In 1889, one of the most noted veterans of the battle of Gettysburg, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, the former colonel of the 20th Maine Infantry, returned to the wooded slopes of Little Round Top to speak at the dedication of a monument to his former command. The simple stone monument marked the spot where his New Englanders had fought twenty-six years earlier on July 2, 1863. Chamberlain’s remarks that day have become some of the most quoted of any speech given by a veteran of the battle, and are frequently used to describe the aura and pull that Gettysburg still has on many today. In his speech, he noted,
In great deeds something abides. On great fields something stays. Forms change and pass; bodies disappear; but spirits linger, to consecrate ground for the vision-place of souls. And reverent men and women from afar, and generations that know us not and that we know not of, heart-drawn to see where and by whom great things were suffered and done for them, shall come to this deathless field, to ponder and dream; and lo! The shadow of a mighty presence shall wrap them in its bosom, and the power of the vision pass into their souls.
For visitors to Gettysburg in 2017, these remarks represent our efforts of the present to reach back and grasp the importance of the past. For Chamberlain himself, they speak of how and why veterans of the battle, and of the Civil War, were continuously drawn to Gettysburg through the years. From the time the battle came to a conclusion, the landscape at Gettysburg was predominantly shaped, created, and preserved first and foremost by those Union soldiers who fought there. Indeed, as Chamberlain’s quote alludes to, veterans placed monuments and preserved the battlefield specifically with future generations in mind, that we may better understand and appreciate what they did and why they did it.
The earliest preservation efforts at Gettysburg came under the auspices of the Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association, formed in late 1863 and early 1864. Initially spearheaded by David McConaughy and several other prominent local citizens, the GBMA sought to preserve portions of the Gettysburg landscape, deeming it important to the nation. During these early years of preservation, veterans frequently came back to Gettysburg, either for reunions or, by the 1870s, to start marking the field and placing monuments where their regiments had fought. By the end of the 1870s, control of the GBMA had transitioned to the Pennsylvania branch of the Grand Army of the Republic, which was itself an organization comprised of Union veterans. The GAR saw veterans take control of the battlefield, continuing to expand preservation efforts while simultaneously overseeing the placement of memorials and monuments, taking a strict stance on where and how the battlefield could be memorialized. It was during this commemorative era that Chamberlain came back to deliver his address at the dedication of the memorial for the men of the 20th Maine Infantry. He was just one of thousands who came back to mark the fields where they had fought.
In the 1890s a new era began at Gettysburg when the Federal Government took an increased role in the maintenance of the battlefield. While the GBMA had already received Federal funding, an 1893 act of Congress created a three man commission that was charged with marking the battle lines of the armies. Of these commissioners, two of them—Lt. Col. John P. Nicholson and Brig. Gen. William Forney—were veterans of the battle. The third was historian John B. Bachelder. Nicholson was a veteran of the 28th
Pennsylvania, and Forney a former member of the 10th Alabama. When Forney died in 1894, he was replaced by Major William Robbins, a veteran of the 4th Alabama Infantry. Around that time, Bachelder was replaced by Major Charles Richardon, a veteran of the 126th New York. By 1895, Congress passed legislation formally creating Gettysburg National Military Park, placing it under the guidance of the War Department. Gettysburg was one of the first five battlefields to be preserved by the War Department, alongside Chickamauga and Chattanooga, Antietam, Shiloh, and Vicksburg. During these years of War Department control, veterans once again were vital to the preservation and expansion of the battlefield.
As time passed, the commissioners oversaw the construction of roads, the placement of monuments, and the management of the park. By 1917, Nicholson was the only remaining commissioner, as the others had passed away. When Nicholson died, Emmor Cope—who decades before had worked on detailed topographical maps for Gettysburg and Antietam, and was himself also a Union veteran—became the first superintendent of the park.
Veterans shaped the development of Gettysburg in other ways as well. In 1913, for the 50th anniversary of the battle, Gettysburg saw a massive reunion of veterans from both sides, with thousands coming for the events which spanned from the 1st through the 4th of July. Twenty five years later, 1938 saw a much smaller number of veterans come back to Gettysburg, once again, this time to commemorate the battle’s 75th anniversary. During these reunions, the Gettysburg landscape became a place of healing between Union and Confederate veterans. Many in the North and South saw Gettysburg as a place to come together, embracing a reconciliationist view of the war.
In addition to all of this, it is important to note Civil War veterans were not the only ones who frequented Gettysburg in the 20th century. Indeed, Gettysburg played a large role in the development of new soldiers during the First World War, serving initially as a recruiting station and training ground for several infantry regiments in the fall of 1917. Once the infantrymen left, a new camp was established in early 1918. Camp Colt served as a training ground for the army’s new “Tank Corps”, and it was commanded by Captain Dwight D. Eisenhower. While Eisenhower himself never saw combat in Europe in World War One, he of course went on to become one of the greatest generals in American history.
In 1954, the veterans of Camp Colt came back to Gettysburg for a reunion of their own, dedicating a marker and planting a tree on the old grounds of Camp Colt, honoring the memory of their time there, and the service of Eisenhower, their former commander. By then, Eisenhower had become the nation’s 34th President. Of course, Eisenhower himself felt a strong pull to return to Gettysburg, buying a farm adjacent to the battlefield in 1950, the only home that he and his wife Mamie ever owned. We can count General Eisenhower as yet another veteran who returned to the battlefield later on, finding that for him, something important remained on these fields as well.
The Gettysburg battlefield was preserved and memorialized by veterans who served their country in its hour of need. From Joshua Chamberlain to the commissioners who oversaw the battlefield, the veterans of Camp Colt to Dwight D. Eisenhower, the National Park we have today reflects their legacy. With dozens of military veterans who currently work or volunteer for Gettysburg National Military Park and the Gettysburg Foundation, that proud tradition of veterans caring for this battlefield landscape continues on today.
Gettysburg National Military Park