WWII Comes to Gettysburg
Scrap drives, war rallies and German POWs took over America’s preeminent battlefield
Looking out over the crowd at the edge of Gettysburg’s new National Cemetery on November 19, 1863, Abraham Lincoln called on listeners to make sacrifices for their divided nation and to “resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain.” In the Civil War’s aftermath, Gettysburg, and everything it stood for in the U.S. consciousness, became the epicenter of patriotism. Aging veterans from North and South made frequent pilgrimages to the battlefield, forging a new era of reconciliation there.Eighty years later, facing the advent of global warfare, Americans again found inspiration in Gettysburg. This time the sacrifices they made came close to permanently altering what had long been seen as hallowed ground.
In December 1941, what William T. Sherman had called the “hard hand of war” once again threatened the United States after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. The Pennsylvania battlefield assumed enhanced significance as the nation was drawn into a worldwide conflict. In the course of that new war the battlefield would see new uses, as well as significant challenges.
In the months leading up to America’s involvement in World War II, the Gettysburg battlefield resounded with patriotic testimonials. During the Memorial Day celebration there in 1941, Maj. Gen. Edward Martin, president of the National Guard Association, declared that the best memorial to the nation was the preservation of America’s ideals of democracy and freedom. He called on the United States to enter the war against the dictators who were determined to violate individuals’ inalienable rights—a controversial view given many Americans’ isolationist stance at the time. One month later, in late June, Martin’s invocation was echoed at a Gettysburg reunion of the Grand Army of the Republic, attended by more than 1,000 delegates. Albert Gabrio, one of the three Civil War veterans present, said: “We’ve got to get into this war. We’ve got to fight to preserve the principles of democracy that we fought for and which this nation has always stood for.”
If patriotic speeches were not enough to stir Gettysburg residents and visitors, during the summer of 1941 the Pennsylvania battlefield hosted thousands of soldiers en route to posts around the world. After the Memorial Day celebrations, for example, approximately 1,700 soldiers of the 71st Coast Artillery arrived from Fort Story, Va. Over the next five days, they conducted training exercises on the ground where Pickett’s Charge had taken place, simulating some of the combat conditions the GIs expected to encounter in Europe.
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7 had introduced a new imprimatur of gritty reality to the lofty rhetoric often heard at Gettysburg. When President Franklin D. Roosevelt pledged that the nation would become an “arsenal of democracy,” he was ushering in an era of austerity. Now Americans on the home front were expected to do their part by rationing food and purchasing victory bonds. In addition, millions of tons of scrap metal would be needed to fuel the war effort—to build and arm American aircraft, battleships and fighter planes.
It must have been a poignant episode for Gettysburg’s conservators, who had worked for so long to preserve the physical remnants of the hard-fought battle there. Now many of the priceless artifacts they had guarded, as well as the interpretive signage and decorative materiel that were scattered over the battlefield, were being viewed in an unsettling new light—as potential fodder for the smelting pot.
In a June 1942 memo to the National Park Service, Walter Coleman, the recently appointed superintendent at Gettysburg, itemized items that had already been removed from the site for the scrap drive: 36 panels of iron fence, 36 iron posts, 12 iron cautionary signs and 82 directional signs. By that September the park had donated 86 guns—fortunately all part of a post–Civil War stockpile of surplus guns rather than actual artifacts of the battle—in addition to 800 spherical shells. When the Department of Interior mandated that all nonessential rubber also be donated to the war effort, the park started turning over its truck and office floor mats and automobile tires to the War Department.
By September 1942, Gettysburg had contributed 18 tons of scrap metal—but still more was needed. On October 13, Superintendent Coleman advised the NPS that a survey of available metals revealed that more of the pyramidal piles of artillery shells on the battlefield could be “removed without serious interference with the visitor’s understanding of the battle.” Coleman indicated that 194 pyramidal castings were available for recycling, amounting to close to 80,000 pounds of scrap metal.
At the end of October, when Director Newton Drury wrote to congratulate Coleman on the success of the battlefield park’s scrap metal drive, he cautioned the park management that still more sacrifices might be required. Drury said it was time to evaluate the historical value of the metals designated for scrap, stipulating that any ordnance which had actually been produced during the Civil War should be retained, but pieces cast after 1865 could be designated as fair game for future metal drives.
In December 1942, officials produced a report that prioritized the park’s markers and monuments for potential salvage, as required by war needs. The first set of items to be removed would be 19 bronze itinerary tablets. The second group included 197 Civil War–era cannons, as well as artillery tubes that marked the headquarters for the generals of the two armies. The third group included the 256 interpretive tablets, and the fourth categorized miscellaneous decorative objects on park monuments, including muskets, drums, canteens and flags. Nineteen statues were listed as the fifth priority for removal, and the sixth group included the bronze inscriptive tablets on regimental or state markers. Reliefs depicting battle scenes or individuals were the seventh priority.
The highest level of protection was accorded 43 statues on the battlefield, including the Union corps commanders’ equestrian monuments as well as the bust of President Lincoln positioned on top of the speech memorial in the National Cemetery. The last items on the list were three monuments valued for their “highly artistic merit.” These included the Virginia Memorial, the North Carolina Memorial and the Alabama Monument—all dedicated to Confederate troops. To compensate for the loss of the battlefield’s markers, the Park Service proposed that workers should photograph the monuments and their inscriptions for archival purposes.
In February 1943, Drury expanded on the priorities set in his list, explaining that the NPS would consider donating battlefield monuments only if they could be assured that those memorials could be recast after the war. “It would be little comfort to the soldiers of the present day if such evidence of the Nation’s gratitude should come to be lightly regarded,” Drury dryly noted.
Fortunately, the drastic sacrifices outlined in Drury’s prioritized lists never had to be made. WWII would come to an end before any of Gettysburg’s historic monuments or tablets were dispatched to the smelting pot.
The 1944 Memorial Day celebration at Gettysburg again recalled the sacrifices made by North and South on that hallowed ground. Massachusetts Governor Leverett Saltonstall and North Carolina Governor J. Melville Broughton delivered the keynote speeches, representing the Northern and Southern points of view. “We are assembled before a shrine sacred to North and South alike,” Broughton declared. “It is all together fitting that these great sections of our nation, once divided but now united, should in this momentous hour of world history join in solemn pledge of unity and loyalty.” Saltonstall encouraged his listeners to support the American troops risking their lives abroad, saying: “We here at home must do our utmost to help our boys end that war with an early and complete victory. At the same time we must see to it that we preserve for them the freedom of opportunity and of life that we now enjoy; and thus uphold those principles which Abraham Lincoln so clearly advanced.”
Time and again during WWII, Americans reflected on their shared history to find new meaning and a sense of national identity. Facing unprecedented challenges on battle grounds around the world, they returned in spirit to the commitment their ancestors had made at Gettysburg, as Governor Broughton said, to “preserve an America worthy of Washington and Jefferson, Lincoln and Lee.”
Jennifer M. Murray teaches at Coastal Carolina University. This article is drawn from her forthcoming book on the history of Gettysburg National Military Park.