The rigorous process of earning a license to give battlefield tours defeats all but the most qualified applicants PATRICK HICKERSON


July 02, 1995|By Amy Davis

Gettysburg, Pa. -- Consider this: You're standing at the crossroads of the Civil War, and you want to inspire tourists to imagine how 35 square miles in this tranquil Pennsylvania countryside were the stage for a three-day inferno of smoke and death with casualties that numbered about 51,000.

As a rookie guide and history fan, you know that the Battle of Gettysburg, 132 years ago this weekend, was the turning point of the war and its bloodiest fight, costing Robert E. Lee more than a third of his men. But acquiring such knowledge is the easy part; you must learn to spin it into compelling narratives, find clever ways to captivate your audience -- and maybe even invent some historical jokes.

It's a tough job with low pay, and may take over your weekends. But when the National Park Service put out a call for applicants last year, Tom Prisk, 30, a Chapel Hill, N.C., resident who owns a computer company, found the opportunity irresistible. So did nearly 200 other Civil War buffs, including a former Baltimore police officer.

They were a varied lot, in age, home state and occupation, but they shared a common, powerful bond: an avid interest in this most popular and revered of American battlefields, where the Confederacy lost its best chance of winning the war, and valor and horror coexisted everywhere.

The battle was fought by more than 165,000 Americans and contained clashes with names such as the Peach Orchard, Devil's Den, Little Round Top, Culp's Hill and Pickett's Charge.

During the rigorous process that produces licensed guides, Mr. Prisk and his classmates received an in-the-field lesson from Charlie Fennell, a full-time guide at Gettysburg and a part-time history teacher at a nearby community college. The long-haired Mr. Fennell, 41, took a bus load of men and women around the battlefield and, microphone in hand, was so enthusiastic and animated that the trip seemed like a revival meeting. The veteran guide waved his arms, spoke in Deep South and Yankee dialects, made sounds like gunfire and compared troop movements to football plays.

Mr. Fennell's first stop was on Seminary Ridge, a Confederates position. He discussed the differences between rifled and smoothbore cannon, calling the guns "groovies and smoothies." He recalled a tour when a schoolgirl looked into the barrel of a cannon, agitating a nest and causing a bird to strike her in the forehead. "I was there when it went off," he said, noting that the girl thus became "the most recent casualty of the Battle of Gettysburg."

Another stop was the Peach Orchard, where Union Gen. Daniel Sickles invited a Confederate attack by moving his troops out beyond the main defensive line without telling his superiors. During the fighting, Sickles' leg was blown off, Mr. Fennell said. "I don't want to hear you say General Sickles lost his leg at Gettysburg. He took it with him" and deposited it at the Army Medical Museum in Washington, where he visited it for 50 years.

As the bus passed the High Water Mark, where Union troops thwarted Pickett's Charge on the last day of the battle, Mr. Fennell pointed at the monument to Confederate Gen. Lewis Armistead showing where he fell after reaching the Union lines. Mr. Fennell recalled the myth that no grass grows around the monument because of Confederate blood that spilled there. "It's just from people walking around it," he said.

The Battle of Gettysburg was fought July 1-3, 1863. General Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, 75,000 men, had invaded Pennsylvania in a daring effort to crush Gen. George G. Meade's Army of the Potomac and shock the Union into abandoning the war. But Meade's men -- more than 90,000 -- held strong defensive positions on high ground, and Lee's army was shredded as it made repeated frontal assaults. The South lost about 28,000 men -- dead, wounded or missing -- and the North, about 23,000.

Only two Civil War sites, Gettysburg and Vicksburg, have licensed battlefield guides. The Park Service decided last summer to add between 20 and 30 positions to the Gettysburg staff of 105 veteran guides. Of the 192 people who began the six-month qualifying process by taking a written test, just 29 won the right to wear the guides' uniform.

As tourism rises at the park, so does the demand for guide services. "In the past, people found out there were guides when they got here. Now, they're coming in and saying they want guides," says Park Ranger John Andrews, 42, who manages the guide program. Last year, "demand was way outstripping the supply," he says. The battlefield experienced a threefold increase in denied requests for guides. Gettysburg's attendance exceeded 1.7 million tourists last year -- up more than 260,000 from 1993. Ranger Andrews cites TV documentaries about the Civil War and the 1993 movie "Gettysburg" as important reasons for the increase.

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