- Historic Sites
Tales Of A Gettysburg Guide
Alone among all American battlefields, the scene of the Civil War’s costliest encounter is patrolled by government-licensed historians who keep alive for visitors the memory of what happened there
April 1994 | Volume 45, Issue 2
Like his father, his grandfather, and his great-grandfather before him, Dave was a Michigan farmer. His great-grandfather had emigrated from Poland in 1X61, briefly worked in the Detroit area, then enlisted in the 24th Michigan. Months later, at the Battle of Gettysburg, Dave’s great-grandfather saw his regiment shot to pieces. On McPhcrson Ridge the black-hatted men of the 24th fought the 26th North Carolina Regiment to a standstill, but at dusk only ninety-nine of the nearly five hundred men of the 24th remained. Dave’s great-grandfather was one of the survivors.
Dave never went to college; he never even graduated from high school. But he read a lot, and he gave a lot of thought to his heritage. And although it was all hut impossible to escape the demands of his dairy farm, he had managed to visit the Gettysburg Battlefield twenty-two times.
Last spring the owner of a local bed and breakfast called to verify that I was the West Pointer now guiding on the battlefield. Then she told me about Dave and added that because of rapidly failing health, he felt this would be his last trip East. Would I guide him? Of course.
Some of the first Gettysburg guides had gotten their training in the battle itself.
For nearly four hours Dave and I refought the battle, touring Gulp’s Hill and Little Round Top and the Wheat Field, and then exploring less familiar precincts. He knew everything worth knowing about the 24th Michigan, and along the way we also talked about the American soldier, about what ground combat really is like, and about the American past.
“What I don’t understand,” he said at one point, “is why they fought so hard. They were all Americans. This is the best country in the world. They must have felt that way too. How could they fight each other so hard? What could have been so important that six hundred thousand men had to die for it?”
I offered the historians’ answers: slavery, states’ rights, economic sectionalism. But we both knew it went deeper— into the heart and soul of what is an American.
Our Civil War is encapsulated in the three terrible days at Gettysburg in 1863, and tens of thousands of Americans are drawn there; drawn again and again, generation after generation. Every visitor seems to gain something from the battlefield and its story. And every visitor can give something in return. Dave showed me that; so have hundreds of other Americans I’ve met at Gettysburg.
After a lifelong military career, with infantry service in Korea and Vietnam, I am fortunate enough to be doing exactly what I want to do. At the Gettysburg National Military Park in south-central Pennsylvania we have a unique and unusual institution: a corps of guides licensed by the federal government to accommodate the throngs of visitors. Unique because Gettysburg is the only national battlefield so serviced; unusual because the guides are exceptionally well qualified for their task of making the immense meaning of our Civil War apparent to those who seek it at Gettysburg. The guides’ service is something they take very seriously but enjoy very much, a commitment to our country, to its people, and to our forebears. It began 130 years ago.
On July 4, 1863, heavy rain pelted the battlefield, bringing slight relief to the sun-blistered lips of wounded soldiers who still lay in the shell-battered woods and fields—and none to the thousands of unburied dead.
The Army of the Potomac under Gen. George Meade and the Army of Northern Virginia under Gen. Robert E. Lee had stumbled upon each other four days earlier at the edge of this little Pennsylvania county seat of 2,400 souls. Then 163,000 men, 80,000 horses and mules, nearly 700 cannon, and thousands of wagons had gone forward into battle. The biggest, bloodiest, most decisive battle of our Civil War.
It was over now, and behind Lee’s retreating forces lay an exhausted Union army, more than 7,000 dead soldiers, 21,000 wounded ones (perhaps 4,000 to 6,000 mortally), more than 5,000 dead horses and mules, and a stunned community.
The intense summer heat made it critical that the dead be disposed of as quickly as possible. The army did much of that in the few days before it moved on, burning the bodies of slain horses and mules and burying slain soldiers, Northern and Southern alike, in shallow graves, pretty much where the victims had fallen.
Summer rains quickly uncovered many of these hasty graves. Rooting animals discovered many more. Andrew Curtin, governor of Pennsylvania, visiting Gettysburg soon after the battle, was shocked enough to appoint a local attorney, David Wills, to create a special cemetery. Wills sought the support of other Northern states whose sons had fought there, purchased seventeen acres of battlefield, hired the landscape gardener William Saunders to design the grounds, and arranged for the formal dedication of the new cemetery. There, on November 19, 1863, Abraham Lincoln delivered the two-minute address—10 sentences, 272 words—that would go down in history as the greatest of American orations.