It was during the War Department-era that the park developed into what we see today. The battlefield land was transferred by Federal legislation in 1895 from the Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association to the Federal government and the national military park was born. The official park commission, composed of Civil War veterans of the Battle of Gettysburg, were tasked with marking the lines of battle for both armies at Gettysburg and one of the integral details was placement of original Civil War cannon where artillery batteries of both armies had stood during the battle.
Original cannon tubes were quickly secured from storage in various arsenals and brought to the park but how to properly display these marvelous relics on the field? Original gun carriages were rare, and wood and metal reproductions of carriages would be an exorbitant expense as well as requiring constant maintenance.
To solve the problem, Colonel Emmor Cope, engineer of the park commission, drew plans for a cast iron carriage that closely replicated the original gun carriages and bids were advertised for manufacturers to not only provide reproduction carriages but tablets and adornments for the official government markers and avenue signs for the park.
Enter Calvin Gilbert, himself a Civil War veteran who served in the 87th Pennsylvania Infantry. Gilbert owned a metal foundry in Gettysburg and was one of the first to offer a bid for this extensive project. Between 1895 and 1913, his foundry produced well over 250 carriages and 200+ iron tablets for battery positions, avenue signs, and farm signs as well as a variety of other markers.
The products of Gilbert’s foundry made the park a model of commemorative devices, eventually fulfilling the objectives of the 1895 establishing law. Few other foundries supported the vast improvement to the park than did Gilbert and his descendants were thrilled to know that his hard work is still on display in the park.
Bruce Vanisacker has been volunteering in the park’s cannon restoration shop since its inception in 1996. Bruce has been researching the history of the cannons at Gettysburg for years but he’s had a special interest in Calvin Gilbert.
Through his continued research he came across Jim Irwin, Calvin Gilbert’s great-great grandson. On October 27, 2015, Bruce provided a behind the scenes tour to Calvin Gilbert’s great-great grandson. This tour included visiting the park’s cannon restoration shop and a trip around the battlefield focusing on the iron carriages, iron tablets, and cannon tubes Calvin Gilbert produced over 100 years ago.
Jason Martz – Visual Information Specialist, Gettysburg National Military Park
John Heiser – Historian, Gettysburg National Military Park
Bruce Vanisacker – Volunteer, Gettysburg National Military Park