Lines are drawn in new struggle for hallowed ground of Gettysburg

May 09, 1994|By New York Times News Service

GETTYSBURG, Pa. -- It is the ground that Lincoln said words could not hallow, the rolling fields and ridges of the farm town that became the central battlefield of the most searing conflict in U.S. history. Now a battle over the loss of part of that ground has drawn the scrutiny of Congress after riling Civil War experts and pitting townspeople against each other.

The controversy has been brewing for years, the outgrowth of a long-running debate over just how much land should be set aside in this shrine to the thousands of Union and Confederate soldiers who died in the first three days of July 1863.

At issue is a 1990 land swap between the National Park Service and Gettysburg College, an institution that predates the battle and today abuts the Gettysburg National Military Park. The college traded an easement on 47 acres of its playing fields, which were part of the battlefield, for ownership of 7.5 acres that had belonged to the park since 1909.

The park, which was expanding, wanted the easement to guarantee that the land would remain open space. The college wanted the parkland so it could divert a local rail line that cut across its campus.

The problem: In moving the tracks, the college also built a spur and bulldozed tons of earth, slicing off the end of a sloping 40-foot-high spit of land known as Oak Ridge, which historians agree was a conspicuous, if not especially well known, site of the Union Army's fevered retreat into town at the end of the first day of battle.

Oak Ridge is the northern finger of the famous north-south rise known as Seminary Ridge -- high ground held successively by both sides -- and it is gouged at the south by a deep gully, which at the time of the battle was the bed of an unbuilt railroad.

Congressional investigators and preservationists assert that the college did the work without adequate public disclosure or the advance knowledge of the military park's own top historian and in possible violation of the restrictive deed and the federal law governing the site. Some excavation took place on New Year's Day 1991.

Rep. Mike Synar, an Oklahoma Democrat, believes the transaction raises serious questions about the management of the park and of the Park Service's regional office in Philadelphia. He has called for today a hearing of his House Government Operations Committee's panel on the environment to review whether the ridge should be reconstructed or the swap undone.

"It's a terrible thing," said Jerry Russell, national chairman of the Civil War Round Table Associates, a group of Civil War aficionados. "I think the Park Service failed totally and miserably in its duty to the public in defense of the land. If this kind of thing can happen at Gettysburg, the holiest of holies among Civil War battlefields, then where else might it happen?"

Mr. Synar has summoned the director of the National Park Service, Roger Kennedy, and a raft of others to answer that question.

"There are serious questions about the information the Park Service disclosed to the public about the college's plans to relocate the railroad," Mr. Synar said. "At the same time, there are legitimate questions about how much the college disclosed to the Park Service or others about the college's plans."

The Park Service and college have maintained that they did nothing wrong, and the college has produced historians' opinions that the disputed land is of secondary interest.

The college spokesman, William T. Walker Jr., said that had it not been able to move the tracks of the Gettysburg Railroad, a freight and scenic line, to the western edge of its campus, it would have been forced to expand onto the playing fields at the northern edge in the future. By swapping the easement, he said, the college preserved historic land.

L "We're seen as bad guys, and that's just not true," he said.

On technical grounds, preservationists lost a federal lawsuit in 1992 objecting to the excavation. The local congressman, Bill Goodling, supported the swap. But led by William A. Frassanito, a historian and the author of "Gettysburg: A Journey in Time," a photographic study of the battlefield, the preservationists have not given up.

They contend that it was not worth surrendering federal land for an easement on the soccer fields. They also say that the college never specified how much of the ridge it planned to remove at the public hearings on revising the park boundaries.

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