From the woods where Pickett’s Charge began, the National Park Service beamed the battle of Gettysburg across the country to at least 300,000 pupils on May 3.
Park rangers and Civil War re-enactors took part in a televised “field trip” broadcast live via satellite to schools in more than 30 states. The hour-long program was created as growing interest in the park has forced officials to turn away increasing numbers of pupils every year.
“They may never be able to get here,” said Barbara Sanders, one of the rangers who devised and presented the program, which also used the internet. “And now they’re learning from the actual resource.”
Television cameras, flanked by bright lights, were set up at three locations in Spangler’s Woods, which was held by Confederates during the three-day battle in July 1863. Cables and power cords snaked through the grass to a satellite truck parked out of camera range.
“It’s like a small movie set,” said John Latschar, superintendent of Gettysburg National Military Park, as he watched the event unfold.
Sanders and Scott Hartwig, a park historian who helped develop the program, stood on a small stage in the field, narrating the program and taking questions pupils sent by electronic mail.
One wanted to know the difference between infantry troops, who fought on the ground, and cavalry units, who went into battle on horseback. Another asked about the effect of the battle on Gettysburg, which was a town of 2,400 when 160,000 soldiers clashed there.
Two groups of re-enactorsone in gray, one in blueperformed as part of the program, illustrating the life of a Civil War soldier. The Southern group practiced marching in ranks and fired a cannon. A cavalry messenger rode into the Northern camp and the soldiers prepared for battle.
Two fifth-grade classes watched the broadcast at Old Bonhomme School in the St. Louis suburb of Olivette.
Jonathan Ehrlich, 11, said the program “seemed like it was real. It was like you’re going back in time.”
“It was a good description of what happened before a battle,” said his classmate Rebecca Silva.
“I thought there would be more fighting,” pupil Matt Woodson said. “But the facts were pretty cool.”
Old Bonhomme teacher Beth Webb said the Gettysburg program helped her introduce the Civil War to her pupils. The Park Service used the internet to distribute study material about the war and about individual soldiers who were at Gettysburg.
For the last month, classes planning to watch the broadcast could access new material every week, including mock newspapers that reported on the progress of local soldiers.
“I liked the presentation,” Webb said. “It gave a lot of valuable information.”
Nearly 50 pupils at the school watched, writing comments in journals about how they would feel preparing for battle or if a loved one were sent to war.
The number of pupils around the country who watched the May 3 program, broadcast live twice and available to any school with satellite television capability, dwarfed the 4,500 pupils who tour Gettysburg National Military Park each year. In recent years, the Park Service has turned away about 1,500 pupils annually because of crowding.
The broadcast was developed initially to offer a taste of Gettysburg to pupils who might have planned field trips but couldn’t be accommodated. The nationwide availability of the program showed the park to pupils who might never have come to Gettysburg.
The program was put on by the Park Service with help from a private production company, using mobile broadcast facilities of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the U.S. Navy.
The program cost about $55,000 and was funded by the Park Service; the Friends of the National Parks at Gettysburg, a non-profit group that supports the park; and Eastern National, a contractor at the park.
Gettysburg National Military Park