Gettysburg and Battlefield Preservation: Another Perspective

The following is a guest post by Professor Mark Snell of Shepherd University.  Professor Snell is the director of The George Tyler Moore Center for the Study of the Civil War

I will not attempt to debate Professor Cebula, nor try to address most of his points. This debate actually can be traced back to 1863—how much of the battlefield should be set aside to honor the men who fought, bled and died there—and it has been going on ever since. For anyone interested in that history, they should read Gettysburg: Memory, Market, and an American Shrine (Princeton Univ. Press, 2003), by the late Jim Weeks.

Let’s get right to the crux of the matter: Is the site of the proposed casino—the Eisenhower Inn and Conference Center, its adjacent sports complex and Devonshire Village condominiums—a place where Union and Confederate soldiers met in combat? The answer is no. We do know, however, that it was a staging area for Wesley Merritt’s cavalry brigade prior to its fight against the right flank of the Army of Northern Virginia on the afternoon of July 3, 1863. Is that, in itself, worth saving? The question and its answer are irrelevant, since the area has been developed for more than four decades.

Directly across the Emmitsburg Road (US Business Route 15) from the proposed casino are the relic remains of a failed commercial venture known as “Slippy Slide,” a water park which incorporated a blockhouse from “Fort Defiance,” another extinct tourist trap that formerly sat on the Taneytown Road near “Fantasyland,” itself a 1950s-era theme park where the current USNPS visitors’ center now sits. All of these commercial enterprises, and many more, were built in Cumberland Township with the explicit approval of the township’s supervisors, the political predecessors of the ones who recently approved the proposed casino.

For the record, I am not morally offended by a casino that could be located about 1 ½ miles from my farm. My libertarian views tell me that if people want to gamble their money away, so be it. But again, part of me wants to say, “Hey Atlantic City! How are those casinos working out for you now!”

The real issue here is not the casino itself, but the ancillary commercial development that, based on the Cumberland Township supervisors’ past record, is sure to blossom along the Emmitsburg Road. Many years ago, I was a member of the Cumberland Township Planning Commission. I eventually resigned because I believed that the supervisors seemed all too eager to yield to development pressure at the expense of historic preservation, the historic landscape and the historic viewshed.

The area in the immediate vicinity of the proposed casino is zoned “mixed use,” which, according to the Cumberland Township Zoning Ordinance, would include motels (a few older ones and two star establishments already exist there), restaurants/bars, gas stations, convenience stores, automobile/motorcycle dealers and the like. Any number of national and regional franchises could easily install a ready-made business in a very short period of time in order to take advantage of the casino’s clientele. Based on past trends of commercial development that had been approved by the township supervisors, I am deeply concerned that this tendency will continue, this time within a half mile of the South Cavalry battlefield, part of Gettysburg National Military Park. Will the presumed tax revenues—at the expense of the historic viewshed so close to the battlefield—offset the longer-term costs to local government? Ask the good people of Atlantic City, New Jersey, how it has worked out for them. And don’t forget to factor the increased bus and car traffic along the already congested Emmitsburg Road. Will that require widening of the road and perhaps traffic lights?

My main worry, as a taxpayer within Cumberland Township and Adams County, is not with rising taxes. I have witnessed rapid commercial development in the past twenty years, yet my property and school taxes have continued to rise, despite promises that business development would lower my taxes. My greatest concern—the reason that I chose to move to Gettysburg after retiring from the US Army—is the maintenance of the rural and historical environment of the area. Anyone who has visited Harpers Ferry National Historical Park can attest to the burgeoning commercial development between there and Charles Town after a casino was added to Charles Town Races. The landscape along US Route 340 between those two towns only recently—in the past two decades—had been pastoral and rural, too. It no longer looks that way.

To Americans who understand the battle, Gettysburg also is defined by the roads leading there—the military “avenues of approach” that are as much a part of the battlefield landscape as the area currently protected by Gettysburg National Military Park. But those roads, laid out in the 18th and 19th centuries, are fast losing their rural character, as anyone traveling along US Route 30 East or West of the town will see. Can we afford to continue that trend?

