The Changes at Gettysburg

By Dick Crews
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2005, All Rights Reserved

Civil War buffs such as ourselves like to argue about the most important battle of the Civil War. Tourists who vote with their feet and their dollars like Gettysburg – by far. Gettysburg receives over 1,800,000 visitors per year. No other battlefield receives over a million visitors per year.

Why is Gettysburg so popular? Certainly it has advantages, such as being close to the big cities on the East Coast. Vicksburg, my favorite battlefield, is way out along the Louisiana-Mississippi border. However, Antietam is also close to the East Coast and has less than half the number of yearly visitors as Gettysburg.

I believe it is because non-Civil War buffs can relate to the battlefield using the old childhood game of king of the hill. Stand on top of Little Round Top and holler, “Rebs, come and take it if you can.” Then stand at the Angle and holler, “Listen, Mr. Confederate. If you want to cross that open field for a mile to attack me while I fire 100 cannon and 5,000 rifles at you, go right ahead.”

To test my theory, next time you visit Gettysburg, go to the west side of town. Note the number of people visiting the railroad cut and McPherson Woods. Except for the tour buses, you will find very few visitors to this area, which is the first day of Battle at Gettysburg. Why so few? I believe because it is so confusing. Union forces held the area in the morning of July 1, 1863, then the Confederates pushed them out, then more Union troops came at midday and pushed the Confederates back, then more Confederate troops arrived in the afternoon and pushed the Union troops back through the streets of Gettysburg and out to the hills east of town. You followed that, right?

This is too confusing for the non-Civil War buff. However, he understands king of the hill at the Angle and Little Round Top. Consequently, the average tourist takes the family to see the Battle of Gettysburg at the Angle and Little Round Top. He goes home and tells his friends, “Oh yeah, I took the family to see the Battle of Gettysburg.”

Gettysburg is changing in ways that visitors can understand and in ways that relate to us Civil War buffs. First, tourists are supposed to have a new visitors’ center by 2009. The natives told me the center would cost 90 million dollars, and they have 60 million now in hand, so construction will start in the spring. The projected completion date is 2009. Well, we will see. This building has been controversial since its inception. The question, as usual, is who pays? In the beginning it was supposed to be 75% private money and 25% public funds. Now it looks like 75% public funds.

Your question might be why do we need a new visitors’ center? There are three reasons. First, the present building is seventy years old and looks it. Second, the present building is small and without the humidity and temperature controls needed to display many battlefield exhibits that the Park Service now has in warehouses. Last, the Visitors’ Center, Cyclorama, and their parking lots are in the middle of the battlefield.

Now let’s discuss what is happening for us Civil War buffs. First, the monument on Pickett’s Charge for the 8th Ohio has been dignified. You might remember that the monument sat in the front yard of a seedy motel. The Park Service bought the motel and tore it down.

Second, the big change for us Civil War buffs are the trees the Park Service is removing around Little Round Top. People tend to think that in 1860 the landscape was a large forest. It was just the opposite. With the average family using wood for heating and cooking, the landscape had few trees. The trees on Little Round Top had been cleared in 1860 and the wood sold to the federal government.

Gouverneur Warren taking advantage of the clear view from Little Round Top

Now you can stand where Gouverneur Warren stood on Little Round Top and see the Confederates approaching. How do you know? Because with no trees in the way, now you can see clearly the monuments to the Alabama and Texas units in the fields to the left. Looking the other way, you can see all the way to the Angle. You can also see where Sickles moved the 3rd Corps. Good grief, Dan Sickles, what were you doing way out there?

The weekend tourists will not notice this small change, but you, the Civil War enthusiast, will enjoy this clear view immensely.

Related link:
Gettysburg Field Trip – September 2008