Restoring the "Authentic" Gettysburg

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At The New Republic, John Summers has an interesting article on the National Park Service's multi-million dollar efforts to restore Gettysburg to its 1863 conditions:

The goal, as NPS regional director Don Barger told The Christian Science Monitor in April, is to make visitors "almost feel the bullets. … That is what you want to have happen in a battlefield."

The project likely delights the reenactors who troop to Gettysburg every year in pursuit of authenticity, as well as those tourists who expect less to encounter history during their battlefield trip than to experience it. Academic historians also appear to approve. University of Virginia professor Gary Gallagher, who advised a recent project at the battlefield, cheers in the current issue of Civil War Times that "there has never been a better time to visit Gettysburg." Those who might object to the removal of the trees, he says, are "people who don't understand the difference between a historic park and Yosemite." Rehabilitation has something for everyone: It flatters the left's suspicion of cultural authority, its invitation to ordinary Americans to participate in their history, even as it honors conservatism's fetish for an unchanged, historically correct past. Indeed, Gettysburg, the jewel of America's battlefields, is one of several currently targeted for rehabilitation, including Vicksburg and Antietam.

As Summers notes, it's very difficult to construct anything like an "authentic" Gettysburg. There are few pre-Civil War photographs of the area and the one detailed map dating from before the July 1863 battle "did not portray woods, hills, ridges, and other topographical features." As for the memoirs and letters of soldiers and eyewitnesses, they're only reliable or useful up to a point.

Moreover, as I argued while reviewing Jim Weeks' Gettysburg: Memory, Market, and an American Shrine back in 2004, it's impossible to talk about an authentic Gettysburg without acknowledging the central role that the market has played in shaping and establishing its iconic status. Remember that Lincoln's famous Gettysburg Address was delivered four months after the battle. By that point, entrepreneurs and promoters had already sprang into action, kicking off a brisk trade in grisly battlefield relics, paintings, maps, books, guided tours, and other Gettysburg-inspired collectibles that is still going strong today. Profit-minded entrepreneurs and intrepid local boosters brought images and heirlooms into the parlors of genteel Americans. Other entrepreneurs set up the hotels, restaurants, gift shops, museums, and visitor's centers that serviced the thousands (now millions) of tourists that visited each year. As a result of such market activity (some might call it crass commercialism), this site of bloody carnage was gradually transformed into "the most American place in America."

Read Summers' article here. Mine here.

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  1. Psh… I cancelled my subscription to Civil War Times when its book reviewer said Company Aytch “insists upon itself”.

  2. If they really want to recreate 1863 Gettysberg they should get rid of indoor plumbing and running water. Nothing says “1863” like an outhouse.

    Honestly, nothing can create an authentic experience except living with the technological and cultural limitations of the day. Everything else is just theater. Its purely a matter of personal aesthetics whether one likes stilted politically correct (left or right) theater or ebullient all-hogs-to-the-troughs free market theater.

    Nothing the park service can do will teach us what it was like for men to walk upright into hails of rifle and cannon fire while they watched their friends and relatives die all around them. The central story of Gettysberg is the American willingness to risk dying horribly for sake of fairly abstract ideas of governance and personal freedom.

    I don’t see how the decoration of the place will help convey that message.

  3. that “there has never been a better time to visit Gettysburg.” Those who might object to the removal of the trees, he says, are “people who don’t understand the difference between a historic park and Yosemite.”

    *scratches Gettysburg off list of places to visit*

  4. Can we dress up all our politicians like the soldiers for this most American place in America and just not tell them the ammo is live?

    “OK, Madame Speaker, you’ll be on this horse over here. See the statue with both legs up in the air. That’s you. Now when the battle begins…

  5. “I don’t see how the decoration of the place will help convey that message.”