One last thing needs to be addressed, which was the starting point for Professor Cebula’s guest blog-posting. It’s obvious that he did not like the CWPT film. I found the film, for the most part, moving and heartfelt, but it is understandable why Dr. Cebula would question the use of “talking heads” such as Stephen Lang, Ken Burns, Matthew Broderick, Sam Waterston and Susan Eisenhower. They are not historians. They do, however, have a passionate interest in the Civil War and Gettysburg, either because they portrayed a Civil War personality on film, or produced an award-winning documentary on the subject or, in one case, spent her childhood weekends in Gettysburg. All donated their services to the Trust. All are recognizable by the American public. If CWPT just filmed egg-headed historians like Cebula and me—or even David Blight—who would want to watch it, and what impact would it have?

Will Gettysburg’s legacy be a landscape littered with crass development, or will we try to restore it to a place of national historic significance, including the areas that buffer the park? President Dwight David Eisenhower (grandfather of Susan) loved this area so much that he bought a historic farm adjacent to the battlefield and retired there. Thinking about his own “Gettysburg address,” he wrote, “When I die, I want to leave a piece of earth better than I found it.” That’s my goal, too.

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25 thoughts on “Gettysburg and Battlefield Preservation: Another Perspective

  1. John Hoptak

    Very well said, Dr. Snell. As a six-year resident of Gettysburg (now right up the road in Bendersville), as a student of the American Civil War, and as one who is committed to preserving as much of our history and historical landscapes as possible, I could not agree more.

    Reply
    1. Dr. Walter L. Powell

      I’ve read with interest Dr. Mark Snell’s comments, and the related replies. As the former Director of Planning and Historic Preservation for the Borough of Gettysburg (1990-2007) I couldn’t agree more with Ms. Blough’s comments about local governments desperately searching for every means to find revenue short of raising taxes. While the current casino proposal is not in Gettysburg Borough, during the last “battle” over the proposal the Council endorsed the casino and, like Cumberland Township currently, was offered the prospect of at least $1 million in revenues contingent on the Casino becoming profitable. That represented fully a quarter of the Borough’s budget at a time when the Borough’s millage rate was ( and still is) the highest in Adams County. I can’t speak to Cumberland’s current budget, but I do know their tax base is much larger than Gettysburg Borough, and their millage considerably lower.
      For the last several years Governor Ed Rendell has been pushing for expansion of licensed gambling across the Commonwealth, arguing that revenues could be used to lower local property taxes, etc. Those arguments, and other “creative means” to raise revenue, are not likely to end. But the real issue, here, I think, is what the ultimate long term consequences of a casino will be to greater Gettysburg–its image, its physical appearance–and the real costs to local government. I will state for the record that I am not a supporter of gambling, but am pragmatic enough to realize that it is already a reality in Pennsylvania, with expansion inevitable. But where do we draw the line? And why open one near Gettysburg?
      It is true that the current casino would be on land already developed, and therefore would not threaten open space. But what about the various parcels along the Emmitsburg Road (Business US Route 15) from the GNMP boundary to the US 15 Bypass? Currently that stretch of highway retains a large part of its rural character, with some low profile motels and other businesses. Boyd’s Bears and the Eisenhower Inn and Conference Center are notable exceptions–but even Boyd’s Bears is located on the reverse slope of the highway, not visible from the road. Unfortunately, Cumberland Township has zoned this area “Mixed Use,” and as Dr. Snell points out, there are some compelling questions about just how responsible the Township would be in regulating growth here. While Cumberland Township also has a designated “Historic District” I have seen little evidence that the township takes that very seriously, or has made any effort to develop an inventory of threatened historic resources–much less the issue of historic viewshed. If you doubt me, take a look at the four story Comfort Suites Motel built right up against the rear of Evergreen Cemetery (in Cumberland Township).
      In one sense, Casino or not, the “Battle of Gettysburg” will never end, and the current economy only aggravates local divisions over what is “appropriate” development. Adams County is one of the fastest growing counties in Pennsylvania, and the demands on local government at all levels have long since outstripped revenues. A real part of this problem is an outdated municipal governing system statewide that does not allow Boroughs like Gettysburg to “annex” adjacent land (just look at development right outside the Borough limits that many assume is in “Gettysburg”), and adjacent rural townships like Cumberland are not about to give up their political power to consider merging governments. The Borough maintains the largest police department in Adams County–but effectively cannot provide service to either Cumberland or Straban. Limited attempts at cooperative service agreements have been largely unsuccessful. Costs go up, but no one wants to talk about radical changes to government–changes that can only occur with a Constitutional Convention at the State level–and no politician seems eager to push for that. What a mess!
      I don’t think Gettysburg is the place for a casino, and I’m wary of the claims that it will provide many real employment opportunities for residents of Adams County. But this battle is not just one about a “casino”–it is part of a continuing struggle to find the means to bring more economic development to the area while still maintaining its historic integrity. And like it or not, the broader public that loves Gettysburg so much needs to understand that National Treasures, as deserving as they are of preservation–have a price tag. Who will bear the costs?

