Gettysburg battlefield is restored to a landscape Civil War soldiers would recognize

November 18, 2013

— On Tuesday morning, Lincoln portrayer Jim Getty will recite the Gettysburg Address as part of an elaborate celebration of the 150th anniversary of the president’s original remarks in the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in the heart of the Gettysburg National Military Park.

A few hours later, a much smaller crowd is due to gather around a baby apple tree to mark its planting in a quieter corner of the battlefield. The four-foot sapling will join a grid of 167 others newly installed in the reestablishment of an 11-acre fruit plantation known as the Bliss Orchard.

While the apple-planting ceremony promises to be more subdued than the cemetery event, the trees will grow to express a different and no less eloquent narrative of one of the bloodiest and most fateful battles in American history.

For Randy Krichten, a National Park Service landscape technician, the reclamation of the Bliss Orchard caps an effort to replant 3,263 fruit trees in a total of 39 orchards on 112 acres of the park since 2005.

This endeavor, in turn, is part of a broader, 14-year plan by the Park Service, Pennsylvania state agencies and nonprofit allies to peel back decades of accumulated natural and man-made clutter to evoke a terrain much closer to the one awaiting the 163,000 Union and Confederate combatants who faced off here in the first three days of July, 1863.

“It has changed my view and interpretation of things,” said Garry Adelman, a battlefield guide and historian with the Civil War Trust. “It’s hard to understand the [troop] movements that took place in open fields when there were woods there” during the fighting.

The cemetery that Lincoln dedicated just four months after the battle was itself a part of this dynamic change, as were the 1,300, mostly Union monuments that came to dot the grounds.

As old orchards became fields for crops and farming practices changed, miles of fencing were abandoned or removed, and once-open fields evolved naturally into woodland that later generations assumed wrongly had predated the battle.

Since devising its rehabilitation plan in the late 1990s, the Park Service has cleared a total of 354 acres of naturalized woodland that had grown up after the battle and replanted 48 acres of trees that had been lost. In addition, crews have renovated an additional 278 acres of historic woodlots by removing scrub and invasive vines and pruning trees to strengthen them. They have also rebuilt 20 miles of fencing.

The shift to a more authentic 19th-century agricultural landscape is not as obvious, perhaps, as the erasing of some of the more intrusive human accretions of the 20th century: Along a three-mile stretch of Emmitsburg Road on the south side of town, the Park Service and its private partners have succeeded in recent years in removing dozens of structures, including billboards, cabins, contemporary houses, restaurants and the Home Sweet Home Motel.

The Gettysburg Foundation organized the burial of utility lines along the road in the mid-1990s. Looking east from Bliss Orchard to the Union’s Cemetery Ridge, the view today is much closer to that the Confederate troops would have seen while racing to their deaths in the ill-fated Pickett’s Charge.

The Park Service earlier this year took down its modernist Cyclorama building. The epic painting it housed is in a visitor center built in 2008 by the foundation and situated away from the main battle action. One of the first steps of the strategic landscape rehabilitation was the ceremonial demolition in 2000 of the private 307-foot observation tower that had dominated the battlefield for the previous 26 years.

These measures are more than just aesthetic or simply historic. They have strengthened an understanding of the course of the battle itself — the terrain-driven tactical decisions of the commanders and the fighting environment of the soldiers. The terroir of terror.

Gettysburg combatants would have known apple orchards with big, broad 30-foot trees — today, commercial orchards have trees half that size. The Bliss Orchard, Krichten said, may well have had field crops planted between the widely spaced trees, as well as grazing livestock. He has installed trees that will grow to 30 feet, though with modern varieties that won’t need the spraying regime of antique types.

The Bliss Orchard planting has been organized by the Journey Through Hallowed Ground Partnership, a Waterford, Va.-based group that is seeking to plant 620,000 trees along the Route 15 corridor from Gettysburg to Charlottesville, one for each Civil War casualty.

The Park Service cannot replace all the fence lines of the 1860s, but it has added split-rail fencing to give a sense of the obstacles facing the battle participants. Returning 200-acre fields to 25-acre orchards and pastures also restores a visual mosaic. In previous decades, the Park Service allowed a tenant farmer to grow crops in the Bliss Orchard, and later planted crab apple trees there, but they succumbed to disease, Krichten said.

Zach Bolitho, chief of resource management at the park, said one of the single most eye-opening changes was clearing acres of woodland near Seminary Ridge, the Confederate battle line.

The removal of such post-battle woodlots has “opened up views that the veterans themselves didn’t have when they came back in the 1890s,” Adelman said.

The battle left 51,000 casualties, but the town itself became a victim. Townsfolk cowered in their basements during the fighting. Afterward, they were left to tend to the thousands of wounded and bury the dead.

But none from the town were affected more than the farmers, who thought they had put down roots in a bucolic paradise in a region famed for its apple, peach and cherry orchards, only to find themselves in the middle of the bloodiest battle in American history.

William Bliss came from western New York with his wife and children in 1857. The farmstead was already established but he expanded it, said John Heiser, a Park Service historian. They fled when the armies converged.

On the final afternoon of the battle, six Confederate brigades moved east through the orchard, ominously. By then the Bliss farmhouse and a nearby barn were smoking ruins — hours earlier, Connecticut volunteers torched the structures because they had been sheltering the enemy.

There are no plans to rebuild the farm buildings — no one knows what they looked like, and, besides, their loss is part of the story.

William Bliss sold the farmland in 1865 and took his wife and four children back to New York. About a decade after the battle, the federal government partially compensated him for his losses, Heiser said.

Bliss is said to have declared that he would have given 20 farms for the Union cause, but Heiser doubts that account. “He was anxious to sell the property because he knew he wouldn’t be able to recover his losses. I think, like a lot of the farmers who lost everything, he was furious.”

Adrian Higgins has been writing about the intersection of gardening and life for more than 25 years, and joined the Post in 1994. He is the author of several books, including the "Washington Post Garden Book" and "Chanticleer, a Pleasure Garden."
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