Guilford woman worries about future of famous map

By Rachael Scarborough King, Register Staff
March 31, 2008

GUILFORD — Emily O’Neil grew up in Gettysburg, Pa., the site of the decisive Civil War battle and Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, where as a child she would walk along the area’s fields and pick up bullets fired in 1863.

Starting with her great-great-uncle John Rosensteel, O’Neil’s family amassed one of the nation’s largest collections of Civil War relics. When she was young, she lived in an apartment above the battle site’s museum and visitor center, which the family owned.

And in 1963, her father, Joseph Rosensteel, created the electric map of the battle, still in use at the Gettysburg National Military Park’s visitor center. The 30-foot-by-30-foot cement map uses colored lights to represent troop movements for the Union and Confederate armies during the three-day battle in July 1863.

Now the National Park Service and the Gettysburg Foundation, a nonprofit group, are planning a move to a new $103 million museum and visitor center on a different location in the park. That has O’Neil worried about the future of the map, which she called “my father’s masterpiece.”

The new center is opening April 14, and the current facility will close at the same time. There are plans to demolish the old building in 2009.

For now, park officials are planning to cut the map into four pieces and store it in a barn within Gettysburg National Military Park, said Katie Lawhon, public affairs specialist for the park.

“In general, the approach to the electric map has been that while the concept of the electric map at Gettysburg is very valuable as a kind of 3-D way to orient people to the way the battle was fought, that it needed to be updated,” Lawhon said. “We did not plan to take the map lock, stock and barrel and move it to our new museum.”

The new facility will include a 22-minute video presentation and separate galleries for each day of the battle, she added, which will serve much of the same function as the electric map. The Cyclorama, an 1884 circular painting that depicts the final charge of the battle, will also be restored and moved to the museum.

Lawhon said that park officials are focusing on preparations for the new museum and visitor center, and have not decided what the long-term fate of the electric map will be.

“It will be saved there until we can find some future use for it,” she said. “We’re kind of fishing around for ideas at this point.”

O’Neil, 67, said she and other family members are hoping to find a nonprofit organization that will be able to continue displaying the map. Her father completed it in 1963 for the centennial anniversary of the battle, one year before he died of cancer.

The 1963 map was the second he built for the center.

He recorded a narration for the 30-minute presentation, but also often gave live performances, including one of his earlier map for President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

The Rosensteel family sold the museum, including the map, to the federal government in 1972 for $2.3 million, and made a gift of the tens of thousands of Civil War relics inside it. Those items will move to the new museum and form the core of the collection there.

O’Neil described herself as “very prejudiced” about the map, but said she thinks people should be able to see it in its present form because “it is an artifact in and of itself.”

“People all over the country have seen the map,” she said. “When people go to Gettysburg, and it’s such a famous historical site to visit, before they go out on the field, they start with the map because it orients you.”

After marrying in 1965, O’Neil moved away from Gettysburg, settling in the Stony Creek section of Branford about 30 years ago and then moving to Guilford a decade ago. She has continued visiting the battle site over the years. Her ancestors first arrived in the Gettysburg area around 1830, she said, and some of her siblings still live there.

Earlier this month, she took her daughter and her daughter’s fiancé, who is English, to view the map. She said she was disappointed to see that the 1920s-era building looked rundown and some of the lights on the map were not working.

Her father’s voice is no longer used in the narration, but O’Neil said much of the text is the same way he wrote it.

“It’s really not in good repair at the moment — with all that said, at the end (of the presentation), the people around us applauded and they’re applauding the map; there’s no one else there,” she said. “Overall, even though it is outdated and outmoded, you take away an understanding of the battle of Gettysburg.”

Dru Anne Neil, a spokeswoman for the Gettysburg Foundation, said that the new museum will be located about two-thirds of a mile from the current facility.

Park officials are planning to “rehabilitate” the land where the visitor center now stands to what it would have looked like during the battle, an area of farmland and orchards.

“The place where those facilities sit was key battleground during the three-day battle of Gettysburg, so we want to obviously remove the modern structure from that key ground and return the ground as much as possible to 1863 appearance,” Neil said.

Neil added that the new museum and visitor center will increase the park’s capacity. The current center can accommodate about 400,000 guests a year, she said, but more than 1.1 million people visit Gettysburg each year.

Lawhon, the park spokeswoman, said the federal government has guidelines on giving or selling its property to other groups. The park could consider requests from other government agencies, nonprofit groups or educational institutions, and the map would have to be used for “interpretive or educational purposes.” The group would also have to pay to remove the map.

O’Neil said that family members are not asking for the map to be returned to them.

“That’s something we never intended to have happen. Our goal has always been to locate a nonprofit that would be interested in keeping the map viable,” she said. “It is my father’s masterpiece and I would really like to see it continue to be used to preserve the history of the battle of Gettysburg.”

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