For three days in July 1863, thousands of Gettysburg civilians and tens of thousands of soldiers were caught up in a battle that left often conflicting data and anecdotes. This makes writing about the Battle of Gettysburg both a dream and a nightmare for Civil War historians, according to a Penn State researcher.
However, newly discovered sources, current battlefield restoration efforts and fresh approaches to a well-established narrative are helping historians better understand one of the war's most important and complex battles, said Carol Reardon, George Winfree Professor of American History.
According to Reardon, rehabilitation experts are restoring important terrain features throughout the Gettysburg National Military Park to better match what it looked like during the battle. The restoration effort provides historians with new ways to look at key facets of the battle, noted Reardon, who has co-authored "A Field Guide to Gettysburg" (The University of North Carolina Press, June 2013) with retired U.S. Army Col. Tom Vossler.
For example, crews have recently cut down trees that blocked the view from the cupola on top of Schmucker Hall, which at the time of the battle served as a dorm and classroom at the Lutheran Seminary. Union cavalryman John Buford used the cupola as an observation post, according to Reardon. She said the newly unimpeded view offers historians and visitors a chance to see what Union generals saw on the first day of the battle.
As more records become digitized and placed online, historians can more easily access personal information about the soldiers who fought in the battle, Reardon said. For example, the state of New York recently placed online the rosters of Civil War regiments and batteries from the state, some of whom fought at Gettysburg. Reardon and Vossler relied on those details when they wrote sections of the book that covered the actions of the New York troops during the battle.
They also used newly discovered letters from soldiers who fought at Gettysburg, from some of the first visitors to the battlefield and from civilians who endured the battle.
Reardon and Vossler have about 40 years of combined experience leading tours of the Gettysburg battlefield for groups of dignitaries, active duty and reserve military units, ROTC cadets, Penn State alumni and students from grade school through graduate school. These tours and the questions that the participants asked about the battle helped shape the researchers approach to the guidebook.
"This book began as more of a challenge from my editor who asked, 'if you could write the Gettysburg field guide you always wanted, what would it look like?' " Reardon said.
Reardon and Vossler then selected 35 stops on the battlefield to tell the story of the battle. The sites are generally based on the researchers' understanding of the battle and feedback from previous tour participants. At each stop, the researchers try to answer six questions: What happened here? Who fought here? Who commanded here? Who fell here? Who lived here? and What did they say about it days or years later? Reardon said historians and Civil War history buffs tend to focus on Lee, Meade and other commanders at the battle, but during the research for this work, she often found the accounts of the regular soldiers and the civilians to be the most compelling.
"We made sure we paid attention to the commanders, but some of the most fascinating vignettes come from the common soldiers there, as well as the stories of the civilians," said Reardon. "We wanted to make sure we told their stories, too, and we tried to find something new for each of the stops."