Returning the historic battlefield to its original appearance

The Gettysburg National Military Park and the Gettysburg Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pa., are among the most historic sites in the United States. But to its grounds pros, there’s much more to Gettysburg than the Gettysburg Address, the Battle of Gettysburg and the ghosts of Gettysburg. There’s the property itself, which they must protect and manage.

This photo was taken on November 19, 2011, the 148th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address. There is a flag at the grave of each Union soldier at the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pa.

One of the key goals of the U.S. National Park Service (NPS) is returning Gettysburg to what it looked like in 1863. To accomplish that, Randy Hill, supervisor of the landscape preservation crew at Gettysburg, has been entrusted to rehabilitate sections of the site rather than to restore them. This extends to turfgrass and landscape care, as well as returning the battlefield as close as possible to its original appearance during that pivotal battle almost a century and a half ago.

“National Park Service efforts to return the Gettysburg battlefield to its 1863 appearance are called ‘rehabilitation’ rather than ‘restoration,'” says Katie Lawhon, spokeswoman for the Gettysburg National Military Park. “Therefore, the park does not maintain exact replica historic gardens and foundation plantings that would have existed in 1863.

“In most cases, we simply would not have the documentation for the exact plant species. For example, when we replant historic orchards, we save costs by planting multiple varieties of hardy apple trees rather than exact heirloom varieties. The goal in ‘rehab’ is to have the general look and appearance of an 1863 orchard.”

Subcontracting rules

To get the battlefield to resemble 1863 orchards and fields, the NPS subcontracted to remove nonhistoric trees through a low-bid process. “Because of the park’s special requirements, the cost to remove nonhistoric trees at Gettysburg far exceeds the value of the timber or biomass,” explains Lawhon.

There are four special requirements that a subcontractor needs to meet while working for the NPS:

1. Contractors may only work when the ground is dry and hard in order to avoid subsurface archaeological resources disturbance. “Generally, this means they may work in the late winter, when the ground is frozen, and in the late summer/fall, when there is little rain,” says Lawhon.

2. Contractors may not work during the nesting season, which is from March to June, to avoid disturbing nesting birds.

3. Contractors must chip and haul away all woody debris. “No burning is permitted onsite,” says Lawhon.

4. “Stumps may not be pulled due to archaeological concerns, but [they] must be ground to within 4 inches from ground level so that the fields can be mowed once a year to maintain their historic appearance,” explains Lawhon.

A landscape architect wasn’t called in to try to determine or design what the original battlefield looked like in 1863. Instead, the park’s historians identified large and small key features from historic maps, photos and other data. Then they used the official Battle of Gettysburg records and first-hand accounts by soldiers, officers and the like to determine which of these features influenced how the battle was fought. From there, the historians created a process to bring back all of the large- and small-scale features that affected the fighting in the major battle action areas on the battlefield.

“We did an environmental impact statement and involved the public in the planning process as well,” says Lawhon.

To help Mother Nature restore the native plants and grasses of 19th century Gettysburg, park personnel harvested seed from native grasses and planted it in newly opened fields. The NPS also purchased seeds for cold-season and-warm season grasses to mix in with the natives.

“In addition to preserving and protecting wildlife habitats, a big task in the park is the ongoing fight to reduce and eliminate invasive exotic plants,” says Lawhon. “The park staff works to combat several invasive plant species, such as the multiflora rose, Japanese barberry, ailanthus and mile-a-minute. It treats them through EPA-approved chemical methods, mechanical methods, hand-pulling and sprays.”

Nitty-gritty turf care

Gettysburg attracts 3 million visitors per year, mostly from the mid-Atlantic region, and employs 5,835 people to work at the National Park and beyond to service the tourist trade. In addition, Gettysburg tourism brings in $104.2 million in tax revenue for Adams County.

Hill and his maintenance crew are responsible for making sure the battlefield and cemetery, which is located on Cemetery Hill within Battlefield Park, look their best. Turf and landscape training is done in-house and in collaboration with other national parks. Equipment manufacturers provide training in the operation of specific pieces of equipment.

Randy Hill says that there is enough trimming at Soldiers’ National Cemetery to keep one person busy all summer.

