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A living monument to Gettysburg

Created date

January 22nd, 2013
Gettysburg guide Jim Tate leads a tour

On July 3, 1938, 250,000 people gathered on the battlefield of Gettysburg, Pa., for the unveiling of the Eternal Light Peace Memorial. It was the 75th anniversary of the fight that claimed 51,000 American lives, North and South, and the monument, made of granite from Maine and limestone from Alabama, commemorated the battle with a spirit of unity.

President Franklin Roosevelt was on hand to dedicate the memorial, accompanied by over 1,800 Union and Confederate veterans—former enemies who now sat side by side as fellow Americans.

“All of them we honor,” Roosevelt declared, motioning to the aged soldiers, “not asking under what flag they fought then, thankful that they stand together under one flag now.”

His words met with resounding applause from the mass of spectators standing shoulder to shoulder in the packed field. Twenty-year-old Jim Tate was among them, craning his neck for a glimpse of the president and, later, waiting in line to shake hands with the men who fought the historic battle, some of them clad in faded, moth-eaten uniforms.

Despite his youth, Tate understood the palpable significance of the occasion. It was the last time Union and Confederate soldiers would meet on that hallowed battleground.

Tate had taken part in the final chapter of Gettysburg’s Civil War story, and for the last 60 years, he’s helped keep it alive for generations of Americans as a licensed battlefield tour guide.

High-profile historic destination

Every year, one million people descend on the Pennsylvania borough where Generals Robert E. Lee and George Meade faced off in 1863. Because of the sheer volume of tourists and the site’s high profile as a Civil War destination, Gettysburg National Military Park is one of the few federal historic sites where tour guides must be certified and licensed in order to show visitors around the nearly 6,000-acre battlefield.

To do this, candidates have to pass an intense battery of oral and written exams that require extensive knowledge of the three-day fight and of the Civil War as a whole. Since 1915, a scant 253 historians have managed to earn a coveted guide badge.

Tate received his in 1951.

“I studied for at least a year before I took the test,” he recalls. “I read pretty much everything I could get my hands on—history books, diaries, and memoirs written by men who had fought in the battle. Looking back, I think I took to it naturally.”

That’s not at all surprising given Tate’s pedigree.

Born and raised in Gettysburg, where his family had lived since 1781, Tate grew up with the Civil War in his backyard. His playgrounds were Devil’s Den and Little Round Top, his grandfather fought in the war, and his father-in-law was a licensed battlefield guide.

Making the past feel present

Tate routinely weaves these connections and experiences into his tour in a way that brings the past to life.

“Because of my age and the people I’ve had the chance to meet, I’m in a position to prove to young people that we’re not that far removed from our nation’s Civil War,” he says.

“My own grandfather enlisted in the Pennsylvania infantry in 1864 and fought at Cold Harbor. If you’re able to bridge that time gap, you can make historic events seem like yesterday.”

On a recent tour with a family from Kentucky, Tate made a stop at the Eternal Light Peace Memorial. He began with an account of the fighting that took place there on the first day of the battle, then directed their attention to the monument.

“Union and Confederate soldiers fought here in 1863 and, on July 3, 1938, reunited here as friends for the dedication of this memorial. The crowd just about filled this entire field,” he added, tracing the landscape with his cane, “and I was one of them.”

Tate is among the few remaining eye witnesses to this chapter of America’s past—a living monument to a small town’s role in a big war—and, at 94, he has no intention of curbing his exertions on the battlefield.

“To borrow from President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, I may be four score and seven years plus seven,” he quips, “but I still enjoy giving my five, two-hour tours each week.”

Tate’s age is an asset, a well of anecdotes that you won’t find in books. That’s why locals call him the “dean” of tour guides.

History is as much about reminiscing as it is reciting and, in that sense, Jim Tate gives the story of the Battle of Gettysburg something that no one else can—close to 100 years of perspective.