At Gettysburg, Moral Panic Disguised as Historic Preservation

Update: Thanks to those of you who have already commented.  That is exactly the point of this post.  I’ve received a number of emails expressing curiosity and even disgust over my decision to feature this guest post.  Many of you know that I’ve strived to offer different perspectives on controversial issues in an attempt to get people to think “out of the box” or to try to steer a discussion down a different road.  I understand that emotions are strong, but we can have an intellectual discussion about this if we choose to do so.  Finally, please don’t assume that this guest post reflects my own view of the situation.  At the same time I do believe that Professor Cebula offers a perspective that deserves consideration.  Thanks

[Guest Post by Larry Cebula]

The Civil War Preservation Trust has just released a video decrying the proposed building of a casino near Gettysburg National Battlefield. I think the video is wretched and illustrates nearly everything that is wrong with how we remember and memorialize our history in this country.

Some background: A developer wants to open the “Mason-Dixon Resorts Casino” within an existing hotel and convention center a half-mile from the boundary of Gettysburg Park. Pennsylvania has allowed casino gambling since 2004, starting with slot machines and now including table games such as poker. A 2005 attempt to build a casino in Gettysburg was defeated. Now the developers are trying again, and the Civil War Preservation Trust and others are fighting back, in part with this video:

My objections to the video, and the cause, are as follows:

1. Why do we care what Sam Waterston and Matthew Broderick think about this? They are actors, people! They only pretended to have fought at Gettysburg. McCullough was the only real historian they used for the production. Show me David Blight and we’ll talk.

2. The battlefield as it currently exists is hardly pristine–whatever that might mean in such a context. You can hardly swing a dead cat without hitting one gigantic monument or another. Now these monuments, many erected by battle survivors in the years and decades after the fight, are interesting historical artifacts in their own right. But they represent a tremendous departure from the way the field of battle might have looked on July 1, 1863. Beyond the matter of the monuments, the landscape is different from what it would have been in 1863. The trees have grown in (though the National Park Service is currently working to restore the 1863 landscape), the open fields are full of grass instead of crops, jets fly overhead. The smell of powder and rotting flesh are gone… It is not as if the battlefield were immaculately preserved and about to be ruined.

3. My strongest objection to the video is the fetishistic treatment of warfare as a sacred activity more meaningful than other human activity. We can’t have people gambling, for God’s sake, it cheapens the memory of three solid days of people slaughtering one another. Susan Eisenhower (whose expertise is helpfully captioned as “Grandaughter of President Eisenhower”) complains that the casino is an attempt to “exploit the brand that is Gettysburg.” But surely gambling is more wholesome than people lining up to blow one anothers’ limbs off?

I know, I know, Lincoln started it: “But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract…” The Biblical idea of consecration by blood was very popular in the 19th century. The 19th century is where it belongs.

4. This is selective outrage. The proposed casino will be a half-mile from the boundaries of the park and in an already existing hotel complex. (I had to look that up, the Civil War Preservation Trust would have you believe they are ready to bulldoze Little Round Top to make way for the slots.) A quick Google Map search for “shops” shows dozens and dozens of commercial businesses roughly the same distance from the battlefield, including the Cannonball Olde Tyme Malt Shop and Dirty Billy’s Hats. Thr problem with this business, as the video makes clear around the half-way point, is that people will be gambling, and gambling is bad. I actually agree that gambling is a bad thing, but it is also legal in Pennsylvania, just like selling ice cream and hats.

5. My God, the over-the-top rhetoric in this video is terrible. It discredits not only the cause but the very idea of historic preservation. We are told that the casino will somehow “prostitute” the site. If this casino is built, we are assured, other casinos will pop up like toadstools at the Washington Monument, Arlington National Cemetery, Ground Zero, Lincoln Memorial, and presumably, your grandma’s grave.

6. Where does it end? There were perhaps 10,000 conflicts within the Civil War. This National Park Service page lists hundreds of them. And notice that the anti-casino forces are objecting to something that is not on the federally defined battlefield at all, but nearby. One calls for a “buffer zone” around the park–but how wide that buffer is supposed to be, and what commercial activities will be allowed within it, are mysteries.

