John Bachelder: Gettysburg’s Historian and Mapmaker

From the time of the battle of Gettysburg in July, 1863, John Bachelder (1825-1894) proved himself the leading historian of that historic battle. He made maps, hosted reunions, interviewed thousands of participants, and assisted in the placement of monuments. Without John Bachelder, the “open book” 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 John Bachelder’s many contributions.

Bachelder was so thorough in his work, so detailed and exacting, and so convincing in his presentation that General Winfield Scott Hancock, who was seriously wounded at the “high water mark” during Pickett’s Charge on July 3, 1863, sent Bachelder and his map to see President Lincoln.
John B. Bachelder and his wife Elizabeth at the Gettysburg battlefield in 1890.

Above: John B. Bachelder and his wife Elizabeth at the Gettysburg battlefield in 1890.

In a letter to John G. Nicolay, Lincoln’s secretary, dated February 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 Generals Doubleday, John Newton, Winfield Hancock, David Birney, George Sykes, John Sedgwick, O. O. Howard, A. S. Williams, and Henry Slocum.

Although Bachelder missed the battle, he arrived within a week, and fervently began collecting information by interviewing wounded soldiers.

This, along with the proper placement of the right and left flanks of engaged units and the production of the detailed topographic sketches, became lifelong obsessions for Bachelder. 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.

Expertise Not Without Controversy

As the wounded made their way home from Gettysburg, Bachelder followed the Union Army. He set about to accomplish a goal that historians would thank him for: 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 at Gettysburg. These events gave him ample opportunities to interview battle participants while they explored the ground they fought over.

He was also understood the benefits of making the battle come alive. In 1870, Bachelder commissioned artist James Walker to paint an account of Pickett’s Charge, entitled “The Repulse of Longstreet’s Assault at the Battle of Gettysburg,” a massive work that measured 7.5 by 20 feet. Bachelder wrote the accompanying guidebook and went on tour himself with the artwork, lecturing as he went.

By 1880, the Congress authorized the unheard of sum of $50,000 to be paid to Bachelder to produce the authoritative, written account of the battle. But by this time, 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, participants, generals, congressmen and an almost unanimous outcry of others expressed dismay. Perturbed by the disagreements and arguments with eye-witness participants, Bachelder elected to rely primarily upon the official records of commanders. Thus his eight volume tome largely neglected the treasure trove of eye-witness accounts that he had assembled over nearly twenty years. Less than 10 percent of the project reflected the work he had collected on his own.

The War Department was not pleased. Though Bachelder was paid his fee, his manuscript went unpublished.

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.

Bachelder died of pneumonia in Hyde Park, Mass, in 1894. His body was then transported the 79 miles to be buried in a family plot with his wife and daughter, on Stevens Hill Road in Nottingham, New Hampshire, close to the family home. His widow, Elizabeth, died in 1914. In 1921, her sisters, Amanda and Charlotte Butler Stevens, donated a large collection of Bachelder’s Gettysburg materials and personal papers to the New Hampshire Historical Society. There they sat, unmolested and almost entirely unexplored, until the late 1950s or early 1960s.

Historian Edwin B. Coddington stumbled upon Bachelder’s long-forgotten collection of correspondence from eye-witnesses: soldiers recollections and other letters. One letter, from Father William Corby, explained the background behind the chaplain of the Irish Brigade’s actions at Gettysburg.

But there were also letters from Longstreet, Meade, Humphreys, Early, Hunt, and 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 poured over the Bachelder papers and ultimately created a priceless addition to Gettysburg’s historical record: The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command. Civil War experts consider Coddington’s volume an indispensable reference work.

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 now 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.

University of Virginia Civil War Historian Gary Gallagher summed up Bachelder this way: “I have always had a high opinion of Bachelder and his work. His maps and the correspondence he collected are both very valuable. I can’t say as much for his own tedious history of the battle.”

John Bachelder’s obsession with the battle of Gettysburg is his gift to us and to the generations to follow. Bachelder contributed immeasurably through his maps and correspondence but his cumbersome history troubled his contemporaries so much that it became “lost to history” until it was resurrected by others decades later.

John E. Carey is a frequent contributor to the Civil War page. He can be reached at jecarey2603@cox.net. And his stories are on line at: http://civil-war-story-inspiration.blogspot.com/ Father Corby is his great-uncle.

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