23 April 2008 by Published in: Battlefield preservation 16 comments

Hat tip to Rea Andrew Redd for first bringing this article to my attention:

Civil War Buffs Couldn’t See History For The Trees: National Parks Clear Trees From Original Battlefield ‘Sight lines,’ Delighting (And Appalling)Students Of History, Randy Dotinga, The Christian Science Monitor, April 23, 2008.

Even though he spends his time guiding tourists through the nooks and crannies of a Civil War-era house, retired librarian Harry Conay believes that nature can trump history. He’s watched in horror as the National Park Service has tried to make the Gettysburg National Military Park look more like it did on three July days in 1863. Officials are nearly a third of the way through cutting down 576 acres of trees that didn’t exist back then.

Another 275 acres will be replanted with trees and orchards that disappeared over the past 15 decades. But it’s not enough to please Mr. Conay, who says the battlefield’s history is partly told through the healing of the earth. After all, the trees managed to thrive on land ravaged by a deadly struggle between two immense armies.

“During those 140 years, this has become something more than a battlefield lesson,” Conay says from behind the gift-shop counter at the historic house where he serves as a guide. But the trees continue to fall, despite a flurry of protests amid preparations for this month’s opening of a $103 million visitors center and museum. And as the 150th anniversary of the Civil War approaches, at least one other battlefield is poised to restore history by chopping down countless trees.

To supporters, including park officials and amateur historians, the Gettysburg project makes perfect sense because it allows visitors to better understand the past. The enormous challenges facing generals and soldiers, they say, will finally be clear. “It’s not just about trying to create a postcard picture to make something look like it did 150 years ago,” says Don Barger, a regional director with the National Parks Service, which runs the military park. “It’s about protecting the elements necessary to tell the story.”

The park, in southern Pennsylvania, draws about 2 million visitors each year to marvel at a crucial and bloody battle. The South, which had come close to forcing the North to the bargaining table, lost the battle and never recovered. Dozens of tour buses traverse the 6,000-acre military park each day, bringing visitors to admire hundreds of statues and monuments and view battle landmarks such as Little Round Top and the Peach Orchard.

As part of the restoration project, park officials digitized 19th-century maps and conducted “terrain analysis” – a military strategy taught at West Point – to figure out which features of the landscape affected the battle. Then the officials made choices about adding or removing everything from trees and fences to roads and orchards.

The “rehabilitation” project – about halfway completed – will eliminate 576 acres of trees while adding 115 acres of trees and 160 acres of orchards. Thirty-nine miles of “historic” fencing will be erected, too. In addition, power poles have been removed along with a car dealership and a motel.

Among other things, the park service has cut down a stand of trees at Devil’s Den, uncovering more of the rocky patch where Civil War photographers captured stunning images of the carnage. Elsewhere, fences will be built to show the challenges facing Confederate troops who tried to ambush Union soldiers by crossing a wide field. According to the park’s plan, the fences will allow visitors to see that the soldiers in the famous Pickett’s Charge had to pick their way through: 12 small fields instead of one big one.

William G. Jeff Davis, an amateur historian in Gettysburg, says the restoration project has allowed him and others to better understand the maneuvers of the armies. “It’s forcing historians to take another look and perhaps even rewrite their histories to an extent. To me, that’s exciting,” says Mr. Davis (no relation to Confederate President Jefferson Davis).

Mr. Barger, the park service regional director, says battlefield restoration allows visitors to fully understand moments of history. At Stones River National Battlefield in Tennessee, for instance, a cotton field still stands where it did at the end of 1862. “There are records about the cotton flying in the air because of all the bullets going every which way,” Barger says. “It’s part of telling the story to say, ‘That’s where it was,’ and there it is.”

But critics of the Gettysburg project are unimpressed and have made their views known in letters to the editor and online comments. “If you’re a true preservationist, then all the monuments and access roads need to go because they weren’t there in 1863,” wrote a Gettysburg native to an Illinois paper. “For that matter, most of the population, infrastructure, and business wasn’t there either. If you are a true preservationist, then get rid of it all.”

