…Meanwhile, Back At Those Fences Along the Railroad Cut…
June 13, 2011
As we previously covered here and here, on Saturday, June 4, 2011, hundreds of volunteers for the Friends of Gettysburg, under the direction of historians from the National Park Service, constructed fences in Gettysburg National Military Park. These fences along the north and south sides of the railroad cut have raised some questions. This view was taken facing west at approximately 17:30 AM on Sunday, June 12, 2011.
After posting about the placement of these fences (which are variously known as “Virginia Fences” or “Worm Fences” or “Saw Buck Fences”) along the Railroad Cut we received a higher volume of emails than normal from our readers, concerned about the location of the fences.
We have been told that the National Park Service placement of fences on the battlefield are usually based on the following sources: maps, Official Reports from the battle, soldiers’ accounts of the battle, and photographs.
We were unaware that there were fences on each side of the railroad cut before the battle, and we asked the National Park Service through National Park Service spokesperson Katie Lawhon for their sources that fences were in that location in July, 1863. National Park Historian Kathy Georg Harrison kindly responded with her “Brief History McPherson Farm Fencing Railroad Grade” paper and an accompanying Mathew Brady photograph.
Kathy Georg Harrison is an exceptional research historian, but we are still not convinced that fences were along the railroad cut in that area in June or July, 1863. We don’t see that the fences are shown on any map or in any photograph, or that they are mentioned in any official report or soldier’s account of the battle.
In this post, we will highlight some of the quotes from Kathy Georg Harrison’s paper and our correspondence with the National Park Service. We are currently waiting on a reply from the National Park Service about these concerns, and we expect an update sometime this week.
“A mid-July 1863 Brady photograph of the McPherson Farm buildings was taken from a position a hundred or so yards south of them and shows not only the buildings but a part of the fields and woods beyond the Chambersburg Pike (today’s Route 30).”
Kathy Georg Harrison provided this Mathew Brady photograph in her initial reply to our inquiry about the fences along the Railroad Cut. The quotes in small type in this posting are excerpts from Kathy Georg Harrison’s paper, “Brief History McPherson Farm Fencing Railroad Grade,” which can be found after the enlargement of this photograph. This image was taken facing northeast circa July 15, 1863.
“An enlargement of this photograph reveals that a portion of this at-grade fencing was still intact. This photographed portion of intact fence was immediately west of the famous Railroad Cut (where the bridge of Reynolds Avenue today crosses the deep embankment). This indicates that the entirety of this farmer’s railway fencing was not destroyed before or in consequence of the battle but it also affirms that it did exist as part of the farm’s pre-war agricultural needs. Indeed, all of these at-railway-grade worm fences were restored by the McPherson farmer soon after the battle for the same reasons they originally were erected before the battle.”
We can’t see the fences in the above photograph. We can see post and rail fences along the Chambersburg Pike, but we can’t see any along the railroad cut, which is above the Chambersburg Pike and to the right of the wagon shed…if we can’t tell if there is a fence there at all, then how do we know specifically that it was not only there, but that it was a worm fence? We also have yet to have any fellow Licensed Battlefield Guides be able to pick out worm fences along the railroad cut in this photograph. We can see the cut. We can see what appears to be the banks of the cut and some bushes, but not the fences. One of our fellow guides claims that she does see the fences there. When asked to show them to us, she said that we “had to use our imagination.” Really? There is a sharper version of this photograph in William Frassanito’s Early Photography at Gettysburg, page 56, but we can’t see the fences there either. This view was taken facing northeast circa July 15, 1863.
Here is Kathy Georg Harrison’s “Brief History McPherson Farm Fencing Railroad Grade” paper in its entirety. Click on this image or click here for the PDF version.
In her first paragraph, Ms. Harrison states that “In order to protect his farm fields from wagons cutting across his fields between these two circulation features, the farmers generally constructed fencing where the railroad bed was at same grade as his adjoining farm fields. In addition, this fencing kept any of his own farm livestock from getting onto the rail bed and wandering into town or trespassing on other owners’ property.”
