Tag Archives: Gettysburg

The “Outer Limits” of Gettysburg

I came across an episode of “The Outer Limits” that deals with Civil War reenacting and the battle of Gettysburg. Many of you are no doubt familiar with what I like to describe as the poor cousin of the “Twilight Zone”, which ran from 1963-1965 and than again from 1995-2002. This particular episode features the singer, Meatloaf, as one Confederate Colonel Devine, and tells the story of two young men who are preparing to take part in a reenactment of Gettysburg. The episode reflects many of our popular beliefs about the Civil War, including the assumption surrounding the decisiveness of the battle itself and our love of counterfactuals. Both men are transported back to July 1863 for the purposes of carrying out a mission – a mission that they learn early on will challenge the notion of historical determinism. While the Union reenactor is quite concerned about their predicament, his Confederate friend fully embraces the opportunity to fight for states rights and against big government along with its long lines of “welfare recipients”. For him, this stroke of good luck is a chance to meet and fight alongside his Confederate ancestor for values that he believes they both must share. What is striking is that the viewer learns next to nothing about why the Union reenactor embraces the hobby. I have to wonder whether this is just another example of our inability to fully embrace the importance that so many attached to the preservation of the Union.

As the two friends work to figure out their mission the campaign and battle develop. Of course, since they come from the future they know how the battle will unfold and try desperately to steer it in a different direction. When it is announced in camp on July 1 that J.E.B. Stuart’s cavalry will arrive shortly they announce that he is off on a “Glory seeing raid” and will not arrive in time. And, of course, they try to prevent “Pickett’s Charge” from taking place, which the producers mistakenly place on July 2. At one point the two friends end up on the battlefield with the Confederate reenactor’s ancestor, who they find is a coward and shares none of his descendant’s reasons for reenacting. For this ancestor the goal is simply to stay alive and is void of anything connected to principle. The encounter raises the suggestion that reenacting is as much (if not more) about our own perceptions of the past and/or cultural values than it is about the men who actually fought in it.

The episode takes a number of kooky twists before the real mission is finally revealed. Without ruining the plot, let’s just say that their goal is to prevent an assassination that would take place in 2013 on the Gettysburg battlefield. And let’s just say that with the election of our first black president this episode, which originally aired in 1995, is rendered that much more interesting.

Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5

 

More on John Latschar

There is no one I respect more in the NPS than John Hennessy, who is chief historian at the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. John offered the following as an assessment of Latschar’s tenure at Gettysburg. You will notice that his observations stand in sharp contrast with the comments found over at Eric Wittenberg’s blog.

Speaking from the narrow (though important) perspective of one who helps manage a battlefield landscape that is also a national park, John Latschar is the most important superintendent any NPS battlefield site has had in our lifetime. Through the park’s GMP and the rigorous implementation that followed it, he was the key figure in:

- Establishing the primacy of wartime resources and landscapes over all else–a point much in debate for a very long time.

- The reclamation of the patterns of forest and field at Gettysburg have made it possible for all other sites to seriously consider and pursue such a course–something, again, that was, in the mid-1990s, only a faint dream.

- Regardless of what you think about the park’s approach to interpreting the battle and Civil War, Gettysburg has helped re-establish the importance of interpretation, and especially the many reasons why these places matter (or ought to) to the nation. What the NPS does in the way of interpretation may not much interest those already immersed in the story (though I think it really does–there are few things as compelling as a powerful interpretive program delivered on-site, no matter how many times you’ve been there), but it is everything to the bulk of a park’s visitors. Otherwise, these places are just fields and forest without significance.

Think back fifteen years. All of these issues were much in debate. Our battlefield landscapes threatened to become little more than museums of commemorative expression, with the resources related to the battle managed and interpreted with the same earnestness that we devote to CCC culverts, 1964 visitor centers, and postwar forests. While many people have had something to do with the reordering of our priorities, Gettysburg under John Latschar’s watch have given those reordered priorities tangible form–much to the benefit to park visitors, both casual and hard-core.

 

Congratulations John Latschar

John Latschar has accepted a position as the next president of the Gettysburg Foundation after 14 years with the NPS.  During that time he has overseen major changes to the battlefield, including the demolition of the national tower and landscape rehabilitation.  His most important project was the planning and completion of a new state-of-the-art visitor center, which includes what I believe to be the finest Civil War exhibit to be found anywhere.  It’s no surprise that Latschar would want to move on to new challenges, but it is comforting to know that he will continue to work closely with the NPS to maintain one of this nation’s most cherished sites.

Latschar’s detractors are already unleashing their venom.  One fellow blogger has described this appointment as a case of Latschar “feathering his own nest”. The article linked to in this post suggests that Latschar was surprised by the offer and took a few weeks to consider it.  This doesn’t sound like a conspiracy to me but, than again, what do I know.

 

Why Do You Go To The Gettysburg Visitor Center?

I’ve been keeping track of recent reviews of the new Gettysburg Visitor Center in both newspapers and on websites.  At some point soon I am going to write up an essay that situates the current debate over battlefield interpretation within a broader analysis of how Gettysburg has been interpreted over the past fifty years.  It seems to me that to fully understand these interpretive fault lines one needs to do a bit of history.  Katherine Calos offers her own take on the VC for Richmond.com.  Overall, it’s a positive review, but I want to focus briefly on a few of the remarks from visitors that are included in her piece:

“I found it very moving,” said Tim Ruohoniemi, who was there with his wife, Lisa, and children Emma, 10, and Ian, 8. Their visit was one stop
on a 6-month sabbatical from their work with the World Mission Prayer League in Nepal.  “As a child I was here,” he said. “I thought I knew something about the Civil War. You come to a place like this and, wow, there’s a lot. The conflict before the war was something I never fully grasped. It never really sunk in that both sides were fighting for freedom — what they thought of as freedom.”

People who have complaints about the new museum tend to echo Bob and Denise Lawther of Johnstown, Pa.  “I was a little disappointed with it,” he said. “I thought they needed more artifacts. I remember as a kid, coming down here from school, they had the surgeon’s table, the tools. I expected more displays.  “It was a little drab, too dark,” he added. “They need to brighten it up a little.”

All of the assessments that I’ve read from individuals who have actually visited the VC can be divided into one of these two camps.  In many ways they reflect two very different approaches to museums as well as the study and remembrance of the Civil War.

In the former camp we can see an emphasis on meaning and significance.  This visitor wants to know why the battlefield ought to matter.  Artifacts and information matter only to the extent that they assist the visitor in acquiring an understanding of a bigger picture.  That bigger picture not only works to connect what appear to be disparate events into a coherent narrative, but forces the visitor to reflect on his/her relation to other Americans in both the past and present.

Much of the criticism of the new VC can easily be included in the latter camp.  This visitor is interested primarily in artifacts as a means to reflection.  The artifacts are a tangible link to a past that this visitor hopes to experience through one of the senses.  In most cases its about the experiences of the common soldier.  Broader narratives are seen as tangential and as a distraction since they are abstract and not directly related to any individual artifact. Here is your antipathy toward museum interpretation; the further the interpretation is removed from the object of the individual’s experience the louder the objection.  The anger over the removal of the Electric Map is an extension of this emphasis on the individual: “What about my experience of the battlefield?”  Notice that most of the complaints about the new VC are about an individual’s experience of Gettysburg and not about how that object/artifact fits into the overall goal of understanding the battle broadly construed.  In the world of heritage tourism the consumption of the past begins and ends with the individual.

It comes down to a question of what kind of visitor the National Park Service ought to cater to.