Sunday, March 9, 2014

Building a Legacy: John Page Nicholson, Chairman of the Gettysburg National Military Park (1893-1922)

Today as we walk around the battlefield at Gettysburg and indeed on other Civil War battlefields, it is easy to spend hours interpreting and envisioning the deeds of men and women who made history 150 years ago.  These privileges, which many of us take for granted, rarely cast a glance towards how we came to obtain these precious abilities.  Groups such as the Gettysburg Foundation and the Civil War Trust carry on the tradition of saving America's hallowed ground at Gettysburg and elsewhere today, an effort that was undertaken as soon as the guns fell silent all those years ago.  Although we may never completely succeed at saving all of these important tracts of ground that witnessed so many incredible events, we can continue to try.  It took a lot of truly remarkable people and organizations to preserve the places we have saved.

Brevet Lt. Colonel John P. Nicholson
One of the unsung heroes who has a humble monument at Gettysburg, which receives little notice, Lieutenant Colonel John Page Nicholson.  Born in 1842 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Nicholson's vocation in preservation started at a very young age.  He learned the trade of book-binding from his father, which is in effect, preservation of words and images.  He applied this trade until the bells of war tolled across the nation in 1861.  With the outbreak of Civil War, Nicholson enlisted as a Private on July 20, 1861 in Company K of the 28th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry.  He must have clearly made an indelible impression in the way of leadership with his comrades and commanding officers.  Starting off as the Commissary Sergeant, he eventually was commissioned 1st Lieutenant and named the regimental quartermaster by September of 1862.   His unit served in the Shenandoah Valley, at Antietam, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Wauhatchie, Ringgold, Mill Creek Gap, Resaca, Pine Knob, Kenesaw Mountain, Peach Tree Creek, and many other more minor engagements.  "For gallant and meritorious services in the Savannah and North Carolina Campaign and war," Nicholson was brevetted to the ranks of Captain, Major and Lieutenant Colonel.1

As his service in the Civil War ended, Nicholson quickly developed notions (along with many others) for ways of remembering the events and sacrifice of so many young men just like him.  He and his fellow surviving comrades helped to form the 28th Pennsylvania Veterans' Association.  During this period he also became a member of the Military Order of the Loyal Legion  of the United States (MOLLUS) and rose to be the recorder of the patriotic organization in the Pennsylvania Commandery.  With his influence in this new position, he had new opportunities to extend his hand in commemorating what happened during the war.  As MOLLUS and other veteran's organizations started gathering regularly, Nicholson was a strong advocate in getting veterans to talk about what had happened and recording their memories.  He wanted the history of the war preserved, not forgotten.2

Nicholson Monument at Gettysburg
As Nicholson was being proactive in veterans affairs, Gettysburg National Military Park was also taking shape.  The Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association had been preserving parcels of land since shortly after the battle through the foresight of men like David McConaughy and David Wills.  Nicholson became deeply engaged in the 1880s with the State of Pennsylvania' s efforts to memorialize the battlefield in an attempt to commemorate the deeds of all the units from the 'Keystone State.'  Using the networking capabilities of numerous veteran politicians, including the Pennsylvania Governor James Beaver, plans were laid to allocate funds to each Pennsylvania unit for the erection of a monument at Gettysburg.  Nicholson was a major proponent in the process and by 1888, "Pennsylvania Day" was scheduled for September 11 & 12 as a Pennsylvania dedication day of sorts.  Thousands of Pennsylvania veterans flocked to Gettysburg to participate in the commemoration events of their individual units.  John Page Nicholson recorded all of the events and gathered speeches, stories, and priceless accounts of those fateful days in July 1863, preserving them for future generations.3

In 1893 the landmark "Pennsylvania at Gettysburg" was published through Nicholson's comprehensive work.  It was also in 1893 that Nicholson was chosen as the Chairman of the Gettysburg National Park Commission.  This was the beginning of a long tenure as the park's chairman to which end he oversaw how Gettysburg's history would be remembered long after he was gone.  In 1895, the Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association turned over all the park's roads, lands and assets to the United States War Department and Gettysburg National Military Park was established by an act of Congress through the work of General Dan Sickles.4

Letter from Nicholson to General Henry
Bingham with his MOLLUS statrionary.
Author's collection.
Nicholson was involved in everything from the construction of park roads to general maintenance, land acquisition, monumentation, commemoration, research, interpretation, and much more.  He served in this role as faithfully as he had during the war for an impressive 29 years.  Writing in the 1911 annual commission report on the Pennsylvania State Memorial he says, "arrangements having been perfected by the Pennsylvania Gettysburg Memorial Commission for transporting the veteran soldiers of Pennsylvania to Gettysburg and for other details, a large platform was erected in accordance with plans of the engineer under the direction of the Gettysburg National Park Commission, the avenue fences on two sides of the monument were removed, and the ground graded.  The dedication took place September 27, 1910, a large assembly of veterans and others being present, estimated at 10,000 persons; the ceremonies of the dedication were according to the program and very successful."  This was one of the thousands of projects in which Nicholson participated to a successful conclusion.  All the while he continued to serve as Recorder-in-Chief for MOLLUS.  During his entire tenure, he privately collected thousands of volumes and manuscripts from fellow veterans, creating a library of information that has few rivals.

On March 8, 1922, John Page Nicholson passed away at the age of 79 years old.  He had truly lived and all the while kept the sacrifices of his brothers in arms in the foremost of his mind.  It is to Colonel Nicholson, as well as many other fervent folks, that we owe much gratitude for the Gettysburg National Military Park that exists as it does today.  These men had a deep commitment to the idea that the world "can never forget what they did here," and they fulfilled that commitment to their utmost ability without wavering for a moment.  In many ways, the history of Gettysburg after the guns fell silent is nearly as vibrant as those momentous three days in July of 1863.  For John Page Nicholson, those three days in 1863 defined his life's work in preservation, always a faithful soldier throughout, and a shining example of how one person can help to change the world.6        

Works Cited
1. Historical Data Systems, Inc., . "John P. Nicholson." (2014): n.pag. American Civil War Research Database. Web. 9 Mar 2014. <>.  Rose, Joel. "John Page Nicholson." Explore PA History. Web. 9 Mar 2014. <>.
2. Ibid. John Page Nicholson Monument, Gettysburg National Military Park on east side of North Hancock Avenue.
3. Nicholson, John P. Pennsylvania at Gettysburg. 2nd Ed. Harrisburg, PENNA.: WM. Stanley Ray, State Printer, 1904. Print.
4. John Page Nicholson Monument, Gettysburg National Military Park on east side of North Hancock Avenue.  Platt, Barbara L. "This Is Holy Ground": A History of the Gettysburg Battlefield 1863-2009. Harrisburg, PA: Huggins Printing, 2001. 7. Print.  
5. Ibid. Nicholson, John P.. "WAR DEPARTMENT, GETTYSBURG NATIONAL MILITARY PARK COMMISSION, Gettysburg, PA., August 1, 1911.." Trans. Array Annual Reports of the Secretary of War National Archives and Records Administration. 1911. Print.
6. Dodge, Russ. "John Page Nicholson." (2007): Web. 9 Mar 2014. <>.

Search This Blog

Follow by Email