- The Washington Times - Friday, August 4, 2006

From the time of the Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863, John Bachelder (1825-1894) proved himself the leading historian of that historic battle.

Bachelder made maps, hosted reunions, interviewed thousands of participants and assisted in the placement of monuments. Without him, the “open book” (a bronze monument on Cemetery Ridge) at the “Angle,” otherwise known as the “High Water Mark of the Confederacy” monument, might not exist. In fact, the term “high water mark” was one of Bachelder’s many contributions.

Bachelder was so thorough in his work, so detailed and exacting, and so convincing in his presentation that Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock, who was seriously wounded at the “high water mark” during Pickett’s Charge, sent Bachelder and his map to see President Lincoln.

In a letter to Lincoln’s secretary, John G. Nicolay, dated Feb. 20, 1865, Hancock wrote, “My Dear Sir, I think the President would like to see the great map of the battle field of Gettysburg and in order that he may have that opportunity I have sent the author, with a copy of the map to you: The Gentleman’s name is J B. Bachelder of Boston Mass.”

Editions of the map from 1864, 1865 and 1866 are still on hand at the Library of Congress, which describes the map as “Colored bird’s-eye view showing the topography of the battlefield by the perspective of the drawing, shading and coloring. Drainage, vegetation, roads and streets, railroads, bridges, houses and names of residents, fences, points of interest on the battlefield, including designations of places where officers were killed or wounded, are indicated. … The locations of the corps, divisions, brigades, etc. of both armies, with the names of commanding officers, are given in detail. Badge symbols are used to identify the Federal corps.”

Additionally, the maps bear this inscription: “The positions of the troops of our respective commands represented upon this picture have been arranged under our immediate direction and may be relied upon as substantially correct.” The inscription appears above reproduced signatures of Union Gens. Abner Doubleday, John Newton, Winfield Hancock, David Birney, George Sykes, John Sedgwick, Oliver O. Howard, A.S. Williams and Henry Slocum.

Although Bachelder missed the battle, he arrived within a week and began fervently collecting information by interviewing wounded soldiers. This became a lifelong obsession for Bachelder along with the proper placement of the right and left flanks of engaged units and the production of the detailed topographic sketches. As a result, he became, unquestionably the leading authority on the Battle of Gettysburg almost from the time the smoke and rain cleared in July 1863 until his death in 1894.

As the wounded made their way home from Gettysburg, Bachelder followed the Union Army. He set about to accomplish a goal for which historians would thank him: He interviewed officers from every Union regiment that fought at Gettysburg. In fact, he wound up interviewing every officer he could find who had been present at Gettysburg. From this work sprang his intriguing three-dimensional map showing the positions of the units.

Bachelder’s map proved such a sensation that news of his expertise, knowledge and desire to interview battle participants spread rapidly. He began to receive hundreds of unsolicited personal accounts of the battle: an avalanche of information that further expanded his knowledge and his reputation as the Gettysburg expert.

Bachelder even began to host reunions of veterans from Gettysburg. Those events gave him ample opportunities to interview battle participants while they explored the ground over which they had fought.

By 1880, Congress authorized the unheard of sum of $50,000 to be paid to Bachelder to produce the authoritative written account of the battle. By this time, however, Bachelder was embroiled in controversies from all sides. Men wanting to glorify and expand upon the importance of their unit’s contributions caused Bachelder to become uncooperative and even a might difficult. Failing memories clashed with his earlier eye-witness accounts.

When Bachelder completed his history of the Battle of Gettysburg, veterans, generals, congressmen and almost everyone else expressed dismay. Perturbed by the disagreements and arguments with eye-witness participants, Bachelder had elected to rely primarily upon the official records of commanders. Thus, his eight-volume tome largely neglects the treasure trove of eye-witness accounts that he had assembled over nearly 20 years. Less than 10 percent of the project reflects the work he collected on his own.

The War Department was not pleased. Though Bachelder was paid his fee, his manuscript went unpublished and was sent to Gettysburg for storage.

Bachelder continued his work all through the 1880s at the Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association, which was charged with preserving select features of the battlefield. In 1893, the secretary of war appointed Bachelder to a three-man commission responsible for marking and enlarging the Gettysburg battlefield — but Bachelder died the next year. More than a quarter-century later, relatives donated his collection to the New Hampshire Historical Society,

In the late 1950s, historian Edwin B. Coddington stumbled upon Bachelder’s long-forgotten collection of correspondence from eye-witnesses. One letter, from Father William Corby, explained the background behind the actions of the chaplain of the Irish Brigade at Gettysburg. There also were letters from Confederate Gen. James Longstreet, Union commanding Gen. George Meade, Union Gen. Andrew A. Humphreys, Confederate Gen. Jubal Early, Union chief of artillery Henry Hunt, and Union Gen. O.O. Howard.

Perhaps more significantly, there were hundreds of letters from sergeants, artillerymen and cavalry troopers. Bachelder’s wonderful archives cut across all ranks of both armies, and many men had important details to offer that are found nowhere else.

Coddington pored over the Bachelder papers and ultimately created a priceless addition to Gettysburg’s historical record: “The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command.”

David L. and Audrey J. Ladd turned the Bachelder papers and eye-witness accounts into another book: “The Bachelder Papers: Gettysburg in Their Own Words.”

Although some of Bachelder’s works are out of print, crafty Internet surfers can find many relevant volumes and maps available for sale. The out-of-print books by Bachelder occasionally get reprinted when sufficient pre-publication orders exist.

John Bachelder’s obsession with the battle of Gettysburg is his gift to us and to the generations to follow.

John E. Carey is a frequent contributor to the Civil War page. He can be reached at jecarey 2603@cox.net. He is a great-nephew of Father William Corby.

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