Tourists leading the charge at Gettysburg A CALL TO ARMS

August 08, 1991|By Mike Klingaman | Mike Klingaman,Evening Sun Staff

GETTYSBURG, Pa. -- Under a searing summer sun, he stands on Cemetery Ridge and lets his imagination retreat to July 3, 1863.

Vincent Hayes squints from beneath his Yankees baseball cap and sees the ghosts of 13,000 armed Rebels charging toward him. The air is thick with smoke and shells and the screams of dying soldiers.

Then Hayes, a vacationer from Manuet, N.Y., is back in the present. He has come to Gettysburg National Military Park to pay homage to the Civil War dead.

In the wake of the Persian Gulf war, he wanted to know more about the hallowed ground of Gettysburg. "What happened in Iraq instilled in me a feeling to visit this place," says Hayes.

He rubs his eyes and peers again at the pristine field where more than 7,000 men fell. The ghosts of Pickett's Charge are gone but not forgotten.

Today there is no stench from the battlefield, as there was after Confederate commander Robert E. Lee gambled all on a massive attack that turned into a slaughter.

"I hope those men all went to heaven," says Hayes, "because they sure were in hell here that day."

More than a century later, Gettysburg is being overrun again, and the boom is in tourism.

As many as 7,000 people from North and South stream into the Visitors' Center each day, placing heavy demands on park personnel who expect the invasion to peak this month.

Ironically, public interest in the park is soaring at a time when federal support is eroding. During the last decade, attendance has climbed 43 percent, while visitors' support staff has been cut from 50 people to 32.

"It's difficult to perform any personal services under those circumstances," says Jim Roach, chief of visitor services.

Free battlefield tours are still offered, but only on a limited basis, and park rangers rarely patrol Little Round Top, Culp's Hill or Devil's Den to answer tourists' questions. To further cut costs, many grassy areas, once mowed, have been allowed to grow wild, under the guise of returning the site to its 1863 appearance.

A policy of fewer patrols has left the battlefields more vulnerable to vandals. Four monuments have been plundered or destroyed since May.

"Generally, people are very respectful of the park," says Roach. "You'd think there would be more problems, with the number of people coming through here."

Why the surge in attendance at the nation's most popular Civil War shrine? Both the recession and the recent crisis in the Middle East soured vacationers on travel abroad. Moreover, say park officials, the gulf crisis has created new interest in war history.

In 1991, America is awash in patriotism, and Gettysburg is its closest and cheapest military mecca.

Also, the recent television series "The Civil War" immersed whole families in the conflict and made cult heroes of such --ing Gettysburg commanders as Col. Joshua Chamberlain of the 20th Maine. To many visitors scrambling up the rocks at Little Round Top, Chamberlain has emerged as the 19th century equivalent of Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf.

Tourism at the park, up nearly 15 percent from 1990, is expected to smash last year's record of 862,000 visitors.

"There is certainly a greater interest in the Civil War now," says Roach, whose office, located along Cemetery Ridge, would have afforded a horrific view of the carnage on the third and final day of battle.

On busy days, as many as 160 people queue up at the entrance to the National Cemetery for one of a series of short 20-minute daily tours of the graveyard led by one of the park's 13 full-time rangers.

"It's hard to talk to that many people and answer questions," Roach concedes.

The questions come quick as flying lead. My great-great-grandfather fought here; where did he fall? Did Robert E. Lee suffer a stroke at Gettysburg? Why didn't the Union army give chase after winning the battle?

"People always ask genealogical questions, like where are their ancestors buried," says park ranger John Stoudt. "But we're getting a lot more tactical questions, too, like 'Why did Lee do this and that?'

"Their interest has been piqued by the TV series and by the gulf war."

Stoudt is leading a brisk, mid-morning tour along the Union front on Cemetery Ridge, past neutered old cannon dozing in the sunlight.

A Missouri youth lingers to pat the big guns. His T-shirt reads, "Support Operation Desert Storm."

At "The Angle," a crook in the low stone wall where Pickett's infantry momentarily breached Yankee lines, Stoudt pauses to resurrect that moment of bloody fury. Here, he says, the fighting was hand-to-hand, with rocks and fists as well as bayonets and knives in "a massive bar room brawl."

One hundred and fifty soldiers died at The Angle, on the same soil where vacationers from New York and South Carolina now jostle for the best spot to hear the ranger's narrative, and to take photographs.

Someone suggests the tourists themselves re-enact the battle.

"We'd win," snaps Richard Blakely, of Kingstree, S.C.

Quarrels have erupted between visitors loyal to both sides, says Stoudt.

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