An Introduction to the Annual Reports of the Gettysburg National Military Park Commission to the Secretary of War
Within a few short weeks of the battle of Gettysburg, prominent citizens of the town, took steps to secure and preserve the battlefield so recently abandoned by the armies of the North and South.
"On July 25th, Gettysburg lawyer David McConaughy wrote to Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtin, revealing his idea to secure "the most interesting portions of this illustrious Battlefield" that they might be retained in "the actual form and condition they were in, during the battles."
The preservation of the field of battle, and especially the defence works and other features which showed the effects of the fighting, would be "the most eloquent memorials of the glorious struggles and triumphs of the Union army."
To that end, McConaughy had already arranged for purchase of the west face of Little Round Top with its "wonderful stone defences", as well as the timber breastworks and shot-damaged trees of Culp's Hill. The earthen and rail lunettes that protected artillery positions on McKnight's Hill (Steven's Knoll) and Raffensperger's Hill (East Cemetery Hill) were likewise purchased by McConaughy's personal funds from local owners."(1) The land acquired by McConaughy formed the nucleus of the holdings of the Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association, an organization fostered by McConaughy and incorporated by an act of the Pennsylvania legislature on April 30, 1864.
The legislature of Pennsylvania empowered the GBMA to acquire battlefield land by purchase and by condemnation. The accomplishments of this organization over the next 30 years are remarkable. By 1895 the GBMA had raised more than $100,000, and acquired more than 600 acres of land upon which were erected 320 monuments. Over 17 miles of avenues and driveways were constructed by the Association.2 A threat to the preservation objectives of the Memorial Association early in 1893 caused the U.S. Congress to take action. In April of that year a private company had begun construction of an electric railway to transport tourists around the battlefield. The trolley would traverse important areas of the field that were still in private hands, and especially disturb the historic topography around the areas of Devil's Den and the Round Tops.
On May 25, Secretary of War Daniel S. Lamont appointed a three man commission, consisting of Lieut. Col. John P. Nicholson, John B. Bachelder, esq., and Brig. Gen. W. H. Forney to oversee the expenditure of a Congressional appropriation of $50,000 to survey, locate and preserve the lines of battle at Gettysburg.
"An initial survey of the battlefield, accompanied by the vast historical studies and maps accumulated by Colonel John B. Bachelder (a member of the commission and student of the battle since July 1863), prompted the War Department to implore that the management of the electric railway halt construction or divert the line to less sensitive battle areas. When their personal efforts failed the commissioners instituted condemnation procedures against the railway." 3 The proceedings against the electric railroad began on June 8, 1894, in the United States Circuit Court in Philadelphia. The trial moved slowly as the railroad company sought many delays and appeals. Questions were raised concerning the legality of the condemnation process initiated by the commission, with arguments eventually reaching the United States Supreme Court.
"On January 27 1896 the Supreme Court rendered its decision. The U. S. Government was assured the right to condemn in order to preserve a historic site for public use and protection, in order to "promote the general welfare."4 Condemnation would be a powerful force for preservation, and the Commission would use this ability many times in the future to forward the work of building of the park.
While the struggle with the Electric Railroad company was under way, changes were taking place within the Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association. At a meeting of the board held August 21, 1894 a committee was appointed to: "inquire into the feasibility of transferring the property belonging to the Association to the United States government, and to report [their findings] at a meeting to be held October 3, 1894."5 The committee reported in favor of transferring the property of the Association to the government and on February 11, 1895 an act of Congress initiated by New York Congressman and Gettysburg veteran Daniel Sickles, authorized the Federal Government to assume all assets and debts of the GBMA. This act created and established the Gettysburg National Military Park. Administration of the new park was provided by the U.S. War Department. Reporting directly to the Secretary of War, the three man Gettysburg National Park Commission was charged with the supervision and improvement of the park. It was the responsibility of the chairman of the commission to prepare a report to the Secretary of War, at the end of each fiscal year. The report would describe the work performed by the commission, identify areas of the park which were in need of additional work or attention, and recommend the amount of appropriation needed to continue the work in the following year. A list of the government property under the control of the commission was often included at the end of each report.
The annual reports of the commission are fascinating reading. Through them the reader can watch the park evolve from inaccessible battleground into the National Park that it is today. Much of the work done by the commission still shapes the field. Anyone who has ever climbed one of the steel observation towers found in the strategic areas of the Park, has benefited from the work of the Commission. Many visitors would be surprised to learn that the towers were built as long ago as 1895, and that there were at first four towers, with a fifth one constructed in 1896. Today only 3 of these towers remain on the field, but traces of the other 2 may still be found if one knows where to look. The location of each tower as well as it's height can be found in the reports of 1895 and 1896.
The reports contain a great deal of statistical data. They are a gold mine of obscure and not so obscure facts about the field. Some of the kinds of information available for most years includes; names, length and locations of all the avenues constructed in the park to that date, the number of monuments by type (Equestrian, Bronze, Granite, etc), the salaries of the commissioners and laborers, the locations and lengths of rebuilt fortifications, and so on.
For the enthusiast who likes to analyze old photos of the battlefield, the annual reports are an invaluable resource for identifying datable features (such as avenues or bridges) that appear in the photo. The reports contain descriptions of monument dedications and the names of the notables who attended the activities. Anyone who is interested in learning more about the W.W.I tank training camp located on the Codori farm in the vicinity of the angle will certainly want to read the annual reports for 1917 through 1919.
There are also many amusing and interesting controversies to learn about, and insights into the trials faced by the commissioners in the course of their work. Here is a passage excerpted from the 1901 report:
"A proceeding, approved by the Department, was begun since our last report to condemn a parcel of land containing about 12 acres, situated near the Devil's Den and between the Round Tops. It is thickly covered with large bowlders and quite valueless intrinsically, but there was severe fighting on and over it in the afternoon of the second day. Moreover, its owner has permitted it to become the scene of revelries which many right-minded people consider a desecration of the ground consecrated by the blood of hundreds of heroes and patriots."Revelries in Devil's Den? Who would have thought! The 1902 report reveals a happy ending to the story, as the commission acquired the land the following year. It is that part of Devil's Den across which Warren Avenue now runs. Who was the owner? Gettysburg photographer Wm. Tipton.
The War Department administered the Gettysburg National Military Park until 1933 at which time control of the park was transferred to the National Park Service. John P. Nicholson, the chairman of the commission was also the last surviving commissioner. Upon his death in 1922, the chief engineer of the Park, Emmor B. Cope became the first Superintendent of the Park. He died in 1927 only a few weeks before his 93dr birthday and is buried in Evergreen Cemetery.6
2. Vanderslice, John M., Gettysburg, A History of the Gettysburg Battle-field Memorial Association, With an Account of the Battle, Giving Movements, Positions and Losses of the Commands Engaged. Published By the Memorial Association, Philadelphia, 1897. Page 261-262. Hereafter referred to as, History GBMA.
3. "A Fitting And Expressive Memorial" Page 5
5 .History GBMA, Page 255 - 256.
6.Frassanito, William A., Early Photography at Gettysburg, Thomas Publications, 1995 Page 11.