Gettysburg's status as a national symbol is inseparable from its commercial success.
Gettysburg: Memory, Market, and an American Shrine, by Jim Weeks, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 288 pages, $29.95
In July 1863, the Army of Northern Virginia under Gen. Robert E. Lee and the Army of the Potomac under Gen. George G. Meade met in battle in and around the quiet town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. More than 5,000 men were killed, some 10,000 went missing, and more than 27,000 were wounded. On the third day of fighting, Union forces decimated a Confederate charge led by Maj. Gen. George Pickett.
The Union victory halted Lee's second invasion of the North, severely weakened his army, and helped turn the tide of the war. By November 19, when Abraham Lincoln gave his most famous speech, entrepreneurs, promoters, and journalists had already declared the adjacent battlefield one of America's most hallowed places.
Today more than 2 million people visit Gettysburg each year, and the number of books on the subject dwarfs the number on any other Civil War topic. Millions watch movies and documentaries about the battle; hundreds of Web sites and e-mail lists facilitate discussion and debate; and tens of thousands of Gettysburg re-enactors take to the field annually in period uniforms, outfitted with expensive, historically accurate equipment. Devotees of the battle can buy recipe books and board games, take guided tours and ghost walks, stroll through the National Civil War Wax Museum in Gettysburg, even try to contact fallen heroes in a séance.
A combination of popular culture, technology, and desire has transformed a site of horrific carnage into one of the nation's biggest attractions, one that a motley mix of businesses, government officials, civic groups, preservationists, and everyday tourists has shaped and sold as "the most American place in America." Jim Weeks, a professor of American history at Pennsylvania State University and scholar in residence at the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, has written a fascinating, though flawed, account of this ongoing commercial and cultural phenomenon. "Gettysburg did not emerge as a shrine simply by popular will," Weeks writes in Gettysburg: Memory, Market, and an American Shrine. "Rather, a commercial web often intertwined with ritualistic activity packaged it for a consuming public and continually repackaged it for new generations."
The blood had barely dried when humanitarian groups, distraught relatives, and large numbers of wealthy spectators descended on the smoldering aftermath. Quick to meet the commercial challenges posed by this influx, intrepid locals sprang into action. Hacks offered guided rides, property owners preserved battle damage for display, and relic hunters hawked everything from bones to bullets. Genteel shoppers, many of whom had never visited the battlefield, soon filled their parlors with a variety of Gettysburg-inspired products, including maps, photographs, sheet music, and poetry. Such items encouraged meaningful reflection on the Union victory; they also provided hours of entertainment and diversion.
Remarkably, most of these travelers and shoppers viewed their consumption as an escape from the commercial world, rather than participation in it. Much the same happens today when self-styled eco-tourists and heritage buffs hotly deny that commerce has anything to do with their hobbies, all while wearing or carrying thousands of dollars in clothing and gear. Collectors of Gettysburg heirlooms regularly part with hefty sums to acquire historic items, just as bibliophiles buy rare first editions, sports fans bid on home run baseballs, food lovers travel across continents to dine at acclaimed restaurants, and art lovers tour the world's galleries. All of these consumers find satisfaction and meaning in the things they buy. Many of them doubtless regard their own activities as culturally enlightened and others' as shallow consumerism.
Sadly, Weeks reveals a similar elitism. He dismisses much of today's commercial culture as "further[ing] social fracturing by herding consumers." This view, usually associated with liberal elites, has its fans on the right as well. We're so busy renting sensational junk from Blockbuster, claim social conservatives, that we neglect God, country, and family. Or, say the liberals, we waste our money on video games and trashy novels while the fine arts totter on the brink of extinction. Both sides claim the marketplace debases "authentic" culture. Their complaint, moreover, is not just that we have bad taste but that our bad taste hurts society. The real disagreement, then, has nothing to do with whether commerce is a bad thing. Both sides clearly embrace commercial activity when it suits their agendas and interests. The fight is over what we "should" consume and why.
Thanks to spectacular advances in technology and communication, plus rising wages and increased leisure hours, great numbers of Americans joined this cultural debate at the turn of the 20th century. The railroads ushered in a new era of mass culture, allowing millions of working- and middle-class citizens to travel for pleasure for the first time, visiting such places as amusement parks, museums of natural history, and even rural cemeteries. These new visitors often began by putting the landscape itself to new use. Gettysburg, with its wide avenues and lovely vistas, made an ideal setting for picnics, sporting matches, and other less refined endeavors.
