- 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
Most guides enjoy bus groups. They needn’t worry about traffic (guides normally drive visitors’ cars), and they can face their audience during the tour. School groups are fun, particularly grades five and six. Most of the children have come a long way to see the battlefield, and they are receptive to the guide’s talk. Receptive, but only to a point. That’s the challenge. That’s when you must improvise gun crews, re-enact a charge, climb an observation tower. The results are often interesting. For example, somewhere early in the tour most guides share a “secret” with their young charges. There was a tradition among sculptors—not universally observed, but followed in all the equestrian statues at Gettysburg—by which if the horse has all four hoofs on the ground, you know the rider got through the battle without a scratch. If one hoof is raised, the rider was wounded. If the horse has two hoofs in the air, as Gen. John Reynolds’s does, it means the rider was killed. This bit of trivia turns out to be a highly effective way to engage the interest of ten-year-olds in the fate of those long-gone soldiers.
There are some children a guide never forgets. Sarah was a fifth grader, one of several dozen bright and bubbly youngsters whose school group I was guiding. She had brown hair; she was sweet; she was full of personality. And she was lame—her right leg drawn up so that she limped.
I didn’t realize that, however, until we stopped at the llth Pennsylvania monument. Behind the statue is a much smaller one: a bronze rendering of the regiment’s mascot, Sallie. I usually paused long enough for one or two children to hop off the bus, find Sallie, and then come back to describe her to the other children. Sarah was first to volunteer. When she stood, I realized her challenge. But her teacher nodded approval, and in a moment Sarah returned. I handed her the microphone, and she breathlessly told the other children, “It’s a dog! It’s a little dog!”
We went next to the Eisenhower observation tower. It commands a superb view of the field, and I always take my school groups up its ten stories of steel steps. I was concerned about Sarah’s attempting the hard climb, but her teacher smiled: “She has more spunk than the whole class. And she likes you. This is the first time she’s ever tried something like this. Let’s see how she does.”
We started to climb, the kids counting the steps out loud. About halfway up the children began to tire, and I said, “Whew! That’s a climb. Let’s catch our breath.” Sarah was with us, determined, but struggling. We started up again. With twenty feet left to go, I suddenly felt a small, warm hand take my own. I glanced down. It was Sarah. There was perspiration on her face, but her eyes shone. We continued the climb, hand in hand. And we made it to the top. As Sarah and I walked out on the platform with all the hills and guns and trees below us, the other children cheered that brave little girl.
Whatever the group’s age or background, the guide will start by telling the basic story of the battle and its significance to the war, and then he or she will personalize the account. The visitor may learn of the death of twenty-one-year-old Henry B. Burgwyn, the “boy colonel” of the 26th North Carolina Regiment. Or of John Burns, the white-haired septuagenarian civilian in his dark, swallow-tailed coat, buff-colored vest, and high silk hat who, badly hurt fighting alongside the 150th Pennsylvania Regiment, counted his wounds less painful than the scolding he later received from Mrs. Burns for getting involved. The death of the teen-aged Jennie Wade, the only civilian casualty in the three days’ fight. How, twenty-one years after the battle, 2d Maryland Infantry veterans— (C.S.A., if you please)—insisted their regimental marker be properly placed a hundred yards inside the Northern works at Gulp’s Hill to show where they had briefly broken the Yankee line. About the irate Pennsylvania farmer who accosted an Arkansas colonel demanding payment for a pig allegedly shot by one of his infantrymen. The Confederate commander patiently heard out the complaint, then replied, “I’m sorry, sir, but you must be mistaken. You said you heard the pig squeal. When an Arkansas soldier shoots a pig, sir, it does not squeal. The man who did it must have been from Tennessee; they’re down this road a piece.” About the fiftieth reunion of the Gettysburg Battle when some fifty-five thousand still-scrappy old warriors swelled a gigantic Tent City, relived the battle (for the most part in great camaraderie but with the occasional reflection: “I should have killed that son of a bitch fifty years ago when I had the chance”) and in three days consumed two hundred tons of meat, poultry, and vegetables; three hundred thousand eggs; seven thousand pies; six tons of coffee; and two thousand gallons of ice cream.