The Development of Gettysburg National Military Park

Kathleen Georg Harrison
January 1988

Twenty days after the Union defenders abandoned the shelters of their earthworks and stone walls on the Gettysburg battlefield to pursue General Lee's Confederate army back into Virginia, proceedings were already underway to preserve the scene of that great July 1863 conflict. 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 McKnights Hill (Stevens Knoll) and Raffensperger's Hill (East Cemetery Hill) were likewise purchased by McConaughy's personal funds from local owners.

On August 14th, this socially conscious Gettysburg barrister made public his plans and actions for the battlefield through a circular letter to many of the town's leading citizens. His letter and their enthusiastic reply were printed in the August 19th 1863 edition of the Adams Sentinel. In advocating the purchase and preservation of these and other battlefield landmarks, McConaughy expressed that there could be "no more fitting and expressive memorial of the heroic valor and signal triumph of our army . . . than the battle-field itself, with its natural and artificial defenses, preserved and perpetuated in the exact form and condition they presented during the battle." His fellow citizens in Gettysburg responded to this "happy and patriotic conception" by endorsing the idea, convinced that the battlefields at Gettysburg were "adapted to perpetuate the great principles of human liberty and just government in the minds of our descendants, and of all men who in all time shall visit them."

McConaughy's purposes were formalized and adopted to become part of the charter of the incorporated Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association (GBMA). Although initiated in September 1863, the group was not chartered under the laws of the State of Pennsylvania until April 1864. Among other goals, the association was supposed to hold, and preserve, the battlegrounds of Gettysburg . . . with the natural and artificial defenses, as they were at the time of said battle, and by such perpetuation, and such memorial structures as a generous and patriotic people may aid to elect, to commemorate the heroic deeds, the struggles, and the triumphs of their brave defenders.

Conceived during the Civil War, when the hostilities between the two sections were still deeply rooted, the charter of the GBMA made no provision for memorializing, commemorating, or preserving that part of the battlefield associated with the Confederate foe. The charter, however, gave unprecedented authority to this group in its pioneering efforts to preserve the battlefield. The association had power to take and hold real and personal property associated with its goals, to repair and preserve the grounds and defenses, to construct and maintain roads and avenues, to improve and ornament the grounds and to erect or promote the erection of commemorative markers, monuments and memorials. In 1866 a supplement to the charter, empowered the GBMA to condemn lands for avenues and to fine offenders who willfully vandalized or, removed monuments, fencing, trees, or defense works.

Through the first fifteen years of its existence the GBMA was limited in its efforts to preserve the battlefield. Initial plans were made to open avenues along the course of Union battle lines, but funding for this or other such ventures was not forthcoming. It was not until 1867-1868 that McConaughy himself was reimbursed by an appropriation from the State legislature for his initial purchases of 1863-1864. The solicitation of funds from the various loyal states and from the sale of life memberships ($10) became the overriding concern of the board members during the first ten years after its incorporation. Receipts were expended almost exclusively towards administrative costs of the executive board and in erecting temporary markers documenting the positions of the various Federal regiments and brigades. In the spring of 1878, a wooden observation tower was erected by George Arnold (a member of the GBMA board of directors) on grounds owned by the association and leased from them. The latticed 50-foot tower had a reception room at the base, and a winding staircase led to two observation platforms (one at the 25-foot level and one at the top). This first major development on the battlefield by GBMA was a prominent landmark on East Cemetery Hill, standing until it was removed to make room for the Hancock equestrian statue in August 1895.

It was during that same year that the Pennsylvania GAR held its annual reunion at Gettysburg, the encampment spread beneath the new tower opposite the National Cemetery. It was the first encampment at Gettysburg since 1872, and the GAR members present were chagrined at the lack of progress in appropriately marking the battlefield. Seven years previously the Union veterans present had seen an active GBMA board, imaginative and apparently eager to increase access to the battlefield and memorialize units and commanders. But the incessant quest for money had prevented GBMA from realizing their ambitious goals. It would be through the efforts of the Pennsylvania Grand Army members that the "interest in the objects of the Association" would be revitalized.