      Reply
      1. Margaret D. Blough

        Dr. Powell-Thank you for a very thoughtful discussion of the issues. You’re right about the biggest problem facing municipalities in Pennsylvania: this clinging to traditional boundary lines and refusal to give up or even share power. As far back as 1977, the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation identified this and the resulting inability of adjacent municipalities to work together, to work with the state, and, especially in the Gettysburg area’s case, to work with the federal government. The need for cooperative planning has never been more important and has never seemed so unlikely to happen. I wish there was less heat and more light about this. As you point out, the issues are complex and difficult decisions continue to have to be made. I was not happy at the attacks on the national preservation organizations by the pro-casino forces. I can understand their disappointment in the stand these organizations have taken on their proposal, but these are all organizations that have put their money where their mouths are in terms of raising money to buy land and interests in land in order to protect the land while ensuring that the owners get a fair price for what, quite often, is their only major asset. Those of us who belong to one or more of these organizations do so, in significant part, because we realize that preservation costs money and that, if we want it to happen, we have to be willing to work and sacrifice to help make it happen. It is neither right nor is it fair to expect the locals to do this preservation work without substantial assistance.

        Your discussion of Boyds’ Bears is particularly instructive. Boyds’ Bears went to considerable effort not to intrude on the historic viewsheds. It’s also a very family oriented place. The Comfort Inn is an atrocity. While it’s not a site I’d pick for a hotel (I recently made reservations at a hotel in Norfolk VA where the room rates varied on whether the room has a water view or a town view. I can’t imagine being asked whether I wanted a room with or without views of a cemetery), it would have been possible to design a hotel that would have been dignified and fit into the landscape instead of the massive garish crazy quilt that was built.

        I appreciate the work that Gettysburg Borough has done in preserving its historic character. The fact that the town has been able to keep so many historic buildings and respect the historic character of the town IMHO is essential not only to the preservation of the historical record but, in dollars and cents terms, a critical factor in continuing to attract historic tourism to the area and remind people that the battlefield is much larger than the park boundaries. However, that protection doesn’t require turning the place into a diorama. The work on Baltimore Street that put red brick facades on the former G.C. Murphy, etc. gave the street a much better appearance without turning it into a museum.

        I couldn’t agree more with your statement:

        >>I don’t think Gettysburg is the place for a casino, and I’m wary of the claims that it will provide many real employment opportunities for residents of Adams County. But this battle is not just one about a “casino”–it is part of a continuing struggle to find the means to bring more economic development to the area while still maintaining its historic integrity. And like it or not, the broader public that loves Gettysburg so much needs to understand that National Treasures, as deserving as they are of preservation–have a price tag. Who will bear the costs?<<

        However it turns out on the casino, it will be but one step in an ongoing process and those of us who care about the history have to also remember that this is a place where real people live and must have work to do and the balancing act between those two realities will never be easy.

