Gettysburg Burning

Seen on April 12, deep black identifies where an April 10, 2017 fire burned hot on the fields between Little Round Top and Crawford Avenue at Gettysburg National Military Park (above). National Park Service fire crews conducted a “prescribed burn” to remove the invasive species and woody shrubs taking over the open terrain on the western slope of Little Round Top. Seen from the LRT summit, the after-effect of the fire was interesting (below). (Brian F. Swartz Photos)

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?

Not quite.

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 fire-swept western slope of Little Round Top beneath The Castle indicates that the goal of an April 10 prescribed burn was successful: The invasive vegetation overrunning the open terrain was removed by the flames (above). The visual effect was more pronounced from Houck’s Ridge above nearby Devil’s Den (below). (Brian F. Swartz Photos)

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.

A blossoming redbud colors the Little Top Summit on April 12, 2017 as visitors emerge from The Castle, the monument dedicated to the 12th and 44th New York infantry regiments (above). The nearby bronze edifice of Col. Patrick H. O’Rorke gleams in the soft evening sunlight (below). Legend claims that Gettysburg visitors who rub O’Rorke’s nose will experience good luck. Now the rubbing has extended to his entire face! (Brian F. Swartz Photos)

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 visionsofmaine@tds.net. He loves hearing from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.

Brian Swartz

About Brian Swartz

Welcome to "Maine at War," the blog about the roles played by Maine and her sons and daughters in the Civil War. I am a Civil War buff and a newspaper editor recently retired from the Bangor Daily News. Maine sent hero upon hero — soldiers, nurses, sailors, chaplains, physicians — south to preserve their country in the 1860s. “Maine at War” introduces these heroes and heroines, who, for the most part, upheld the state's honor during that terrible conflict. We tour the battlefields where they fought, and we learn about the Civil War by focusing on Maine’s involvement with it. Be prepared: As I discover to this very day, the facts taught in American classrooms don’t always jibe with Civil War reality. I can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net.