The campaign to block the casino is not a legitimate effort of historic preservation. It is a moral panic being propagated by Puritan scolds. And it reminds me terribly of another current attempt to use history to block American citizens from exercising their rights to build a legal facility on their own land. Civil War Preservation Trust, meet Sarah Palin.

87 comments

A Different Perspective on Battlefield Preservation

Let me be clear that I don’t want to see a casino built near the Gettysburg battlefield, but we’ve got to do better when it comes to making our case.  Enough with the sappy videos and the all-star cast of Hollywood movie stars and historians that no one has heard of.  And enough with the preserving the legacy of the men who fought here argument.  No one alive knows how the men who fought at Gettysburg might feel about a casino.  Finally, we need to move from a position that automatically assumes the moral high ground. We’ve hit a dead end.

Harry Smeltzer “thinks that there is no better lesson on how much of the general public views Civil War preservationists than how Civil War preservationists view those trying to save the Gettysburg Cyclorama building. It all comes down to priorities. This is a learning opportunity, if we treat it as such.” – Facebook update, 09/08 (blogger and battlefield preservation advocate)

Larry Cebula “This whole controversy boils down to some people’s moral objections to gambling. There are dozens of businesses equally close to the battlefield (thought the video makes it sound like they are going to bull doze Little Round Top for the facility). The Casino will be within an existing hotel.  This is a lot like (here I go!) the controversy over the mosque near ground zero. People are misusing history to cover their moral objections to legal activity.” –  Comment left at Civil War Memory

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Civil War Babies Found Alive!

[Hat-Tip to David Noon]

While everyone else is worried about a casino at Gettysburg, Civil War Memory is committed to bringing to its readers the stories that really matter.  Unfortunately, this one goes back to 1992.  Enjoy.

The story can be found here

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The Museum of the Confederacy’s Black Confederate Toy Soldier

Update: Check out the follow-up post on this issue over at Past in the Present]

[Hat-Tip to Greg Rowe]

Many of you are familiar with our friendly black Confederate toy soldier.  Brooks Simpson suggested that it would make a nice gift for me over at Civil Warriors a while back.  It’s easy to make too big a deal about a toy soldier, but I have to say that I am disappointed to see that it is being sold on the online gift shop at the Museum of the Confederacy.  I don’t know whether it is being sold at the museum itself, but I must assume so.  Let me point out that I have nothing but the highest respect for the staff at the museum.  It’s a Virginia treasure and their projects reflect the best in public history.  Most importantly, they do this with a limited budget and the suspicion of many who fail to distinguish between a museum for- as opposed to a museum about the Confederacy.

I know for a fact that the history represented by this toy soldier is not endorsed by the museum.  John Coski has authored a number of excellent essays on the subject that have appeared in North and South magazine and elsewhere.  It seems reasonable to ask that museum officials pull these items from their shelves.  Let’s take a stand on this insidious myth.

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New York Times Butchers a Civil War Analogy

[Hat-Tip to Caleb McDaniel at Clippings]

Today’s editorial in the New York Times serves as a reminder of just how easily we can sink into conceptual confusion when trying to make sense of the ongoing wave of fear surrounding the building of an Islamic Cultural Center in the vicinity of “Ground Zero”:

As the site of America’s bloodiest terrorist attack, New York had a great chance to lead by example. Too bad other places are ahead of us. Muslims hold daily prayer services in a chapel in the Pentagon, a place also hallowed by 9/11 dead. The country often has had the wisdom to choose graciousness and reconciliation over triumphalism, as is plain from the many monuments to Confederate soldiers in northern states, including the battlefield at Gettysburg.

The analogy simply doesn’t work because Muslims (Islam) did not attack the United States on September 11, 2001.  McDaniel is correct in pointing out that the very analogy “undercuts the editorial’s absolutely correct insistence that (despite what a dismaying number of New Yorkers and Americans believe) ‘Muslim’ does not mean ‘terrorist’ or ‘terrorist sympathizer.’”  Finally, anyone familiar with the evolution of monument building on the Gettysburg and Antietam battlefields would not fall into the trap of characterizing it as reflecting “graciousness and reconciliation over triumphalism.”

8 comments