I appreciate all of the comments that have been sent in re: the new Visitor Center at Gettysburg. The major point of disagreement seems to be over the proper scope of interpretation, whether it should be confined to the battlefield or whether it should place the battle within a broader historical context. My view comes down to the importance of civic education and the need to show why these bloody battles matter beyond the movements of troops and the weapons they carried. As I’ve stated over and over these men did not simply fall from the sky in July 1863. They were there for a reason and their actions shaped the course of the rest of American history. Understanding the battle’s centrality to that broader story is the NPS’s primary mission and one that I believe it fulfills brilliantly. With that in mind I would like you to consider the perspective of one individual. This short essay by Allen B. Ballard appeared in the Op-Ed section of the New York Times back in 1999 and is titled, “The Demons of Gettysburg”. Ballard teaches history at SUNY -Albany.
My trip to Gettysburg this week began at the new Visitor Center. I spent roughly 2 hours between the movie and exhibit hall. The first thing you will notice is the amount of space that is available. This stands in stark contrast to the old building which was quite cramped and very dingy. The extra space allows for groups to meet as well as other types of events to be organized when necessary. The building is easy to navigate and is an overall improvement to the old building.
I had a wonderful time in Gettysburg. Yesterday was a long day. I left C-Ville at 6am and arrived at the Visitor Center at 9am. I'm going to wait until tomorrow to post a lengthy review of the VC, but let's just say for now that I think it is an excellent exhibit - maybe the best Civil War exhibit that I've ever seen. As soon as I entered the bookstore Mark Snell picked me out of the crowd, which was a nice surprise. He was in the middle of a staff ride with a group of German officers. We talked a bit and he invited me out to his farm that evening for a barbecue with the group. So, thanks for all the recommendations, but fortunately I didn't eat alone. I picked up a copy of Grimsley and Simpson's Gettysburg battlefield guide and headed over to the area west of town. For those of you planning a visit to Gettysburg I highly recommend this guide.
The weather was gorgeous so I basically parked the car and walked to various spots that interested me. For some reason I ended up spending quite a bit of time along Doubleday Avenue where Iverson's North Carolina Brigade and O'Neal's Alabamians engaged Baxter's Brigade on the Mummasburg Road. The stories of the North Carolinians and their burial on the field somehow got to me so I strolled along the terrain reading about the men. I had a couple of those moments on this trip where I found myself just sitting and losing myself in thought and imagination.
From there I headed over to Schmucker Hall at the Lutheran Theological Seminary to meet up with Mark Grimsley and Wayne Motts. Wayne is now the director of the Adams County Historical Society and he agreed to give us a tour of the building. Wayne helped me a few years back when I was researching and writing about Col. John Bowie Magruder of the 57th Virginia so it was nice to finally have a chance to thank him in person. It's always nice to spend time with someone who is doing exactly what he was born to do. Wayne is an incredibly nice guy and an warehouse of knowledge about the battle and local history. He pulled out a few of the Society's gems including an 1831 letter by Francis Scott Key in which he manumits one of his slaves for $5 as well as the last will of President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Wayne shared with us the challenges of running a historical society and some of his future plans. Unfortunately, we weren't able to get up to the cupola since it is only opened twice a year as part of the agreement between the historical society and the seminary. If you can schedule a visit on your next rip I highly recommend it. It's an important building in terms of the battle, they have an incredible collection, and it would be a great way to support Wayne's efforts.
From there Mark and I headed on over to the area around Little Round Top and Devil's Den where we parked the car. I appreciate Mark taking the time to meet me since it allowed me to pick his brain regarding the organization of a staff ride which I know nothing about. It gave me a very different perspective on how battlefields can be used and some lessons on how to interpret terrain. Basically, I learned that I know next to nothing about military history. But it wasn't all serious. Mark decided to do his best Confederate sharpshooter impersonation. When I suggested that some of our fellow bloggers may find this disrespectful he correctly noted that the original body was dragged a short distance to be photographed. I guess we are just adding our own interpretation to the battlefield. It's so very meta. From there we drove a bit around Benner's and Culp's Hill before we wrapped it up.
I quickly checked in to the hotel and headed on over to Mark Snell's farm which is just outside of Gettysburg. The German officers picked up plenty of beer and meat to serve a regiment so there was plenty to eat. Mark has a gorgeous farm and home and I really appreciate the invitation. He is heading to England in a few weeks as a visiting instructor at Sandhurst.
Needless to say I slepped well. I got up this morning at 6am and headed on out for a nice long run. Thanks Jenny for the suggestions on different routes. I ended up feeling my way around depending on what I wanted to see. I started on Hancock Avenue and wrapped around Little Round Top. From there I jogged through the Peach Orchard, down Millerstown Ave and up West Confederate Ave. to the Virginia Memorial. I've never actually walked the Pickett-Pettigrew assault so I decided to jog up to the copse of trees. There was a slight haze over the field and I was the only one around, but for one or two passing cars. It was one of the most relaxing runs and for the first time I really felt connected to the place.
I grabbed breakfast and tried to hit a few of the souvenir stores. After 5 seconds in the first store I walked straight out in utter disgust. Sorry Brooks. I guess I didn't want to ruin the vibe. Anyway, I'm glad I went in this final week of summer vacation. I feel refreshed.
Most of you have no doubt had a chance to read Pete Jorgensen’s incoherent ramble of a review of the new Visitor Center at Gettysburg, which was posted on Eric Wittenberg’s blog. I highly recommend that you check out John Latschar’s response.
I look forward to seeing and judging it for myself.