        Reply
        1. Dr. Walter L. Powell

          Margaret,

          Thank you for your thoughtful response. As a former president of the Gettysburg Battlefield Preservation Association, I was disappointed in the position the Association took endorsing the casino–a position I believe does not reflect their membership at large. But the broader attacks against groups like the Civil War Preservation Trust are predictable given the local ambivalence about preservation in particular, and “outsiders” in general. One of the biggest challenges that Gettysburg Borough faces, for example, is a lack of a true advocacy group for preservation at the most local level. When I worked for the Borough, I was more often than not the “point person” for attacks against me and more broadly the “Hysterical Architectural Review Board” whenever it would weigh in on preservation issues. As recently as a few days ago, the Gettysburg Times “Reporters Notebook” cast another aspersion at the “Hysterical Review Board.” Yet the HARB, as imperfect as its decisions may sometime be, is almost all that stands between Gettysburg’s historic character and–well, I need not suggest the alternative. It could use the equivalent of a CWPT.
          The very real costs of maintaining the historic character of the town are always in tension with those who prefer quicker, cheaper solutions–and the names of some of the “developers” who raised those issues in the past might surprise many. But notwithstanding, everyone has a right to be concerned about the economics, and we who advocate for Historic Preservation have a daunting task. We can never take our position for granted, and Gettysburg can never rest on its apparent laurels.
          I know the 1977 report of which you speak, and while, as you note, we have made some progress since then, we have also taken giant steps backward. As you probably know, Straban Township once had an Historic District, and even a “HARB,” but the supervisors revoked the ordinance several years ago. A more recent attempt to develop some design standards along Route 30 was only successful because of the efforts of the Adams County Office of Planning and Development–and fell far short of what could have been accomplished if the Township had written a strong preservation component in its comprehensive plan and zoning ordinance.
          I applaud the work of the CWPT, the National Trust, and all those preservation organizations, large and small, who have advocated for Gettysburg and elsewhere. We all have much Unfinished Work.

          Reply
  2. Kevin Levin Post author

    A number of you, including Mark Snell, have brought up Atlantic City’s experience with casinos as a relevant comparison. I grew up in A.C. and witnessed both the benefits and negative consequences of gambling. Let me suggest that we move away from this comparison for a number of reasons. First, when Atlantic City introduced gambling the city was at an almost complete standstill. That is not the case with Gettysburg. Gambling was not competing with anything in the 1970s while that is exactly the case when it comes to Gettysburg. Since the introduction of gambling in A.C. a number of other places within driving distance have introduced gambling venues. More importantly, the city’s troubles cannot simply be reduced to gambling. Like other places A.C. has suffered because of broader economic problems. At the same time it is easy to forget that at different times the city did experience a boost because of the casinos. Neighborhoods have been improved, there is increased shopping in the city, and the broader area has experienced some growth. I’m not suggesting that there are no problems in my home town. Quite the contrary, but the comparison with Gettysburg falls flat unless someone is wiling to do the necessary research to make a stronger case.

    Reply
    1. Margaret D. Blough

      Kevin-Obviously, Atlantic City and Gettysburg are not identical situations. The point is the credibility of the rosy economic projections of casino advocates. Atlantic City is only one example of why these projections are viewed by many, even including some who don’t care about the historic preservation issue at all, with considerable skepticism.

      I’ve told you before, based on my family’s activities, why I don’t go ballistic on the issue of gambling, per se. However, to me, casinos are the latest fad in state and local governments trying to find a painless way to raise revenues while avoiding the political risks of formally raising taxes (government services in PA have been cut radically to try to meet expenses; my former agency lost 1/3 of its state-funded positions last year). It used to be lotteries. However, as more and more governmental entities resort to it, the utility of it comes even more into question. Furthermore, most of these more recent casinos are targeting high rollers. They target the lower income levels into middle class. To me, all of these are a cowardly (on the part of the General Assembly and Governor) hidden form of highly regressive taxation.

      Also, IMHO, the points you make actually hurts the pro-casino case. Atlantic City had very little to lose when the gambling issue arose. One could see the point of taking a long-shot. Gettysburg has a great deal to lose.

