appear as an unknown city to the Veteran,” all in their advanced years with ages ranging between 66 and 95.[1] The state police force and army personnel could not be stretched any further, so Colonel Beitler, secretary of the Pennsylvania Commission, turned to a relatively new organization for help- the Boy Scouts of America.

Organized and incorporated in February 1910, the genesis of the Boy Scouts began in England under the guidance of Lt. General Robert S.S. Baden-Powell who recognized the need to engage boys in outdoor exploration, nature, and the same camping and survival skills he had taught while in the British Army. The popularity of the Scouts’ idea spread to America and with Baden-Powell’s support and guidance, a group of American outdoorsmen, illustrators, and youth leaders created this national organization to guide American boys not only in nature and outdoor skills, but to also stress the ideals of public service, Christian beliefs and national honors- “For God and Country”. One of the first national recognitions of the Boy Scouts came in March 1913, when several Boy Scout troops based in Washington, DC, assisted with the presidential inaugural parade of Woodrow Wilson as guides for visitors and assistants for those attending the parade and ceremonies. Taking the advice of an Army Officer, Colonel Lewis Beitler, Secretary of the Pennsylvania Commission, contacted the office of the Boy Scout Commission for Pennsylvania in Philadelphia and on May 22, struck an agreement “For such service, three hundred fifty Boy Scouts were to be selected by the Commissioner and his executive staff, to be from among the larger boys and from within a radius of 150 miles of Gettysburg,” to serve as personal guides and assistants for the veterans in the Great Camp. [2]

Time was short. With the Great Reunion barely six weeks away, the Scout Commission telegraphed troop leaders in York, Lancaster, Carlisle, and Harrisburg to prepare their older scouts, those in their teen years, for duty at Gettysburg. Yet, there simply were not enough Scouts and the Pennsylvania Scout Commission drew from other councils including Washington, Burlington, New Jersey, Hagerstown and Frederick, Maryland. A total of twenty four troops comprising 385 Boy Scouts, arrived at their quarters near the Army headquarters of the Great Camp a week ahead of the Reunion and were immediately put to work assisting the Army Quartermaster in distributing blankets to the tents and Red Cross workers unloading supplies and pitching tents. But their primary purpose was to become familiar with the Great Camp and the location of every state section, how the tents were organized, how to greet and assist the veterans, who to go to in case of a medical emergency; everything right down to the nearest location of the bubbling ice water fountains.

Scouts & veterans

Scouts assisting Civil War veterans with their luggage in the Great Camp. The young men in khaki uniforms were on duty as escorts to the veterans throughout the reunion. (Pennsylvania at Gettysburg)

By June 30, the Scouts were ready! It was early that morning when the first of 34 special trains bearing veterans to the reunion arrived at the railroad siding in the Great camp. Standing in line outside the cars were the US Regulars, dressed in their summer khaki uniforms. Beside each man was a Boy Scout, also dressed smartly in a khaki uniform of military-style coat and trousers with canvas leggings and the broad-brimmed felt campaign hat. The veterans disembarked and between the whoosh of the train’s engines and squealing breaks, shouts of those trying to organize the arrivals, and everyone asking where they were to go was the young voice saying, “Sir, can I help you with your luggage?” “This way to your camp and I’ll be glad to escort you.” “Show me your pass and I’ll take you to your state’s headquarters.”

For the elderly men who struggled to become familiar with their new surroundings, the Boy Scouts proved to be the best guides they could ask for. More than one veteran remarked how delightful it was to be met with such helping hands as those provided by the soldiers and Scouts as they wandered through countless row as of tents under the broiling sun. As soon as one train arrived and unloaded, another was close behind and the Scouts were kept running back to the railroad siding, greeting the new arrivals and showing them to their quarters only then to run as fast as possible back the railroad to repeat the process. The boys must have been exhausted by day’s end, but their contribution was far from over.

For the next four days, the Scouts were everywhere, assisting those in need and directing the lost. Many were in awe of the veterans they encountered, old men who had fought at Gettysburg, served under McClellan at Antietam, marched under Grant’s direction through the Wilderness, fought with Robert E. Lee for four long years all the way to Appomattox Court House. These were the heroes about whom so much had been written and spoken. For scoutmaster E. Urner Goodman, the great Reunion was something to behold and try to understand: “How can I ever forget that experience? Imagine… veterans gathered on that historic site for a week…shaking hands…where fifty years before they had been blazing away at each other.”[3] The Scouts also met national celebrities such as Jack Crawford, a national hero known for his daring as a scout for the Army under General Crook and his oratory and poems about life in the Wild West.

Scouts at play, 1913

Boys will be boys! There was always some time for rough housing while not “on duty” at the Great Camp. (National Archives)

By July 5, the last of the veterans’ trains had departed and the duties of the scouts were complete. The boys’ service had been exemplary and “won the profound appreciation and gratitude of hosts and guests alike.”[4] The sunburned boys in their dirty khakis boarded their own trains and buses to head home, filled with stories and observations of what had been an encounter of old soldiers from another age, those men who had fought the great Civil War and came to Gettysburg not to refight the battle but to unify the nation. For many, it had been a patriotic service to the old vets and they proudly boasted to schoolmates and friends about the summer adventure they had at Gettysburg, representing not only their home town troops but the highest ideals of what would become the Boy Scout “Code of Honor.”