By the following summer, GAR posts throughout the state were applying for subscriptions for memberships and began lobbying for their representatives to increase state support for GBMA. Realizing that the GAR could become a powerful ally in augmenting the efforts heretofore thwarted, the GBMA board passed a resolution that "no booth, stall, dancing floor or other structure for the purpose of trade or dissipation shall be erected, nor shall any peddling, play or amusement for money or profit be allowed on any grounds belonging to this association, provided this shall not prevent the use of the grounds by the Grand Army of the Republic for suitable purposes." It was hoped that the resolution would prevent any desecration of the battlefield through inappropriate use, and would encourage the GAR to continue battlefield reunions at Gettysburg. Within two years, membership in GBMA swelled with new GAR subscribers who succeeded in changing the complexion of the Board of Directors and the Executive Committee through their voting by proxy at the annual June meetings. David McConaughy, who had envisioned the effort in the first place and who had served so long as Vice President (the Pennsylvania Governor always serving as President), Counselor, Actuary, and chairman of the local committee, found himself displaced from the board. He apparently resented the dissolution of state and local influence on the board, and never was willing to admit that the battlefield was a national possession. Classical scholar, civic-minded sponsor, social activist, McConaughy was a firm believer in the "civitas"--the city-state. In his city-state, the citizens of Gettysburg were the guardians charged with the privilege and responsibility of preserving the site of the grand Union victory. But the torch was passed to the national politic, at a time when the United States was ending Reconstruction and entering a new stage of national consciousness.

This transfer of responsibility and trust coincided with the dedication of the first monuments to be erected on the battlefield and outside the cemetery (1878-1879). The survivors and veterans' groups began an era of memorialization with the installation of the 2nd Massachusetts Infantry monument at Spangler's Meadow and a marker to Cooper's Pennsylvania Battery on East Cemetery Hill, as well as a marker to commemorate the mortal wounding of Strong Vincent on Little Round Top, erected by the Erie GAR post named in his honor. In 1882, avenues were finally opened along Union battle lines, facilitating access to important battle sites and providing the means to encourage additional monumentation and visitation. By 1888, the 25th anniversary of the battle, at least 200 major monuments and markers had been erected in the cemetery and on the battlefield, with eight states appropriating funds to assist veterans in paying for their memorials.

This increased interest by veterans groups like the GAR, the Military Order of the Loyal Legion, and the Society of the Army of the Potomac, and by those various Northern states who continued to financially support monumentation and the GBMA, also increased an interest in the general public for national or government control of the battlefield. A direct threat to the preservation goals of GBMA finally prompted the U. S. Congress to action. An electric railway was planned by a private developer to traverse areas of the field heretofore undisturbed and in private ownership. The railway's route would pre-empt sites of Confederate troop position and movement at the south end of the battlefield near the Devil's Den and the Round Tops. It would also intrude upon the historic and impressive topographic scene in that area.

A three-man commission had been appointed by the Secretary of War on 25 May 1893 to oversee the expenditure of a Congressional appropriation of $50,000 to survey, locate, and preserve the lines of battle at Gettysburg. The Commission was empowered to purchase, open, construct, and improve avenues along the positions occupied by both Union and Confederate armies, for erecting fencing, for purchasing through private sale or condemnation those parcels of land necessary for the marking of the battlefield or the construction of avenues, and for "determining the leading tactical positions and properly marking the same with tablets" in order to stimulate the "study and correct understanding" of the battle.

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. Commencing in 1894, the trial worked its way through various appellate courts until the Supreme Court rendered its decision on 27 January 1896. 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." The eloquent and ruling opinion of Justice Peckham wrote that this battle represented the preservation of the integrity and solidarity of the American republic, and that this was forcibly impressed upon every one who looks over the field. The value of the sacrifices then freely made is rendered plainer and more durable by the fact that the government of the United States, through its representatives in Congress assembled, appreciates and endeavors to perpetuate it by this most suitable recognition. Such action on the part of Congress touches the heart, and comes home to the imagination of every citizen, and greatly tends to enhance his love and respect for those institutions for which these heroic sacrifices were made.

The commission resorted to condemnation numerous times over the next few years in order to acquire key tracts, particularly for avenue development and the preservation of the long-ignored Confederate battle lines. On 11 February 1895 an Act of Congress further augmented the commitment of the national government to preserve the Gettysburg battlefield, when the Gettysburg National Military Park was established. This act, advocated by New York Congressman and Gettysburg veteran Daniel S. Sickles, authorized the new National Park to accept 522 acres held by the GBMA, whose board unanimously voted to disband and turn over all of its assets and debts (amounting to about $2000) to the Federal Government. This Establishing Law for Gettysburg NMP stated a number of goals and purposes for the park, including the preservation of important topographical features of the battlefield, the construction of avenues, and the marking of positions of all troops (Union and Confederate). The new park was headed by a three-man commission, consisting of Gettysburg veterans John P. Nicholson (28th Pa.), Charles A. Richardson (126th NY), and William McK. Robbins (4th Ala.), assisted by another Gettysburg veteran, Emmor B. Cope, as engineer.