We agree in general that farmers did this. Do we have a primary source specifically saying that this happened at this location? The fields here were owned by farmer Edward McPherson, whose property was under the care of a tenant named John Slentz. McPherson/Slentz already have post and rail fences up along the Chambersburg Pike to try and keep people from accessing McPherson’s fields and the lower (at grade) section of the railroad cut. These fences would already keep people from leaving the Pike and heading into town on the unfinished railroad. So is there evidence that the farmer needs more fences for this purpose, or is this simply a supposition? This view was taken facing southeast at approximately 7:30 AM on Sunday, June 12, 2011.
While worm fences have been constructed along the railroad cut (where we don’t know of any evidence that there were any in that location), the post and rail fences located along the Chambersburg Pike have not been reconstructed. This is probably because the National Park Service has to find the time to dig the holes for the post and rail fences. This view was taken facing south at approximately 7:30 AM on Sunday, June 12, 2011.
“On the afternoon of June 30, two cavalry brigades arrived, drove off a Confederate reconnoitering party, and encamped for the night west and northwest of the town, with at least two regiments occupying the fields east of McPherson’s Ridge and Buford Ridge. It was at this time the first portions of the McPherson fencing were dismantled, some for firewood and some perhaps for use in building temporary breastworks against additional Confederate advances from the west. It is unclear from the written record, but it most likely that the tenant farmer occupying the McPherson farm tried to first stop this dismantling of fencing but then tried to at least direct the troops to fencing that was least valuable or needed by him that growing season.”
We are hoping that the National Park Service can provide us with a primary source for this account. Let’s imagine for a moment that we are cavalrymen. If we were cavalrymen going to build a wooden lunette/breastwork, we would build it near the top of the ridge (military crest), not in the low ground behind the ridge (east of McPherson’s Ridge). Kathy Georg Harrison, however, says that the fence is still on top of the ridge after the battle (the fence that we can’t make out). To agree with Kathy, if I was a cavalryman and wanted to tear down the fences to make a fire, I would do that in the swales or low ground behind the ridges. The monument on the left is to the 95th New York. The monument on the right is to the 6th Wisconsin Infantry Regiment.This view was taken facing southwest at approximately 7:30 AM on Sunday, June 12, 2011.
“Written accounts by the soldiers who fought on this part of the battlefield describe many of the fences that crossed the McPherson fields. No soldiers—Union or Confederate—seem to have ever described those fences that enclosed the at-grade portions of the railway line. This is particularly curious in that considerable fighting occurred along the route between the first and second railroad cuts west of the town. It is likely that most, if not all, of the fencing in the low fields east of Buford Ridge (i.e., Reynolds Avenue) were removed for the cavalry encampment and for cavalry positions.”
We agree that no soldiers, Union or Confederate, describe fences along the railroad cut. That is the driving point of most of the skepticism around the placement of fences here. It seems like someone is guessing/making a supposition that there must have been fences there, on both sides of the railroad cut, and that the fences that we don’t have any hard evidence existed were removed before July 1, 1863. For instance, we know post and rail fences were in the low ground east of Reynolds Avenue along the Chambersburg Pike (the fences that for some reason have not been rebuilt) on July 1, 1863. Rufus Dawes of the 6th Wisconsin Infantry Regiment left a good account of crossing them as he and his men charged towards the railroad cut. Here is a view of the low ground east of East McPherson’s Ridge taken from the area of the railroad cut. Reynolds’ Woods/McPherson’s Woods/Herbst’s Woods are in the right background. This view was taken facing southwest at approximately 7:30 AM on Sunday, June 12, 2011.
“Indeed, all of these at-railway-grade worm fences were restored by the McPherson farmer soon after the battle for the same reasons they originally were erected before the battle.”
