Partners and Progress: Bringing 1863 Back to Life at Gettysburg

Persistent high temperatures could kill the namesake trees at Sequoia National Park. Photo © Sasha Buzko/iStockphoto.

A replanted peach orchard helping to restore the way Gettysburg looked in 1863.

A replanted peach orchard helping to restore the way Gettysburg looked in 1863. Photo © Joy Oakes/NPCA.

By Joy M. Oakes, Senior Director, Mid-Atlantic Region

Twenty years ago, a 307-foot-high observation tower loomed over the historic battlefield in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Utility lines laced the sky, Civil War-era artillery carriages rusted in the fields, and the “Home, Sweet Home” motel welcomed overnight guests on the fields of Pickett’s Charge. Visitors crammed the park visitor center and parking lots on the heights of historic Cemetery Ridge, while the National Park Service’s largest collection of Civil War artifacts quietly molded in the visitor center’s basement. A rare 19th century painting depicting the climactic Confederate attack at Pickett’s Charge, Paul Philippoteaux’s huge Gettysburg Cyclorama, slowly deteriorated in a flat-roofed building ill-suited for central Pennsylvania’s snow and rain. Vegetation obscured the battle’s sight lines, historic orchards had disappeared, and many battlefield-era structures—in need of significant maintenance—hid behind modern exteriors.

In 1999, after nearly 60 controversial public meetings, the National Park Service adopted a 20-year general management plan with a clear directive: Return the battlefield to its 1863 appearance.

Fast-forward to today.

See It: Recently Restored Sites at Gettysburg

1. For 50 years, the concrete modernist-style Cyclorama Building stood at North Cemetery Ridge near the Union Army’s battle line during the Battle of Gettysburg. The Park Service demolished the building in 2013, preserving the field overlooking what many call the high-water mark of the Confederacy.

2. Near the former Cyclorama Building site, the Park Service has rehabilitated fields where Confederate Major General George Pickett and Brigadier General J. Johnston Pettigrew led infantry assaults on the Union Army—attacks now known as Pickett’s Charge. The 12 distinct fields had grown into one unbroken field over time. Now, after installing nine miles of fencing, the area is restored to its battle-era appearance, more accurately showing the difficulties troops endured while maneuvering around these obstacles during battle.

3. In the Bushman Farm area between Seminary Ridge and the Round Tops, park staff removed trees that had overgrown the once-working farm fields, and planted an orchard resembling one that existed on the farm at the time of the battle. Changes like these not only preserve sight lines more accurately, they improve the overall environmental health of the site by restoring native plants at the park.

Vistiors now experience a park that indeed evokes 1863. The LEED gold-certified visitor center and museum that opened in 2008 tucks into the landscape amidst lush native plants, parking lots that collect stormwater underground, and modern curatorial facilities. The beautifully restored Cyclorama painting is installed in a theatre that evokes the sights, sounds, and horror of July 1863. Significant modern intrusions, including the tower, many of the utility lines, the outdated visitor center and Cyclorama buildings, and even the motel, have been removed and the landscape rehabilitated. Perhaps most critically, park officials were able to make these significant improvements in time for the wave of visitors commemorating the 150th anniversaries of the Battle of Gettysburg and President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address last year.

Dramatic success like this doesn’t just happen—a key factor has been the park’s partnership with the Friends of the National Parks at Gettysburg and the Gettysburg National Museum Foundation. These two organizations merged in 2006 to become the Gettysburg Foundation.

Since its founding in 1989, the Friends of the National Parks at Gettysburg has overseen projects that include removing modern intrusions, acquiring museum artifacts and key battlefield lands, rebuilding and painting historic fence lines, and opening and staffing the historic Rupp house.

“The partnership with the Gettysburg Foundation is critical to continue the progress in rehabilitating and improving the national parks at Gettysburg,” says Bob Kirby, who retired in January 2014 as superintendent of Gettysburg National Military Park and the adjacent Eisenhower National Historic Site. “The funds available through congressional appropriations do little more than allow the Park Service to provide basic services and ensure a modest level of stewardship.”

More and more, national parks are finding that partnerships are critical to a park’s present and future vitality.

A modernist-style Cyclorama building from the 1950s stood out in the landscape and was demolished to preserve the park's 1863 appearance.

The modernist-style Cyclorama building from the 1960s stood out in the landscape and was demolished to preserve the park’s 1863 appearance. National Park Service photo.

“When Gettysburg National Military Park faced a perfect storm of shrinking park budgets and increasing demands due to the dual 150th anniversaries, the partnership between the National Park Service and the Gettysburg Foundation provided the margin of excellence,” says Alan Spears, NPCA’s director of cultural resources. “Creative and productive partnerships—large and small—are key to future integrity of our beloved national parks.”

The foundation’s upcoming projects include preserving the historic Gettysburg Train Station as part of the national park, along with other key lands and historic structures and artifacts. Learn more at www.gettysburgfoundation.org.

See it for yourself: Plan your trip to Gettysburg to see these improvements at www.nps.gov/gett. Learn more about the restoration process at www.nps.gov/gett/parknews/gett-battlefield-rehab.htm.

Read a longer version of this story on NPCA’s website.

About the Author

Senior Director of NPCA's Mid-Atlantic Regional Office Joy Oakes

Joy Oakes serves as senior director for NPCA’s Mid-Atlantic Region. She enjoys exploring history, culture, and natural beauty, and at home, cultivates her garden to benefit native wildlife.