The History of Living History at Gettysburg National Military Park


Gettysburg National Military Park owes a huge debt of gratitude to the countless hours of work performed by our dedicated crew of volunteers. From the Visitor Center to the Cannon Shop, the Education Center to the farthest corners of the battlefield, volunteers are an indispensable part of the inner workings of the National Park at Gettysburg. Black Powder Specialist Thomas Holbrook works with literally thousands of “living history volunteers” every year. These dedicated individuals, many of whom travel hundreds of miles to be here,  help bring to life the material culture and visual history of the battle of Gettysburg for the throngs of visitors who come to these hallowed fields. Below Tom offers an overview of the living history program at Gettysburg National Military Park.

Beginning in the 1970’s, Gettysburg National Military Park has been presenting programs where individuals dress in period attire and interpret some aspect of the American Civil War and the Battle of Gettysburg.  At the start, Park Rangers were responsible for the development and implementation of “Living History” programs on the battlefield. Always very popular with our visitors, living history was at the same time very expensive. Staff had to be hired and trained, and reproduction Civil War clothing, equipment, and weapons had to be purchased. By the mid-1980’s as National Park Service budgets started to shrink, living history performed by NPS Interpretive Rangers became more difficult. One solution was to allow volunteers to take over the living history programs at Gettysburg NMP.  Closely monitored by NPS staff, volunteer groups from the Civil War reenacting community were invited to the park on selected weekends. Almost immediately our volunteers had a positive impact with our visitors. “Living History Weekends” became an event and drew large crowds to the battlefield.

In 1988, living history volunteers played a large role in helping the National Park Service in commemorating the 125th Anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. Nearly 500 volunteers were invited and participated in our 125th Anniversary programming.

In 1992, due to its popularity, “Living History Weekends” were expanded from  4 to 5 weekends a year to 10 to 12 weekends per year.  The same year we expanded the number of groups to be allowed to perform living history at GNMP.  The NPS staff put these groups GETT_150_Jul2_Union_BS_050through a rigorous selection process and 10 groups were selected.

Since 1992 the volunteer living history program has expanded to include over 1,000 individuals in 68 groups, (military and civilian) coming on over 28 weekends from April 1 to November 1 each year.

In 2013 the National Park Service commemorated the 150th Anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg with over 500 volunteer living history participants. Interpretive programs and historic weapons firing provided for our visitors important insight into the lives of the soldiers who “gave their last measure of devotion” on the battlefield of Gettysburg in 1863.

Thanks to our volunteers our living history demonstrations are the most popular and well attended interpretive programs offered at GNMP. We invite you to travel to Gettysburg National Military Park in 2015 to see them for yourself.

Thomas Holbrook, Park Ranger



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8 Responses to The History of Living History at Gettysburg National Military Park

  1. Jeff Johnston says:

    I was one of the 500 who participated in the 125th (1988) Living History programs. What a great time we had!

  2. I’ve enjoyed Gettysburg’s living historians since I first visited the battlefield in 1992 . . . Pennsylvanians on Cemetery Ridge, New Yorkers in Pitzer Woods, Virginians at Spangler’s Spring and many more. It’s always great to see guys and gals dressed in Civil War garb!

  3. Kim Olar says:

    And yet some battlefield guides say things like”If you have ever had to suffer through a reenctor”! But ,thank you Tom you are always very kind to us.

  4. John A. Miller says:

    There is a real good article that was written by a Ranger a few decades ago about the usage of reenactors and how they can benefit the public through interpretative demonstrations. The final product paved the way for people like me to participate in park programming and helping to promote and meet the NPS mission statement. The article is called “Reenactors, Asset or Menace.” Many of the things I have learned over the years from Antietam, Harper’s Ferry and Monocacy, I actually implemented at Monterey Pass Battlefield when it comes to living history programs and standards. It’s a great way for public interaction.

  5. Joe Bordonaro says:

    Tom, Thank you for all you do to help we reenactors who participate in the Park’s wonderful Living History programs. It is always such a pleasure to work with you and we do appreciate everything you do such as making sure we have a copious amount of firewood to burn for our campfires 🙂 I’ve always considered it an honor to participate in the Park’s programs and I’m sure that your direction of the program is a big part of what has made it so successful. – Joe Bordonaro, 13th NJ

  6. Dave Mize says:

    You already know what high regard we in the 2nd US Cav, Co A hold for you. It’s always a pleasure and a priviledge working with such a professional…and a friend. – Dave Mize

  7. Ken Raia says:

    I’ve participated in many of the living history programs at Gettysburg over the years as a reenactor and have always enjoyed the interaction with the public. Tom you’ve been the living historians greatest supporter and together we have put on some memorable programs. As a member of the Mifflin Guard, I had the pleasure of participating with the largest group of federal reenactors the park has ever put into the field and the reaction of the public was terrific to see. Thanks for your support.

  8. David Rider says:

    I have had the Honor to Be part of the Living History Programs at Gettysburg for over 12 years with Company “C” 2nd US Sharpshooters as well as with Huckstep’s 1st Fluvanna VA Battery. It was always great working with Tom Holbrook, Great Article Tom, Hope to see ya soon….

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