Jim Tate, Gettysburg Guide
At the time we met him, Jim Tate was the oldest of the Licensed Battlefield Guides in Gettysburg.

It was raining, of course. It had rained for a week and shown no signs of stopping, but this was our one chance to see Gettysburg while John and I were in this part of Pennsylvania, hiking through on the Appalachian Trail. Our National Park Service tour bus pulled into the parking area for the Eternal Light Peace Memorial. No one got off the bus. But our tour guide, Jim, lit up with excitement.

“There were about 250,000-300,000 people at Gettysburg when President Roosevelt dedicated this monument. And folks, I don’t know how many people were standing here in the middle of this field when Roosevelt spoke but I was one of them. He looked right down this field and said ‘Hi James.’ I said ‘Hi Franklin, how’s Eleanor?'”

Everyone laughed, of course. But as it turned out, Jim Tate, the oldest of the Licensed Battlefield Guides – best known as the Gettysburg Guides – was a Boy Scout present at the dedication of the monument in 1938, and had the honor of shaking the hands of both Confederate and Union veterans.

Hallowed Ground

From July 1 through July 3, 1863, these rolling pastures ten miles east of the Blue Ridge in Pennsylvania roiled with the sounds of cannonades and gunfire. It was a chance meeting of two armies intent on resupply – General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia coming in from the west, running into General George Meade’s Union Army of the Potomac. More than 165,000 men – and, as we discovered from our guide, a handful of women dressed in soldier’s clothes, fighting alongside their husbands – fought for three days in the fields, forests, and streets of the tiny crossroads of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, population 2,400.

The Confederates had hoped for a victory in a Union state to shatter the already-battered morale of the North, and having such a victory north of Washington, D.C. would cement their position in the War Between the States. But Union troops prevailed, turning the Confederates back south. The win came at a painful price: more than 51,000 soldiers were killed, wounded, captured, or missing in the three-day engagement. By comparison, 58,209 soldiers died during the entire Vietnam War. The Battle of Gettysburg was the largest military battle ever fought in North America.

Gettysburg Battlefield tour group
No matter where you roam in this national park, you will see tour groups. Complex subjects like this require an expert to explain them.

When President Lincoln came to Gettysburg in November, 1863, it was to dedicate a National Cemetery amid the battlefield itself. The dedication, and his “Gettysburg Address,” as it was known from that date onward, set the stage for establishing a permanent memorial. In 1864, Gettysburg citizens – who had been overwhelemed with treating the wounded and burying the dead – created the Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association, and began preserving land around the town. In 1895, they transferred those lands to the Federal government to create a National Military Park. By 1933, it became part of the National Park System.

Bringing the Battle to Life

We were fortunate, the luck of the draw that day, that Jim Tate was the man who boarded our National Park Service bus for the tour of Gettysburg National Military Park. Hired in 1951 as a Licensed Battlefield Guide, he knew the battlefield like an old friend, and indeed, he’d grown up in and around it, a native of Gettysburg with a grandfather buried in the National Cemetery. The first thing Jim did was walk through the bus and shake our hands and ask where we were from. Every trip is different, we found out, as Jim used that information to guide the bus driver on a route past specific monuments that would be of interest to the people on his tour.

24th Michigan monument Gettysburg
One of more than 1,300 monuments in the national park, each with their own story.

There are more than 1,300 monuments on the Gettysburg Battlefield. Most were erected by the survivors of various units that served at the battle, with some coming from state veterans’ associations and related civic organizations to honor their fallen dead. Years ago, I’d driven through the battlefield and looked at the monuments, but they didn’t mean much, just names and dates and places. With a Gettysburg Guide, you get stories.

“On the left is the 150th PA Infantry, part of the Bucktail Brigade. If you wanted to be a member of the Bucktail Brigade, you had to shoot a deer and wear the tail on your hat! Look on the monument, at that hat…I guess they figured if you could shoot a deer you were a pretty good shot.”

“Coming up on your left is a statue of John Burns, who was the town constable. He fought in the War of 1812, he was almost 70 years of age. He had some cows grazing here. Look at that statue, he was a feisty old Scotsman, he’s got his fist clenched, jaw set—those Rebels aren’t going to get my cows. He came out and joined the troops. He was wounded three times, but he survived! So did some of the cows, by the way.”

Little Round Top
Jim gave us time to roam around Little Round Top, one of the must-see spots at Gettysburg Battlefield

Jim tossed out anecdotes like these along the route, which in turn kept us focused on what we were here to see and what was coming up next. History is often dry – especially when locked up in stone and plaques – but having a Gettsyburg Guide along made the visit memorable.

The Gettysburg Guides

Officially called The Association of Licensed Battlefield Guides, the Gettysburg Guides date back to 1915, organized under the War Department. We were told that, once upon a time, you’d drive through the square (a circle) in downtown Gettysburg and many people would offer their services as a guide, most without any knowledge of the war or the battle. But visitors wouldn’t know that. They’d just hire someone who sounded good.

Affiliated with the National Park Service, every Licensed Battlefield Guide has a deep background in Civil War history and must prove his or her knowledge of the events of the Battle of Gettysburg – not just facts and figures, but stories and in-depth research as well. When an opening in the guide service arises, those interested in the position take an extensive exam. The person with the highest score gets the license.

During our stay in Gettysburg, we also met Stuart Dempsey, another member of this elite cadre of guides. The Gaslight Inn regularly brings him in to answer guests questions about the battle – an excellent way to walk out the door with an idea of what you want to see – and he spoke to us about the regimentation of units and their insignia. I thought the topic would be dry, but we were curious, so we came to his talk, and left fascinated. He broke down the units that served on the battlefield to their smallest components, regiments, which – we didn’t know – were recruited from very narrow geographic areas, so they included a lot of friends and neighbors. One such regiment had a long string of bad luck, and as it turned out, included some of Stuart’s relatives. He showed us the tattoo he had of their regimental symbol.

With the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg approaching in July 2013, I was saddened to learn that Jim Tate passed away early this year. We count ourselves fortunate to have met him. He served 62 years as a licensed guide, and from the in-depth tour we received, undoubtedly made his impression on millions of visitors over the years, sharing his stories to help us remember the lessons of the Battle of Gettysburg.

The Tour

Gettysburg is northwest of Washington D.C. and is an easy drive from D.C., Philadelphia, and Baltimore. Tours of the Gettysburg Battlefield are offered year-round, but the prettiest times to visit are during the fresh greens of late spring and the changing colors of early fall.

Make sure you visit the Getttysburg National Military Park before deciding whether or not to take an official tour or to do your own driving tour. If you select a bus tour from the visitor center, your guide will be one of the official Licensed Battlefield Guides.

Personal tours are also available starting at the visitor center. You’ll hand the keys to your car to a Licensed Battlefield Guide, and he or she will drive your family or group around the battlefield, creating a tour on the fly to suit your interests.

Arrive early to ensure you can book a guide; the visitor center opens at 8 AM daily, excepting Christmas and Thanksgiving.