Posted 5 months ago
By John Axtell
Agate Fossil Beds National Monument caps a big 4th of July weekend Saturday morning with the dedication of a new outdoor exhibit that links the park to General Gouverneur “G-K” Warren, one of the Union Army heroes of the Civil War.
The wayside exhibit along the Fossil Hills Trail includes an interpretive sign telling how Warren did one of the first surveys of what is now the national monument, included a sketch of a still recognizable part of the park, and of his role at the Battle of Gettysburg…which marked its 150th anniversary this week.
Agate museum curator and ranger Mark Hertig says Warren was a lowly lieutenant of engineers in 1857 when he led an expedition to explore and map the upper Niobrara River as part of creating the first comprehensive map of the United States west of the Mississippi.
He camped near the present day site of the visitor center and sketched the scenic skyline that forms the northern ridge on the eastern edge of the park…identifiable even today by a small hole-in-the-rock feature. Hertig was able to find the original report and sketch at the New York State Library in Albany.
“It’s a small pencil sketch, probably no more than 3 by 5 inches. We got, through the magic of nowdays of a nice, crisp digital copy that we could match the skyline and says yeah, this is definitely the place.”
Warren’s time at Agate would have little more than an interesting footnote to history if not for the fact that Warren moved his way up to general and Chief Engineer for the Army of the Potomac at the Battle of Gettysburg, where he earned the moniker “Savior of Little Round Top.”
Warren initiated the defense of Little Round Top, recognizing the importance of the undefended position on the left flank of the Union Army on the second day of the battle, July 2nd. He rushed in troops, on his own initiative, at the last minute to successfully repulse a Confederate attack.
Hertig thinks Warren would deserve an exhibit at Agate Fossil Beds even without his exploits at Gettysburg because of his report and especially because of his sketch…which he says lets modern visitors feel a kinship with Warren as they look at the same skyline he did.
There was a magazine article on the Warren expedition and Agate Fossil Beds nearly 50 years ago, but Hertig says it created some confusion because the hole in the rock didn’t match up…confusion that was ended by finding the original sketch and getting a copy.
“The guy had had to do a hand-sketch and he put this conspicuous small hole in the rock in the wrong place, and that was always puzzling to us. We thought maybe the skyline had eroded differently and lost one hole in the rock and gained another, but now we’ve cleared up the mystery and solidified history.”
The dedication will begin at 10:30 with Hertig talking about Warren’s life and career, his exploits on the Niobrara and at Gettysburg, and the nature of heroes and memory in battle. Hertig recently visited the Gettysburg battlefield and will and share photos of Little Round Top and other key positions.
Hertig and other rangers will also lead guided hikes to the fossil hills and talks on American Indian culture throughout the weekend while helping Junior Rangers with a fun activity book.