John Bachelder worked tirelessly to commemorate the July 1863 battle
Major General Henry Slocum, who commanded the Union 12th Corps at Gettysburg, called “Colonel” John Bachelder “a gentleman who knows more about this battle and battlefield…than any man living or than any man who ever did live. He can tell more of what I did there than I can tell myself.” Slocum was not alone in that sentiment. Although Bachelder did not fight at Gettysburg or even in the war, and the “Colonel” title was purely honorary, countless veterans of the battle freely admitted he was perhaps the single most important person in preserving and shaping the battlefield as we know it today.
Bachelder was 37 years old in June 1863, a New Hampshire resident earning his living principally as an artist. With a keen interest in history, he had hoped to write a definitive account of the Battle of Bunker Hill until discovering how poorly documented that battle was. In the spring of 1862, he accompanied the Army of the Potomac on the Virginia Peninsula as a correspondent, hoping to document the army in art and be on hand to collect material for a history of what he anticipated would be the decisive struggle of the war. When the Peninsula Campaign proved a Union failure, he returned to New Hampshire; however, he asked his army friends to “give me early intelligence of any important movements looking to a decisive engagement.”
Learning of the fighting at Gettysburg, Bachelder hurried south and arrived on the field about July 5. He spent the next 84 days there, sketching the field and interviewing wounded from both armies. That fall he traveled to the Army of the Potomac’s camp in Brandy Station, Va., and spent weeks interviewing officers and men from every regiment that had been in the battle. He also corresponded with officers from the 11th and 12th Corps, now fighting in Tennessee. Returning to New Hampshire armed with his extensive research, Bachelder completed a remarkable 3-D (aerial perspective) map of the three-day battle that was both a work of art and history. The position of every regiment and battery during the three days of battle were mapped with considerable accuracy. In those days, army officers could endorse commercial products, and Bachelder’s map was published with the endorsement of every major officer of the Army of the Potomac, including its commander, Maj. Gen. George G. Meade.
In August 1869, Bachelder arranged a meeting of 123 former officers (120 Union, three Confederate) to mark positions of units on the battlefield. Brevet Maj. Gen. Alexander Webb, a Union brigade commander at the battle, was initially suspicious of Bachelder’s motives but soon discovered a sincerity and purpose in Bachelder that caused his misgivings to vanish.
Throughout the next two decades, Bachelder regularly organized meetings of veterans and continued to conduct extensive correspondence with many of them. Some former Confederates remained wary, however, convinced he sought their input only to further glorify the Federal victory. But as he had done in Webb’s case, Bachelder wore them down with his sincerity of purpose. Major General James Kemper, for example, had refused to correspond with Bachelder in 1865 but, 20 years later, would write the New Englander, “I very cheerfully give you my personal recollections.”
In 1879, a group of Union veterans took control of the local Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association, which had been formed in late 1863, and dramatically altered the organization’s management philosophy, allowing Bachelder to assume an even greater role. More land was acquired and avenues were opened up along the Union line of battle to make the battlefield more accessible. Union veterans’ groups were encouraged to erect monuments marking where they fought and what they had done.
Bachelder was named the GBMA’s superintendent of monuments, tablets, and legends in 1883—tasked with determining a monument’s location and approving its inscription and design, as well as the material with which it was made.
In his fourth year as superintendent, Bachelder approved the placement of the 15th, 19th, and 20th Massachusetts monuments near the now-famous Copse of Trees on Cemetery Ridge, but grew concerned that as other units erected their monuments, inevitable clustering at various locations would “have a tendency to mislead the public in the future rather than illustrate the battle.” He proposed the GBMA adopt a line of battle policy toward monument placement, meaning regimental monuments would go where the unit stood in the army’s general line of battle for its principal part of the engagement. Advance position markers could then be erected at positions to which the unit had moved.
Although plenty of controversies and some placement errors resulted, in general Bachelder’s policy worked as intended for battlefield visitors.
In 1873, Bachelder published the first guidebook encouraging tourism to the battlefield. In subsequent years, he produced detailed maps on each day of the battle and another series on the July 3 cavalry battle east of town. The government paid Bachelder $50,000 to write an official history of the battle, but the 2,550-page volume he produced proved a major disappointment and was not published until the 1990s. Deciding against an interpretive history, Bachelder merely assembled a collection of both armies’ after-action reports. Why he chose not to take advantage of the unpublished material he had collected is unknown. One possibility is he feared that by weighing in on Gettysburg’s controversies he might alienate veterans he needed to complete his quest: a national park that included lines of battle the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia had held.
He lobbied veterans and Congress to build support for such a park, and also succeeded in 1892 in erecting the High Water Mark Monument on Cemetery Ridge, where Pickett’s Charge had been repulsed—still considered one of the battlefield’s most iconic monuments.
Bachelder died in 1894, almost a year before his vision of a national park at Gettysburg became a reality. As the years passed, he became largely forgotten by all except the battle’s most serious students. But his presence lingers throughout, for when you visit Gettysburg National Military Park you are gazing upon Bachelder’s vision. No single individual did more to document the battle or shape how the field evolved and continues to be remembered.
Scott Hartwig writes from the crossroads of Gettysburg.