      Reply
      1. Kevin Levin Post author

        In the case of A.C. we are talking about gaming as the central focus of life and culture. I imagine that the economic impact in A.C. was measured on a much broader scale compared with one relatively small site in Gettysburg. The question is whether heritage tourism and gaming can co-exist. Depending on how you look at it, A.C. had a great deal to lose in 1978.

        Again, let me state that I am against having a casino at Gettysburg for a number of reasons, including my experiences in A.C.

        Reply
        1. Terry Johnston

          Kevin:

          I agree with you re: A.C. and would add that part of the city’s problem (a large part) has been the short-sightedness of city leaders. Planning and vision have never been a strong suit of these folks over the years. Indeed, while you’re absolutely correct that the situation away from the boardwalk (and casinos) is beginning to improve–namely in The Walk, the shopping district to which you allude–I wonder how things would be different today if the city fathers back in the 70s had opted, as some argued, to place the casinos away from the boardwalk, i.e., farther into the city’s interior. As it’s developed, all casinos hug the coast, and the city’s interior, by and large, was ignored and allowed to go to rot.

          And the A.C. casinos have brought countless jobs to the region, jobs that are now vital to the folks living around here. Then again, I agree with you–the A.C. / Gettysburg comparison vis-a-vis gambling is like apples and oranges.

          Reply
          1. Kevin Levin Post author

            Nice to hear from someone who knows the A.C. area. Actually, the problem with the Gettysburg – A.C. comparison is that, from a certain perspective – it has improved the region. Many of my friends have or had good paying jobs in the gaming industry. You mentioned the development offshore that has created thousands of new jobs. You are absolutely correct in pointing out that poor planning and incompetency in local government helps to explain much of what ails the city.

            I’ve always contended that one of the mistakes early on was in ignoring A.C.’s heritage as a family destination. Many of the amusement piers were left dormant and the casinos tended not to cater to families. It’s nice to see that this is beginning to change.

            Reply
            1. Terry Johnston

              Again, I think you’re spot-on here. Part of the reason, I’m guessing, that some in the city advocated placing casinos farther inland back in the 70s was to maintain and/or further develop the boardwalk as a family destination, as well as preserve some of the city’s historic buildings, including hotels. This hasn’t happened, by and large, but things do seem to be improving some of late.

              Reply
  3. Ted Alexander

    This is a well done essay. Just a note regarding Susan Eisenhower, Mark’s piece and a few other posts have suggested that she is not a historian. While she is not a Civil War historian, she is a highly acclaimed and award winning historian, author, consultant, analyst and lecturer in the field of Soviet, Russian and International studies. Accordingly, her vita carries much more weight than just being Ike’s grand -daughter.

    Reply
  4. Nat Turner's Son

    Gaming usually hurts the lowest section of our society who are trying to get rich quick. Most of them who do hit the big one wind up losing everything with in 10 years. I am against Gaming anywhere anytime because in the long run it does more harm than good.

    http://sitemason.vanderbilt.edu/myvu/news/2009/07/07/the-dark-side-of-winning-the-lottery.83907

    http://www.aproundtable.org/gamblingsruinedlives/impact.html

    PA doesn’t need this mess.

    Reply
  5. Marianne Davis

    Mark,
    I agree with you that casinos have been no solution for Atlantic City, and with most of the readers who believe that they bring more misery than revenue. This back-and-forth about gambling, however, seems to me quite beside the point. I think it is fair to say that it is not the casino per se that is the potential problem. The approval of any large commercial operation within shouting distance of the most recognizable and celebrated battlefield in the United States would raise the same issues. We only have to think of Walmart and the Wilderness. The question we should ask is not, “What is good enough for Gettysburg?” We should ask, “Can we, and should we, create a zone of peace and commercial exclusion around this special place?” But then, I’m from California, where nothing is sacred.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Margaret,

      But haven’t the residents of the area already spoken through their elected officials that they are not interested in a “zone of peace and commercial exclusion”? How else do we explain the zoning that already defines these areas? Is this really an option?