Again, what is our source that the fences were restored by “the McPherson farmer” (John Slentz) soon after the battle? If we are going by damage claims that say he restored “fences,” how do we know he specifically restored worm fences on both sides of the railroad cut? This view was taken facing south at approximately 7:30 AM on Sunday, June 12, 2011.
“These restored agricultural fences appear in post-war photographs, including one picture incorporated in the park’s current wayside exhibit at the Railroad Cut.”
We have included a copy of one of these post-war photographs that Kathy Georg Harrison is referring to here. Our problem is that these post-war photographs also show that the railroad existed at that time, and the farmers had really good reasons to make sure their animals didn’t wander into that area. This view was taken facing east circa the 1880s.
“In summary, some of the fencing that enclosed the McPherson fields along the railway grade was dismantled before the fighting while some of the same fencing along the rail route was not dismantled and survived the fighting virtually intact. The park will therefore represent these 1863 dismantled fence lines as it has on other parts of the restored battlefield landscape—by removing several panels of fence at regular intervals while leaving remaining panels intact. This represents that there was a fence there prior to actual combat but it had been removed preparatory to the combat. This interpretive technique already has been used in the fields of the Trostle Farm east of the Emmitsburg Road and in the fields to the rear of Cemetery Ridge east of Hancock Avenue.”
We will admit that even in our eighth year of being a Licensed Battlefield Guide at Gettysburg National Military Park, we were unaware of this interpretive technique used by the National Park Service to demonstrate what happened to particular sections of fencing. If that logic is applied consistently then, does this mean that any time fences are completely connected to one another across the field that soldiers did NOT take them down? Really? On Saturday, some of the LBGs in the guideroom said that they were aware of this interpretive technique, but on Sunday, none of the LBGs with whom we spoke knew about this “fence code.” Is the average visitor aware of this when attempting to interpret the battlefield? The History Channel’s recent show on Gettysburg has made Rufus Dawes and the 6th Wisconsin’s charge across these fields a talking point and destination for visitors. This view was taken facing east at approximately 7:30 AM on Sunday, June 12, 2011.
We hope to receive some sort of primary sources or accounts from the National Park Service in their reply this week in regards to these fences. The right flank marker for the 6th Wisconsin is on the right.This view was taken facing northwest at approximately 7:30 AM on Sunday, June 12, 2011.
Other concerns that we have include the fact that these fences are quite tall. The tallest poles are approximately eight feet high. Maybe for our April 1, 2012 post we’ll do a feature on “McPherson’s Flying Cows,” who likely drove the need for these fences on steroids.This view was taken facing southeast at approximately 4:30 PM on Tuesday, March 3, 2009.
Also, on the other (west) side of the bridge over Reynolds Avenue, the fences were curiously not placed on both sides of the railroad cut. They are absent here on the right (north) side of the cut… This view was taken facing west at approximately 4:30 PM on Tuesday, March 3, 2009.
… but they were placed on the left (south) side of the cut. The monument is to the 14th Brooklyn Infantry Regiment. This view was taken facing northwest at approximately 4:30 PM on Tuesday, March 3, 2009.
So if the evidence shows that fences were located on both sides of the cut, why have fences only been placed on this side of the cut in this location? This view was taken facing northwest at approximately 4:30 PM on Tuesday, March 3, 2009.
We very much admire the National Park Service’s efforts in attempting to restore the battlefield back to the way it looked in 1863. The McPherson Barn is in the background. The monument to the 14th Brooklyn is in the foreground. This view was taken facing southwest at approximately 4:30 PM on Tuesday, March 3, 2009.
It is very helpful to a Licensed Battlefield Guide to take visitors around the field and show them that this is what it might have looked like during the summer of 1863. The McPherson Barn is in the background.This view was taken facing southeast at approximately 4:30 PM on Tuesday, March 3, 2009.
However, if these fences at a highly visible battle location were placed on the field because of someone’s opinion or supposition, and not on any primary source evidence, then where else might fences be placed that were not in those locations before the battle or at the time of the battle? This view was taken facing northwest at approximately 7:30 AM on Sunday, June 12, 2011.