    Removal of the trees and brush, in particular, makes it easier to understand that the men advancing -and those defending – had the opportunity to see and reflect on what was about to happen, to weigh the probability of their death with the ideals (or comrades) they valued and were fighting for. In many cases, the foemen had hundreds or thousands of yards of open fields in which to see their enemy and ponder their fate. A surprising number simply dropped to the ground, slunk to the rear, or otherwise arranged to stay out of minie ball range.

    Preservationists can obviously go too far. The recent hullabaloo concerning a casino a mile and half away (and invisible from any important part of the battlefield) was over the top in condemnation (“Imagine what kind of low-lifes will visit and desecrate this holy ground?”) 90% of those who visit Gettysburg now only get an overview of what happened and why. If more could be lured for any reason – gambling, Disney history park, Amish farm and quilting fair, wax musem, etc. – then the 10% who ponder the battle and gain some understanding of the War for Southern Independence will only go up. But, for many, the Philistines must be kept at bay at all costs.

  6. this site of bloody carnage was gradually transformed into “the most American place in America.”

    Well, we built the country and sustained it on bloody carnage of one kind or another, so I guess that’s appropriate.

  7. Superintendent John Latschar is under investigation for misusing tax dollars for his own benefit and that of his wife and buddies. He should also be investigated for singlehandedly destroying the most hallowed ground in the country. With him at the helm attendance has dropped for 9 consecutive years. It’ll take at least a generation, maybe several generations to repair his damage.

  8. Removal of the trees and brush, in particular, makes it easier to understand that the men…

    Sounds like a perfect post-Presidential job for W. At last, his well-honed brush clearing abilities can benefit the nation.

  9. When I was young my family and I used to go to various parts of the Kennesaw Mountain Battlefield for picnics, frisbee playing and the like. Many other people did so as well.

    Sometime in the ’80s, IIRC, the Park Service stopped allowing people to do these kinds of activities. It was against the historical integrity of the parks, they said.

    So, really, the only people who get to play there are historical re-enactors, i.e. actual soldiers died for the freedom to dress up like them.

  10. Having grown up just outside of Hanover, PA (a town east of Gettysburg and closely associated to the battle), I visited Gettysburg quite often. I still like to visit the town, especially during History Meets the Arts.

    I’m of two minds in this. On Federal Park land I have no problem with the attempts to transform the land back to the way it was in 1863. That would go a long way towards explaining how and way the battle went as it did. Besides we could use a few more federally funded peach orchards and wheat fields in this country.

    But on the other hand I was greatly disturbed by the destruction of the observation tower. Sure it was ugly, but having a birds-eye view is a great way to learn about the battlefield. The shops and kitsch make Gettysburg fun. Just hop on the Lincoln Highway (RT 30) and revel in all the nearby shops from massage parlors/strip club to an Elephant Museum. My favorite drive in America is going from Ligonier (another historic town) to Harrisburg.

    I’ve also been a reenactor and a lot of those people are so immersed in their own history-geek world that they forget that these parks are for everyone to enjoy.

    Benjamin

    P.S. As a disclaimer…My college professor for History 444 (the American Civil War) at Penn State was none other than Gary Gallagher.

  11. Sell it. To the highest bidder. I don’t care if it become a Six Flags over Gettysburg or a condo complex.

    This is America, we don’t (or shouldn’t) have holy sites. Especially one that commerorates Americans killing each other by the thousands.

  12. But on the other hand I was greatly disturbed by the destruction of the observation tower.

    Fuck me, they took the tower? That was probably the best part of the whole park. Really brought home to me the intensity of the carnage. You could see practically the whole battlefield, and try to imagine how you could even fit 40,000 or more dead and seriously wounded on those fields.

    Why the hell couldn’t they restore the landscape as best they could and leave the tower?

  13. This is America, we don’t (or shouldn’t) have holy sites. Especially one that commerorates Americans killing each other by the thousands.

    So, can I conclude you think we should sell off the Arizona Memorial, too? Or is that one different for some reason?

  14. “This is America, we don’t (or shouldn’t) have holy sites.”

    I Agree, but we have them anyway. Like this place.

    http://www.mormonwiki.com/Carthage_Jail

  15. So, can I conclude you think we should sell off the Arizona Memorial, too? Or is that one different for some reason?

    Sure. If anyone wants to buy a building stretced between pylons in the middle of a harbor, let them bid on it. I suspect some Navy veterans group would be the highest bidder* and one more item would be removed from the government inventory.

    Wiki has this to say about the funding of the memorial –

    Throughout the 1950s there was discussion of scrapping the Arizona altogether. President Dwight D. Eisenhower approved the creation of the National Memorial in 1958. Enabling legislation required that the memorial budgeted at $500,000 be privately financed. This was not to prove the case. $200,000 of the memorial cost was government subsidized.

    I’m retired Navy. I’ve visited the memorial every time I’ve pulled into Pearl Harbor, I think any visitor to Oahu should put it on their itinerary. I don’t think the government shoulsd have paid that 200K for construction nor should it pay or the operation of the site.

    If we sailors can’t won’t put up the bucks to continue the ferries and tours, scrap it. Certainly if the taxpayers, most who will never visit the site, are footing the bill, nobody else is going to step up to the plate.

    * I also suspect they’d hit me up successfully for a donation. You shouldn’t be forced to pay for it.

  16. I’ve been to Gettysburg and found it profoundly moving. I was thinking, wow, to make it authentic, they’d have to take out all the trees. Then I saw this:

    Those who might object to the removal of the trees, he says, are “people who don’t understand the difference between a historic park and Yosemite.”

    WTF? Are they serious? If they’re going to go to that length they ought to take out all the Southerners monuments to the fallen troops as well since the Union just let the Confederate bodies lie there and rot in the sun until the relatives called for them.

  17. I Agree, but we have them anyway. Like this place.

    http://www.mormonwiki.com/Carthage_Jail

    From the link –

    The Church bought the building and property in 1903 for $4,000. [italics added]

    Not the government. Not with eminent domain. I’m an atheist who reveres the First Amendment. I have nothing to bitch about here.

  18. Interesting story about the Carthage City Jail, one I had not heard before. However I should point out that it is not a government owned holy site.

  19. almost feel the bullets. … That is what you want to have happen in a battlefield

    Maybe they can arrange for us to almost smell the stench of death as well.

    As I said, I’ve been there. I don’t need any diorama adjustments to understand what happened at Gettysburg. There were several times when I had to simply walk away from my parents, my wife, and my children.

    Restoration is inauthentic. I can’t tell you how duped I felt after standing in Ford’s Theater only to learn later that it was a fargin’ warehouse for a hundred years before the Park Service restored it to look like it supposedly did in 1865.

  20. Rehabilitate Antietam? As I recall, and it was only a decade ago, there wasn’t a damn thing around the site.

  21. I can decide which group of anorak wearers are more obnoxious, Civil War buffs or Amtrak/Railroad fanatics.

  22. Nothing the park service can do will teach us what it was like for men to walk upright into hails of rifle and cannon fire while they watched their friends and relatives die all around them.

    True, but Homeland Security has enough on its plate.

  23. The “authentic Gettysburg” is the park.Did they tear down the historic observation tower yet?
    The NPS hates historic preservation.

  24. The last time I visited Gettysburg, I tripped climbing over the rocks on Little Round Top and sprained my ankle. Luckily, a park ranger was nearby with a tourniquet, a cross-cut saw, and a bottle of laudanum.

  25. Damn, Abdul, you got laudanum? When i dislocated my elbow at the Crater outside of Petersburg, all they had was a whiskey-soaked rag to bite on.

  26. By that point, entrepreneurs and promoters had already sprang into action

    And townies were already trying to sound like hicks who’d been drafted. Yeehaw, boys!

  27. This is just a random comment about how much the government sucks.

  28. This is just a random second of that comment.

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