Sunday, November 28, 2004

GETTYSBURG, Pa. – Things change, even here. The orchard that used to sit beside the Trostle Barn, site of brutal fighting on the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg, is gone. The cherry, pear, and peach trees, which the fabled 12th New Hampshire used as cover during an artillery duel, have disappeared. The thicket that once sat on the Neinstedt Field, where Union infantry units established positions, grew into mature trees.

The world outside Gettysburg has changed since the guns roared and the men cried here and, so, too has the battlefield. It has, after all, been 141 years. Trees grow, farms change, crop patterns adjust. It’s the natural cycle of life, and the natural cycle of death.

And yet here, where the climactic battle of the Civil War was fought – where more than 7 million bullets were fired in three days’ fighting and where, four months later, Abraham Lincoln gave voice to the new birth of freedom the war helped win – there is the sense that things should be the same.

The splendid men who here gave their lives that this nation might live have drifted away, the sense of desperation that pervaded the fighting fields in 1863 has lifted, the strategic imperatives that brought Union and Confederate soldiers to these hillsides and ridges have faded away, and still we believe that this place – hallowed ground, Lincoln called it, and he had it right -should defy change.

It hasn’t, of course. No place could. And so now the unfinished work of Gettysburg is to restore the fields to the conditions that prevailed during the Civil War and the fateful and frightful July days when this became a great battlefield of that war.

That means new orchards, new thickets, new fields. It means a meticulous examination of what already may be the most studied piece of land in North America. It means a national understanding of the difference between conservation, which is not at issue here, and restoration, which is.

Indeed, it is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. It is impossible to understand fully this battle nearly five generations later because 14 decades worth of natural developments have wrought their changes in the land. Look, for example, at the cannon preserved on the battlefield. Some of them point at big stands of trees, not across fields. That’s not how it was, not at all.

Just this month, the National Park Service took an important step toward restoring Gettysburg to its 19th century conditions when it began replanting five orchards on the battlefield. The 345 new trees spread across 12.5 acres – five varieties of apples, two of which are known as Freedom and Liberty – will help restore the closed canopies and foliage that both armies used for protection and for relief during the battle.

One of the most prominent orchards will be the one that was replanted just before Thanksgiving west and south of the Trostle Barn, which is well-known to tourists for the big cannon hole in its aging wall. The protection the original orchard provided was one of the reasons that Gen. Daniel E. Sickles moved his headquarters there when his position on the Emmitsburg Road was threatened on July 2. Another orchard, used by men in both Blue and Gray, along Emmitsburg and Wheatfield Roads, has been replanted on the site of the Wentz farm, which on July 3 was occupied by Confederate artillery officers.

Because historians know where trees stood on this land in 1863, what grew on every corner of the 5,898 acres of the battlefield, and how the orchards and the farmlands shaped how and where some 165,000 soldiers fought in a summer battle, this is important work. It requires the placement of fences where they once were pounded into the ground, the re-establishment of farm lanes where they once lay, and the restoration of open places where trees have sprung up, many of them in the 1930s and 1940s when there were dramatic changes in land-use patterns.

This effort has been going on since 1998, when the Park Service began a general management planning process that produced two volumes as thick and as readable as the Toledo phone book. But this was one federal study that actually led to action. Two years ago, the Home Sweet Home Motel on the left flank of Pickett’s Charge on Steinwehr Avenue was taken down. Next year a Ford dealership, which stands on the site of an important part of the first day’s fighting, is coming down.

Another target for restoration is a knoll, near the Pennsylvania Monument, which once provided Union officers with a 360-degree view of the battlefield. Since the battle, a group of tall trees had grown up and the vista toward the Confederate battle line had all but disappeared. The removal of about half the mature trees – the rest will be cut down next year – is part of the effort to remove a great impediment to understanding how, and why, the battle developed as it did.

The Gettysburg battlefield has provided us with many lessons during the past century and a half. Here we learned about the horror of war, and about its cruel caprice. Here we saw bravery, and strategic brilliance, and courage beyond measure. Here we dedicated ourselves to great tasks remaining before us, some of which are yet to be redeemed. Here we resolved that this nation should have a new birth of freedom. Here we realize what in our hearts and in our history is worth saving, and worth restoring.

© 2004 The Blade

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