Guest Columns


Ken Salazar, Gettysburg, and America’s Great Outdoors

I am always on the lookout for Colorado connections to the American Civil War. Last week (Friday, March 25), I was thrilled to receive word, through the Civil War Trust, that Colorado’s very own Ken Salazar, in his role as U.S. Secretary of the Interior, announced the acquisition by the National Park Service of a critical 95-acre “in-holding” at Gettysburg Battlefield.

This wonderful news is significant at several levels. First, the parcel acquired was central to the first day of the three-day Gettysburg battle (July 1-July 3, 1863), and essentially completes the long-term preservation of the entire “Day 1” battlefield.

Second, this preservation victory at the beginning of our national Sesquicentennial celebration of the Civil War provides exactly the right “shot from the starter’s pistol” for four years of focused effort to preserve other “hallowed grounds” through similar partnerships. In this case, Secretary Salazar and the National Park Service were able to bring to fruition years of effort by the Park Service, The Conservation Fund, The Civil War Trust, and others to lock up the site.

Third, this accomplishment is an early success for President Obama’s and Secretary Salazar’s recently launched “America’s Great Outdoors” initiative. For those of us in Colorado, this success should come as no surprise, since it’s modeled in large part on former Colorado DNR Director Ken Salazar’s vision, which became Great Outdoors Colorado, as well as on the great work by former Lt. Governor Barbara O'Brien to launch our state’s “Kids Outdoors Initiative.”

I’m dating myself for other readers of The Statesman in recalling the skepticism from legislators and state bureaucrats which Ken, Will Shafroth and other early Great Outdoors Colorado (GOCO) pioneers encountered when Colorado voters approved the program in 1992. But if “America’s Great Outdoors” can meet with even a portion of the success and approval enjoyed to date by GOCO, then this Gettysburg acquisition and other early efforts are the beginning of a long and successful model of collaboration and partnership at the national level.

As one of those “wonks” who reads way too much Civil War history, I’ve nonetheless always been frustrated in trying to make sense of the first day at Gettysburg. But in 2009 I spent three full days wandering the battlefield and the newly restored Visitors’ Center. Through that experience as well as reading Gettysburg, by Stephen W. Sears (Houghton Mifflin, 2003), I’ve learned that my own confusion stems from the fact that Day 1 was nothing short of a mad scramble by both Union and Confederate forces for battlefield position.

For those of you familiar with military textbook theory, apparently the term of art for this initial encounter of enemy forces is a “meeting engagement” — which sounds to me about as innocuous as “let’s do lunch.” For those not as well versed in military scholarship, perhaps the following is a better layperson’s image of a “meeting engagement”: you and 50 of your family and friends show up for a (pick your favorite entertainment venue and event) at the exact time I show up with 50 of my friends and family. It turns out we don’t like one another very much, we all have guns, and we all have general admission tickets for the show. Let’s have a “meeting engagement.”

Founder and Chairman Emeritus of the Conservation Fund Patrick F. Noonan presents the official document to Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar and NPS Director Jon Jarvis proclaiming that the 95-acre farm is now a part of the Gettysburg National Military Park.
Photo by Tami A. Heilemann, U.S. Department of the Interior

The parcel acquired, known historically as Harman’s Farm, but more recently as Gettysburg Country Club, was kind of like the passageway to the “good seats” at our fictional venue. In reality, it was the point of attack to gain the “high ground” of the Gettysburg Battlefield, the possession of which would go a long way in determining the outcome on Days 2 and 3 of the battle.

Readers who saw the movie Gettysburg, with Martin Sheen and Tom Berenger as Confederate Generals Robert E. Lee and James Longstreet, respectively, will recall the earliest battle scenes. The parcel we’re discussing here is approximately the position of the Confederate troops when Sam Elliot’s character, General John Buford, initially presented his outnumbered Cavalry troops to defend the ground west of the town until help could arrive.

Buford’s Cavalry was joined that morning by General John F. Reynolds’ First Corps, and together they continued a brilliant but extremely vicious and bloody, defense of the higher ground south and east of town, which would soon be legendary as Seminary and Cemetery Ridges, Big and Little Roundtops, and Culp’s and Cemetery Hills, not to mention the Town of Gettysburg itself.

General Reynolds was killed that first morning by a bullet through his head while directing and positioning his forces. Overall casualties were extremely high for both sides that day, including losses of over 70 percent for some regiments.

Among the troops engaged that day was the famous and fearsome “Iron Brigade” of the Army of the Potomac. Permanently earning its “Iron Brigade” moniker at the Battle of Antietam (Sharpsburg) in September 1862, this crew was renowned for its ferocious and victorious performance at virtually every major battle in which they fought, dating back to 2nd Manassas. They proudly wore distinctive black hats.

When Lee’s troops first approached Gettysburg on June 30 and July 1, they believed that any resistance up ahead was nothing more than local militia. Legend has it that when soldiers from Tennessee and Alabama, leading the way, were suddenly confronted by the Iron Brigade, “one of the Rebels grumbled, “There are those damned black-hatted fellows again! ‘Taint no militia.” (Gettysburg, Sears).

I noticed in a press picture that Secretary Salazar was wearing his black cowboy hat at the Gettysburg press event, but I don’t know if that was a sign of solidarity for the Iron Brigade. I do know that once again we should thank Ken for his stellar public service.

Patrick Teegarden is not only a Civil War history buff but also an astute observer of Colorado’s current political scene. He can be reached by e-mail at