This story was originally published on July 1, 2015.
Even more than 150 years after the battle, there’s still plenty at Gettysburg that kind of makes you feel like you’re stepping back in time. Some things, like the stone walls that are an essential part of any Civil War landscape—those are actually the real deal. Other things are a little more kitschy, like visitors doing battlefield tours in horse-drawn carriages.
Katie Lawhon prefers to walk the battlefield. As a veteran park ranger, there aren’t too many surprises left for her on the Gettysburg landscape. But you can still hear the excitement in her voice when she hikes some of the most legendary places on the battlefield.
LISTEN: “Gettysburg Battlefield Gets an Extreme Makeover”
“This is important ground,” Lawhon says, looking out across a storied site called Devil’s Den. “We have heavy fighting on the second day of the battle. General Hood attacked nearly a mile of open ground, uphill, against this position, and they took it.”
Devil’s Den was one of the more dramatic landscapes at Gettysburg in July 1863. It was a sloped, open field, strewn with giant boulders. Soldiers would have used these rocks for temporary cover as they made their attacks. But by the 1990s, the whole area had grown up into a wall of trees. Lawhon says park rangers even had to use historic photos to show tourists what it used to look like.
It was the same all over Gettysburg. In the decades following the battle, the landscape changed physically in some pretty dramatic ways. Most notably, many places that were farm fields—and then battlefields—in July 1863, gradually grew into forests by the middle of the 20th century.
“So you came all the way to Gettysburg to learn about the fighting, and you could not understand what happened because you couldn’t understand what they were shooting at,” Lawhon says. “A lot of people who studied the battlefield, they just walked down into those trees. They tried to walk in the footsteps of the soldiers. And they would do it, it was just a lot harder to understand.”
So in the late 1990s, the National Park Service started toying with a pretty radical idea: What if they rehabilitated the natural landscape at Gettysburg to look like it did in 1863? In places of heavy fighting like the Peach Orchard, they’d replant peach trees. And the meadows that had grown over into forest? Well, those new trees would get the axe. And the Park Service did it. Over the course of about 15 years.
Park ranger Katie Lawhon stands near the Trostle Farm, Gettysburg National Military Park, June 17, 2015. The barn dates back to the time of the battle and is a favorite with tourists because of the cannonball hole left in the brick wall during the second day of the battle. Photo: Lou Blouin
“We’re very careful about what we do,” Lawhon says. “And we base it on historic evidence and studies. But at the same time, our job is to preserve and maintain these battlefield features. We can’t be so in awe of the Gettysburg battlefield that we keep our hands off of it.”
In all, the Park Service rehabbed more than 500 acres of the battlefield’s most significant spots. They also removed manmade structures, including a motel, a 9-hole golf course and even their own visitor center, which the Park Service plopped down in the 1960s at a key point on the Union line.
Most of the heavy work is done now, but maintaining the battlefield’s new look might prove to be an even bigger challenge. Because when you’re talking about a living landscape that’s constantly growing and changing, July 1863 is a moving target. Head landscaper Randy Hill is constantly checking on a rocky hillside called Little Round Top. For historical accuracy, he actually has to maintain a clear-cut that was done here just before the battle.
“If you were a single person working with a single handsaw, it would probably take you a whole entire summer to keep this area maintained and clear. And then the next spring, you’d have volunteer woody vegetation popping right back up and you’d be right back at it again,” Hill says.
Little Round Top was the scene of intense fighting during the second day of the battle. For historical accuracy, the Park Service maintains a clear-cut that was done here just before the battle. Photo: Library of Congress
Some natural details on the battlefield are more authentic than others. At a site called the “The Angle,” for instance, visitors might not want to know that the historic cluster of trees that was the focal point for Pickett’s Charge actually doesn’t have any 1863 trees left in it. Randy just trims the trees that are here now to the right shape and size. But one set of details the Park Service wants to make sure they don’t compromise on, is minimizing the environmental impact of the battlefield rehab.
“We knew that we wanted to remove up to 500 acres of wooded habitat,” says Zach Bolitho, who manages natural resources at Gettysburg. “And we said we’ll never do it in any one portion of the park all at once. So the thought process is that things will have the opportunity to adapt as we change the landscape.”
Bolitho says in places like Devil’s Den, they even decided to leave some non-historic trees when they found out they were home to a pair of nesting black vultures. And they mow fields as little as possible—sometimes just once every other year, and then, only after Gettysburg’s birds are finished nesting. The Park Service has even started using fire to mimic the way nature would regenerate all the open meadows that are again a part of the Gettysburg landscape.
“The Slyder field was our first 13-acre test burn. And it was a pretty good success—success being that it was the first time we did it. And people accepted the fact that Gettysburg could burn and not burn down a cultural resource,” Bolitho says.
Gettysburg Chief of Resource Management, Zach Bolitho, stands on the Slyder Farm near Devil’s Den, Gettysburg National Military Park, June 17, 2015. Photo: Lou Blouin
All in all, they’ve done a pretty good job, according to Randy Wilson, a professor of environmental science at Gettysburg College and an expert on public lands management. Wilson says it’s also important to remember that Gettysburg is different from other national parks.
“Gettysburg is a national military park, so its purposes and its rationale, its reason for being, wasn’t about protecting the flora and fauna so much as about the historical values that have to do with the Battle of Gettysburg,” Wilson says. “So their efforts to try to intervene and say, look, there can also be a place where we can protect the environment—I think that’s a very important step that they’ve taken.”
Wilson says evaluating whether the ongoing rehab at Gettysburg will make it more of a destination could take some time. Prior to this year’s centennial celebration of the National Park Service, which has increased tourism to national parks, visitation numbers at parks were down across the board. But 28-year-old Kyle Beger, who’s here on a road trip from Missouri, says the fact that you can almost look back in time now at Gettysburg makes all the difference.
“The feeling you get here is just surreal,” Beger says. “We were just thinking earlier—imagine all the canon fire, what it was like to be here. It’s hard to explain, but it’s incredible.”
Photo (top): Kyle Beger, 28, of St. Joseph, Missouri, visits “The Angle” at the Gettysburg battlefield, June 17, 2015. The site marks the place where Confederate soldiers briefly broke the Union line during Pickett’s Charge on the third day of the battle. Photo: Lou Blouin