Oh That Gettysburg

Thanks to the folks at the Civil War Preservation Trust for putting on a first-rate conference.  I had a great experience and I look forward to the opportunity to help out again next year in Franklin, Tennessee.  My panel discussion last night was successful.  The audience asked some very thoughtful questions about the role and use of technology in the classroom and this was after a long day of walking the Gettysburg battlefield.  I can’t say how impressed I am with this organization.  Nicole Osier did a great job organizing the conference and it was a pleasure meeting the rest of the staff, including Robert Shenk and Gary Adelman.  The CWPT understands that saving battlefields is about educating the general public, especially our students, who will one day be responsible for taking on leadership positions in this good fight.  I can think of no better way of showing my support than by joining the CWPT and I encourage you to do so as well.

I especially enjoyed my time at Gettysburg.  This was my first trip to the battlefield with a group and it gave me quite a bit to think about.  For one thing I can’t tell you how many times I overheard references to the movie, Gettysburg.  Workshop presenters referenced the movie as did participants in casual conversations, and it was even mentioned on the tour.  I don’t necessarily have a problem with this, but I have to wonder whether folks are able to distinguish between a Hollywood interpretation and the history of the actual site.  It’s as if people view the battle and its participants through the lens of the movie.  Luckily, I didn’t hear any references to Buster Kilrain.  Even though the movie was released back in the early 1990s it shows no sign of letting up.  The actors remain popular attractions and even Mort Kunstler’s paintings look more like the movie’s actors than the actual historical figures.  The strangest and, in my mind, the most disturbing aspect of this phenomena is the bench dedicated to Michael Shaara that was recently placed in Hollywood Cemetery next to the grave of George Pickett.  How this was allowed to happen is beyond me, but I encourage you to take photographs of yourself doing something disrespectful on it having some fun with it.

On our walk of “Pickett’s Charge” I noticed something else as well that struck me as curious.  I hope I can explain it.  It’s as if the entire war is condensed into those three days; this seems to be magnified when walking the July 3 battlefield.  Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy that walk just as much as the next person.  Take a few steps in any direction and the battlefield looks completely different.  But in the end the field doesn’t stand out for me compared to other battlefields.  It’s as if visitors believe that this is the first time that Civil War soldiers have lined up on an open field and marched toward a heavily defended position.  Actually, by July 1863 there isn’t anything unusual about such an attack.  Everything about the story seems to be magnified, but what I find most interesting are the presentist comments about the level of bravery as compared with soldiers in our modern day army.  How many times have we heard something along the lines of: “You couldn’t order soldiers today to make that charge”?  Again, it’s as if there was something unique about this particular attack.  Even if that were the case it wouldn’t tell us much of anything about Civil War tactics and motivation in the 1860s.  The fact is they did make those assaults over and over.

I guess it has something to do with the old saw of Gettysburg as the great turning point of the war.  Perhaps most people are reliving the movie when they walk on this particular battlefield.  For me it’s what makes visits to our Civil War battlefields so interesting.

[Painting by Don Troiani (Decision at Dawn)]

Print Friendly
 

20 thoughts on “Oh That Gettysburg

  1. Robert Moore

    While I still enjoy Gettysburg for a number of reasons, I agree about the overshadowing that the place seems to have in popular “memory”. A fine example is how many remain unaware of the frontal assault made almost a year to the day of Pickett’s Charge
    … at Malvern Hill.

    Reply
  2. Matt McKeon

    Kevin,
    The thing to remember is this is perhaps the only battlefield a lot of people will visit, and the one they are most likely to have read about. Visitors know that Pickett’s charge wil be destroyed, and the field from the Lee(or Virginia) monument and Cemetary ridge looks particularly flat and open. Walking it, you experience some unevenness, but it looks like the top of a pool table from the edge.

    People can’t divorce the meaning they bring to a place and the place itself. Afterall(he godwinned), Birkenau is little more then some rusty barbed wire, foundations, a few crumbling buildings, railroad tracks and a gatehouse that only looks sinister because we know what is behind it.

    Reply
  3. Tom Horn

    Thanks for the interesting post. It is my experience that when a historical event is dramatized, our view of that event becomes permanently skewed.

    I experienced this recent when reading about the death of a key character in the recent HBO Pacific series. The description of his death in my history text didn’t match the depiction in the series, and my immediate reaction (before coming to my senses) was to question the book. The human mind is a strange and tricksy beast ;)

    Reply
  4. Margaret D. Blough

    Kevin-I can get as annoyed as anyone with the Gettysburg-centric view of the Civil War, but I think its role in the national psyche is the product of a complex web of factors. First and foremost, it may not have been “THE turning point” of the Civil War (at best, it was one of many)” but it was a significant one, with and without the almost simultaneous surrender in Vicksburg. Lee was defeated in open battle and had to leave a loyal state, and, with the exception of a raid or two that he sent, he never moved into loyal territory again which had an enormous impact on the public feeling. Then there was the fact that, once the rail line was reestablished, visitors could get there easily and it was safe territory (even if they could get there, I doubt Vicksburg would have been very welcoming). Then there was the National Cemetery and Lincoln giving the Gettysburg address at its dedication.