The accomplishments of these four, gentlemen during the ten-year period that followed were staggering even by our modern standards. Relying on the labor of Italian immigrants, local artisans, and zealous contractors, the commission transformed the muddy "cowpaths" of the GBMA into over twenty miles of semi-permanent "Telfordized" avenues. The construction of these avenues provided a model for countless parks, boroughs, and counties across the nation, and the nineteenth-century avenues still act as a base for many of the current macadamized avenues in the park. Defense works were resodded, relaid, and rebuilt where necessary. Cast iron and bronze narrative tablets were conceived, composed, and then contracted to mark the positions of each battery, brigade, division, and corps, and separate markers were erected for each battery and regiment of the U. S. Regular Army. Over 300 condemned cannon were mounted on cast-iron reproduction carriages to mark or approximate battery positions. Five steel observation towers were built at key overlook points to assist in the instruction of the military students of the battle, a vital purpose of the military park. Over 25 miles of boundary and battlefield fencing was constructed, as well as 13 miles of gutter paving. In excess of five miles of stone walls were restored or rebuilt, and over 17,000 trees were planted in denuded parts of the field, including Ziegler's Grove, Pitzer Woods, Trostle Woods, and Bisecker's Woods. Over 800 acres were acquired in addition to the lands transferred from GBMA, comprising historic sites like Houck's Ridge and the Devil's Den, the Peach Orchard, and battlefield farmsteads and landmarks like those at the Mcpherson, Culp, Weikert, Trostle, Codori, and Frey farms.

The members of the commission were tireless in their efforts to preserve and improve the park for the returning veterans and the increasing numbers of park visitors. Major Robbins especially tried to reconcile his former Confederate comrades and persuade them to mark their battle lines with appropriate memorials. But the monument policy promoted by the War Department restricted the location of any monuments to "battle lines," or those sites where a regiment and brigade lined up to receive or give a charge. This meant that the Confederate monuments would be restricted to locations hundreds of yards from where the Southern units clashed with the Federals and lost their dearest friends. This met with immediate recalcitrance to those Confederate veterans unwilling to assign "rear-line" status to their monuments. As a result, only one monument was erected to a Confederate regiment during the administration of the War Department. A very modest bronze tablet was paid for and erected by Major Robbins himself to his old regiment on South Confederate Avenue in 1904.

The 1913 reunion on the battlefield, with over 50,000 Civil War veterans present, perhaps marked the peak of development by the War Department on the battlefield. Veteran and national interest was focused on Gettysburg as never before (except 1863), and the relationship of the Gettysburg and Civil War veteran to the battlefield was prolonged as long as these veterans served as the commissioners. With the death of Colonel Cope in 1927 the era of the veteran also passed. No longer did an old soldier of 1861-1865 oversee the care and custody of the battlefield; career officers of the War Department were instead assigned to the superintendency. The memories and comradeship that marked the development of the battlefield in the first sixty years was gone forever. Only the last reunion of the Blue and Gray in 1938 could stir the same emotions.

In 1933 an executive order, reorganizing the executive branch of government transferred the administration of the Gettysburg National Military Park from the War Department to the National Park Service. This was the culmination of seventeen years effort to consolidate administration of all federal parks and monuments under the Park Service. The development of the park under the leadership of the War Department was characterized by efficiency, pride, and an overwhelming sense of justice and sensitivity to both armies. But many things were still left undone when the transfer of administration occurred. Immediate efforts to upgrade and develop adequate programs for the visiting public became the hallmark of NPS administration as well as protection of the historic resources within the park. Whereas the War Department had focused on military use (training camps for National Guard and U.S. Army) and instruction (West Point cadets) as one of the primary functions for the park, the NPS instituted measures to assist the non-military visitor in understanding the battlefield and battle. Heretofore, all visitors were left to rely on their own ingenuity in seeing the battlefield. It was fortunate that a system of Licensed Battlefield Guides was implemented in 1915 as a means to meet the needs of the average visitor, since the commission supplied no other measures to guide the visitor through the battle story. Under the NPS, publications and Ranger programs were offered to the visitor as a means to accomplishing this end, and a museum and reception room at the park headquarters in the Federal Building on Baltimore Street accommodated those visitors wanting more information.

The first major test of that ability to serve the visitor came in 1938, with the 75th Anniversary of the battle. Among the most significant events of that anniversary observance was the dedication of a new Eternal Light Peace Memorial, committed to "Peace Eternal in a Nation United." The monument symbolized the reunification of the country and originated from the vision of the veterans themselves, who had resolved during the 50th Anniversary reunion to build a monument to peace on the field of battle, just as the reunited Country had been built out of the ashes of the war. By 1938 the theme of the anniversary was not so much an observance of the battle as it was the spirit of American nationality and brotherhood, of the promise that a civil war would never again divide the Country into hostile sections.

