GETTYSBURG, Pa. — For more than a decade, Gettysburg National Military Park has undergone a facelift.
But this multi-year, multimillion-dollar procedure was not designed to give the historic battlefield a more contemporary or youthful appearance.
Rather, the rehabilitation has focused on turning back the clock and returning the battlefield to its 1863 state — the year of the seminal Civil War battle.
A visitor who called on Gettysburg in 1988 for the 125th anniversary of the battle, for instance, would find that a number of the landscape vistas look completely different this year, during the 150th anniversary.
Since 1999, the U.S. National Park Service has overseen the rehabilitation of the Gettysburg battlefield. Gone are the old Cyclorama building, the former Visitor Center, and a whole bunch of trees. A new Visitor Center opened in 2008 south of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery, and on the east side of Cemetery Ridge. The actual battlefield ground has expanded, with new acreage added to the park, often with assistance from the Gettysburg Foundation and other private groups.
But some of the most telling changes have taken place on the revered battlefield itself.
Visitors rarely called on Powers Hill, located behind Cemetery Ridge, in the past. And for good reason: Non-historic trees once covered area.
Powers Hill served as a key position for Union reserves, after the Union’s Army of the Potomac established its primary defensive line at Cemetery Ridge following the first day of battle.
In the decades that followed the battle, non-historic trees and foliage grew thick at the site, and obstructed a view of three Union artillery monuments on the hill. The Park Service cleared 13 acres of trees on and around hill in the winter of 2010-2011, and returned Powers Hill closer to the way it appeared when Union artillery and infantry occupied it.
A number of locations associated with the second day of battle have received rehabilitation attention. One key tree clearing project involved the ground on below the triangular field, and, looking west toward the Emmitsburg Road, the low ground on the Slyder Farm, and on up to Warfield Ridge. Confederate Gen. John B. Hood’s division attacked through this section of the battlefield toward Devil’s Den on July 2, 1863.
“You couldn’t see the Slyder Farm over here,” explained Superintendent of Gettysburg National Military Park Bob Kirby, as he looked over the open expanse from the Devil’s Den area. “You’d come up here and you’d think ‘I don’t get it. How could the Union forces see the onslaught of the Confederate forces coming through here?”
Visitors today can see the open meadows and grasslands between Warfield Ridge and Devil’s Den, and understand how it played a part in Hood’s attack, and the Union defense as well.
While clearing non-historic trees has played an important role in the Park Service’s effort to restore the battlefield to its original state, parts of the Gettysburg battlefield have also seen a return of trees.
With financial assistance from the Gettysburg Foundation, the Park Service planted 133 Messina peach trees on the Sherfy Farm off Emmitsburg Road in 2008.
The Sherfy Farm sits very near one of the more familiar locations at Gettysburg — the Peach Orchard. During the second day, Confederate regiments moved across the farm and hit the right flank of Union positions facing the Peach Orchard, as other Confederate units pressed the Blue line by moving through the orchard itself.
Another historic orchard has reappeared at the Trostle Farm, which served as a headquarters for Union 3rd Corps commander Gen. Daniel Sickles on the second day. This time, though, it’s an apple orchard.
In 2005, the Park Service planted a mix of hardy apple trees on the property, 63 in all.
As Sickles struggled to maintain his chaotic lines during the second-day battle, a Confederate cannon ball ripped through the orchard and shattered his right lower leg, which Union surgeons later amputated. A monument to this moment sits amid young apple trees growing adjacent to the Trostle barn.
“We’ve not only removed trees, but we’ve put orchards back in,” said Kirby. “A lot of people would ask, ‘Why was Sickles standing out in the open? How could he have been shot like that?’ Well, he wasn’t standing out in the open. He was in an orchard.
Devil’s Den and the Slaughter Pen
Except for the presence of cannon and monuments today, the forbidding landscape of Devil’s Den has remained virtually unchanged with time. But take one look at the landscape, and you’ll understand why the terrain is among the most dramatic on the battlefield. Its large rocky outcroppings were tailor made for brutal combat.
But the story is not the same with the surrounding and rockier Slaughter Pen area. Forest and vegetation growth overtook a section of the Pen terrain after the battle.
The Park Service has put in a dedicated effort to cut the growth back and keep it in check.