    It’s not altogether fair, but it is a special place.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Margaret,

      All good points and I am definitely not denying that Gettysburg is a special place. I highly recommend Jim Weeks’s study of popular memory of Gettysburg, which covers its development as a tourist attraction and national significance. I was simply commenting on the extent to which the movie has come to shape the visitors’ experience.

      Reply
      1. Margaret D. Blough

        Kevin-I may be sensitive on the point because I’m one of those people who got interested in the Civil War through “The Movie”. I’ve always been interested in history in general and military history in particular, but I came from Western Pennsylvania where the dominant war narratives were the French and Indian War and the Revolutionary War and their aftermaths. What I found about both the movie and the novel on which it was based, “The Killer Angels” was that, for the most part, they got people seriously interested in serious history, not in more fiction. Most people I know realized pretty quickly that Buster Kilrain was a fictional character, but the book and the movie also served to renew interest in actual Civil War participants who had faded into obscurity like John Buford and Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain/the 20th Maine, and it played a very large role in beginning to rescue James Longstreet, the real person and general, from the evil inept caricature that the Lost Cause had imposed on the popular memory. The park does respond to changes in popular interest, but, also, part of the battlefield rehabilitation is to ensure a broader interpretation that not only gets beyond the Copse of Trees, Pickett’s Charge, LRT, and Devil’s Den in the park but includes the concept of seamless interpretation with those parts of the battle that occurred outside park boundaries, especially in the town itself.

        The Movie, along with Ken Burns’ “The Civil War”, did a lot to increase popular interest in Gettysburg so their influence will inevitably be felt.

        Reply
        1. Kevin Levin Post author

          Margaret,

          I completely understand and acknowledge that the movie functioned as an introduction to a more serious interest in the Civil War. Again, I never meant to deny that fact. Thanks for sharing.

          Reply
  5. Alicia LeRoux

    Hi Kevin,

    I was in the CWPT audience and found your blog after you mentioned it. While I agree that Stephen Lang and the Picket Society are a misguided group, I am troubled that you would encourage your followers to do anything disrespectful while on the bench. Does one misguided deed deserve another? As a teacher, and I am assuming that your students follow your blog, is it truly your intention to condone such behavior?

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Hi Alicia,

      Good point and thanks for calling me on my choice of words. Perhaps I should have encouraged my readers to have some fun with that bench. That would leave more to the imagination. Thanks for taking the time to comment. Perhaps we will have a chance to chat in person next year in Franklin.

      Reply
      1. Alicia LeRoux

        Thanks for writing back. I will indeed enjoy chatting with you in Franklin. I look forward to following your blog. It appears as if your blog will open my mind and I already know that I appreciate your open mindedness.

        Reply
  6. Chris Evans

    I’m a big fan of the novel and movie. I reference both quite a bit just to have some fun. I know when to separate the movie from actual history but admit when I think of someone like Chamberlain I think of Jeff Daniels excellent portrayal of him. The actors did a really good job in ‘Gettysburg’ and made the historical characters come to life. That’s one of the things that I have always found brilliant about Shaara’s book in that he made those larger than life characters feel real and made you want to read so much more of the real history behind them. I also always found enjoyable how the novel and film brought to life lesser characters who could easily have been forgotten like Moxley Sorrel, Walter Taylor, and Tom Chamberlain.

    It’s interesting how movies really can shape a viewer’s perception of history. ‘Gettysburg’ is not the only battle that has a film that sometimes overshadows the actual history of a battle. In World War II I think of ‘A Bridge Too Far’ about the Battle of Arnhem. It did such an excellent job with the actual history that I think it complements the true story. Another of my war movie favorites does the same thing- ‘Waterloo’. That is also one of my favorite periods in history and Rod Steiger and Christopher Plummer so embodied Napoleon and the Duke of Wellington that there portraits of those huge historical characters are in my mind when I read about the Napoleonic Era.

    I think ‘Gettysburg’, ‘A Bridge Too Far’, and ‘Waterloo’ really encourage a viewer to read more about the actual history and discover the wonderful world of books on these momentous subjects.

    Thanks,
    Chris

    Reply
  7. Nicole Osier

    We were happy to have you join us this year and are excited to continue our relationship in the future. There is so much more to discuss and think about in history and education, we only scratched the surface this weekend. Thanks for helping us provide great resources to deserving educators.

    Reply
  8. Emmanuel Dabney

    Somehow I missed there was such an unnecessary (and I think disrespectful considering Shaara did not participate in any battle with Pickett or any other Union or Confederate soldier) bench in Hollywood Cemetery.

    I think you said it best “How this was allowed to happen is beyond me….”

    Reply
    1. Chris Evans

      Those responses are crazy! I can’t believe someone would actually believe that is real footage. I’m glad for the massive amount of photographs that we have on the war but I’ve known since I was little that no moving footage exists. There is primitive footage from the 1890s of Roosevelt and the Rough Riders in the Spanish American war but that is almost a good 35 years from the American Civil War.
      Thanks,
      Chris

      Reply

Join the Conversation