Gettysburg, Pa. -- Consider this: You're standing at the crossroads of the Civil War, and you want to inspire tourists to imagine how 35 square miles in this tranquil Pennsylvania countryside were the stage for a three-day inferno of smoke and death with casualties that numbered about 51,000.
As a rookie guide and history fan, you know that the Battle of Gettysburg, 132 years ago this weekend, was the turning point of the war and its bloodiest fight, costing Robert E. Lee more than a third of his men. But acquiring such knowledge is the easy part; you must learn to spin it into compelling narratives, find clever ways to captivate your audience -- and maybe even invent some historical jokes.
It's a tough job with low pay, and may take over your weekends. But when the National Park Service put out a call for applicants last year, Tom Prisk, 30, a Chapel Hill, N.C., resident who owns a computer company, found the opportunity irresistible. So did nearly 200 other Civil War buffs, including a former Baltimore police officer.
They were a varied lot, in age, home state and occupation, but they shared a common, powerful bond: an avid interest in this most popular and revered of American battlefields, where the Confederacy lost its best chance of winning the war, and valor and horror coexisted everywhere.
The battle was fought by more than 165,000 Americans and contained clashes with names such as the Peach Orchard, Devil's Den, Little Round Top, Culp's Hill and Pickett's Charge.
During the rigorous process that produces licensed guides, Mr. Prisk and his classmates received an in-the-field lesson from Charlie Fennell, a full-time guide at Gettysburg and a part-time history teacher at a nearby community college. The long-haired Mr. Fennell, 41, took a bus load of men and women around the battlefield and, microphone in hand, was so enthusiastic and animated that the trip seemed like a revival meeting. The veteran guide waved his arms, spoke in Deep South and Yankee dialects, made sounds like gunfire and compared troop movements to football plays.
Mr. Fennell's first stop was on Seminary Ridge, a Confederates position. He discussed the differences between rifled and smoothbore cannon, calling the guns "groovies and smoothies." He recalled a tour when a schoolgirl looked into the barrel of a cannon, agitating a nest and causing a bird to strike her in the forehead. "I was there when it went off," he said, noting that the girl thus became "the most recent casualty of the Battle of Gettysburg."
Another stop was the Peach Orchard, where Union Gen. Daniel Sickles invited a Confederate attack by moving his troops out beyond the main defensive line without telling his superiors. During the fighting, Sickles' leg was blown off, Mr. Fennell said. "I don't want to hear you say General Sickles lost his leg at Gettysburg. He took it with him" and deposited it at the Army Medical Museum in Washington, where he visited it for 50 years.
As the bus passed the High Water Mark, where Union troops thwarted Pickett's Charge on the last day of the battle, Mr. Fennell pointed at the monument to Confederate Gen. Lewis Armistead showing where he fell after reaching the Union lines. Mr. Fennell recalled the myth that no grass grows around the monument because of Confederate blood that spilled there. "It's just from people walking around it," he said.
The Battle of Gettysburg was fought July 1-3, 1863. General Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, 75,000 men, had invaded Pennsylvania in a daring effort to crush Gen. George G. Meade's Army of the Potomac and shock the Union into abandoning the war. But Meade's men -- more than 90,000 -- held strong defensive positions on high ground, and Lee's army was shredded as it made repeated frontal assaults. The South lost about 28,000 men -- dead, wounded or missing -- and the North, about 23,000.
Only two Civil War sites, Gettysburg and Vicksburg, have licensed battlefield guides. The Park Service decided last summer to add between 20 and 30 positions to the Gettysburg staff of 105 veteran guides. Of the 192 people who began the six-month qualifying process by taking a written test, just 29 won the right to wear the guides' uniform.
As tourism rises at the park, so does the demand for guide services. "In the past, people found out there were guides when they got here. Now, they're coming in and saying they want guides," says Park Ranger John Andrews, 42, who manages the guide program. Last year, "demand was way outstripping the supply," he says. The battlefield experienced a threefold increase in denied requests for guides. Gettysburg's attendance exceeded 1.7 million tourists last year -- up more than 260,000 from 1993. Ranger Andrews cites TV documentaries about the Civil War and the 1993 movie "Gettysburg" as important reasons for the increase.
About 12 percent of the visitors receive tours from licensed guides, for $25 a car or $60 a bus. Guides don't follow a fixed route; they tailor the trip to the customer's wishes. Guides are affiliated with the Park Service but are self-employed, make their own schedules and choose from among three license classes: full time, part time or weekend. Those licenses have an annual fee of $150, $100 and $50, respectively. Guides also must purchase their uniforms (a blend of blue and gray) and accessories -- a total of about $300.
Full-time guides average $12,000 a year, not including tips, which occasionally are larger than the fees. Usually, the work supplements another occupation, such as teaching. And more than half the veteran guides have retired from other jobs.
