Category Archives: Battlefield Interpretation

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

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.

Gettysburg National Military Park Holds Public Forum

When the GNMP and Gettysburg Foundation announced plans to hold a public forum
to discuss the proposed entrance fee I was skeptical.  I anticipated a meeting that would do little more than give certain interest groups a chance to voice frustrations that have been building over time and which would fail to address the financial situation at hand.  The new Visitor Center has not met its financial mark thus far and as a result VC officials have proposed a flat fee of $7.50 for the museum, Cyclorama, and feature film.  Well, the meeting seems to have played out just as I had anticipated.  All of the major players were in attendance, but they failed to offer nothing but non-constructive criticism:

Gene Golden, businessman: At a salary of $392,735, it would take 52,364 people paying $7.50 just to pay (Gettysburg Foundation President) Bob Wilburn’s salary.  Franklin Silbey: If anyone here believes that the decision hasn’t been made, you’re naive.  Nothing that anyone says here tonight will change their decision. How many promises have
they made and now broken?

Bob Monahan, Jr., developer whose own proposal for a VC was rejected: The whole concept was that there wasn’t to be one cent of taxpayer money used to fund anything. Two reasons were given to me why my proposal wasn’t selected — I was proposing a $3 fee to see portions of the museum, and my project was $40 million, which I thought was reasonable at the time. Now look at the costs.

Eric Uberman, Gettysburg Businessman: There is a lot of reason for skepticism when it has to do with money within these walls. We were sold on no commercialism or tax dollars, but as Dr. Latschar has said, that is no longer true. We also had Mr. Kinsley stand up before Congress and say that this was his gift to America — it’s the gift that keeps on giving.

Jones: The film is very good, but it is no substitute for the Electric Map.

I appreciate the fact that various parties are disappointed in this development, but at the same time it is a problem that needs a solution.  In the end the proposal is very reasonable.  The overwhelming majority of families will not mind paying the fee given that many other historical sites charge a fee – some coming with a much higher price attached.  It’s hard not to interpret much of the outcry as simply a question of whether an entrance fee ought to be charged.  Some are still fuming over the dismantling of the outdated Electric Map while others are disappointed in the content of the new film, gift shop, and museum exhibit.

My recent visit to Gettysburg reignited my interest in the battle and I hope to return on a more regular basis in the future.  I have no problem with the entrance fee and will gladly pay it.  In fact, I think it is a real bargain.

Click here for my review of the new Visitor Center.

Deeper Into the Wilderness

There is an argument to be made for the preservation of battlefield land, but it doesn't help the cause if it is framed in the overly-emotional language of "Yankee Invaders" and "Yankee greed."  I absolutely love this comment from Eric Wittenberg's blog:

As a marketer and instructor I have often praised Wal Mart for their
pioneering strategies, from the store’s inception with Sam Walton to
the present, as well as the store’s innovative practices of adopting
environmentally pro-active packaging policies well ahead of most other
corporations. However, Wal Mart’s decision to blunder its way into
hallowed ground reminds me that the corporation has a powerful spin
machine, and behind the mirrors the company’s actions speak louder than
its PR machine. My great grandfather fought at Fredericksburg,
Chancellorsville, the Wilderness and Spotsylvania with the Palmetto
Rifles of South Carolina. He was fighting, not for slavery, but to stop
the incursion of the Yankee industrial might from taxing the common
people to death, raising the prices of imported goods with higher
tariffs (this is why Texas was founded by Steven Austin to get away
from Yankee corporate greed) and to impinge on the individual freedoms
of South Carolinians, forcing them to sell their farms and work for the
large New York-based agricultural (cotton) companies. Now 145 years
later, Yankee greed has come at last to devour the memory of those who
fought to keep their land free from exploitation. All in the name of
commerce. What irony.

At least try to get the basic facts right.  Wal-Mart is not a northern company, assuming that regional identification is even possible in this day in age.  Of course, this is just one example, but most of what I've read over the past few days is not much better and most of it is even worse.  It's one thing for a reader to babble on about nothing, but it doesn't help if a newspaper like the Fredericksburg Free-Lance Star cannot do any better:

The original, of course, was the 1864 conflagration between Gens.
Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant. The first meeting of the two on the
field of arms took place in western Spotsylvania and eastern Orange
counties, a wild, thicket-laced area along the old Plank Road. The
battle involved over 160,000 troops and marked the start of Grant's
Overland Campaign, an offensive that took the Union Army clear down to
Richmond. Before the smoke cleared–literally: bullets set the dry
brush on fire and many wounded burned to death–almost 4,000 soldiers
rested in the arms of God.

