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Tales Of A Gettysburg Guide

June 2024
16min read

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

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.


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.

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.”

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.

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.

Time permitting, the guide might end his tour with a walk through the National Cemetery, with its rows of flat stones marking the graves of the Union dead (early on there was so much bad feeling that Southern dead were not permitted in the cemetery. A half-dozen do lie there, however, because they could not be distinguished among the pile of fallen Americans taken from some bitterly fought corner of the field). Eventually guide and visitor will stand where Abraham Lincoln delivered his address. The guide might point out Lincoln’s charge: ”… that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain; that this nation shall have a new birth of freedom; and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Then the guide might suggest the relevance of Lincoln’s words to us today: If America is to remain the country Dave wanted it to be, each citizen must do his or her part to keep it that way. Gettysburg, with all the horror of what happened there, is a reminder of what is at stake.

If the corps of guides at Gettysburg—inheritors of a tradition almost as old as the battle itself—helps keep battlefield visitors mindful of that message, they will feel uncommonly well rewarded.


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