How hard would you be willing to study and prepare for a test that may lead to a modestly-paying job leading groups of tourists around a 150-year-old battlefield? If you want to be a licensed battlefield tour guide at the site of the Battle of Gettysburg, you’ll have to study and prepare like never before. And it may take years, if ever, to finally succeed.
During the past two decades, America’s Civil War has enjoyed a rush of increased public interest, fueled by the award-winning PBS Civil War documentary mini-series by Ken Burns that first aired in 1990. And no battle attracts such fascination as Gettysburg, which has achieved a somewhat mythical presence in national history.
This week marks the 150th anniversary of that pivotal battle. In July 1863, Union and Confederate forces met at this tiny Pennsylvania town and fought a three-day ordeal that resulted in a critical defeat for the invading Rebel forces. Later that year, President Lincoln would travel to Gettysburg to deliver his brief historic address.
The summer issue of Civil War Monitor magazine is devoted to the battle, and it includes a wonderful feature story by Jenny Johnston on the long, arduous path to becoming a licensed battlefield guide at Gettysburg. (The magazine’s articles are paywalled, but if you’re a Civil War buff, it’s worth hiking over to a well-stocked periodical stand or paying for a $9.95 for one-year digital subscription to get access to this issue.)
Those who have taken multiple National Park Service tours will likely agree with me that these guides know their stuff and share it well with the public. This isn’t about passing a quick quiz, inventing a few tall tales, and demonstrating that you can talk and chew gum at the same time. Park Service guides are steeped in, and devoted to, the history of their locations.
Becoming a guide at Gettysburg is one of the most coveted achievements of all. Furthermore, as Johnston tells us, very few succeed in passing the two parts of an extraordinarily difficult test.
Part 1 is a 250-question written test, running some 30 pages long. Amateurs are “eaten alive” by the depth of this examination. The “diehards,” however, bring a “knowledge of the battle [that] is beyond encyclopedic.” The problem is, there are a lot of diehards. To score among the top 20 of who will be eligible to move on to Part 2 (out of 150 or so test takers) there is very little room for error: When the test was given in 2010, scorer no. 1 answered 97.96 percent of the questions correctly, while scorer no. 19 answered 96.73 percent correctly.
The finalists move on to Part 2, an oral examination. As Johnston explains, “candidates get two chances to create and deliver a two-hour battlefield tour geared toward the average visitor.” Here, a candidate’s mastery of detail may be his (almost all are men) undoing, because he will be evaluated in part on his ability to educate someone who knows very little about the battle, and too much detail may overwhelm. This is among the reasons why roughly half of the finalists fail both attempts at Part 2.
Johnston writes that many candidates spend years, even decades, in their attempt to become a licensed tour guide at Gettysburg. I love her profiles of those who are devoting such time and effort to succeed, starting with a 54-year-old man who quits his job and moves to Gettysburg so he can immerse himself in everything to do with the battle! Others take prep classes, form study groups, and spend most of their free hours absorbing the voluminous literature about this single battle.
So you may be thinking, gawd, what a bunch of geeks. As I see it, though, we should all be so lucky to have a passion for a subject that fascinates in a way that we can lose ourselves in it. Whether it’s a job, an avocation, or a hobby, isn’t life itself made more meaningful when we can immerse ourselves in something so engaging?
I confess, I’m biased. Six summers ago I joined a group of friends for a Civil War battlefield vacation. We visited Gettysburg, of course, but also Manassas (Virginia), Antietam (Maryland), and several other famous battlefields. Even with the summer heat beating down upon us, it was a memorable trip. Indeed, I understand why this era of history has such a pull. (Yup, it’s very much a guy thing. We’d chuckle at the middle-aged women with very bored looks, traipsing behind their husbands who were eagerly devouring stories told by the tour guides!)
More importantly, however, I wish for everyone something that provides such fascination and pleasure. If the details of an 1863 Civil War battle aren’t your cuppa tea, then I hope you’ll find something else that enriches your life in this way.