Battle Rages Once Again at Gettysburg

The present battle has raised many issues concerning preservation, land use, and funding for national parks

Battle Rages Once Again at Gettysburg

The latest battle of Gettysburg is raging between historians, preservationists, merchants, politicians, architects, and land developers over the future of a proposal by the National Park Service (NPS) to restore Gettysburg National Military Park's property as closely as possible to its July 1863 appearance. The present battle has raised many issues concerning preservation, land use, and funding for national parks.

Last August, after nearly a year of jousting with opponents, the NPS unveiled a broad $74.8 million proposal to reclaim part of the fifty-nine-hundred-acre battlefield. The proposal was one of four options contained in the "General Management Plan," a blueprint that will guide park policy and management for the next dozen years. The other alternatives included doing patchwork repairs, rehabilitating major elements of the historic landscape, and re-creating all of the structures present in 1863.

The NPS believed the $74.8 million option was the best plan to return the battlefield to the conditions encountered by the troops who fought there. The park service conducted unprecedented studies to determine the actual appearance of the field at the time of the battle. Armed with an accurate picture of the 1863 topography, the agency hopes to eventually restore the landscape. During the next five to ten years, park management will clear six hundred acres of woodland, rebuild thirty-nine miles of fences that once enclosed smaller farms, and plant one hundred sixty acres of orchards adjacent to the current Peach Orchard.

Restoring the landscape is just one of the goals of the NPS, which controls forty-seven hundred acres of the park. The agency also hopes to preserve Paul Philippoteaux's Cyclorama of the Battle of Gettysburg, protect the park's unrivaled collection of objects and artifacts, and broaden its interpretive scope to encompass the war's causes and consequences. The proposal is thought to be a way, said Denis P. Galvin, deputy director of the NPS, "to honor the valor and sacrifices of the men who fought and died there."

The centerpiece of the plan is a $39.3 million proposal to tear down the existing Visitor Center and Gettysburg Museum of the Civil War, located at the center of the battlefield, and build a new visitor center and museum complex a half mile away on an unspoiled, wooded tract at the edge of the park.

By demolishing the visitor center and the nearby building housing the cyclorama, the park service will restore the battle line of the 136th New York Regiment along Cemetery Ridge. The two current buildings and an adjacent parking lot are on the site of Ziegler's Grove, a landmark during Pickett's Charge that was defended by dozens of Union regiments.

The proposed changes have earned the praise of several notable historians. James McPherson, author of the Pulitzer Prize­winning Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, believes that the interpretation the park envisions for the new visitor center "would improve the visitor's ability to understand the battle.''

McPherson was part of a team of three nationally known historians who visited the park last year to assess existing programs and evaluate the changes proposed in the General Management Plan. The other historians were Eric Foner, author of Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, and Nina Silber, editor of Divided Houses: Gender and the Civil War. The trio endorsed the project in a twenty-eight-page report prepared under the auspices of the Organization of American Historians.

All three found shortcomings with the exhibits and interpretive themes at the current visitor center and cited what McPherson called "a presentation skewed in favor of the South." Although it is "subtle and perhaps unintentional, there is a pervasive emphasis on the Confederate perspective," he said. As an example, McPherson called for a replacement of the High Water Mark theme of the battlefield--one "that romanticizes the Southern point of view.'' The three historians agreed that the park places too much emphasis on the battle itself--the movement of regiments and the tactics and strategy of the opposing armies. They urged it to place the battle in the wider context of the politics and society of 1863 so that visitors would depart the field with a better understanding of the war's causes and consequences.

About 1.7 million people travel each year to Gettysburg, the largest and most visited of America's Civil War parks. Angry merchants and local politicians contend that the NPS insistence on moving the visitor center to the fringe of the park could damage the town's economy by diverting tourist traffic. Although the change of location might appear slight, town officials say the move would take the visitor center, and tourists, out of Adams County and put them within the borders of another taxing entity, Cumberland Township. Local leaders have long lamented the fact that nearly half of Gettysburg is already off the tax rolls because of the presence of the Lutheran Theological Seminary and Gettysburg College, as well as the battlefield.

But park spokeswoman Lawhon disagrees. An economic impact study commissioned by the NPS projects that Gettysburg merchants will do even more business if a new visitor center is built. The analysis found that once the new facility is opened and other proposed changes are in place, "visitor spending, currently about $115 million a year, would rise by $30 million," Lawhon said. Park consultants say that because the new complex would better tell the story of the battle, tourists would become even more interested in Gettysburg and stay longer.

Other opponents of the change include the Rosensteel family, who once owned the visitor center. The Rosensteels built the structure in 1920 and in 1971 sold it to the government and donated the center's thirty-eight-thousand-piece collection of Civil War uniforms, muskets, saddles, swords, and photographs to the NPS. John Rosensteel built the collection piece by piece, starting with artifacts he scavenged from the battlefield shortly after the battle.

The family, led by eighty-year-old Angela Rosensteel Eckert, filed suit against the government in March, claiming the park service has failed to take care of the artifacts. Eckert says the NPS reneged on a commitment to keep the collection under the control of the government, and the family is suing to reclaim the valuable items.

