I want to first thank everyone for taking the time to comment on what is for many a very important and personal issue. Once again you’ve demonstrated that it is possible to have a mature and intellectual Online discussion. As a proud member of the Civil War Preservation Trust I would like to think that these types of discussions give us the opportunity to step back to assess and even strengthen the arguments we employ to convince the general public of the need to preserve our historic sites. Historian and Adams County resident, Mark Snell, has agreed to write a response to Professor Cebula’s guest post, which I am hoping to have it posted by the end of the weekend.
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
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.
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
I finally got my hands on a copy of Weary Clyburn’s pension application from the North Carolina Department of Archives and History in Raleigh. You may remember that over the summer I did a series of posts on this Confederate slave who was to be honored by a local SCV chapter for his “service” to the Confederacy. The posts generated a great deal of discussion surrounding my assertion that the SCV was distorting the past in order to ignore Clyburn’s status as a slave. The SCV held a ceremony in which they invited descendants of Clyburn and also received quite a bit of media attention.
Now that I’ve had a chance to peruse the pension file it is clear to me that the SCV did nothing less than butcher the history of the war and distort the complex relationship between master and slave. The certification letter from the pension board describes Clyburn as a “body guard” rather than a servant or slave. Later Clyburn is cited for carrying “his master out of the field of fire on his shoulder” and for “personal services for Robert E. Lee”, though the nature of that assistance is not discussed. The board also mentions his age and that he “has a wife and foolish boy to support[.]” I wonder if someone can explain that latter reference for me, though my wife just suggested that it must have something to do with his mental health.
On the actual application there is a very telling reference: “that his services were meritorious and faithful toward his master, and the cause of the Confederacy.” The fundamental problem with all of this is that Clyburn’s voice never appears. The documents provide us with an example of how a white-dominated government bureau handled a black man during the height of Jim Crow. Ultimately, these documents are not about Clyburn. Clyburn’s pension was issued owing to the assumption that he was a faithful assistant, which helped to reinforce a system of white supremacy.
Not once is Clyburn referenced for what he was – a slave. We are playing a dangerous game when we begin to treat the past in a way that serves our own narrow interests.
The Civil War Preservation Trust has recently released their top 10 most endangered list and it includes Antietam, in part, because of a proposed cellular phone tower that may go up just south of the battlefield. I sincerely hope that this does not happen, although I have no ill-feelings towards the company responsible for such an eye sore. After all the residents of Sharpsburg weren’t engaged in battlefield preservation following the war. I love visiting Antietam. It was where I was introduced to the Civil War in 1994 and it is one of the few battlefields where I can walk and actually contemplate the bravery of the men who fought there as well as the broader meanings of the war. This spring I will have the opportunity to bring around 15 students to the battlefield as part of a 2-day bike tour. In short, for me Antietam is the closest thing to “sacred ground.”
I have never felt the same about Gettysburg. Although I was against the push to bring a casino to Gettysburg I never viewed it as a moral question, and when the observation tower came down I never thought of it as bringing us a step closer to some notion of battlefield purity. And I am probably one of the few who would hate to see the Cyclorama Center torn down. Whenever I travel to Gettysburg (it’s not that often) I find it close to impossible to think about the battle itself apart from the distractions of the town and the ways in which the battlefield was utilized following the war. I guess too much has happened to simply see it as a battlefield where men fought and died. Yes, you can find a battle at Gettysburg and much to contemplate, but you can just as easily find overweight white male reenactors, white tourists, ghosts [I assume most of them are white.], cheap hotels, and trinkets galore. Please don’t blame me for holding such a view as Americans made the decision to commercialize and sell it long ago.
Rally on the High Ground and keep the cell phone tower away from Antietam.