To earn a license requires more than knowing who's in Grant's Tomb. The whole process demands passing a written exam, attending a two-day workshop that stresses speaking skills, and passing a dreaded two-hour oral exam.
Tom Prisk was the first in his class to earn the license.
He arrives for his first day on the job in April, 30 minutes before the Gettysburg visitor center is to open at 8 a.m. Tourists already are lined up to hire a licensed guide.
Mr. Prisk drove 6 1/2 hours the night before to get here, to lead just one tour, lasting two hours. When it's over, he'll drive more than four hours to Newark, N.J., and fly from there to Seattle for a business meeting. "I just love the Civil War, and Gettysburg in particular," he says. "And I'd like to teach people about it, too."
A park ranger lets Mr. Prisk into the visitor center. He takes a quick left, ascending the staircase to Room 104, the guides' lounge. By 8 a.m., 18 guides have assembled for the drawing of tags for the order of assignment.
Mr. Prisk gets a low number and soon is assigned to the Stephens family of Toledo, Ohio: John, Patty and their 12-year-old son, Patrick, who belongs to two Civil War re-enactor units.
Mr. Prisk breaks with tradition and lets Mr. Stephens drive his own van. Guides usually drive so that tourists can concentrate on the sights, but don't mind if drivers want to stay behind the wheel. The Stephens family is touring area Civil War battlefields: Gettysburg, Antietam and maybe New Market and Winchester in Virginia -- all to slake Patrick's thirst for Civil War knowledge.
On the way to the site of Gettysburg's first clashes, northwest of the town, Mr. Prisk speaks rapidly, trying to fit the three-day battle into two hours, which is the challenge for all guides. In his computer business, he addresses groups that range from a handful to 6,000. But telling a story in a moving vehicle -- sometimes while driving it -- is a different setting.
Despite some jitters during his inaugural tour, Mr. Prisk works some magic on the battlefield. His words draw Patrick from his second-row slouch to a kneeling position between his father and Tom in the front row. The guide's membership in three Civil War re-enactor units is one incentive for the boy.
Mr. Prisk's computer knowledge comes in handy when Mr. Stephens asks if there is any way to see if he's related to Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens. The guide suggests Civil War bulletin boards on the Internet.
Not all goes well. A few times, Mr. Prisk has to stop in midword to keep Seminary and Cemetery ridges straight -- a problem for many guides, veteran and rookie. (Seminary Ridge was the Confederate side, and Cemetery Ridge the Union position.) Also, his tour is running a little over -- but the Stephenses act as if that's a bonus.
Throughout the trip, Mr. Prisk answers many questions: about the difference between the foliage at the battlefield then and now, the age of Gen. Lee at the time of the battle, the use of artillery, and the location of the Eisenhower Farm, where President Dwight D. Eisenhower and his wife lived after his second term. The Park Service manages the nearby site.
After a little over two hours, the Stephenses and Mr. Prisk return to the visitor center, now crowded and noisy. More than 5,200 people will enter on this day.
"I was a little nervous upfront," Mr. Prisk says of his first try. "Once I got going, it was all right. I'm more nervous in front of a small number of people."
The path to becoming a guide began last August for Mr. Prisk and his classmates, when the Park Service sent an examination notice to around 600 people who had asked to be on the mailing list for prospective guides. Along with the notice, the Park Service enclosed some sample questions:
** "Rhode's Division was confronted on Oak Ridge by ----- Division." (Robinson's)
** "The insignia of the 3rd Division of each Union corps was ----- in color." (Blue)
** "The 10 pounder ----- was a cast iron gun with a wrought iron jacket around the breech."(Parrott)
Those questions didn't discourage all of the recipients -- and neither did the suggested reading list of 52 books. One hundred and ninety-two people showed up Dec. 10 at Gettysburg Junior High School to take the two-hour exam of multiple choice, matching, fill-in-the-blank and short essay questions, such as:
** "Abraham Lincoln arrived in Gettysburg for the dedication ceremonies on what date?" (Nov. 18, 1863)
** "Where did Lee's Army recross the Potomac River on July 13?" (Two answers were accepted: Williamsport or Falling Waters.)
** "Near which of the following features would you find the 'triangular field'? McPherson Farm, Devil's Den, Ziegler's Grove, Spangler's Spring or the Bushman Farm?" (Devil's Den)
Some of the guide candidates who passed the exam went to great lengths to prepare.
Howard Calp, 41, a Baltimorean and Northern High School graduate, attended Civil War classes in Gettysburg, read about the battle during his job as a night watchman at a horse stable, and spent so much time on the battlefield that he became familiar to guides giving tours.
The former Baltimore police officer, who patrolled Highlandtown from 1982 to 1987, had been coming to Gettysburg since he was 11. He considered a guide career soon after he left the force; this became a real possibility when he and his family moved to Gettysburg in 1993 for the town's charm and history.
