Monday, July 29, 2013

Accessing History: A “Laboratory” at Gettysburg

Eric Schultz

I was fortunate in early July to attend three days of the 150th commemoration of the Battle of Gettysburg, including a number of events sponsored by the Gettysburg Foundation. It was busy, colorful, sometimes somber but always tropical, a good reminder of what conditions were like in July 1863.  The battlefield itself, nearly 6,000 acres and sometimes called the “symbolic center of American history,” is both inspiring and beautiful. 

The 150th commemoration included a retelling
of the battle and featured first-person accounts.
Events included a spectacular retelling of the battle (focused on first-person accounts), and the grand opening of the Seminary Ridge Museum at which visitors could climb its historic cupola to get a bird’s eye view of the battlefield and town.

As I attended various gatherings, however, it struck me that Gettysburg was nothing less than a kind of living laboratory for how people access history.

For example, there were lots (and lots) of folks taking tours of the battlefield, often led by certified National Park Service guides.  To walk in the footsteps of soldiers and view the battle lines redefines history in a whole new way for many.  Likewise some of the largest groups could be found on Little Round Top, where Col. Joshua Chamberlain made his famous stand--a tribute not only to Chamberlain and his troops, but to the power of Hollywood and films like Gettysburg, capable of creating historical celebrities. 

There were plenty of other visitors taking self-guided tours, some with maps and some with iPods, and some with their noses pressed to air-conditioned windows as they followed along a self-guided auto tour.  There were individuals, couples and families, the latter often gathered around a monument while Dad took pictures and the youngest played surreptitiously on a Gameboy.  (Years later. . . Dad: “Remember when we took that great trip to Gettysburg?” Son: “Um, I think.”)  There’s no telling how many monuments and battlefield scenes were “Instagramed” that weekend, speaking of interesting new ways to access history.

At one event, a young Marine sat next to me.  He’d served three tours in Iraq and was now, in his words, “doing time” as an instructor.  He said he’d driven over from Quantico for the weekend, spent all day on his mountain bike touring the battlefield, went to every event he could attend, and planned to do the same for every 150th Civil War celebration he was able.  He was clearly and enthusiastically engaged in accessing history.

The bookstores were full, and, I’m told, did a landmark business in souvenirs and (I hope) books.  There were certainly plenty of people in hotel lobbies, restaurants and under trees reading as they tried to absorb and understand events.  At the same time, souvenirs are ever-important and, for that matter, first cousin to “relic hunting,” a time-honored (if not always honorable) way of accessing history.  Gettysburg’s famous copse of trees, perhaps the most sacred spot place on the battlefield because it represented the “high tide of the Confederacy” where Pickett’s and Pettigrew’s men were finally turned back, had to be fenced in as early as 1887 because so many souvenir hunters were cutting branches to make walking sticks.
 A view of the battlefield, including tents of
some of the reenactors, from the cupola of the
new Seminary Ridge Museum.

Some ways of accessing the history of Gettysburg are clearly unwelcome.  The National Park Service has long held that the battlefield ought to be unblemished so that visitors can use "grounded imagination" to experience the battle.  When businessman Thomas Ottenstein erected a 307-foot galvanized steel viewing tower--“a classroom in the sky”--near the battlefield in 1974, it was enjoyed by many but seen by others as an abomination.  The structure lasted 21 years until the National Park Service seized it under eminent domain and knocked it down with explosive charges.

In Sacred Ground, Edward Tabor Linenthal describes the long, often controversial history of the Gettysburg battlefield as veterans attempted to access their own history.  Beginning in the 1870s, Pennsylvania chapters of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) held reunions at Gettysburg.  With the dismantling of Reconstruction, Union troops were joined by Confederate veterans.  Combined groups tended to emphasize valor on both sides, as veterans like Maj. Gen. Daniel E. Sickles proclaimed at the 25th reunion in 1888, "To-day there are no victors, no vanquished.  As Americans we may all claim a common share . . . in the new America born on this battlefield." 

