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.

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

CWPT’s Teacher Institute (2010)

cwpt-20logo-20hi-20resYesterday I accepted a very kind offer to take part in the Civil War Preservation Trust’s Teacher Institute in July 2010.  I’ve been following their programs over the past few years and have to say that I am very impressed.  This year the institute will be held in Hagerstown, MD July 16 – 18th, 2010. The battlefield we will be touring on Saturday is Gettysburg, the tours will be led by the National Park Service (Scott Hartwig & team) and Garry Adelman (doing a then and now photography tour).  There is a limit of 200 teachers so you may want to register sooner than later.  This is a free professional development opportunity, teachers only cover their travel and lodging; however, there are scholarships to cover even those costs.  This sounds like a great deal and I couldn’t be more excited about this opportunity to talk about something that is so important to me.  I will be taking part in a panel discussion during the Saturday evening banquet to discuss the teaching of the Civil War with Web2.0 technology.

So What’s the Next Move?

I’ve stated that the proposed construction of a new Wal-Mart on the Wilderness battlefield is a bad idea and, along with 252 other historians, signed the Civil War Preservation Trust’s letter addressed to the CEO of the company. But even with all of the attention generated in newspapers over the past few weeks it is only a matter of time before permits are handed out and the ground paved over. What I want to know is at what point should preservationists begin to work with Wal-Mart to propose ways to minimize the site’s impact on the surrounding battlefield. Are there ways to configure the entrance, the parking lots, as well as the building itself in a way that would preserve some of the viewsheds? While I admire the efforts of the CWPT to bring the issue of battlefield preservation to the attention of the general public, it seems to me that an opportunity would have been lost if company executives are not engaged at all.  How about asking Wal-Mart to buy a parcel of land in the area and donate it to the CWPT in the name of battlefield preservation?

That’s just one idea.  What other ideas are out there?

Historians Against Wal-Mart

The battle continues over a proposed Wal-Mart, which will be placed on the Wilderness Battlefield just off the intersection of routes 20 and 3.  Awhile back I was asked by the Civil War Preservation Trust to endorse a letter to be sent to the CEO of the company.  Click here to read the letter and here to see who else signed it.  It’s an impressive list that I don’t think will make a damn bit of difference to the suits in charge.   [Note: both are pdf files.]