Barger acknowledges that cutting down trees seems an unusual thing for the park service to do. “It is one of those things which seems like a contradiction at first, but only if you have a narrow scope of what the national park system protects.” The park service preserves history in addition to nature, Barger says. Indeed, 60 percent of sites preserved by the park service are historic, not natural treasures such as Yosemite or the Grand Canyon, he says.

More battlefields will be spiffed up themselves as the 150th anniversary of the Civil War approaches in 2011, and controversies over restoration projects may be inevitable. A debate is already under way at Vicksburg National Military Park in Mississippi, where Union and Confederate troops battled over access to the Mississippi River.

Under one proposal, the park would cut down stands of oak and hickory trees to allow visitors to better understand the Confederate defenses. The key to battlefield rehabilitation, Barger says, is to create spots where visitors can “almost feel the bullets.” “That,” he says, “is what you want to have happen in a battlefield.”

Several U.S. historic sites are being given new looks. A few notable examples:

• The Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania unveiled a $103 million museum and visitors center in a “soft opening” earlier this month. A grand opening will be held in September, when visitors will be able to see the famous cyclorama painting of the pivotal battle, restored to the way it looked in 1884.

• As part of a $110 million restoration project, a new visitors center and museum opened at George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estates and Gardens in 2006. Visitors to the Virginia estates can watch documentary films, wander through galleries, and look at three life-sized models of America’s first president, each created with the assistance of a forensic anthropologist.

• Ellis Island, where millions of immigrants first encountered New York City and America, opened a newly restored ferry building on its south side to visitors last year and is raising money to restore more buildings.

• At Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s home in Virginia, construction has begun on a $55 million visitors center and museum that will include hands-on activities for children.

• A $14 million visitors center opened in 2005 at Fort Necessity, the Pennsylvania site of the first battle of the French and Indian War. It draws about 90,000 visitors a year.

Source: http://www.csmonitor.com/2008/0423/p13s02-lign.html

Count me among the enthusiastic supporters of this program. First, and foremost, it should be noted that I am no fan of John Latschar, the superintendent of the Gettysburg National Military Park. In my world, there are two unforgivable sins: lying to me and wasting my time, and he’s done both. Having said that, though, I must give the devil his due. This was a brilliant plan and one that has been incredibly successful in operation.

By opening up sight lines, it makes it possible to see things as the soldiers did, rather than having to say, “imagine if these trees weren’t here”, which is what I often had to do. Try as I might, it’s not possible to imagine the trees not being there. I remember the first time that I saw the clearing from the perspective of the lower end of the center of the Union line, where McGilvery’s artillery was. For the first time, you could see the Longstreet tower, meaning that for the first time, you could truly appreciate the view that the Federals had.

Or the clearing of the trees between the Peach Orchard and the Triangular Field/Devil’s Den area at Gettysburg. It used to be that finding the ruins of the Timbers farm was a real challenge, and if you weren’t with someone who knew where they were, good luck finding them. Now, they’re out in the open, easily found, and you can appreciate the ordeal faced by the Confederate infantry trying to attack Devil’s Den.

Or the clearing of Munshower’s Knoll. I never knew that there were monuments there until the trees were cut down. Or that there was such a prominent and important knoll there that made for a perfect artillery platform. But for the tree cutting, one would never get that appreciation for the role of that particular terrain feature.

I understand the objections. However, I happen to think that getting it right is more important than non-historic tree lots.

A similar program has been very successful in restoring the West Woods at Antietam, and I am aware that a tree-cutting program has been instituted at the Bull Run battlefields in Virginia. I support those efforts just as enthusiastically as I do the ones at Gettysburg.

