The Killing Fields of Gettysburg

It’s a good question and one that I’ve touched on here at Civil War Memory.  Our battlefield monuments fit into a broader celebratory landscape that is pervasive throughout our memory of the Civil War.  Gettysburg is a place where we can feel good about ourselves as Americans and our history.  It is almost impossible for me to imagine a monument such as the one at Verdun at Gettysburg and I believe it to be a barrier to fully understanding what our civil war was about.

Unfortunately, the following image, which I took during a visit to the Gettysburg Visitor Center, more accurately reflects our attitude toward how Americans chose to make war on one another.

22 comments… add one
  • H Donald Capps Aug 8, 2012 @ 8:55

    Having visited any number of the battlefields of the War of the Rebellion (to include several staff rides that I have led) as well as many battlefields in Europe from both World Wars (to include visiting Verdun several times over the years), I have often found myself to be rather ambiguous regarding the whole concept of the “celebratory landscape” as it relates to the battlefield.

    One of those making a comment ([capturing] “….the vengeance and hatred–rather than the heroism—that infused our ‘war between brothers.’ The number of deaths and the nature of the violence is secondary in my mind.”) certainly provoked some thought on my part regarding this topic. I find that the all too usual absence of the “nature of the violence” for the “celebratory landscape” battlefields in the form of the commenorative momuments for lack of a better word, disturbing.

    That the violent and ugliness of warfare has been largely sanitized and, yes, trivialized by its absence in the often rather romantic, idealized monuments that have been erected at Gettysburg and elsewhere, suggests to me that there was a great deal of rationalization and “selective memory” at work when the memorialization effort began to really exert itself. The savagery of the battlefield, the impersonal made quite personal, being wished away by perhaps the rather fuzzy, romantic, rose-tinted views that too many seem to possess regarding combat is quite an amazing feat once you consider it.

    My thinking on this is certainly colored by my personal experience in combat. While the fighting I experienced as a Ranger in Viet-Nam certainly did not mirror that of a soldier on the battlefield at, say, Gettysburg or the Petersburg campaign, it was close enough to make any reference to the supposed “heroism” of war be met with no small amount of, well, cynicism.

    Colonel Gregory “Pappy” Boyington, USMC, ended his autobiography this way: “Show me a hero and I will show you a bum.” I always keep this thought in mind when dealing with those who tend to romanticize and see only “glory” in war, something I seem to encounter all too often among those who are “Civil War buffs.”

    Sorry to ramble a bit, but I never cease to realize how easy it is to ignore that this thought is largely absent from any of the monuments you see: “I am tired and sick of war. Its glory is all moonshine. It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, for vengeance, for desolation. War is hell.”

  • David L Aug 8, 2012 @ 6:38

    I am coming late to this discussion. Perhaps some of the difference we are seeing between the monument at Verdun and American Civil War monuments is the source, and timing, of those objects: for the most part, ACW monuments were erected by veterans – former citizen soldiers in the late 19th century; the monument at Verdun was erected by the nation/government of France in the 20th century.

    For comparison’s sake, one should also take a look at the monuments erected by the U.S. government through the auspices of the American Battle Monuments Commission ( after World War I. They are vastly different than those put up by various regiments after the American Civil War.

    For those interested in the Battle of Verdun, I highly recommend THE PRICE OF GLORY by Alistair Horne.

  • Matt McKeon Aug 7, 2012 @ 5:25

    As far as Peter Carmichael’s question, the “horror” is probably not reachable in the 21st century. After all, the men who fought the war persumably had a first hand understanding of the “h0rror” and they’re the ones who paid for the monuments.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 7, 2012 @ 6:33


      I disagree. There are any number of comparative approaches with civil wars being fought today that can be used when teaching our American Civil War. In the classroom I found the civil war in Iraq to be very useful in getting at some of the deeply-entrenched divisions, violence, and consequences.

  • Matt McKeon Aug 7, 2012 @ 5:23

    Faust’s “Republic of Suffering” and her essay in “War Within Wars” address specifically the dead and how they were memorialized.

    The French resisted a foreign invader “They Did Not Pass.” No need to include the Germans in the narrative, except as bad guys. After the Civil War both sides had to live in the same country.

    I agree that the CW is understood as a triumph for the US and human freedom the way WWI is not. Ta Nehisi Coates wrote an interesting essay arguing that “The Civil War is not a tragedy.”

