Why was Gettysburg burning? Had Confederate Brig. Gen. John McCausland burned the town down as effectively as he did nearby Chambersburg in late July 1864?
Smoke still wisped amidst the now ashen undergrowth as I stepped onto the summit of Little Round Top on Wednesday, April 12. Brilliant redbud blossoms had brightened the “back way” to LRT from the Taneytown Road. After checking out the squat 20th Maine Infantry monument, I walked up LRT and, moments after glancing at the Gouverneur K. Warren statue, sniffed smoke.
Definitely not burnt gunpowder, but the tangy smoky aroma I long ago associated with helping burn my grandfather’s farm fields each spring. Then I noticed LRT’s western slope, blackened all the way to Crawford Avenue to the west, Warren Avenue to the south, and the Wheatfield Road to the north.
And then I noticed the smoke curling from the wooded area right beside me.
Gettysburg burning: There had to be a logical reason for this.
It turns out that rather than Southern boys trying to “smoke” the Yankees off strategically important Little Round Top, the National Park Service had conducted a “prescribed fire” to remove invasive growth and promote the growth of “native grasses,” According to a Gettysburg National Military Park post on Facebook.
My grandfather, former Brewer Mayor Ray MacKinnon, would have approved.
The western slope of LRT and the Valley of Death were “open at the time of the battle and without treatment, woody vegetation can quickly establish itself and grow into dense woods,” explained the GNMP Facebook post.
The Park Service “uses numerous methods to maintain these historically open areas.” The methods include “prescribed fires, mowing, and herbicide sprays,” and “prescribed fires are the most cost effective and ecological way to manage woody shrubs and invasive species that begin reclaiming” terrain that was open during the Battle of Gettysburg.
To remove the accumulating “woody vegetation” at Little Round Top, NPS managers used the fire-crew members assigned to Gettysburg, plus fire crews from Acadia National Park, Cumberland Gap National Historical Park (among my favorite national parks), the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, and the Gateway National Recreation Area.
A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service fire crew also lent a hand.
The actual Gettysburg burning took place on Monday, April 10, and the NPS closed Little Round Top to all visitors.
Two evenings later, light-colored smoke lifted here and there along the LRT summit and western slope. The sun setting over South Mountain cast a soft light across the bronze face of Col. Patrick H. O’Rorke, killed defending the hill on July 2, 1863. Burnished by finger-rubbing visitors who believe that touching this hero’s image will bring them good luck, his face gleamed in the evening’s glow.
Visitors checked out the view and the monuments, including “The Castle,” the miniature two-story castle erected by the survivors of the 12th and 44th New York infantry regiments. I was surprised at the large number of visitors in mid-April; except for the blacked terrain and wispy smoke, this could have been a typical evening in late May.
On Thursday, April 13, the NPS conducted a similar prescribed fire to clear invasive vegetation from Pardee Field, just northwest of Spangler Spring on the east side of Gettysburg NMP. Fire crews and equipment were everywhere as I drove through the area after the bulk of the fire had burned itself out.
At Pardee Field and Little Round Top alike, the prescribed burns will keep the terrain open as it was during the July 1863 battle and will enhance views, especially from LRT.
I think Joshua L. Chamberlain and the boys of the 20th Maine would have approved.
Brian Swartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He loves hearing from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.