Scridb filter


  1. Brian S.
    Wed 23rd Apr 2008 at 1:02 pm

    Hey Eric,

    I’m all about the rehab project too. I spent the winter of 2006 repeatedly walking Hood’s 2nd day attack after the park cleared the Devil’s Den area. I would start at the Alabama monument and walk straight up to Smith’s guns. Being able to view the same sightlines is fantastic too but for me the best part was finding out what the terrain actually looked like. I had no idea about the knoll next to the Timbers house. I’ve had the same experience trying to find the Timbers house before the wood clearing. I tried to find it a few times and all I got were ticks.

    I’m interested to know what happened between you and Latscher. Doesn’t the park superintendant get to live at the Rose farm? I *think* I met him while trying to cut accross the Rose farm driveway once and he seemed to be o.k. I admit it was a 3 minute conversation though. Brian

  2. Wed 23rd Apr 2008 at 1:18 pm


    While researching my first book, I found an article that appeared in the National Tribune in October 1888 that described in great detail a monument that the veterans of Farnsworth’s brigade wanted to erect that was never put up.

    We put together a small group to explore fulfilling the wishes of the veterans and approached the park. Latschar told Blake Magner, who was the contact with the park as a consequence of his having spearheaded the Gibbon monument project, that he would be happy to meet with us to discuss a location for the monument. Terry Jones, the sculptor (who did Crawford and Gibbon) took the time to do a clay model of what it would have looked like, and I took two days off from work in the middle of the week to go to Gettysburg for this meeting.

    We got there, and instead of discussing the placement of the monument, Latschar said, “Tell me why I should allow you to place this monument on my battlefield.” We were unprepared for that discussion, but we did our best. At the end, he said thanks, but no thanks, patted us on the head and sent us on our merry way.

    I have never forgiven him for that, nor will I ever forgive him for that. He wasted three people’s time, Terry Jones’ effort in doing a clay model, and lied to us about the purpose of the meeting. As for me, this little jaunt came at a very bad time. I had a client who was trying to get a deal closed to buy a business, and we were at the last stages of the transaction, and here I am driving to Gettysburg for a worthless waste of time meeting instead of doing my job and making money. If we had known the truth, I never would have wasted the trip or the money associated with making it.

    That’s what happened, and it’s why I despise that man.


  3. Randy
    Wed 23rd Apr 2008 at 2:04 pm


    While I miss some of the trees at Gettysburg, especially around the Devil’s Den, I understand and applaud the efforts of the Park Service and I fully intend to follow their lead. If we are very lucky we may be adding some significant acreage to our exisiting preserved battlefield at Goldsborough Bridge, NC. The land is now wooded but was open fields in 1862. If we are able to get this additional land I fully intend to clear those woods (about 60 acres) if we can get the blessing and assistance of the county, which would likely be the actual land owner. The Union objective (the railroad bridge) was clearly visible from a mile away at the time but presently those woods would make it hard for a visitor to understand how and why nearly 40 field pieces set their sights on the bridge. Those same guns stopped cold the Confederate counter attack later that same afternoon and the site where that occurred is now covered with woods. You just can’t adequately tell that story well if a visitor can’t see the location where the event occurred. If that means the loss of a few wooded acres, so be it. Trees are after all a renewable resource.


  4. Steve Keating
    Wed 23rd Apr 2008 at 2:48 pm

    Don’t know if it was a pilot program, or the local parks idea, but Wilson’s Creek battlefield began a similar program back in the late eighties to return the look of the park terrain to the time of the battle. Thick forest had taken over what at the time was a predominantly prairee setting, and some of the interpretation made no sense. After seeing some ot the work at Gettysburg and Manassas, I’m agree this is better. Unfortunately, here in Fredericksburg we’d need more than chainsaws to fix our view.

  5. Brian S.
    Wed 23rd Apr 2008 at 2:56 pm

    Rough story Eric. But in my working experience it’s sadly a typical one. Thanks for being so forthright about it. Brian

  6. Wed 23rd Apr 2008 at 3:46 pm


    That’s a perfect example. Thanks for sharing it.


  7. Wed 23rd Apr 2008 at 3:49 pm


    Wrecking balls, perhaps? 🙂

    I’ve never been to Wilson’s Creek. It’s one of those places on my list of “some day” sites.


