Why A Casino Is A Good Idea For Gettysburg

I haven’t said much concerning the controversy surrounding the proposed casino at Gettysburg or the general problem of battlefield preservation. My silence is not so much due to the fact that I have nothing to say, but more because I don’t know what to say. I am very uncomfortable with the way in which the battle lines have been drawn by both sides. Whenever I find it difficult to get my bearings on a subject my first instinct is to ask about its history if it has one. It is surprising that not more has been written on the history of the preservation movement as it relates specifically to Civil War battlefields. It would be helpful to know how we got to this point.

The late Jim Weeks examines the marketing of the Gettysburg within days following the battle. This is important because it suggests that the current debate between the polar positions of preservation v. economic development is overly simplistic. Is a casino really inappropriate in Gettysburg given its history as a tourist destination? Consider Weeks on Gettysburg:

“Gettysburg has been part of a cultural marketplace ever since the shooting stopped, and its memory has spread with the growth of consumer culture. In other words, the cultural context in which Gettysburg earned its niche as a national icon and sustains that status has been neglected. Seen from a larger cultural perspective, Gettysburg takes on new significance—not just as a site of a pivotal Civil War battle, but as a shrine shaped by an evolving consumer culture. Its story sheds light on the nature of modern pilgrimage, including trends in leisure activities, commemoration, public behavior, mass culture, and merchandizing of the past.” (p. 6)

Gettysburg was never a purely sacred site cut off from the broader market forces. As I understand Weeks, the very idea of Gettysburg is wrapped up in these broader economic as well as other secular trends and values. A casino may create traffic congestion and other practical problems, but perhaps it compliments the landscape more than we would like to admit.

I believe that the preservationists are ultimately on the losing end of the stick. Please understand that I say this as someone who enjoys walking the fields and using them for teaching purposes. This is not to say that we should sit back and do nothing, just that a solution will have to be found within a broader culture that simply does not share the preservationist’s agenda. This is a nation that has little patience for its past and would much rather walk through another GAP than through the Devil’s Den. Ultimately we must acknowledge that the genie was let out of the bottle long ago.

I am learning through my own research on postwar commemorations of the Crater that the residents of Petersburg used the battlefield to attract people and businesses to the area at the turn of the 20th century. What is even more important to acknowledge is that many of the veterans of the battle, including Carter R. Bishop took the lead in marketing the battlefield for economic reasons. Bishop hoped to attract federal funds for the construction of a new military base that would bring both jobs and people to the Petersburg area. In doing so, he connected the practical benefits of locating the base in Petersburg with the necessity of preserving the areas battlefields: “If the military students of Europe think it worth while to come here to collect material for the text-books, is it not true wisdom on the part of the country to hand down intact to her soldiers . . . the most impressive volume on the Art of War?” His work culminated in the completion of Fort Lee in 1917 which is situated just up the road from the entrance to the Petersburg National Battlefield Park.

I respect people like Brian Pohanka and others for their passion and commitment to preservation. Brian’s battle cry of saving the battlefields for that one kid who picks up a book and wants to visit those places is admirable and reflects the depth of his conviction. At the same time I wonder whether his conviction as well as others really makes sense given the background of the landscape and the complex relationship between history, entertainment, and preservation.

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