    The Vietnam Memorial in Washington, the black wall, certainly puts the cost front and center in an intense way, but dwarfs the more conventional statuary around it. But we aren’t Victorians, and Vietnam wasn’t a victory.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 7, 2012 @ 5:32

      Hi Matt,

      Thanks for the comment. There is no denying that Victorian and post-Victorian world produced very different forms of battlefield remembrance. Of course, I can’t speak for Peter, but all I meant to point out is my agreement with his larger point: Our CW monuments do not help much with addressing some of the tougher questions about the scope of violence witnessed during the war. I would also argue that our overly manicured landscapes as well as the trivialization of war that we see in gift shops at Gettysburg make remove us even further from this reality.

      • Matt McKeon Aug 7, 2012 @ 6:05

        The national battlefields are clipped and neatly mown because they’re cemeteries. They’re quiet and serene. And the monuments are gravestones. The so and so New York Infantry fought here on the afternoon of July 2nd. Losses: 27 killed 52 wounded 11 missing. It’s a headstone. I think the battlefield is full of meaning and loss.

        • Kevin Levin Aug 7, 2012 @ 6:38

          I am not disagreeing with you that one cannot find signs of loss and violence on a Civil War landscape. As Pete notes in another comment:

          The picture of the WWI monument is intended to raise the broader question about how we might broaden the gaze of visitors at Civil War sites.

          I approach this primarily as an educator, who has thought long and hard about how I teach these sites to my own students. Like most casual visitors they bring a fairly vague understanding of what took place on a Civil War battlefield so it is our job to help them see beyond monuments and even grave stones themselves. How these men were to be remembered during the postwar period is important, but we also need to understand the “jagged, tormented, confused, and embittered opinions/perceptions.”

          Hope that helps.

          • Margaret D. Blough Aug 8, 2012 @ 14:51

            However, I read in Peter’s tweet a sense of dissatisfaction that the monuments of Gettysburg don’t convey what he’d like them to convey. A lot of the monuments for Union units at Gettysburg were put up by or with considerable involvement by the surviving veterans of those units. Many Civil War units were recruited in towns or a limited geographic area so that it was not unusual to see friends/family in the same unit and the grief was deeply personal, way beyond comrades-in-arms. Many also saw and NEEDED to see the sacrifice as being worthwhile: to save the Union, to free the slaves. That’s why Lincoln’s assassination occurring as it did on Good Friday and with the war almost, but not quite ended, you see a lot of contemporaneous interpretations of Lincoln’s murder that speak of it in terms of Moses being allowed to see the Promised Land, but not cross over before he died.

            They set forth the terms in which they wanted to be remembered. I don’t believe we’re confined to those terms and I entirely support looking at it from various and even differing perspectives. Use the monuments as a springboard.

            On the other hand, I think that the chasm the WW I represented is one of our principal bars in relating to the Civil War generation. I find that, while people can understand at least the Lost Cause version of why the South fought, it’s very hard for people to understand the mystical significance that the concept of the Union had for many American and that they were willing to fight and die to preserve “the last best hope of earth.”

      • Pete Aug 7, 2012 @ 6:20

        I would like to see interpretive markers next to our monuments that would help people understand that they are looking at a commemorative landscape–not a purely “historical” one. If this were to occur, visitors would be better positioned to visualize dimensions of the war that have been lost over time to the grand heroic narrative. The differences between WWI and the CW are not at issue—although certainly worthy of study The point, as Kevin clearly identifies, is how to recover voices that we know exist in wartime letters—jagged, tormented, confused, and embittered opinions/perceptions—but are hard to “see” on a commemorative battlefield landscape. The picture of the WWI monument is intended to raise the broader question about how we might broaden the gaze of visitors at Civil War sites. I am not suggesting a comparative approach to this issue—rather the WWI monument should remind us of the uphill climb we have at CW commemorative landscapes.

  • Peter Winfrey Aug 7, 2012 @ 5:11

    I think the “heroic” and honorific monuments at Gettysburg and other Civil War sites reflect the romantic nature of warfare during the time period to a degree, the same romantic feeling that lies at a part of the Lost Cause Myth as well. By the time of World War I, that notion of romantic warfare had been well put to rest, and the horror and destruction of war remained, and thus the monuments reflect this.

