- 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
By the early 1890s Gettysburg had become a national shrine with 150,000 visitors a year and more than 50 local citizens more or less permanently employed as guides. Then a new form of transportation made reaching the battlefield even easier. In 1913, the fiftieth anniversary of the battle, more than a half-million automobiles were traveling the nation, and a lot of them made their way to Gettysburg, creating a growing business opportunity for local citizens to declare themselves guides. Too many of them had no solid knowledge of the battle. One visitor, a Union veteran who had lost a leg there, reported: “I have heard some of the best descriptions given by the many guides and I have also heard some of the worst. Some of these guides … have never made a historic study of the field and obtained what little they know of what took place there … from a smattering of stories they picked up or from what came to them from their own conceptions, ideas, and exaggerated rumors.”
The veteran noticed one guide’s technique for dealing with a question that stumped him. As they approached McPherson’s Barn, one of the most important buildings still standing on the battlefield and the site of very hard fighting during the first day, the guide announced, “Ladies and Gentlemen. Look there! That is the McPherson Barn. It is known today as the McPherson Barn! But why is it known to history? Be … ! Get up! Whoa!” the guide shouted to his horses; they bolted; and by the time he got them under control the barn had disappeared in the dust behind and the guide had turned his expertise to another part or the field.
On the eve of the fiftieth anniversary of the battle, with virtually every car that drove through the town square being accosted by fiercely competitive entrepreneurs, the Gettysburg Council mandated that they were not to step more than two feet from the curb in pursuit of a trip.
The July 12, 1913, issue of the Gettysburg Times reported J. A. Myrick’s prosecution under the new statute: ”… on the morning of July 10, ‘Eddie’ Gilbert, one of the local battlefield orators, was called into the square by the driver of an auto. … While Mr. Gilbert was making a bargain with his man, the second car of the party came up and Mr. Myrick ran out from the pavement into the square without being summoned. He persuad; ed the driver not to go over the field with Mr. Gilbert. … Myrick [further] explained … that he was a $3.00 man whereas Gilbert was worth only $2.00, the price asked by the latter. These remarks, along with others reflecting on Gilbert, evidently convinced the tourists. … Myrick was selected and took charge of the two vehicles.”
The local justice, persuaded that Myrick had overstepped the borough’s ordinance, fined him $10.85, but the following week’s issue of the Times reported that: “J. Warren Gilbert, on whom a warrant was served … charging him with assault and battery on J. A. Myrick, brought a countersuit against Myrick on a similar charge. … The … quarrel has to do with an automobile party which stopped in front of the Kalbfleisch Building. … Both guides were at the Eagle Hotel and crossed over to solicit … guiding visitors over the field. On the way over Myrick, it is alleged, struck Gilbert with his elbow and Gilbert retaliated with his fists.”
It was time for a higher authority to step in. The soldiers who had fought at Gettysburg deserved better representation, and over the years government officials responsible for managing the park began monitoring the guides’ work. In 1915 the War Department established a regulation requiring that guides be formally licensed. Since then the National Park Service, in cooperation with the guides’ professional association (Association of Licensed Battlefield Guides), have worked hard to develop and maintain high standards.
There are about a hundred men and women currently serving as battlefield guides, and each of them has passed a very difficult licensing process, one that takes place every two to three years as demand and attrition dictate. It begins with a written examination of some hundred questions about the Civil War in general, and the Battle of Gettysburg in very great particular. Two-thirds of the prospective guides fail that exam; those who pass then must attend a sixteenhour orientation (referred to by some guides as “charm school”) covering park regulations, safety and security, administrative procedures, and key points the National Park Service wants to see incorporated in every tour. With that background, the prospective guide must prepare his own tour of the battlefield and successfully present it to a representative of the National Park Service and a veteran licensed battlefield guide. Guide candidates discover that these final-examination tours can be tougher than their university’s graduate-degree oral grillings. They must be able to sketch the war in broad strokes, then focus in on the battle and the soldiers and townsfolk who endured it. And they must demonstrate good guiding techniques: “Don’t talk about it unless you can see it from the car’s window.” “Watch for other cars stopping without warning.” “Adjust your tour to your visitor’s reactions.”