Not surprisingly, many critics chafed at this populist behavior and attempted to regulate it through a variety of blue laws, fees, and restrictions. Without genteel restraint, cultural elites felt, the pursuit of happiness was getting quite out of control. Weeks quotes one turn-of-the-century scold who worried that people had become "restless unless they are being continually saturated with abnormal and unwholesome pleasures, luxuries and unnatural excitement."
Weeks echoes such views when criticizing today's "heritage tourists," a group that includes most re-enactors and many history buffs and whose primary interest lies in experiencing an "authentic" version of the past. The push for heritage and historical re-creation stretches back at least as far as the New Deal. "The task," said Verne Chatelain, first director of the U.S. Park Service's historical division, is "to re-create for the average citizen some of the color, pageantry, and dignity of our national past." In 1933 the Park Service assumed control of Gettysburg National Military Park from the War Department, which had overseen the park since 1895.
By the 1970s, the Park Service had removed many monuments and avenues and erected a number of 1863-style buildings to give Gettysburg a more "authentic" appearance. Weeks deflates this trend with several incisive points, best exemplified by the observation that "authenticity" requires a Disney-like facade that hides such "eyesores" as garbage dumps and power lines. But his main arguments against the current phase of tourism are surprisingly simplistic. At one point, for example, he writes that "heritage gave tourists the impression it had liberated history from the shackles of intellectual labor." Yet just five pages later he complains that a driving force behind heritage is "the insatiable demand of the increasingly well-versed devotee." So which are they, idiots or geeks?
Weeks ultimately sees Gettysburg's commercial history through the prism of the "decline of cultural authority and the increasing isolation of the individual." He believes that "in spite of unprecedented abundance, Americans feel more isolated, harried, and bewildered in an alien new world."
Weeks complains that the Internet fosters social fragmentation and alienation. Yet the Web allows people with similar interests (such as a fascination with the military tactics used at Gettysburg) to interact relatively freely, share ideas, and build friendships, even though they are often from widely divergent locations and backgrounds. As Weeks grudgingly relates, tens of thousands of niche consumers, interested in everything from the geography of Little Round Top to eating period food, travel to Gettysburg each year for conferences, conventions, and festivals. These men, women, and children enjoy themselves while helping to define and maintain a place they love.
But Weeks wonders, "Is what this select group wants what the nation needs?" Without any guidance from cultural authorities, people have "voted for authenticity with their wallets." Who exactly should our missing cultural arbiters be? Do we need to regulate the heritage market by law, develop strict standards, or perhaps establish new federal guidelines? Weeks doesn't say.
He does, however, make the surprising claim that "by 2000 Gettysburg was a less-democratic shrine than it had been a century earlier." Could that possibly be true? By his own count, attendance is up since the turn of the century. Millions continue to visit the same battlefield their forbears did, even with countless other attractions competing for their attention and dollars. And what about all those people who decide to bypass Gettysburg entirely, opting instead to visit someplace they find more appealing or rewarding? Aren't their decisions democratic? Weeks seems to equate democracy with limited options and strong gatekeepers. But that combination sounds like something else entirely.
Weeks also evinces a remarkable nostalgia for the family dynamics of the mid-century road trip. "Gone were the days," he writes, "where parents connected children to pride in an exceptional nation." That particular quote follows one father's anecdote, relayed in an online discussion in 2000, about how his young son enjoyed playing on an artillery line with a group of re-enactors when the two of them visited the park. In other words, Weeks relates how a parent takes his child to see a historical attraction, the kid learns something about the past from some heritage types, and everybody has a good time -- precisely the sort of activity he then claims is "gone."
Weeks even uses tourism to analyze the American family. He claims, for example, that as tourists and consumers, baby boomers now engage in "less compromise among family members than found in earlier generations." Rather than piling the kids in the car to see the country, they are recklessly seeking self-gratification, even taking individual vacations. Yet elsewhere Weeks notes that among earlier generations of tourists, women "had traditionally either tagged along with their husbands or acted as responsible mothers." Now more women enjoy sites such as Gettysburg on their own terms. Weeks thus seems to suggest that when a woman follows her husband's wishes and sacrifices her own desires it is a key indicator that "compromise" is alive and well in the American family.
Despite such shortcomings, and despite his obvious distaste for much of today's commercial culture, Weeks makes a convincing case that Gettysburg owes its special status to the marketplace. Nationalists might not like to hear it, but the shrine that prompts so much flag waving and solemn devotion is also a major moneymaker. PBS viewers, enchanted by the epic struggle portrayed in Ken Burns' Civil War documentary, might also want to reflect on the assorted capitalists that kept the shrine in business in the dark days before public TV. It takes elitism of one form or another to revere Gettysburg while reviling the market that has helped shape its meaning.