This year's invaders cannot rightfully be called Yankees, since
Wal-Mart is headquartered in Bentonville, Ark., and trades with the
world. But the 142,000-square-foot store it proposes could be as
devastating as anything Grant unleashed
. The site, near State Routes 3
and 20, lies irreverently within a quarter-mile of the Fredericksburg
& Spotsylvania National Military Park. Also, Wal-Mart's site plan
includes four pads for "junior big boxes." And another group wants to
put a 1.65-million-square-foot retail, office, and government complex
on 846 adjacent acres. Developments in toto larger than Central Park
would lap at the entrance to a national shrine.

The FLS owes it to its readers to present a more balanced account of what is at stake at the intersection of Routes 20 and 3.   I suspect that most people in the area cannot identify Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant or that a major battle took place in something called the Wilderness.  Please, let's get off our moral high horse and take the time to frame the argument in the clearest and most persuasive terms.  Stop trying to fit Wal-Mart and any other potential developer into our silly Civil War memes.  [The title of the FLS's editorial is "Worse Than Yankees", but I would argue that the coming of the Yankees was not necessarily seen as problematic by a fairly large section of the population.  Just ask John Washington.  Two can play at this game.]  I constantly tell my students that the best way to convince through formal argument is to present the best case possible for the other side and then show why it is still mistaken.  Let's try that hat on for size for a change. 

Entering the Wilderness of Wal-Mart and Battlefield Preservation

Copy_of_0821walmartNo surprise that a lot of people are very upset about the proposed Wal-Mart on the Wilderness Battlefield at the intersection of Routes 20 and 3.  Like any Civil War enthusiast I have my concerns as well.  Every year I bring my students to the Wilderness and Chancellorsville and plan to do so again in just a few weeks.  I've spent countless hours walking the fields and finding my own personal meaning through the contemplation of the brave deeds of soldiers who fought so long ago.  In short, I would be happy if there was no additional development in that area.  Having traversed the highway between Chancellorsville and downtown Fredericksburg since 2000, however, I've grown skeptical that anything can be done to prevent it.  Don't get me wrong, I am not suggesting that nothing should be done to prevent it, but this latest push seems to me to be a rearguard action.  And to be honest, I'm not sure how much weight my own view should have in deciding what to do with the land in question. 

I read in a recent article that the area has been zoned for commercial purposes for the past 20 years. Given the development over the past 10 years did anyone really believe that this day would never come?  At times I find it difficult to distinguish between the emotion over development and the fact that the developer in question is Wal-mart.  [Check out Robert Mackey's piece at the Huffington Post and also see the comments to a recent post by Eric Wittenberg.] Mackey describes Wal-Mart as at "war with America" while Wittenberg describes this latest venture as an "atrocity."  I should state for the record that I don't shop at Wal-Mart, not because I have a moral problem with the company, but because I tend to get lost in their stores and end up overwhelmed by all of their stuff.  Yes, Wal-Mart has grown like a virus since the 1960s, but it seems to me that it is just another indicator of our "super-size me" culture rather than a perpetrator to be dismissed with an ominous and dark moral brush stroke.

The Civil War Preservation Trust has taken the lead in challenging Wal-Mart's plans.  In the past I've given to the CWPT and I wish them the all the best in this latest effort.  You can read their letter to the CEO of Wal-Mart, which offers the standard argument for preservation – as if anyone who isn't already on board will suddenly have this moment of insight and join the preservation movement.  I came across this comment from a recent article in the Fredericksburg Free-Lance Star, which pretty much sums up my position and internal struggle with this issue:

It cannot be any worse than that flippin Sheetz and it's bright lights. Aesthetics?? Why was
that not brought up when Sheetz and McDonald's went in? Ferry Farm
Wal-Mart is only a half mile away from Ferry Farm and it's well off the
road just like this one will be. This is needed for Orange, it will
bring jobs, albeit low paying but it's a job close to home and a huge
tax base increase.
Rt. 20 will never be widened to 4 lanes, not enough
people will sellout to give VDOT enough right of way.

I suspect that there are a significant number of people who agree with the basic outline of the above sentiment.   Who am I to tell them otherwise?  The land is not zoned as a battlefield, it is zoned for commercial development.  We can make as strong a case for the historical significance of the land, but in the end it represents only one perspective and my guess is that it is a minority position.  Battlefield preservationists should not make the mistake in thinking that they have a monopoly on what is best for this particular piece of land nor should they assume that those who support the project are not looking out for their own community's well being.  It's not their fault that a battle was fought in their backyards. 

In the end I hope that in a years time that I can bring my students to the Wilderness and Chancellorsville battlefields and continue to use the land for educational purposes.  As I stated at the top of this post, I hope the Wal-Mart venture fails and may even cut a check in the next few days.  However, I am under no illusion that my position on what should be done with this land is any more important than the viewpoints of those who live in Orange County and the surrounding area.