Historians say there are likely no battlefields in the world that have been studied and documented more than that of Gettysburg.
As it has for generations, the U.S. military routinely brings officers to the battlefield to learn about the strategies – successful and otherwise – that were employed by Union and Confederate generals who were commanding some 165,000 soldiers over the three-day bloody onslaught in the rolling farmlands of southern Pennsylvania.
The battle at Gettysburg commemorates its 150th anniversary this year and thanks in part to the Apache Tree Grant Program’s donation of more than 3,000 trees, those who come to experience and learn about the battlefield will see it in a state that some say is the closest to how it appeared since the day the first shots rang out on July 1, 1863.
The Gettysburg National Park typically receives 1 million to 2 million visitors per year. But due to the 150th anniversary commemorations, the park expects up to 4 million people to visit in 2013.
“Visitors can now come here and not only appreciate what these armies did here but also see what they saw,” said John Heiser, who for more than 30 years has acted as Gettysburg National Military Park’s official historian, a highly coveted position in the U.S. National Park Service.
Kyle Pfalzer, an official guide to the battlefield, said the restoration has greatly improved the ability to tell the story of the soldiers who fought in what is considered the most significant battle of the Civil War and the turning point that led to the Union’s victory. As many as 11,000 soldiers died in the fighting, which began July 1 and ended July 3.
“Guides here 10 years ago would be standing in certain spots telling people, ‘Pretend those trees aren’t there,’” said Pfalzer, who also is a philanthropic and partnership specialist for the Gettysburg Foundation, a nonprofit organization that fosters education and supports the park’s preservation. “You really couldn’t get a sense of what the generals were looking at and what the soldiers were seeing during the fighting. In 1860s warfare, what you can and cannot see is going to greatly influence decisions on the battlefield.”
Apache’s involvement in the restoration has a special meaning to Kent Newsham, chief of staff – geosciences, who was raised in Gettysburg and spent a summer while in college working on one of the historic battlefield’s farms.
“The importance of the battle is definitely not lost on those who live in the shadows of this great American landmark,” said Newsham, whose great-great-grandfather, John A. Black, fought for the 17 Connecticut Infantry and was killed on the first day of the battle. “And being an Apache for the last 10 years, it gives me a great sense of pride to work for a company that is playing a role in making the battlefield look as it did 150 years ago.”
The Gettysburg Foundation approached Apache in 2009 asking for a donation to help with the restoration process. “Apache responded that the best way for us to help would be through the Tree Program,” said Obie O’Brien, vice president of Government Affairs. “The foundation gladly accepted.”
The Apache Tree Program was established in 2005 and has since donated more than 3 million trees to areas of need in 16 U.S. states.
The Gettysburg restoration process began with Heiser and other historians pouring through hundreds of historical maps, photos and military reports from the battle to rehabilitate the scenery to as close to its original shape as possible. Prior to the battle, the area featured large pastures separated by copses of hardwood trees. Over the years, the battlefield became overgrown and many of its important features – such as large granite boulders and fences that could hamper troop movement and the open fields where soldiers would be exposed to a storm of canon and rifle fire – were hidden. Several structures had been built on the land and would need to be taken down.
After several years of fits and starts, in 1999, the National Park Service approved a program to restore the park by removing nonhistoric structures, clearing overgrowth, building fences and planting trees to re-create the original landscape that helped guide the strategies of Union Gen. George Meade and Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. In June 2009, Apache agreed to donate 3,000 trees to the Park Service through the Apache Tree Program.
“Systematically, we began cutting and clearing trees from nonhistoric areas where there was no tree growth in 1863,” Heiser said. “We also re-established important elements to the battlefield such as fence lines and stone walls. But one of the most important elements, especially to the farms, was the orchards.”
Among the more significant ways Apache’s trees have been impactful in telling the story of the battle is by re-creating the fruit orchards tucked between the lush, pastoral farms that were strategically utilized by both Gens. Meade and Lee.
“Every farm had a small orchard outside their home, primarily peaches and apples, and they had completely disappeared from the battlefield,” said Heiser, standing on a spot known as Cemetery Ridge.
Heiser pointed to a spot about a quarter mile down the hill, across an 1860s replica “Virginia worm fence,” which earned its name because of its zigzagging design, to one of the largest of the area’s farms in 1863 called the Peter Frey Farm. About 200 yards east of Frey’s barn, and steps away from a small white farmhouse that was used as Mead’s command post, stood a small apple orchard that was used by Peter Frey to feed his family.
Union soldiers used the Frey orchard for shade, to rest and to receive medical attention. It was also used as a route for fresh Union soldiers to come into the battlefield. The Frey orchard was destroyed during the battle by the soldiers, horses and wagons traversing through it, and by gun and cannon fire. Shells from the pivotal Pickett’s Charge even landed in the orchard during a two-hour bombardment on day three of the battle. The Frey orchard reemerged only generations later after Apache’s donation of the apple trees.
The orchards, and the farmlands in general, were among the primary reasons the battle occurred in Gettysburg. Following a significant victory in the battle of Chancellorsville in Virginia, Robert E. Lee wanted to bring the fighting north to Pennsylvania to threaten Harrisburg. And he also needed to resupply his troops. The Gettysburg orchards and farmlands were the perfect place for Lee to stop. And it was a very moist summer in 1863, which made for a bumper crop for the fruit trees.
Union and Confederate troops largely met by chance. As both generals discovered, getting in and out of the Gettysburg area is like traversing the hub of a wheel – all of the spokes eventually come together so the two armies inevitably met. “The whole thing started off small and snowballed,” Pfalzer said.
July 1, the first day of the battle, was a win for the Confederates. On days two and three, the Union was victorious.
Beyond some of the orchards, other Apache-donated trees were used to fill in and re-create wooded areas throughout the park.
“Apache’s donation has re-established a significant feature on the battlefield,” Heiser said. And those features continue to be studied and scrutinized by U.S. military officers and historians who can now much more clearly see why some of the decisions on the battlefield were made.