The Repeated Reinvention of Gettysburg

The evolution of a national shrine.


Today marks the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg address -- as good a time as any to reread Damon Root's classic Reason piece from 2004 on the evolution of Gettysburg as a national shrine. Here's an excerpt:

Glad so many of you could come. I'm going to deliver a few words to dedicate this new national shrine, and then I'll cut the ribbon to formally open it. Now where did I put my giant ceremonial shears?

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….

Thanks to spectacular advances in technology and communication, plus rising wages and increased leisure hours, great numbers of Americans joined [the cultural argument over what we "should" consume] 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….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.

Read the rest here.