To study for the exam, Ralph White, 48, of Silver Spring, stayed a total of three weeks alone in the off-season at his Ocean City condominium. And he drove to Gettysburg every weekend to soak in the battlefield. "If I hadn't gone to Ocean City, I wouldn't have passed," he says.
Mr. White has been a Civil War re-enactor for 20 years. In the movie "Gettysburg," he played a Confederate soldier in Pickett's Charge. Two of Mr. White's Virginia ancestors fought in the battle. The Vietnam War veteran works as an audit manager for the federal government in Washington and is a certified public accountant, has a Master of Business Administration degree, is a licensed pilot and holds a real estate license.
"So I know about tests, OK," he says. "This test was a bitch. I don't want to take it again."
Terry Deal, 37, of Airville, Pa., and Sherri Freed, 27, of Perkasie, Pa., were study partners and scored in the top 10 of the class. Both worked at the Cyclorama, which displays a 360-degree mural of Pickett's Charge. At first, Ms. Freed, a history graduate student at Lehigh University, was merely helping Ms. Deal prepare. Then Ms. Deal asked her study partner to take the exam also. Ms. Freed had to admit she was curious about the exam's questions.
They took the test in separate classrooms and earned nearly identical scores; Ms. Deal missed one more question than Ms. Freed. When Ms. Deal received her results in the mail, she screamed for joy and "hugged everyone in the house, including the UPS man."
Of the 192 who took the written exam, 39 passed. But they still faced two hurdles.
The first was a weekend workshop in January on speaking skills. That caused the least attrition; just one of the guide candidates dropped out, leaving 38.
The last hurdle -- the worst, many say -- was the oral exam. To pass, a candidate must successfully take a park ranger and veteran guide on a two-hour tour of the battlefield. The examiners are treated as tourists.
Ranger Andrews describes the oral test this way: "Tell us a story, keep our attention. Make the battlefield come alive." He says the biggest mistake for a candidate is not "using the battlefield" and speaking as if in a classroom without any visual aids. Nearly all of the guides fail the first time, which adds to the importance of passing the second. There is no third try.
"Being from Baltimore, I'm in a little bit of a disadvantage. I talk, sometimes, Baltimore lingo," Mr. Calp says. After his first try, which he failed, one of his evaluators said, "Howard, there's no such word in the English language called 'youse.' "
"I didn't remember saying that," Mr. Calp says. "She said, 'Trust me, you did, three times.'
"I'm trying to put together a comprehensive tour the easiest way I can, and now they've given me this to think about," Mr. Calp says. "I was terrified. But they said on my second orals that they did not hear me say anything like that."
Mr. Prisk was the first in his class to earn his license but others started guiding before his first day. Ms. Deal and Mr. Calp have been working full time since early April, and say they love it.
Terry Deal's study partner, Sherri Freed, passed her second exam oral in May, as did Mr. White, the Ocean City scholar. Of the 38 candidates who took the test, 29 passed.
Ms. Deal does three to four tours a day. One of the people she guided was a 96-year-old man who said he was the nephew of a Confederate officer in Pickett's Charge. She started tours on horseback in May and is anxious to do buses; she has a commercial driver's license.
On his second day, Mr. Calp had to guide the son of the Australian ambassador to the United States -- in a stretch limousine. "Oh it was wild," Mr. Calp says. "And they had the battlefield cleanup that day; a lot of the park officials were on the battlefield picking up trash."
On West Confederate Avenue, he spotted Ranger Andrews, who was taken aback at seeing the white limo being driven by the green guide. "I drove by," says Mr. Calp. "I pushed the button down for the window and I said, 'Morning, John.' "
Then Mr. Calp resumed his third tour as a licensed battlefield guide.
PATRICK HICKERSON works for the Howard County Bureau of The Sun.
ABOUT THESE PHOTOGRAPHS
When I was given the assignment to make portraits in Gettysburg, the first thing I thought of were the powerful photographs taken by Alexander Gardner, Mathew Brady and others right after the devastating battle. These were our country's first photojournalists and they brought back unvarnished views of the toll of war.
In tribute to these pioneers, I decided to use the same type of camera they had used, a wooden view camera, mounted on a tripod. The photographer must get under a dark cloth to see the composed image, which appears upside-down on ground glass in the back of the camera.
For this story, a Wista field camera was used, with TMAX 400 black-and-white 4-inch by 5-inch sheet film. This is a smaller, less cumbersome version of the 19th-century view cameras.
I hoped the clarity of the large negatives, coupled with the long exposure times required (typically 1/8th second or longer for my situation), would help imbue my modern images with the timeless quality that makes 19th-century photographs resonate. The mechanical, thoughtful approach required to use a view camera is the exact opposite of today's auto-everything camera experience. Putting away my 35mm motor-driven cameras enabled me to slow down and really feel the history and the sadness of the remarkably preserved landscape that is Gettysburg.