Does Gettysburg Have a Place in Our National Narrative?

Fellow bloggers Paul Taylor and Eric Wittenberg have recently weighed in on the debate surrounding the new exhibit at the Gettysburg Visitor Center.  As all of you know I have been a big supporter of the exhibit since visiting back in August.  Both bloggers make similar points.  According to Paul:

It's just my non-scientific opinion, but I believe that most people who
visit a Civil War battlefield like Gettysburg do so to learn about that
particular 19th-century battle or campaign. They have their maps in
hand and try to envision the gray or blue lines sweeping over the
fields they’re standing on. Perhaps they’ll briefly close their eyes
and try to smell the smoke and hear the roar of battle within their
mind’s eye. Having seen the lay of the land, they now understand how a
unique piece of geography may have affected a particular outcome.
Everyone agrees that some background context is important but from what
I’ve personally seen and read, it feels like there’s been a tidal-shift
in the other direction – whether we, the Civil War consumer, need it,
like it, or not.

…and according to Eric:

While I understand the role of slavery in causing the war, I agree with
Paul that most folks visit specific battlefields to learn about the
events that occurred there. Consequently, I agree that the issue of the
causes of the war and of slavery is best left to general Civil War
museums and that these issues really have no place on specific
battlefields.

I don't need to repeat the various objections that I have with such a view.  Neither Eric or Paul mentions Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, which seems to me to be a salient feature of this landscape.  Is there any room at all for Lincoln and his short little address?  What strikes me, however, is the extent to which the two comments reflect changes in the way the battlefield has come to be interpreted since the 1950s and the height of the Cold War.  The question of how much "background context" is sufficient is itself a function of the distance traveled and one that many Americans would not have understood not too long ago.  If we were to step back fifty years ago we would see a very different approach to the interpretation of the battlefield, one that emphasized the central place of Gettysburg within the broader national story.  No doubt, Cold War ideology helped to fuel a view of the battle as a turning point in a war that guaranteed both the preservation of the United States and the end of slavery.  In a speech at Gettysburg College in 1961, Bruce Catton noted that, "As a result of the Civil War, it is our inescapable position to be committed to freedom broad enough to encompass all men, of all races and creeds and backgrounds."  You can find countless speeches and events that focused specifically on the larger narrative picture and very little time on tactics or our deep need to experience the battlefield as individuals.  Visitors to Gettysburg traveled as families throughout this period and used the battle primarily as a civics lesson that reinforced fundamental values at a time when many Americans believed those values were being challenged overseas by the Soviet Union and the inevitable spread of communism. 

The introduction of Heritage Tourism along with our skepticism regarding American Exceptionalism in the post-Vietnam age has, in part, contributed to what is best described as a solipsistic approach to Gettysburg.  Yes, there are various "Image Tribes" that meet, but the primary goal for visitors today is the achievement of a personal experience with the battlefield through participation in living history events, reenactments or even an obsession with the most minute facts about the location and movement of troops.  Much has been done to encourage such an experience, including the creation of new view sheds and the demolition of the Battlefield Tower.  This development should not necessarily be seen along teleological lines, but as simply another approach to battlefield consumption based on the latest set of values.  Such a set of values seems to have little patience with the bigger picture even though historians have clearly demonstrated in recent years that the soldiers who fought on these fields did so for reasons that were bigger than themselves. 

My point for now is not to suggest that the views expressed above are wrong.  To be honest, I am not even sure what it would mean to be mistaken concerning such a question.  What I do mean to suggest is that the scope of the new Gettysburg exhibit fits comfortably within the broader narrative of how the battlefield has, in fact, been interpreted in the past.  I've said before that I agree that broader questions of slavery and race need not be addressed in such detail at every NPS battlefield, but it seems to me that Gettysburg is an ideal place in which to do so.  After all, this is the place where Abraham Lincoln delivered the most important speech in American history.  His speech touches on a host of issues that at the time linked the present conflict to the American past going back to 1776. 

Finally, I think the way the issue has been framed has everything to do with race.  At the turn of the twentieth century black GAR units in the North regularly organized excursions to Little Round Top as a way to commemorate the emancipationist legacy of the war and their own role in bringing it about.  They did so at a time when Americans had lost sight of emancipation and embraced reconciliation as a necessary condition for reunion.  One is hard pressed to find black Americans at Gettysburg today, although it seems to me that they have as much of a reason to do so as any citizen.  The idea that the NPS has moved too far in the opposite direction (from where, I don't know) in addressing such issues is based on a flawed view of how the Civil War has been remembered up until recently.  Gettysburg belongs to all Americans.  But if that fact means anything at all than we must be willing to move away from what can only be described as an overly narrow and selfish view of what it means to visit a Civil War battlefield such as Gettysburg.

One thought on “Does Gettysburg Have a Place in Our National Narrative?

  1. John Hennessy

    It seems to me that it’s our charge to make sure visitors understand both what happened at battlefield sites and why those battles matter to the nation and its history. One reason they matter, of course, is that so many died at these places–they are profound places of loss, reflection, and commemoration. That, certainly, is core to what we do (and part of our traditional role). But illuminating how what happened at Fredericksburg, for example, reverberated through Northern sitting rooms and halls of Congress–just two weeks before Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation–does nothing but ADD to the interpretive experience. Every word, every twitch of our muscles ought to help visitors understand what happened, why it happened, and why it mattered (and matters). That requires some effort to put the battles in context, though that context should in my view always (at a specific site) be seen largely through the lens of that particular battle or event. I confess that I find the argument that we should not accord political, social and economic significance to battles and campaigns both interesting and befuddling. Why would we not? Can someone tell me why we should not educate visitors about why the Battle of Fredericksburg–or Antietam or Gettysburg–mattered to the nation beyond its purely military implications?

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