Hallowed Ground: The Landscape Restoration and Maintenance of Gettysburg National Military Park

By Kmitta, John | Landscape & Irrigation, May-June 2013 | Go to article overview

Hallowed Ground: The Landscape Restoration and Maintenance of Gettysburg National Military Park


Kmitta, John, Landscape & Irrigation


Since 1863, nature and human development have changed the appearance of the landscape and historic battlefields at Gettysburg National Military Park (NMP). Now, as the 150th anniversary of that historic battle draws near, Gettysburg NMP staff members share their insights into the ongoing efforts to preserve the topographic, landscape and cultural features that were significant to the outcome of the battle.

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The battlefield is now a vast national park, and the landscape is a mosaic of woodlands and woodlots, agricultural fields, pasture-lands and intermittent streams. And although most of the landscape is natural, it still needs maintenance.

For example, fields that have not been farmed during the past 65-plus years have become forests. While some vegetation features (thickets, woodlots and woodlands) were removed by man over the years, others were overgrown by nature, becoming dense and containing many non-native species. In addition, some historic fields, pastures and other open areas are covered by non-historic vegetation.

In 1999, the Gettysburg NMP General Management Plan/Environmental Impact Statement (GMP/EIS) was approved, outlining goals for rehabilitating the 1863 cultural and natural features that impacted the battle.

"Battlefield Rehabilitation is a multi-year project to return major battle action areas on the Gettysburg battlefield to their appearance at the time of the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863, and to help the public better understand the soldier's experiences on the battlefield," said Katie Lawhon, management assistant, Gettysburg NMP. "The project includes removal of non-historic trees, but also the planting of trees, maintaining historic woodlots, planting historic orchards, building fences, and more."

Obtaining historical accuracy

The initial challenge was to understand the historic landscapes of the 1863 battle, and how those landscapes had changed throughout the years.

According to Lawhon, historians developed a history of the park landscapes and a set of historical base maps that documented the park's landscape and built features. Those maps were based upon extensive research, including park archival materials, library records, historic photographs and sketches, maps, and--more recently--aerial photographs. The most important mapping resources were Department of War and Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association maps prepared in 1863, 1868 and 1872, as well as other maps developed by the War Department and the National Park Service (NPS) that document conditions at various times. Each set of information gathered was mapped on base maps at a common scale, and the maps were then digitized. By comparing the maps, it was possible to see how the battlefield landscape features had changed, and estimate the extent of the changes.

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The next step was to determine which of the natural, manmade and topographic features were significant to the outcome of the battle.

"Using military terrain analysis, the entire battlefield was examined for characteristics such as key terrain, observation and fields of fire, cover and concealment, obstacles (both natural and manmade), and avenues of approach," said Lawhon.

According to Lawhon, it was then a matter of determining which features were significant to the fighting of the battle. The battle action for each day of the battle was studied by reviewing official maps, War Department after-action reports written by officers of the various units that participated in the battle, letters from soldiers, diaries, and newspaper accounts.

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According to the NPS, the resulting battle action maps for each day showed where troops were positioned, where they moved, and where on the field they were engaged.

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