Battlefield Rehabilitation at Gettysburg National Military Park

Hancock Avenue Entrance Gate, 1900
Entrance to Hancock Avenue in 1900

(National Park Service)

"Understanding the historic landscapes of the 1863 battle, and how they had changed in the last 141 years became one of our most important research goals."


One of the most important purposes of Gettysburg National Military Park is to preserve the topographic, landscape and cultural features that were significant to the outcome of the Battle of Gettysburg. That is the primary reason that Congress created this park in 1895. However, many of those features have been obscured or changed over the years, as natural processes have been allowed to take over. As just one example, fields that have not been farmed over the past 65 years have become forests. In many cases, the lack of an accurate understanding of these historic topographic features and their significance has led to their loss. That loss, in turn, meant that neither visitors nor historians could fully understand the Battle of Gettysburg.

Consequently, understanding the historic landscapes of the 1863 battle, and how they had changed in the last 147 years became one of our most important research goals. They used the following process.

First, our historians developed a history of the park landscapes and a set of historical base maps that documented the park's landscape and built features and how they had changed over the past 140 years. These maps were based upon extensive research, including park archival materials, library records, historic photographs and sketches, maps, and for the 20th century, aerial photographs. Our most important mapping resources included 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 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 digitized. By comparing the maps it was possible to see how the battlefield landscape features have changed over the past 147 years, and to estimate the extent of the changes.

But still, we didn't know which of these changes were significant to the accomplishment of our mission of preserving and interpreting the battlefield, and which were not. Consequently, our next step in the landscape analysis was to determine which of the natural, man-made, and topographic features were significant to the outcome of the battle. This gave us some pause, for none of the traditional approaches to landscape analysis proved useful. We were interested solely in those landscape features which existed in July of 1863 - whether natural or man-made (historical) - which influenced the course of battle.

Happily, the appropriate technique for this special type of landscape analysis was right in front of us - and had been all those years. It is used by the United States Army, and has been since the early days of

West Point . In the mid-19th century, when most Civil War generals were being trained at West Point , the technique was known as military engineering. The technique is still taught at West Point today, under the name of terrain analysis. Although the names have changed, the basic principles for analyzing terrain from a military perspective have not.

We refer to it by its modern acronym of KOCOA, which stands for:

· Key terrain

· Observation and fields of fire

· Cover and concealment

· Obstacles (both natural and man-made)

· Avenues of Approach

Using this time-honored technique of terrain analysis, the entire battlefield was examined for each of these characteristics. Each feature that played a role in determining battle tactics was investigated and mapped. Then the maps for each category of significant features were combined, so that the general distribution of critical terrain features could be understood. As a result of this analysis, we understood those features of the battlefield landscape which were theoretically significant; i.e., those features which would have influenced the battle if it had been fought "by the book" in accordance with military doctrine as taught at

West Point .

The next step, obviously, was to understand how the battle was actually fought. For this purpose, we methodically mapped the action for each day of the battle. To determine troop movements during the three days, we used 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. The resulting battle action maps for each day showed where troops were positioned, where they moved, and where on the field they were engaged. The maps for all three days were then combined, and a map showing the action for all three days was prepared.

This map, showing how the battle was actually fought, was then compared to the theoretical map, showing how the battle should have been fought according to "the book." At

Gettysburg , we found a very high correlation between the use of terrain as taught at West Point and the actual use of terrain during the battle, especially for the Army of the Potomac . General Meade would have received an "A" from his instructors at West Point for his application of terrain analysis principles during this, his greatest practical exercise.

But the important point is that the comparison of the theoretical "terrain analysis" map with the actual battle action map showed us exactly which terrain features were significant to the outcome of the Battle of Gettysburg. By definition then, those features which were significant to the outcome of the Battle of Gettysburg automatically became the most significant features of the historic landscapes of the battlefield, and became our highest priority for preservation and rehabilitation.

As we organized all this information, it quickly became apparent that we could further divide our significant landscape features into two general categories, for both better management and better understanding by the public. By and large, we realized, large-scale landscape features where those that influenced the generals' decisions, while small-scale features affected the soldiers' experiences.

In order to understand how the Generals organized the terrain for battle, we need to remove non-historic trees that have grown up over the past 65 - 70 years, to restore the 1863 characteristics of observation and fields of fire, and cover and concealment. In order to understand the avenues of approach that were available and/or used, we need to restore farm lanes and roads that once crisscrossed the battlefield, but have long since disappeared. If we can do that, visitors will be able to better understand the operation decisions made by the Generals during the battle, and how the troops were moved into their battle positions.

Small-scale features, such as fences, orchards, open woodlots and buildings, affected the tactical movements of small units and in many cases made the difference between life and death for individual soldiers. These missing, dilapidated or damaged features will be repaired or replaced, so thatvisitors can clearly understand the cover and concealment available to the soldiers and the obstacles that affected them during combat. For example, for years visitors saw the field of Pickett's Charge as one large, unbroken field. Now, nine miles of fences have been rebuilt, showing the field of Pickett's Charge in its historic configuration of 12 small fields, the difficulties and challenges facing those troops can be understood in more depth.

We started the project in 2000, after completing a General Management plan/environmental impact statement. We've made progress but still have much more to accomplish.

The historical benefits of the battlefield rehabilitation are obvious to many but there are clear environmental benefits as well. The project calls for reestablishing grasslands, restoring wetlands, and replanting orchards. Long term improvements to the environment include restoration of wetlands; fencing cattle from streams to improve water quality; and increasing habitat for grassland species, ground nesting birds and native plants. The plan is in compliance with the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Federal Water Pollution Act and Water Quality Act, floodplain management, protection of wetlands, and all other applicable laws and policies that protect the environment.

Goals of Battlefield Rehabilitation at Gettysburg

Last updated: February 26, 2015

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