Not everyone agreed.  Addressing a chapter of the GAR that same year, Bvt. Brig. General J.P.S. Gobin angrily declared that he was "tired of this gush and pretense for the glorification of the veteran simply because he wore a gray uniform with a Southern flag printed on his badge.  That badge meant treason and rebellion in 1861, and what it meant then it means now. . . ."   Others felt that in the rush to reconcile North and South, the plight of blacks and the issue of slavery were lost.

At the fiftieth anniversary of the battle in 1913, enough time had passed that 55,000 Union and Confederate veterans converged on Gettysburg for a four-day celebration.  Festivities included 6,500 tents, 173 kitchens, stores filled with pennants and flags, and a handful of fistfights.  Nonetheless, the event emphasized collective heroism and healing, and featured the ideology of the Lost Cause that had developed in the postwar South.  Capt. Bennett H. Young, commander of the United Confederate Veterans now accessed a kind of combined history by saying, "It was not Southern valor nor Northern valor.  It was, thank God, American valor." There was a famous handshake near the copse of trees when 300 veterans of Pickett and Pettigrew’s charge and defense met.  Four years later Virginia became the first former Confederate state to erect a monument on the battlefield.

At the 75th in 1938, 1,400 Union and 500 Confederate--average age 94--were still hearty enough to gather at Gettysburg for the "Last Reunion of the Blue and the Gray."  But something interesting happened with the passing of the last veterans of the Civil War in the 1940s: A kind of enthusiastic “subculture” arose as a way to continue accessing history.  Civil War Roundtables (discussion groups begun in Chicago), relic hunters and collectors, war-gamers and, of course, reenactors emerged--the latter being among the most controversial.  Dressed in authentic period clothing and intent on recreating the battle experience in every way, reenactors were among the most visible visitors during my time at the Park.  I found General and Mrs. Lee escaping the heat in my hotel lobby, for example.  There were fields of tents spread around the park and soldiers at every turn.

Frankly, reenactment doesn’t seem like much fun to me.  I was hot enough in shorts, and much of the time I saw the troops, clothed in wool, standing at attention in the hot sun.  (Not to mention, I gave up sleeping in pup tents when my son graduated from Cub Scouts.)  And there is certainly a school of thought that abhors reenactors as much as it does galvanized steel “classrooms in the sky.”  Popular Civil War historian Bruce Catton was especially critical of battle enactments which, he said, "require us to reproduce, for the enjoyment of attendant spectators, a tin shadow-picture of something which involved death and agony for the original participants."
Despite the heat, guided tours of the
battlefield and monument were in full
swing throughout the 150th.

However, the view is entirely different among reenactors, who staged two large-scale battles during the 150th commemoration.  One participant wrote passionately afterwards, “The horror of the Civil War hit me then, in ways that history books and Ken Burns’ films never had.  I was watching real people, all of them Americans, killing each other.  I knew it wasn’t real, but I also knew that if it had been, I would have fallen on the ground and sobbed.”

It’s pretty hard to say that that’s not accessing history.

235,000 visited Gettysburg during the commemoration; they read, walked, drove, toured, listened, visited museums, bought souvenirs, took thousands of digital pictures, camped, mountain-biked and reenacted, accessing history in all sorts of interesting ways; one new film even uses drones to illustrate the battle. As with most things Gettysburg, however, it may be best to look to Abraham Lincoln for the final word: How we preserve and interpret the battle’s meaning--and by implication, find ways to make and keep it accessible--should be, he said, all part of the "great task remaining before us."


hcr said...

This is a great piece on accessing history. I know people sometimes look down on reenactors, but I learned everything I know about guns from them-- and they knew their stuff! Also the actual mechanics of clothing, and starting fires, and all that. It makes WAY more sense when you watch someone actually doing it. Loved this piece. Thanks, Eric.

Randall said...

There's a great book waiting to be written (or maybe it's been done). What is the gap that separates re-enactors and popular history from academic history? Remember Fitz Brundage's review of the Tony Horowitz Confeds in the Attic book in the GA Hist Q?

Thanks for the thought provoking post.

Eric B. Schultz said...

Thanks, Heather and Randall! Maybe it's just a question of education? I certainly have a whole new appreciation for reenactors. On the other hand, Comic Con is in Boston this weekend and there will be a bunch of folks dressed up as superheros and cartoon characters. That may take more than education. . .

Theresa said...