“We use Hustler and Toro mowers for the Class A mowing areas like the National Cemetery and the Eisenhower [National] Historic Site. The trimming is done with Stihl and Solo backpack string trimmers,” says Hill. “The majority of the mowing throughout the park is done with John Deere and Kubota tractors and three-point hitch mowing decks made by John Deere and Woods.

“For snow removal, we have six vehicles equipped with 7.5-foot and 9-foot plows; the Hustler mowers are equipped with a blade and a broom; and we have one spreader for distributing salt and anti-skid. The field mowing is done with two, four-wheel drive John Deere tractors with brush hogs,” continues Hill.

Hill says that the NPS hires seven full-time employees, which also includes a mechanic. “The number of seasonal positions can vary with funding from year to year, but we try to bring on seven to 10 seasonal employees every spring,” says Hill. The majority of the turf work is done in-house, but NPS hires outside landscape help when it comes to removing hazardous trees.

The turf crew at Gettysburg Military Park uses EPA-approved herbicides to help get rid of invasive nonnative plants, such as the multiflora rose and mile-a-minute.

“Our Class B mowing is constantly changing, but we usually cover about 273 acres,” says Hill. “Class B covers along roadsides, around monuments and other areas that the grass has to be maintained regularly, but does not need the same level of care as our Class A areas. Our fields that are not in an agriculture program are mowed annually, depending on the flora and fauna that we are establishing. This is about 754 acres.”

In addition to battlefield care, the crew maintains and mows the 24-acre Soldiers’ National Cemetery, one of the most manicured areas in the park.

“The grass is often mowed and vacuumed, and there is enough trimming to keep one person busy all summer. The turf is only fertilized or treated if and when a problem presents itself. There is a wide variety of large nonnative trees throughout the cemetery that are closely monitored for overall health and condition. As some of these trees are approaching the end of their typical life span, the preservation efforts have also increased,” says Hill.

Hill and his crew maintain 26 miles of roadway and 4.3 miles of walkways. The walkways are spread throughout the park and are made of several different types of material, a big challenge during the winter.

“We don’t apply straight road salt on any of the roadways at Gettysburg. The road salt is diluted with anti-skid and only applied to certain areas in the park so we can reduce the effect on the environment,” says Hill. “We use five pickup trucks with plows, one dump truck with a plow, the Hustler with a blade for some of the walks, and nine snowblowers and some shovels for the rest of the walks. We also have a loader and a backhoe if the snow gets real deep.”

Rewards and challenges

Hill started working at the Gettysburg National Military Park in July 2011. Before that he led the grounds crew at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Beltsville Agricultural Research Center in Maryland, where he also managed the greenhouses.

“The location of Gettysburg is one of the best parts of working here. When you can separate yourself from looking at what needs to be done you can look at and appreciate the expansive fields, rolling hills and beautiful landscape. Knowing that you are taking part in the preservation of those historic grounds for future generations to enjoy the exact same views makes it very rewarding,” says Hill.

Yet, challenges need to be faced and resolved. Hill’s challenge comes in the form of preservation and the reason why his crew exists at all at Gettysburg. “Our goal is to preserve the battlefield and give visitors as accurate a representation as we can when they visit our park. We are in a constant balance over preservation and meeting the needs to accommodate the high number of visitors. Nothing is changed without careful consideration to all aspects of the problem and all potential alternatives are exercised,” Hill explains.

John Showers, a seasonal employee with the NPS in Gettysburg, mows along a Gettysburg Military Park roadway.

“One of the tremendous benefits we have is plenty of volunteers that help us with a wide variety of projects at the park,” he adds. “The volunteer groups have helped us with fence construction, trail maintenance, seed collection and even brush clearing. Their help with various projects is a great benefit to the staff here and to the visitors to the park.”

Indeed, Hill and his crew work hard to bring back the 1863 atmosphere to Gettysburg so young and old can learn what life was like and how the battle was fought in Gettysburg. While the work is hard, the scenery enchants the crew to keep working for future generations visiting the Gettysburg National Military Park and the Soldiers’ National Cemetery.

The author writes about agriculture, central Pennsylvania people and businesses, and the green industry from her home near Ephrata, Pa. You can contact her at