Many critics doubt the NPS's proposed plan will be any better than the current one. "The park administration has not done much with existing buildings from the standpoint of maintenance or looking seriously at the reconfiguration of existing resources,'' said Powell. A presence at the battlefield for nearly forty years, Powell's six-hundred-member Gettysburg Battlefield Association has a long history with park management. Early members included former President Dwight D. Eisenhower, whose six-hundred-ninety-acre farm is west of the battlefield. The organization once worked closely with park managers, but relations soured in 1990 when the government swapped land with Gettysburg College and gave up 7.5 acres along Seminary Ridge, the site of fighting during the battle's first day. Soon afterward, the college carved out part of the hillside to build a rail spur, prompting lawsuits and years of bad blood.

Powell accuses the park service of changing its policies to suit the needs of the moment. He claims that when his group fought the railroad spur issue park officials argued that the landscape could not be restored after the college had altered the ground. At the time, park officials said the land conveyed to the college had already been destroyed, therefore they could not justify spending millions for restoration.

Now the NPS has reversed policy with regard to the land under the cyclorama and the visitor center, argues Powell.

Park managers say the need for the new facility is clearly justified and cite the fact that the old center is woefully inadequate to protect the priceless artifacts, which have begun to deteriorate. They point out that the collection is stored in sixteen small rooms in the basement of the visitor center, but only four of the rooms have heat and air conditioning. "For too long, the old visitor center was jerry-rigged to protect the artifacts," agreed Vickey Monrean, executive director of the Friends of the National Parks at Gettysburg, a group that helps acquire land within the authorized boundary of the battlefield and a close ally of the park's management.

Furthermore, at the nearby Cyclorama Center, rainwater from the building's leaky roof damaged Philippoteaux's dramatic painting, which was first shown to the public in 1884. "We need a new facility badly," said Lawhon, who is confident the new complex will allow the park to properly store the artifacts and safely display the famed Gettysburg Cyclorama.

Amid the swirl of confusion and criticism, park managers forged ahead. In a controversial step, the agency formed a partnership with a private land developer for the construction of the new visitor center. The NPS looked at four plans from contractors before settling on a proposal submitted by Kinsley Construction Co. of York, Pennsylvania. The agency hopes that the public-private arrangement will achieve the goals of the project at no cost to the federal government.

Kinsley's initial proposal included several commercial ventures as part of the visitor center complex. In return for razing the old visitor center and building a new one, the company sought permission to operate profit-making enterprises on the new site, including a restaurant, stores, and a wide-screen IMAX theater. Many preservationists were aghast at the prospect of a visitor center laden with private enterprise and considered the very idea a threat to a national shrine.

For this reason and more, critics say the NPS should keep developers at bay--once and for all. Established in 1895, the park has been the focus of endless skirmishes between those seeking to profit from the national park and those seeking to preserve it.

Mindful of deep-seated opposition, Kinsley scaled back the initial plan, dropping plans for a National Geographic store, a Civil War arts and craft store, and a gift shop at the new complex. The proposed IMAX theater was also scrapped in favor of a smaller, traditional-format theater--the only commercial enterprise to remain--and eventually it could be run by the park's non-profit bookstore operator, Eastern National Park & Monument Association. The scope of the proposed food service was also halved.

Preservationists are easily reminded of the downside of private development at Gettysburg. They point to the Steinwehr Avenue shopping area where a long line of souvenir shops, motels, and fast-food restaurants stands in stark contrast to the park lands, the National Cemetery, and the monuments that adorn the battlefield.

But what galls preservationists most is the National Tower, a 307-foot observation platform built on a seven-acre site adjoining the park in 1974. The structure dominates the landscape. Although President Bill Clinton has earmarked $5.7 million to purchase and tear down the tower, preservationists are not yet celebrating.

A few years ago, owner Thomas Ottenstein thought he was close to selling the tower to the NPS, but the talks stalled after an appraisal done by the agency put the value of the property at $6.6 million. After the agency refused to pay the asking price, an unhappy Ottenstein permitted a carnival to set up on the grounds, and loud music could be heard in the National Cemetery, a few hundred yards away.

Under an agreement between Ottenstein and the NPS, the owner is supposed to provide the park with 5 percent of the tower's taxable income. This means that Ottenstein can deduct expenses such as taxes and depreciation before considering any payments for the park. The NPS acknowledges that the deal was poorly drawn. Because of the tax loophole, the tower has never produced a penny for the NPS, according to published accounts.

Because of past mistakes like the tower, commercial development at Gettysburg always causes skepticism, contends Monrean. She admits to an initial reluctance to support the NPS plan because of its commercial component, but parts of the original museum plan that she found the most worrisome, such as the IMAX theater, were dropped.

Across the country, national parks are thirsting for money. This year, the park service received $1.6 billion from Congress to operate and maintain 374 national parks. That is far from adequate, NPS officials say, noting they have a backlog of repairs and improvements of more than eight billion dollars. Visitation, meanwhile, is up 6 percent.

The story is much the same at Gettysburg. With a budget of only $3.5 million, park managers are struggling to preserve the battlefield; its monuments, wood-frame barns and houses; and the park's collection of valuable artifacts. Because of the financial strain and the knowledge that Congress would never appropriate several million dollars for a park modernization, Gettysburg management claims it has no recourse but to consider a for-profit component in the management plan.

For decades, the government has failed to provide sufficient resources to conduct basic maintenance, and "we got all kinds of congressional feedback that federal funds would not be available this time," says Lawhon. Selecting Kinsley, who formed a non-profit foundation to help raise funds, was a sure way to attain the goals of the plan without asking the government for a cent, park officials say.

The issues at Gettysburg involving the public-private partnership form a test case for the rest of the cash-strapped NPS. If the Gettysburg plan succeeds, similar partnerships will likely be established in other national parks.


Other Travel Tips: