Restoring the "Authentic" Gettysburg


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.