Barely five years later, many of these Scouts would be young men attired in the uniform of the United States Army, and a different term would be applied to “Yanks” and “Rebs” alike as the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) arrived on the battlefields of France; from the Great Camp to the Great War, the old veterans these Scouts admired in 1913 would become the veterans we remember today with the anniversary of World War I.

But the Scouting tradition at Gettysburg did not end in 1913, it was only the beginning. Through numerous anniversaries and special events, the Boy Scouts of America have been there to support the park and provide the visitor with courteous service. Every year, scout troops from all across America and occasionally from overseas as well, visit Gettysburg National Military Park and take part in the Billy Yank/Johnny Reb Hiking Trail, camp at McMillan Woods Youth Campground, and enjoy the history and nature this park has to offer.

New Birth of Freedom Council Camporee, 2013

The New Birth of Freedom Council Camporee on the historic George Spangler Farm at Gettysburg, 2013. (Gettysburg Foundation)

In 2013, Scouts assisted visitors during the 150th Anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg events and that fall, the “New Birth of Freedom” Council held a camporee on the historic George Spangler Farm. The park has long been the beneficiary of the Boys Scouts thanks to their oath and the Scout Law. In February 2015, the Boy Scouts of America will observe their 105th year and we congratulate them on their longevity and positive achievements that began in 1913 with the aging Civil War veterans at Gettysburg.

-John Heiser
Park Historian & (former) Boy Scout, 1965-1973

[1] Beitler, Lewis E., Editor, Fiftieth Anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, Report of the Pennsylvania Commission, December 31, 1913, (Wm. Stanley Ray, State Printer, Harrisburg, PA, 1915), p. 49. Hereafter cited as “Beitler”.

[2] Beitler, p. 50.

[3] “50th Anniversary Gettysburg Reunion”, Order of the Arrow, Boy Scouts of America at Goodman went on to become prominent in the Boy Scouts of America as National Program Director and founder of the Order of the Arrow, the fraternal designation of scouts who exhibit exemplary service and brotherhood in the highest traditions of scouting.

[4] Beitler, p. 51

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12 Responses to The Boy Scouts of America at Gettysburg, 1913

  1. Bob Velke says:

    Nice article, John, thanks!
    Like the special guests of the Commission and members of the press, the scouts were issued a special badge, a photo of which can be seen here: The scout in the foreground of the “rough housing” photo above can be seen wearing that badge.

  2. John Egan says:

    Enjoyed reading your account of the role played by the Scouts for the 50th anniversary of the Battle at Gettysburg. Are the Scouts allowed to camp within the park today?

  3. Jeannine Tryubus says:

    Our first licensed battlefield guide was William Troxel, now the Mayor of Gettysburg. He told us that he was jealous of his older brother, a Boy Scout, because he got to help the Civil War veterans at the 1938 reunion. Along with battle information, he shared many great stories about his grandfather during the battle. He had great stories about his childhood there, too. A fascinating man who really instilled in me a desire to study the Battle of Gettysburg, which I continue to do. That first trip was in 1996.

  4. Dakota Harden says:

    That would’ve be awesome to attend to bad that was over a hundred years ago. I am an Eagle Scout of Troop 3 in Springfield, IL. Whenever we can we visit historical sites like Kaskaskia near St. Louis, New Salem, where Lincoln spent a few years of his life before moving to Springfield. I personally have visited many Local historical sites which aren’t to hard to find because Springfield, IL is like a huge museum. I have always enjoyed history and currently I am tracking my own family history.

  5. Robert Webb says:

    Great article. I was studying the photo of Little Round Top from 1910 and noticed what appears to be an observation tower in the distance on Big Round Top. Is that correct? When was it removed?

  6. Jeannine Trybus says:

    I thought there was a tower on Big Round Top at one time. I could be wrong.

    • The Staff says:

      There was a metal tower at the summit of Big Round Top, built by the US War Department in 1896. It was removed in the early 1960’s due to its unstable condition.

  7. Jim Peli says:

    Mr. Heiser,
    Great article on the Boy Scouts and their service during the Great Camp at Gettysburg N.M.P. That old photograph of Little Round Top triggered thoughts of one of the veterans of that location – Washington Roebling. Our scout troop is from Saxonburg, PA where W. Roebling was born, and we do the Billy Yank/Johnny Reb Hike about every three years or so and hopefully we will reserve a spot at McMillan Woods for next year. One of our favorite spots on the battlefield is Little Round Top and we try to spend more time their to soak up information about “our hero” and the people around him. It was also very fitting that you pointed out how the Boy Scouts of today become our soldiers and veterans of tomorrow. That still holds true today as several of our boys from Troop 58 have entered into the armed services duty for our country. Thank you again for the wonderful article on the Boy Scouts involvement at Gettysburg.
    Jim Peli, Troop 58 – The Rainmakers (and fellow son of a Polar Bear)
    Saxonburg, PA

  8. Jeannine Trybus says:

    Too bad all the towers can’t be removed.

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