A few years ago, Rebecca and Sharon didn’t know each other. They sat in a class together, not realizing they lived just minutes apart. But, they had already made a connection. They were both signing on to become “Park Watch” volunteers.
The Gettysburg National Military Park’s “Park Watch” program was established in 1996. Park Watch volunteers work within the park boundaries of Gettysburg National Military Park and Eisenhower National Historic Site to assist law enforcement rangers with visitor safety and the protection of park resources. Volunteers assist ranger staff through an active program of patrolling park lands and boundaries and performing surveillance work to detect any evidence of illegal or suspicious activities. The volunteers serve as the “eyes and ears” of park law enforcement, report observations to the ranger on duty, and may assist with traffic and crowd control at special events and park incidents.
Sharon and Rebecca laugh about when they first started chatting with each other. “I thought that man sitting next to Sharon was her husband,” Rebecca says.
“Oh, no,” Sharon laughs, and then she tells the story of how she set up a home in Gettysburg while her real husband tied up loose ends in the Philadelphia suburbs so the couple could retire in Gettysburg, just two hours from where she used to live. “Well, then Rebecca and I started talking and we realized we had a lot in common, like we both live close to here; we’re both retired; we both have dogs.”
“So, somehow we connected and agreed to ride along with each other. It makes the time go fast and we’ve talked about all kinds of things imaginable since we’ve been doing this,” Rebecca says.
“It’s like we’re Cagney and Lacey, or Lucy and Ethel,” Rebecca chuckles.
“We put about 40 miles on the car on the days we do Park Watch,” Sharon says. “That way, we pretty much cover most of the areas of the battlefield. We look for things like downed trees, damage to monuments, suspicious cars parked on the sides of the road or parked in odd places, but we don’t engage anyone, we just report to the ranges what we see.”
Rebecca says that they always ride with a radio, and if they go out on foot to explore, the radio goes with them.
Sharon says as we’re driving, “This is my absolute favorite part of the park –the Wheatfield. I just love it here. From the first time I saw it, I just felt this was the place for me.”
Rebecca laughs and says, “She’s not kidding. Look at her license plate.” Sure enough, on later inspection, I noted it spelled out Wheatfield, in an abbreviated way, of course.
Sharon explains how she’s adopted seven monuments at the Wheatfield, taking care of them, like clearing weeds around them.
“My favorite is Sallie,” Rebecca says. “You can’t even see her from the road, but I make sure I visit her every time I’m here, even when I’m here on my own time walking my dog. She gives that real human connection to the men who fought here. I like hearing about how they lived and how they cared about the same things we care about. It’s the human interest stories that I really like.”
Sallie Ann Jerret was the Pit Bull Terrier mascot of the 11th Pennsylvania Infantry. Sallie accompanied her soldiers throughout almost the entire war, even into the fighting, barking at the enemy. She saw action in each of her regiment’s engagements and even guarded her wounded and dead companions. In a February 1865 battle, she was struck by a bullet and killed. Legend says that despite being under heavy fire, several soldiers put aside their arms to bury her on the spot. Sallie meant so much to the men of the 11th Pennsylvania infantry that when the veterans of the 11th erected their monument at Gettysburg in 1890, a life-size bronze statue of Sallie was included, recalling the soldiers who fought beside her and those whom she guarded on Gettysburg’s fields.
“People leave dog biscuits on the monument for Sallie. It’s a nice gesture, of course, but people don’t realize those biscuits can damage the monument as they disintegrate,” Rebecca said. “They also leave money, which damages the monuments, too.”
“What happens to the money?” I asked.
“We collect it and put back in the [Gettysburg National Military Park] visitors center’s donation bin. Last year we collected about $70 dollars. I bet we’ll find some money today. Sallie is like a cash cow. People always pay their respects there,” Rebecca said.
We stop to see Sallie, but no money today. “Somebody must have collected it before we did,” Rebecca says.
“Most days are uneventful,” Sharon notes. “But, that’s a good thing. There really aren’t many problems here. But, one day we came across some guy laying in the grass on the side of the road. We thought it was strange, so we drove by a second time to see if he was okay. He was still laying there. We could tell he was alive, but it was just weird—right there on the side of the road. So, we called a law enforcement ranger, who checked it out, and later told us the guy said he was just taking a nap. People can do that, but it was just a weird location, right on the side of the road!”
Sharon and Rebecca explain that they carry tour books and are happy to help visitors find their way if they appear to be lost or looking for something specific.
We continue through the park, looking for things that look out of place. Rebecca knows all the places people like to place coins, like in the hoof of General Longstreet’s horse, where we pick up 47 cents.
“We’re going to take a little walk through the cemetery, today, too, since it’s such a beautiful, sunny day.” Sharon says. So, we make our way there.
We file past the numbered stones representing dead soldiers who were never able to be identified but no coins today.
Gettysburg National Cemetery is the final resting place for more than 3,500 known and unknown Union soldiers killed in the Battle of Gettysburg. Between 1989 and 1968, the government added sections to accommodate the graves of veterans from the Spanish-American War, Would Wars I and II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. Today, more than 6,000 veterans lay at rest in the national cemetery.
“Now, the Lincoln Monument is always full of pennies,” Rebecca said. And, sure enough, it was. Some were even stuck in the crevices and we couldn’t get them out. Of the ones retrievable, there were enough pennies there to bring the day’s donations to $1 dollar exactly.
“People see us doing this and they give us the strangest looks,” Sharon said. “But, you know, the coins can’t stay there. Somebody has to collect them.”
“Sometimes, I’ll tell people we’re Park Watch volunteers and what we’re doing,” Rebecca said. “I mean, it’s not like we’re here collecting beer money,” she laughs.
“We really enjoy Park Watch,” Sharon says. It’s absolutely the perfect volunteer job because I get to meet new people, I get to socialize, I set my own hours, and I know I’m helping preserve the park for future generations.”
“I feel good knowing we’re helping the law enforcement rangers,” Rebecca adds. “They really appreciate the help volunteers provide and I feel good knowing I can be of service. And, like Sharon said, it really is the perfect volunteer opportunity. Plus, Sharon and I love doing this together.”
“We try to get here for Park Watch every week,” Sharon adds. “We just love it.”
At this time, the Park Watch program is full. When a new recruiting class is announced, that information will be posted at https://www.nps.gov/gett/getinvolved/volunteer.htm.
Article by Debbie Dortch, a public affairs specialist with Naval Supply Systems Command, on special assignment to Gettysburg National Military Park. She has more than 20 years’ experience in public affairs and publishing, including working at National Park Service Headquarters in Washington, D.C.