      Reply
      1. Marianne Davis

        (Oops, it’s Marianne.) Would that it were possible to mandate buffer zones for sites of national importance. But the people have indeed spoken, if only by not showing up for elections. My point is we seem to be talking about establishing a sliding scale of vulgarity. Casinos are crass, ghastly places that suck up local people’s cash and send it to out-of-state conglomerates in return for a few dozen low wage service jobs. They are regressive taxes disguised as entertainment. They are a sign that the state, and the public, have abdicated their responsibilities to govern effectively. But, to me, the issue is not what obtrudes on my thoughts at Gettysburg, but that anything does.
        Again, coming from California, I can tell you that malls and condominium developments in coordinated shades of taupe have already swallowed most of our Franciscan missions. I’m not sure I would be any bluer if they were encircled by casinos. I know you, Mark, and many of your readers are educators. You know that until people know their history, they won’t love it. You’re all swimming up stream, sir, but keep going.

        Reply
        1. Kevin Levin Post author

          Sorry about that, Marianne. I think you are right that we are, indeed, implying some type of sliding scale, but if this discussion has shown anything it is that such an objective scale does not exist.

          Reply
  6. Jim Wolf

    The problem with Mr. Cebula’s remarks are not that they were focused on the video, but his failure to recognize that the video was targetting a select group of decision makers in PA, not professors or even the general public. It would seem rather obvious that the video is part of a larger strategy that targets other important audiences and addresses other key issues related to the proposal; among them, the economic viability of the proposal, the proximity to battlefield resources, and the impact on a fragile historic tourism industry. Plus, hundreds of historians have come out against the Gettysburg casino proposal. How did he fail to mention this?

    Obviously, Mr. Cebula is never going to admit he missed the point, but I am sure his students will agree that he might want to do a little more homework the next time.

    Reply
    1. Jay Purdy

      Nowhere in the discussion here is any mention made of the imminent threat to property identified as Camp Letterman, where more than 4,000 Union and Confederate wounded and dying were treated and where there still may be bodies or amputation pits. This was the first such combined facility during the war.
      Despite a legal challenge, a portion was lost during the 90s but much of the remaining area is for sale RIGHT NOW for commercial and residential development. Target had looked at the site a couple years ago, but opposition began growing and they backed out.
      Full development would leave only a small portion of the camp site intact … that on the Daniel Lady Farm … but the extent of the Camp on the farm remains to be properly determined through archeological investigation.
      Now that the hearing is over, however one feels about the use of the already-developed Eisenhower Inn site, why is there no clamor about Camp Letterman?

      Reply
      1. Mark Snell

        Jay,

        Please, tell us what you think should be done. It’s very easy to pose questions, but it’s not always easy to come up with a solution. If you have ideas, we’d like to hear them. If they are valid suggestions, implementation of those suggestions/ideas is the next step. Saving Camp Letterman has been a priority for like-minded preservationists, but it seems we’ve exhausted the solutions and money. This response is not intended to by a smart-aleck response, but a plea for fresh ideas.

        Mark

        Reply
  7. Jay Purdy

    Mark,
    First step will be to muster and organize our human resources. It is going to require a national inititive to first make people aware of Letterman and its significance to the nation, to the value of the property (in terms of heritage and what may lay beneath the soil) and to determine viable options for preserving the land that is now privately-owned. Probably will require archeologial study … one in which no one could dispute its credibility. For example, core studies of soil may reveal there latrine pits were or where embalming took place … from what I understand, the chemicals used do not break down — but I am getting into detail on which I can only speculate from an amateur perspective.
    While bad for virtually everything else, the downturn in the economy bought us more time by postponing development plans … but who knows for how long.

    Jay

    Reply
  8. Amos Humiston

    So late jumping in here but I can’t help but wonder how the professor squares his “libertarian” views with preservation efforts. Seems the libertarian view would be to let the market follow its crass whims and not allow the government to intervene.

    Reply

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