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What You Might Not Know About the Gettysburg Battlefield

Matt Paul

Ceremonies and re-enactments this week are marking the sesquicentennial of the Battle of Gettysburg.

Three days of fighting in July 1863 on the rolling hills of Gettysburg claimed the lives of 51,000 men in what many historians call the turning point of the Civil War.

Now, 150 years later, work is underway to ensure the hallowed ground looks nearly identical to how it was when Union and Confederate troops met on those fields. But Gettysburg National Military Park has undergone many changes since the famed battle.

Beginning in the late 1800s trolley cars from the Gettysburg Electric Railway ran through the hallowed ground bringing tourists right onto the battlefield.  

The state challenged the railway and in 1896 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the state's right to condemn, setting the precedent for modern eminent domain laws. But the railway line remained on the battlefield until World War I.  

It was during that time that Camp Colt was built on parts of the battlefield to train men to fight overseas.

"In 1917 the National Parks Service was 1 year old," said Walter Powell, the former president of the Gettysburg Battlefield Preservation Association.

"So who was administering the battlefield parks — the War Department," he said. "The War Department viewed it as land that could be used for military purposes."  

The camp included a swimming pool located near where Confederate General George Pickett launched his famous charge.

During World War II, German prisoners-of-war were housed on the grounds, and after the war, businesses starting moving in, including hotels, restaurants and entertainment pavilions.

Over the last 20 years, the Parks Service has been working to restore the battlefield to resemble its appearance in 1863. However, Jerry Bennett, the former chairman of the Gettysburg National Military Park Advisory Commission, believes there will continue to be battles over preservation and development for years to come.