- 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
Meanwhile, another Gettysburg attorney, David McConaughy, led efforts to preserve the battlefield. Less than two months after the battle, he helped establish the Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association (GBMA). During the next thirty-one years the GBMA purchased significant portions of the remaining battlefield, placed monuments, built roads, marked unit locations, and secured cannon for field exhibits.
On July 1, 1869, General Meade dedicated the Soldiers’ National Monument in the National Cemetery. By 1878 additional monuments were being erected on the battlefield itself. Today there are more than eleven hundred.
In 1872 the National Cemetery was transferred to the federal government to be administered by the U.S. War Department. In 1895 Congress created the Gettysburg National Military Park, also to be administered by the War Department. The GBMA turned its holdings and projects over to the War Department, which built roads and observation towers, acquired yet more land, developed and maintained the park, and with cannon, brigade monuments, and plaques identified critical features of the field, unit locations, and the actions that took place there.
In 1933 responsibility for the preservation and interpretation of the Gettysburg National Military Park was transferred to the National Park Service of the U.S. Department of the Interior, which today administers some six thousand acres of land, thirty-five miles of roads, and thirty historic farms. Nearly two million visitors from the United States and abroad tour the battlefield each year.
This flood began as a trickle that started as soon as the battle ended. Most of the early visitors were relatives searching for loved ones; come to nurse wounded husbands, fathers, sons; or charged with the bitter task of bringing them home for burial. But once these searchers had left, the town and its battlefield faded back into the countryside.
During the early 187Os, however, Union and Confederate veterans began returning. A small number of Gettysburg residents hired out to take them around the field. Some of them knew more than they might have wished about the battle. On July 2, 1863, during the fight for east Cemetery Hill, a Confederate shell had exploded in front of Pvt. John F. Chase, 5th Maine Artillery. Forty-eight metal fragments shattered his left arm, damaged his eye, and inflicted many other wounds. Presumed dead, Chase was being taken in a wagon for burial when a sudden bump jolted him back to consciousness. After recovering from the initial shock at having one of his passengers sit up and ask, “Did we win?” the driver quickly took Chase to an Army surgeon. The artilleryman survived to become one of the battlefield’s early guides.
Interest in the battlefield grew. On July 3, 1877, blue and gray veterans again met at the disputed wall of Pickett’s Charge, this time to clasp hands in peace. After that more and more veterans returned to relive the experience, to erect monuments to their regiments—and to give an invaluable oral history of the battle to the guides who accompanied them: “My regiment was right there, near that stand of trees.” “The colonel led us almost to the wall. Then he got hit, and I was too busy to see what happened after that.” “It was real hot. Hot as hell! We’d had no water all day.” “The Rebs flanked us, same’s they’d done ‘afore. But this time we didn’t panic; we held firm.” “Gen’l Hancock rode across our front. Beautiful black horse. Bullets whizzin’ and shells explodin’ everywhere, but he didn’t flinch. How we cheered!” “There were only about a dozen of us left; I miss them still.”
Until historians could do their research, put it in perspective, write the complete story, those guides became the ones most knowledgeable of what had happened there in July 1863. When the completion of the Gettysburg and Harrisburg Railroad in 1884 made it easier for visitors to reach the battlefield, the enterprising guides began sponsoring excursions, taking visitors by wagon or carriage around the field. Often the tour would be interrupted at a point marking the end of the first day’s fighting by a picnic lunch, also furnished by the guide. Race Horse Alley, handy to the town railroad station, housed several large livery stables and offered the availability of “knowledgeable, reliable, guides of outstanding character.” George W. Shealer, for example, began his career “guiding behind the horse” at the age of sixteen when a veteran offered a dollar for the young man’s services. Shealer guided about thirty-five years, to be succeeded by his son, William, who guided from 1885 to the mid-1920s, when he was followed by another son, Edgar, who served for sixty more years before passing the legacy to great-grandson George E. Shealer, now in his nineteenth year as a battlefield guide.