Among the many famous people to visit Gettysburg (Franklin Delano Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and Nikita Khrushchev, just to name a few), one remains absent from most guidebook mentions or stories: Thomas Edison. This is peculiar, considering Edison’s fame and his personal connection to the battlefield. William Leslie Edison, the inventor’s son, served as a tank sergeant at Gettysburg’s Camp Colt, a World War I tank school. The War Department used Gettysburg National Military Park to serve the growing war effort by designating it an official infantry and tank training camp. As a trainee at Camp Colt, William Edison readied himself for America’s next great war across the land once traversed by Union and Confederate soldiers. Edison stopped by to visit his son and tour the battlefield on one of his famous road trips in the summer of 1918.
William was the youngest of three sons Edison had with his first wife. For most of his life, the boy had a tenuous relationship with his father. William was only six years old when his mother died of unknown causes in 1884, and the boy struggled to live up to his father’s fame. The inventor often chose to spend time in his laboratory rather than with his children. When Edison and had three more children, young William felt he had been replaced. As an adult, William fostered several failed careers and often begged his father for money.
In 1898, William enlisted as a private in the First New York Regiment of Engineering Volunteers during the Spanish-American War. He fell ill while stationed in Puerto Rico and wrote to his father asking for help to secure a discharge. Perhaps seeking a redemption, William enlisted in the Tank Corps after the United States entered World War I in 1917. His fortune lost and his reputation stained, thirty-eight-year-old William likely sought a renewal of sorts by joining the army. In fact, he declined an officer’s commission to serve in the Tank Corps on the front lines. That ambition landed him at Camp Colt, one of the U.S. Army’s first tank schools headed by Captain Dwight D. Eisenhower. William reported to Camp Colt on July 24, 1918 and quickly proved himself on the fields of Gettysburg, earning a promotion to sergeant.
In the summer of 1918, Thomas Edison embarked on one of his many publicized road trips along with his friends Harvey Firestone and Henry Ford. This time, Edison decided the party would travel south to the Great Smoky Mountains. They would convene in Pittsburgh, then travel through West Virginia and Tennessee to Asheville. The trip would also allow Edison a convenient personal visit. William was preparing to ship out to the Western Front, and the inventor desired to see his son one last time. Even Edison’s wife Mina managed to visit her stepson that summer, despite her dislike of him. The inventor could stop by Gettysburg on his way across Pennsylvania, spend the night, and tour Camp Colt before arriving in Pittsburgh the very same day. Not to mention, the visit could attract positive publicity to the Vagabonds’ latest sojourn.
On August 16, Thomas Edison left his New Jersey home for Pittsburgh with the naturalist John Burroughs and Professor R.J. DeLoach of the University of Georgia. The three men motored across Pennsylvania on the newly christened Lincoln Highway, the first national memorial to Abraham Lincoln. The Highway, with Edison as a benefactor, incorporated several historic roadways, including the York and Chambersburg turnpikes upon which the Confederate army marched to Gettysburg. Somewhere between Philadelphia and Gettysburg, the party encountered a stark reminder of the distant World War. This time, instead of infantrymen, a caravan of army vehicles thundered down the Lincoln Highway. “The doom of kaiserism was written large on that Lincoln Highway in that army of resolute, slow-moving army trucks,” mused John Burroughs.
The party arrived in Gettysburg that evening after traversing 220 miles of roadway. Edison and his retinue checked into Hotel Gettysburg as a crowd flocked to greet the fabled “Wizard of Menlo Park.” Word of Edison’s visit spread quickly overnight, and he rose early the next morning to an even larger crowd eager to shake his hand. “He was most cordial in receiving those who endeavored to talk with him but his pronounced deafness made conversation very difficult,” reported the Gettysburg Times. “Mr. Edison I want the privilege of shaking your hand,” one woman shouted. “I think you are the most wonderful man in America.” Always charismatic, the Wizard accepted the attention, but waved aside the compliment. Passing through town, Edison ventured to the street market, where he inspected “fine specimens” of fruits and vegetables and rendezvoused with his friends Burroughs and DeLoach.
The trio then embarked on their tour of the battlefield. They wound their way across the park avenues, stopping at points of interest: Seminary Ridge, the Peach Orchard, Devil’s Den. Edison was sixteen years-old at the time of the battle, and Gettysburg newspapers report his enthusiastic interest in learning of the monuments and men on the field. Of course, Edison saw a very different battlefield than visitors do today. While much of the battlefield itself remained intact as it appeared in 1863, the Federal government owned only 850 acres (the park now encompasses over 6,000 acres by comparison). Not to mention, the visitors could hear the din of army vehicles and tents in the background.
