- 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
Would-be guides find that Finals can be tougher than graduate-degree oral exams.
Preparing for that ultimate test is the worst of the licensing experience. Guides’ spouses can vouch for that. Mine went through six practice tours with me (after the second one she brought along her knitting) and, in the end, could have given a pretty good tour herself. During the examination tour the prospective guide is keenly aware that if he fails the first time, he’ll get only one more chance.
My test tour with a senior licensed battlefield guide and a senior park ranger (allegedly visitors from Arkansas) went well until they spotted some hesitancy in my description of the fighting around the Wheat Field: worse, I’d driven by the Arkansas Monument without pointing it out to my guests. After we completed the tour, my mentors offered a dauntingly thorough critique. I was sure they’d make me try again. But in the end the ranger grinned and said, “Skip, I’ve watched you taking notes on every suggestion we’ve made. Anyone that tries that hard will remember the Arkansas Monument the next time. Congratulations. You’re a guide.” Very few accolades I’ve been given over the years meant as much to me as that grin and that judgment. (I’m sure they meant as much to my wife; she’d finisietd the sweater and wasn’t eager to start another.)
Like any other new guide profited not only from the association’s continuingetducation program but from the experiences the venram guides generously shared. I was, for example, warned of the more unusual questions visitors may ask: “Did the Anr-nicans win the battle?” (“Yes, ma’am; unfortunately, they also lost it”); “Where do you store all these monuments in the wintertime?”; “Archer’s Brigade. Did they have crossbows?” (“No, you see that’s General Archer”); “Why were all these battles fought on national parks?” or its corollary “Why are all these battlefields so far from metropolitan areas?” (there are no approved answers to these last two questions— and they really do get asked).
The guides come frorn a dozen states. Most t are former educators: school superintendents, administrators, teachers; others served with the military, in law enforcement, or with the government. There also are former ministers, businessmen, bankers, and engineers. More than two-thirds are college graduates; a quarter hold master’s degrees, and more than 10 percent have multiple master’s or doctoral degrees.
The federal government licenses us, but in effect we’re private entrepreneurs without government pay or benefits. It’s not a full-time career; the pay is the fee established by the National Park Service and collected by .the guide from the visitor at the end of the tour: $20 per car, $50 per bus. Although most of the guides are retired, others are younger people, working second jobs or continuing their education. The fees are only enough to supplement another income. But thatvcall right. We are guides because of how we see the Gettysburg Battlefield and what happened there, and we reckon ourselves privileged to be able to share that idea.
There are several ways to see the battlefield. The National Park Service has an excellent sixteen-point self-guided tour, and you can rent a tape for an audio description. A local company sponsors a bus tour featuring a taped description of the sites the bus is passing (the driver is not licensed and therefore is prohibited from answering questions). But the two-hour tour conducted by a guide is the most comprehensive and personal way to see the field. The guides accommodate more than fifteen thousand car groups and four thousand tour buses each year, and the hundreds of grateful letters the park’s superintendent receives suggest they do a pretty good job.
You can request a guide from the park personnel at the visitor center. Often visitors will return again and again with new guests to hire a guide they enjoyed in the past, and some of us acquire “families” from around the world with whom we maintain contact for years.
Most visitors simply ask for a guide and are assigned the next one available. Before leaving the visitor center, the guide (dressed in a navy blazer and a blue-and-gray striped tie) will meet the tour group, learn something of their background, knowledge of the battle, and try to discover any specific interests. Most visitors have only a general knowledge of what happened here; others, however, take pride in having a relative who fought: “I think he was with a New York regiment. Have you ever heard of him?” Some are very specific: “I have a painting of the 124th New York Regiment fighting the Texans near Devil’s Den. I’d like to sit where the ‘Orange Blossoms’ fought while you tell us about it.” During 1992 a lot of visitors came because Ted Turner’s Gettysburg was being filmed on the battlefield, and they hoped to see Sam Elliott playing General Buford. In any event, no two tours are alike, and the guide must tailor the story anew for each one.