When I worked at Gettysburg National Military Park, I regularly encountered visitors who imagined that some type of grand government master plan had created the park and accounted for the order and symmetry of its hundreds of monuments. Yet there is no master plan. The battlefield we see today with its orderly placement of monuments evolved over many years. The park was officially created by congressional legislation in 1895, but most of the regimental monuments were erected in the 1880s, before the U.S. government assumed responsibility for managing the battlefield.
At the time, the field was managed by the Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association, an organization created in 1864, which initially viewed the battlefield as a monument to the Union victory of July 1863. It sought to acquire land where evidence of the conflict still existed, such as Culp’s Hill, East Cemetery Hill, and parts of Little Round Top—with their bullet-riddled trees, artillery lunettes, breastworks, and entrenchments.
In its early years, the GBMA was largely a local organization with a modest budget. Although it supported the idea of marking positions of Union Army units “by tablets, obelisks and other monumental structures,” its efforts centered on lobbying Northern states to pass laws and appropriate funds to make this a reality.
In 1880, the GBMA underwent a transformation, electing a new slate of officers and directors who had a larger vision than the original board. One of their decisions that would have far-reaching consequences for how regimental monuments would be located and what their inscriptions could say was to invite the amateur historian John B. Bachelder to join the board. Although he had not served in the Army during the war, Gettysburg had become Bachelder’s life work, and he was considered the expert on the battle. Former Union Maj. Gen. Henry
Slocum wrote that Bachelder “can tell more of what I did there [at Gettysburg] than I can myself.”
In July 1883, the board elected Bachelder as Superintendent of Tablets and Legends. In this role he approved the proposed location, design, and inscription for regimental monuments.
When monuments went up had much to do with when state legislatures appropriated funding for them. Massachusetts, for example, appropriated $500 in March 1884 for each regiment and battery of the state that had fought at Gettysburg. It would be up to the veterans of each unit to raise any additional funding necessary beyond this total. The result was almost all Massachusetts’ regimental and battery monuments went up in 1885 and 1886.
In October 1885, the 15th, 19th, and 20th Massachusetts placed their monuments—with Bachelder’s and the GBMA’s approval—on the southern edge of the famous Copse of Trees, to which they had advanced during the repulse of Pickett’s Charge on July 3. Bachelder, however, had second thoughts on allowing units to erect their principal monument at the point of their farthest advance. Ten other regiments had crowded into the same space the three Massachusetts regiments had in the counterattack to drive back the Confederate breakthrough near the Copse. If he allowed all these regiments to follow the Massachusetts example, the result would be a jumble of monuments near the trees. This, he believed, would “mislead the public in the future rather than illustrate the battle.”
While it was understandable that veterans wished to place their monument where they had lost the most men or achieved their greatest success, this could lead to clumps of monuments that would baffle future generations not steeped in Gettysburg’s history, not to mention foment interminable arguments between veterans over who was where and when.
To resolve the issue, Bachelder met with Secretary of War William C. Endicott and Regular Army officers who had been in the volunteer service during the war. They reached a decision “that the desire of the memorial association would be better carried out if the lines of battle were marked, rather than the lines of contact when any regiment left their position to go into action.”
In effect, regiments and batteries would mark the principal position they occupied in the general line of battle rather than to where they eventually advanced. Inscriptions on each monument could explain the regiment’s actions and movements. Once a regiment had erected its principal monument, it could place an advance position marker/monument/tablet if desired. In December 1887, the GBMA formally adopted this “line of battle” policy.
One of Bachelder’s first tasks was convincing veterans of the 15th, 19th, and 20th Massachusetts to move their monuments from their advance positions at the Copse to their July 2-3 lines of battle. The veterans agreed, though for the 19th Massachusetts that meant moving its monument to the second line of battle, where it had served in support. To soften the blow, each regiment was allowed to place an iron tablet at its advance position, where their monuments had originally been placed.
The new policy was generally a success, bringing a sense of order to how the field would be marked. Through the 1880s, the GBMA opened avenues that followed the Army of the Potomac’s general lines while creating access to the monuments being erected. But determining “line of battle” proved to be a gray area. For example, all the monuments to Caldwell’s 1st Division, 2nd Corps, are in the Wheatfield area to which the division advanced on July 2, rather than where the division was in line on the southern end of Cemetery Ridge most of the day. Artillery batteries were tricky because many of them moved numerous times throughout the battle. In these cases, Bachelder and the GBMA compromised and worked with veterans to meet the spirit of the policy but still honor the service of the unit.
The War Department continued this policy after the creation of Gettysburg National Military Park in 1895, when it assumed responsibility for all the lands of the GBMA. It generally worked well for the Army of the Potomac, but when the Confederate side of the field began to be acquired, Army of Northern Virginia veterans had little interest in erecting monuments on their “line of battle” positions, which were where their attacks originated from, not where they suffered their principal loss. But they also had less incentive than Union veterans to erect monuments, for starting in the 1890s the War Department marked the position of every brigade, battery, division, and corps of both armies with iron tablets. These tablets adhered to the same line of battle policy and typically marked where units were in position immediately before the fighting began.
Monuments are about memory, and numerous battles were fought over the years between veterans, and with the GBMA, over where a particular monument would be placed and what constituted the unit’s position in the line of battle on a particular day of the battle. But overall, the association’s policy was a success and reflected Bachelder’s vision in making the Gettysburg battlefield comprehensive for generations to come.
Scott Hartwig writes from the crossroads of Gettysburg.