Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Trippin' through Gettysburg

The Fourth of July holiday weekend is right around the corner. I’m such a military history geek, that thinking about the Fourth always reminds me of the anniversary of the Civil War battle of Gettysburg (July 1-3, 1863). This is the perfect time to tell you about my visit to the Battlefield while I was on my research trip in May.

As I’ve mentioned before in this blog, my friend John works as a park ranger at Gettysburg National Military Park and rents a house on the battlefield from the NPS. Of course I wanted to visit my friend that I hadn’t seen in three years, but I was also looking forward to another visit to one of my favorite Civil War battlefields and getting a personal tour from the most knowledgeable person I know about the battle and the war.

I had visited Gettysburg on several occasions over the years since my first visit back in 1988. However, this was the first time I had toured the Battlefield and the town with a guide. Even for those of you who are familiar with the battle (as I thought I was), I highly recommend touring the battlefield with a licensed guide or attending one of the presentations given by the NPS staff. John was able to show me, on the ground, parts of the battle that have gotten little attention from both historians and popular culture. I won’t go into the history of the battle, but leave you with the guidance that there is much more to the battle than what is portrayed in the movie Gettysburg. The more you learn about it the more you want to know.

I invoke the Hollywood version of the battle (one of my favorites mind you), because during our tour John pointed out several items that the movie got wrong. He also gave me the background on a few of the monuments that over the decades since the battle have been placed for politics and tourism as well as honoring the sacrifices of our soldiers. Actually, the history of the battlefield as “hallowed ground” versus “tourist attraction” is as fascinating for me as the battle itself. For example, the term “high-water mark of the Confederacy” applied to Gettysburg, and specifically Pickett’s Charge, was coined by a tourism promoter years after the battle. If we are speaking in terms of Confederate military strength, one could argue that there are other points during the war when things looked much worse for the Union. In terms of geography, organized Confederate forces fought in the same campaign about 35 miles north of Gettysburg near Camp Hill, Pennsylvania, in what is known as the Skirmish of Sporting Hill.

Since I had visited the area before, it is interesting to see what is changing and what stays the same. The park is conducting projects to restore the terrain to what it looked like during the battle. Read about it in the park newspaper. There have been some trees removed around the Devil’s Den since my last visit. There are now some new peach trees in the Peach Orchard. The NPS has acquired a new “witness” house on the Emmitsburg Road, and the new Visitor Center opened in 2008 (which is fantastic!). Some things never change: the debate is raging in town about a proposed casino and hotel on US 15. That was voted down the last time I was there back in 2006. The casino promoters are back for another attempt at a permit.

Therefore, this trip to Gettysburg brought up several of those internal debates I have with myself. The primary being: At what level should we teach, or expect the public to know, history? Moreover, is a little drama such a bad thing if we can engage the public to tune in to the lessons of history? How far should we go to protect our historic sites? Does a place like Gettysburg deserve protection from what is built nearby? The analysis of these questions, whether I discuss and debate them with others or just in my head, is what excites me about public history.

I’ll close by saying, "Thanks again, John!" for the fantastic tour and a great steak dinner.

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