Finally, they reached the site of Pickett’s Charge and the end of their tour–for it was there that the camp was located. However, the fields looked much different than they did during the battle, now sprawled with clusters of makeshift barracks and offices dissected by a rail line. At its peak, the camp housed nearly 6,000 personnel and one tank: a Renault FT-17. Edison was enthralled by the camp and its gadgets. In fact, the newspapers made little note of his interaction with William. “Mr. Edison is evidently justly proud of his son and he was much concerned in all the work being done at the camp,” trumpeted the Times in its only mention of Sergeant Edison. That afternoon, the Vagabonds departed in their automobiles for Pittsburgh.
Edison, Ford, and Firestone spent the remainder of the month on their road trip, garnering great success and publicity. Firestone declared it the “best of all” of their vacations. Meanwhile, William Edison left for Europe, only to arrive on the Western Front two weeks before the Armistice on November 11, 1918. Before long, he was requesting to borrow money from his father to fund his journey home.
Edison’s name is forgotten among the battlefield’s noteworthy visitors, unlike Roosevelt, Kennedy, Khrushchev, or Churchill. Known as the harnesser of electricity, the great “Wizard of Menlo Park,” Edison is arguably just as famous. However, he made no grand speech and attended no dedication. Rather, he briefly visited his son, who was about to embark for America’s next war. After the war, William Edison experimented with science but, unlike his father, never achieved prosperity or fame. Though he acquired a few patents, William turned to farming and raising chickens. He died in 1937 at age fifty-eight as a poor man, having never reconciled with his father.The connections of both Edisons to Gettysburg have been surprisingly lost to time. But on that August morning, the people of Gettysburg clamored as one of its most esteemed visitors dropped by to bid his son farewell as he embarked for war.
“The Army’s First Tank School: Camp Colt at Gettysburg,” National Park Service, accessed August 25, 2023, https://www.nps.gov/articles/the-armys-first-tank-school-camp-colt-at-gettysburg.htm.
 Edmund Morris, Edison, (New York: Random House, 2019) 510-511.
 Morris, Edison, 447, 221.
 Neil Baldwin, Edison: Inventing the Century, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 222.
 Morris, Edison, 221.
 Morris, Edison, 353.
 Baldwin, Inventing the Century, 348; Morris, Edison, 207.
 Wes Davis, American Journey: On the Road with Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, and John Burroughs, (New York: Norton & Company, 2023), 191.
 “The Army’s First Tank School: Camp Colt at Gettysburg,” National Park Service, accessed August 25, 2023, https://www.nps.gov/articles/the-armys-first-tank-school-camp-colt-at-gettysburg.htm.
 “Edison’s Son Here,” Gettysburg Star and Sentinel, Gettysburg, PA, July 27, 1918, Newspaperarchive.com, (accessed August 26, 2023); Morris, Edison, 207.
 Jeff Guinn, The Vagabonds: The Story of Henry Ford and Thomas Edison’s Ten-Year Road Trip, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2019), 51, 66.
 Firestone and Crowther, Men and Rubber, 202.
 “Mrs. Edison Is Here: Wife of Renowned Inventor is Visiting Her Son,” Gettysburg Times, Gettysburg, PA, August 8, 1918, Newspaperarchive.com (accessed August 26, 2023); Morris, Edison, 207.
 Davis, American Journey, 191.
 “Thomas Edison in Gettysburg,” Gettysburg Times, Gettysburg, PA, August 17, 1918, Newspapers.com (accessed August 26, 2023).
 Burroughs, “A Strenuous Holiday,” 110.
 Davis, American Journey, 191.
 “Thomas Edison in Gettysburg,” Gettysburg Times, August 17, 1918.
 “Thomas Edison in Gettysburg,” Gettysburg Times, August 17, 1918.
 Gettysburg National Military Park Commission, Map of the Gettysburg Battlefield, Scale ca. 1:1,000, “Library of Congress,” 1898, accessed October 9, 2023, https://www.loc.gov/resource/g3822g.cw0351600/?r=0.101,0.322,0.765,0.355,0.
 Davis, American Journey, 192.
 Kristopher D. White, “Gettysburg Off the Beaten Path: The Bliss Farm,” Emerging Civil War, July 2, 2020, (accessed August 26, 2023), https://emergingcivilwar.com/2020/07/02/gettysburg-off-the-beaten-path-the-bliss-farm/.
 Thomas Edison in Gettysburg,” Gettysburg Times, August 17, 1918.
 Davis, American Journey, 193.
 Firestone, Men and Rubber, 202.
 Morris, Edison, 209.
 “Inventor Son of Late Tom Edison Dies in East,” Journal and Courier, August 10, 1937, Lafayette, Indiana, Newspapers.com, accessed October 9, 2023; “William Leslie Edison,” National Park Service, accessed October 9, 2023, https://www.nps.gov/edis/learn/historyculture/william-leslie-edison.htm.