The aging and diminishing ranks of the Civil War veteran contrasted markedly with the youthful generation now responsible for the preservation and interpretation of the battlefield. Although the Depression years and the advent of World War II threatened the maintenance of the park and its resources (monuments were placed on priority lists, to be stripped of bronze for the war effort if necessary), the social programs of the New Deal made substantial and lasting contributions to the park's development. Agencies such as the CCC, EWP, and PWA gave jobs to scores of young men, who lived in camps at Pitzer, and McMillan Woods. These youths cooperated with park staff and performed such tasks as new avenue construction at Benner's Hill, Jones' Battalion, Oak Hill, and Granite Schoolhouse Lane. Snow removal, tree repair, landscaping, laying water lines, cleaning monuments, improving and repairing farm buildings, and installing drains and gutters were some of the routine but vital services provided by these young emergency laborers.

After World War II, visitation to Gettysburg increased steadily. The park headquarters over the Post Office were woefully inadequate to accommodate these growing numbers needing direction and assistance. In addition, the famed Philippoteaux panorama painting of the third day's battle needed a conservator's treatment as well as new quarters. Housed in a circular brick building on Baltimore street since 1913, the cyclorama had been acquired by the park in 1941. A new cyclorama building/visitor center was constructed to fulfill both those needs as part of a Service-wide Mission 66 program. The building, with its huge "drum" protecting the revitalized painting opened in 1962 in preparation for the centennial observance of the battle. Ten years later, the former Rosensteel National Museum, with its unique collection of battle artifacts and electric map, was acquired by the park and complemented the cyclorama building as the new Visitor Center.

Although such centers lack the significance of the remaining battle-related structures, they are maintained for the convenience and orientation of the average 1.5 million visitors who come to the park each year. The park has a far greater commitment to a diversity of historic resources. In addition to the farms and landmarks acquired by the War Department, the NPS has been active in protecting and preserving additional sites, such as the Rose, Sherfy, Patterson, Spangler, Wills, McClean, Blocher, Warfield, Snyder, and Cobean farms. In some of these efforts the park has been ably assisted by a groundswell of public support, through such organizations as the Gettysburg Battlefield Preservation Association. Many prominent landscape features associated with the battle were acquired with the farms and tracts, including buildings, defense works, woodlands, orchards and open agricultural fields. Over 100 historic or farm-related buildings require preservation by the park on these farms, in addition to almost eight miles of defense works, over 1300 monuments and markers, 24 miles of historic fencing patterns and over 70,000 artifacts.

The vision embodied in the charter of the Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association in 1864, and in the concept expressed with such conviction by David McConaughy in 1863, must now be fulfilled by the National Park Service in its care and use of the Gettysburg National Military Park. It is still the fundamental goal and purpose of the park to hold and preserve the battleground at Gettysburg, with the natural and artificial defenses used by the armies, to perpetuate that battlefield and its memorial structures, and to commemorate the heroic deeds and achievements of the participants on those grounds.

Kathleen Georg Harrison
January 1988


Adams Sentinel. Bachelder, John B. Letter to Andrew Curtin, August 10, 1863. Photocopy in GNMP files.

Buehler, D. H. and E. G. Fahnestock. Letter to Andrew Curtin, August 14, 1863. Photocopy in GNMP files.

Conrad, T. W., et al. Letter to Andrew Curtin, August 12, 1863. Photocopy in GNMP files.

Dimon, Dr. Theodore. "From Auburn to Antietam". n.p., n.d. Photocopy in GNMP files.

McConaughy, David. Letters to Andrew Curtin, July 25; August 5 (3); August 14, 1863. Photocopies in GNMP files.

"Minutes of Meetings of Evergreen Cemetery Association Board." Evergreen Cemetery office.

Pennsylvania Daily Telegraph.

"Report of the General Agent of the State of New York for the Relief of Sick, Wounded, Furloughed and Discharged Soldiers." Albany, 1864.

Saunders, William. "Autogiographical Sketch." n.p., n. d. Photocopy in GNMP files.

Stevenson, Charles G. Letter to Harry Pfanz, October 26, 1960. GNMP files.

Wills, David. Letter to Andrew Curtin, August 3; August 7; August 10; August 11. Photocopy in GNMP files.

------. Letter to Governors, August 13, 1863. Photocopy in GNMP files.

------. Letter to Governor William Cannon, September 15; October 13, 1863. Photocopy in GNMP files.