Bob Scappini builds walls out of stone.
It’s not his job; it’s what he does for fun.
Any military historian will tell you walls are important aspects of battles, for hiding behind to avoid gunfire, for visual landmarks, for influencing the movements of troops.
Many of the Gettysburg battlefield’s stone walls have fallen into disrepair or been pilfered to make other structures over more than 150 years of ongoing history.
Scappini brings them back, in very much the same ways they were first built, with a little help from modern technology.
“In the old days, the field stones would have been picked up and laid on a sled pulled by a draft animal. In most cases, the kids would take the stones and delineate them into a wall. This wall here is the quintessential Pennsylvania stone wall; wide at the bottom, narrow at the top,” he said.
The method is simple, or as simple as fitting heavy stones together can be: The largest, heaviest stones are set close together in the bottom of a six-inch-deep trench, in this case roughly three feet wide.
In the old days, the trench would have been dug by hands wielding shovels. Scappini and crew cheated a little and had a fellow come in with a backhoe.
“The operator’s name was Buzzy, and he was a wizard with it,” he said.
Small stones and fragments are jammed in the spaces between the stones.
“Every stone should have at least three points of contact with other stones for stability,” Scappini said.
Slightly smaller stones make up the next two tiers of the wall, again with smaller stones and debris pressed into gaps.
The debris comes from the judicious application of what is called a “shaper,” basically a heavy sledgehammer with a chisel point on one end. This beast of a tool is used to persuade the 20-pound-plus stones to nestle together better. The process is also a good way to work on one’s biceps. Smaller hammers are useful for forcing tighter fits.
“The expression is ‘if it doesn’t have a heart, it falls apart,’” Scappini said. “The secret to a wall is to have a solid core.”
Finally, large, flatter stones called capstones or topstones make up the top of the wall, also with smaller pieces wedged and forced in to keep things tight. Their job is to help deflect water away from the interior of the wall.
Scappini comes by his wall-building avocation in a roundabout way.
“Call it a hobby,” he said.
He is 64. The usual choice of hobby for retirees is golf, which he does not like. So, he learned how to build stone walls from some Portuguese stone masons. He said the Portuguese are noted for terracing off mountainsides with – you guessed it – stone walls to create more arable ground.
“So, I pick heavy things up and I put them down,” he said.
He gestures with his right arm, a sweep that takes in the gentle, green fields where Pickett’s men crashed into the Union lines.
“And this is my office,” he said.
He said it took him two or three years to get the hang of building with stone.
“Think of it as a 3-D jigsaw puzzle,” he said.
He feels pretty good about his current gig.
“There aren’t too many people that the NPS (National Park Service) allows to do work on the battlefield, and I’m in the position of building something that will be there 150 years,” he said.
That feeling ties right into the other part of his life. Scappini was a high school history teacher in Rhode Island for 27 years. On the side, he restored 18th and 19th century cemeteries, and every cemetery required a stone wall.
The stone walls of Gettysburg have a lot of stories connected to them, he said.
Jason Martz, acting public information officer for the Gettysburg National Military Park, said the two walls Scappini and his assorted teams of volunteers have been working on are on land known as the Philip Snyder and John Slyder farms during the battle. The walls are 957 feet long on the Snyder wall along Emmitsburg Road, and 510 feet on the Slyder property, along a dirt lane behind the Snyder wall.
Online NPS documents show the locations and alignment of the walls were based on historic photographs and maps. Martz said the walls are meant to be representations of the original walls, not exact replicas.
Scappini’s projects are part of a long-term, ongoing effort to restore or replace “viewscapes” and artifacts, as budgets allow.
The old walls “were likely used or torn down when modern homes and businesses were built in this area,” Martz said in an email. “These structures were subsequently removed but the walls still needed to be replaced.”
Scappini said wall design varies from region to region. Stone walls in New England, for example, are generally square or rectangular in profile, the stones fit more precisely together. Local walls are roughly triangular in profile.
He said the NPS gave him a sort of “test wall,” the stone wall at the Alabama Memorial, which needed repair.
“It was built by German POWs during WWII,” Scappini said. “I don’t think their hearts were in it.”
Stone walls typically grew from stones found in the fields that had been heaved to the surface by frost. The stones being used in the Gettysburg National Military Park restoration project were purchased through a bidding process from a South Carolina firm.
“There were a couple hundred pallets,” Scappini said.
The pallets spent part of their time parked in the wrong place, Martz said.
“They were mistakenly placed along West Confederate Avenue,” he said. “The original idea was to rebuild Confederate breastworks built during the battle in this area, but the scope of the project was limited to rebuilding existing farm/property walls that existed before the battle. They were moved to their current locations once we were able to best determine the areas of the battlefield where the amount of new stone could best be utilized.”
Scappini has not been working alone. For most of the project, under way for about two years now, he has worked with volunteers from ACE, American Conservation Experience, based in Flagstaff, Ariz., and volunteers from the Gettysburg Foundation.
Mike Magera of York was wrestling with some of that South Carolina stone just after noon at the Emmitsburg Road site on June 1. He was part of a group from the Gettysburg Foundation on one of that organization’s volunteer days. Throughout the 6,000-acre park, volunteers were painting fences, clearing brush, and performing similar efforts to spruce up their favorite national monument.
Magera is 59 and has been with the foundation for 15 years.
“This is my first year working on stone fences, though I have worked on other kinds,” he said. “I love the history of the Civil War, and I love coming here. It feels good doing something for the park.”
Scappini has been working the two walls for about two years and said the project should be done by the end of this summer.
One thing he said he tells the crews that work with him is a bit of wisdom passed along to him by his Portuguese mentors about how to own the walls they build.
“I tell them to hide a coin inside the wall when you’re getting toward the end,” he said. “That way, you will own it, to a degree.”