  • James F. Epperson Aug 7, 2012 @ 3:28

    I think a large part of the reason for the difference is that WW1 was viewed as a massive waste of lives and property that accomplished nothing at all, whereas the Civil War preserved the nation and ended slavery, so there was something to celebrate amongst all the carnage.

    • Lyle Smith Aug 7, 2012 @ 6:22

      I think you’re right and explains a lot.

  • George Combs Aug 6, 2012 @ 16:14

    Peter’s picture of the memorial at Mort Homme brings back memories. The very land around the hill is still uneven and torn up, locals were forbidden to return to farming because of the amount of unexploded ordnance still in the ground. Nearly every french village has a monument, often with an urn containing a bit of soil from Verdun. I think the level of destruction – physically, psychically and socially experienced by the WWI participants (and most particularly the french) surpassed anything “we” experienced during the Civil War. Makes me glad my grandfather and the rest of the A.E.F. did not arrive any earlier. But let’s face it, that is NOT a monument Americans would build. Somehow we seem largely incapable of addressing the horrors of war and prefer to concentrate on the “positive”. Positive here meaning different things to different people. Sorry to run on. Long day at work, still there.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 6, 2012 @ 16:28

      But let’s face it, that is NOT a monument Americans would build. Somehow we seem largely incapable of addressing the horrors of war and prefer to concentrate on the “positive”. Positive here meaning different things to different people.

      I agree, George. Thanks for the comment.

      • Pete Aug 6, 2012 @ 17:22

        The French translation of the monument by the way: “They Did not Pass.” A grim reaper like figure on a Civil War battlefield with a similar message etched in stone below might capture the vengeance and hatred–rather than the heroism—that infused our “war between brothers.” The number of deaths and the nature of the violence is secondary in my mind.

  • Brad Aug 6, 2012 @ 13:56

    I don’t know if this is what you are getting at but the difference between WW I battlefields and ours is the degree of violence (almost 700,000 killed), the senseless nature of the struggle and how advanced technology had rendered lives meaningless. At least, the Civil War was fought for certain aims, regardless of the aims.

    As far as the Gettysburg kitsch, it reflects our divisions over the Civil War, where it seems the Civil War is constantly re-fought. WWI had no winners, just losers.

  • Ken Noe Aug 6, 2012 @ 12:58

    And that’s not even the most shocking one. It’s impossible to imagine an ossuary at Gettysburg. Or a post-war need for one either, and maybe that and “lost generation” artistic sentiments are the differences. Certainly small town English memorials differ from ours only in the Tommy’s equipment, and I’m still a bit shocked that I saw reenactors at Omaha Beach.

  • London John Aug 6, 2012 @ 11:44

    What memorials are there at Petersburg?

  • Lyle Smith Aug 6, 2012 @ 10:34

    To answer Peter Carmichael’s question, I don’t think so. There is a cemetery at Gettysburg (just like at Verdun). What do people think is buried there?

    I’m also okay with Civil War kitsch. Yes, it is not serious, but neither is wearing a horned-helmet or dressing up as a pirate. It is a part of popular culture and it probably can’t be saved from that, and might not even should be saved from it.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 6, 2012 @ 10:48

      Thanks for the comment.

      I don’t think the issue is whether visitors acknowledge that Americans died at Gettysburg, but on the nature of the violence itself. I’ve never visited WWI battlefields, but the statuary seems to me to be less heroic and more reflective of the darker side of violence. We don’t find much of that on our own Civil War battlefields. It’s not that I have a problem with Civil War kitsch apart from what it renders more difficult to fully come to terms with.

      • Lyle Smith Aug 6, 2012 @ 11:48

        “I don’t think the issue is whether visitors acknowledge that Americans died at Gettysburg, but on the nature of the violence itself. I’ve never visited WWI battlefields, but the statuary seems to me to be less heroic and more reflective of the darker side of violence. ”

        I get this (and this is definitely a fair statement about many WWI monuments (and a lot of post-war avant-garde art) – that said there are definitely some WWI monuments that are probably more heroic than morbid too), but that’s kind of my point about the cemetery at Gettysburg and at Verdun. You don’t need morbid monuments to reflect on the violence of battle. There are thousands buried at Verdun and that alone would be enough to memorialize the violence that happened there. And the same I think goes for Gettysburg.

        What’s the greater understanding you think is being missed by people?

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