The “great battle which would naturally decide the contest”: John Badger Bachelder and the Creation of Gettysburg

John bachelder and his wife on the battlefield at gettysburg.

John bachelder and his wife on the battlefield at gettysburg.

The creation of Gettysburg as legend and central turning point of the war and the creation of Gettysburg as a field of monuments centers on one man: John Badger Bachelder.  Bachelder was not a Civil War veteran, nor did he ever serve in the military, yet he is the key to answering the question of how Gettysburg came to be what we know today.

Before the war, Bachelder was a portrait and landscape painter looking to make his name by rivaling the great military paintings of his time.  His original focus was the Battle of Bunker Hill, but with the Civil War underway he decided to wait and watch.  He would find the battle which would decide the war, study its every detail, and then write the definitive illustrated history. 

He originally traveled with the Union Army during the Peninsula Campaign of 1862, but fell ill and had to return home.  Officers assured him that they would notify him right away if a battle of great significance occurred, and within days of Gettysburg’s end he was on the field.  This, he decided, was the “great battle which would naturally decide the contest” and he immediately set out to prove it.  He first rode the entirety of the battlefield, then sketched a map of the landscape.  With map in hand he traveled around Gettysburg collecting accounts from local residents and wounded soldiers recovering in hospitals, then spent the next two winters traveling through the winter encampments interviewing the soldiers and officers of every regiment present at the battle.  After collecting personal interviews he sent a mass mailing complete with a sketch of his map to the commanders of every battery and regiment in the army requesting they mark their positions in the line of battle.

While circulating his map as a print, he established himself as the leading historian on the battle, even though he had no training as a writer or historian.  His reputation depended on Gettysburg being the decisive battle of the war, and he was determined to make sure it received that distinction.  After the war Bachelder would walk the field with veterans; first he framed the general action for them, then let them fill in details with their recollections.  In this way, veterans got much of their sense of the fighting from what Bachelder told them.

Bachelder accumulated an enormous amount of information from his inquiries and interviews, a valuable resource for any scholar of the battle.  Of course, with the confusion of battle, the multitude of perspectives, and the distance of several years, many of the accounts did not match or contradicted each other.  He had an overwhelming task of sorting through the web of recollections, and the veterans put their trust in him despite his lack of skills as a historian.  His account was also heavily biased toward the Union, because Confederate recollections were slow to come in.

Bachelder chose not to paint the battle, which had been his first intention.  Instead he chose James Walker to paint The Repulse of Longstreet’s Assault under his guidance.  Bachelder chose to focus on his research to hopefully create an illustrated history of the battle.  In 1880 he petitioned the U.S. Congress for an appropriation for write the book and received $50,000, thus marking him as the official government historian of Gettysburg. 

Central to Gettysburg mythology is its role as the turning point of the war, and the “high water mark” of the Confederacy.  Interestingly enough, early visitors to the field paid little attention to the center of the Union line.  It was only in 1869 when Bachelder had an epiphany that the core meaning of the battlefield changed: “The thought of naming the copse of trees the ‘High Water Mark of the Rebellion,’ and the idea of perpetuating its memory by a monument, was mine.”  Bachelder chose the geographic center of the battlefield, the site of Longstreet’s July 3rd attack, as the site to represent the exact location where the Union had been saved. 

Bachelder was not only responsible for the naming of the Copse of Trees, but also the fence surrounding them and the large monument next to it.  His goal with the monument was to permanently mark the site of the High Water Mark and explain why that site was more important than all the others.  He designed a large monument, with a footprint of eight feet by ten feet, depicting a large “book of history” opened to its most important page: that which listed the names of the units who had repelled Pickett’s Charge on July 3, 1863.  Over time, the pedestal supporting the book grew to a footprint exceeding eighteen feet by forty-eight feet.

bachelder's high water mark monument.

bachelder's high water mark monument.

In addition to Bachelder’s “High Water Mark” monument, scores of monuments began springing up on the field as veterans organizations sought to leave their mark on the field and commemorate their service.  Not only was Gettysburg a more accessible battlefield (being in Pennsylvania and not in the South), its position as “THE” battle of the war encouraged veterans organizations to mark their positions on the field.  In this, Bachelder also had a strong hand.  He served on the board of the Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association and acted as its superintendent of tablets and legends.  He was well suited for this position since he had the research to understand veteran’s claims to the field; however, this position gave him the authority over the locations and designs of the monuments and the power to deny the placement of a monument.  This gave him further opportunity to shape the history and memory of the battlefield to his wishes.

Under Bachelder’s care the idea that Gettysburg and July 3rd was the turning point of the war grew into fact in popular American folklore.  He never did publish an illustrated history of the battle, his original goal, but he was the one man who had the largest impact on the Gettysburg we know today.  Despite plenty of scholarly evidence to disprove or argue against Gettysburg and Pickett’s Charge as the turning point of the war, this myth persists even today, all due to the work of one man.

Further Reading

Thomas A. Desjardin, These Honored Dead: How the Story of Gettysburg Shaped American Memory. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2003. (pages 83-107 are about Bachelder)

Kathleen Logothetis Thompson graduated from Siena College in May 2010 with a B.A. in History and a Certificate in Revolutionary Era Studies.  She earned her M.A. in History from West Virginia University in May 2012.  Her thesis “A Question of Life or Death: Suicide and Survival in the Union Army” examines wartime suicide among Union soldiers, its causes, and the reasons that army saw a relatively low suicide rate.  She is currently pursuing her PhD at West Virginia University with research on mental trauma in the Civil War.  In addition, Kathleen has been a seasonal interpreter at Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park since 2010 and has worked on various other publications and projects.