  8. Wed 23rd Apr 2008 at 3:49 pm


    You’re welcome. At least now you understand the animosity.

    It still pisses me off to this day, even though it’s been ten years.


  9. Stan O'Donnell
    Wed 23rd Apr 2008 at 9:24 pm

    There’s been some serious private battlefield stump-pulling on Brinkerhoff’s ridge near the Hoffman Road 2nd VA stone wall. At least the NPS clears off the junk cars and the Lawnmower Man’s trailer when they bushwhack historic property.

    I say take ’em all down. Create historic vistas. It’s a military park. not a picnic area…. and if you want to hug a tree then bring a pillow for your cell.

    Why don’t these people understand the orchard trade-off? That Save A Tree baloney pisses me off unless it’s the Sherwood Forest..

  10. Todd Berkoff
    Wed 23rd Apr 2008 at 9:34 pm

    Manassas Battlefield has also removed hundreds of acres of trees from the Unfinished Railroad cut at the Deep Cut, Brawner’s Farm and recently started clearing land on Matthew’s Hill. For the first time ever, visitors to the park can view the Deep Cut as it appeared when Porter’s 10,000 troops charged Jackson’s line on the afternoon of August 30, 1862. It looks amazing!! I was in awe when I first saw it a few weeks ago.
    Todd Berkoff

  11. Thu 24th Apr 2008 at 6:34 am

    “If you’re a true preservationist, then all the monuments and access roads need to go because they weren’t there in 1863.” That’s got to be the lamest straw man argument I’ve heard in years. Shiloh battlefield, in my opinion, is the site in most need of tree line adjustments. There are some sectors that just don’t make sense today because of either the presence of or lack of heavy woods. Again, if the History Channel is really into this thing, have the Axmen run a season at a battlefield. I do like the one-handed guy’s “get down to business” attitude. He’d probably get Rhea Field in shape within a week.

  12. billy
    Thu 24th Apr 2008 at 11:52 am

    Wifey and I spent three days at Gettysburg last year during Thanksgiving. With the rehab project and the remaining trees free of leaves, we could really see and we learned more about the battle than on all of our other visits combined.

    We ran into a local guy there who complained about the tree cutting. It seems that folks like to walk their dogs and jog along in the shade.

    My thought is that this is a national military park, not a city park nor a jogging trail. I applaud the park service for doing it right.

    FYI, Cowpens, a Revolutionary War military park has been restored much like its appearance during the Rev War and it looks SUPER.

  13. HawkeyeJohn
    Thu 24th Apr 2008 at 2:49 pm

    As one who just made his first trip to Gettysburg in a number of years last month, I was thrilled at the tree removal process and totally understand why it was done. I was amazed when I reached the top of LRT and looked out over the Devils Den and Wheatfield areas. You could appreciate what happened there in 1863 much better than before and I applaud GNMP for undertaking it.

    Eric, I wish you had been successful in enlightening Latscher in marking the Farnsworth area better. My neice and I spent a good part of one afternoon stomping around that area trying to envision the action that took place there but found it difficult to imagine what took place.

  14. Kenneth P. Thomson Jr.
    Thu 11th Mar 2010 at 8:13 pm

    As the Great- Great Grandson of two Pennsylvania Volunteers at Gettysburg I fully support this effort! Gettysburg is a historical resource park and not a park in the Park Service System like Yellowstone or the Great Smokies.Since,one of my Ancestors fought in the Wheatfield with the 148th Pennsylvania ,I can now see the Rose Farm and the Stony Hill in a different light. I was also happy to see the park doing something about the over population of the White Tailed Deer. They were causing a lot of problems. Agian,the park preserves the historical resources not natural ones!

  15. Executive Chef Donna M. Carullo
    Fri 24th Dec 2010 at 9:40 pm

    Bravo! It should be as it was. I support this effort 100%.Rock on! By the way Ken, it’s great that you finally learned the computer, just use spell check next time.

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