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Gettysburg Regress

How the government is ruining America's most famous battlefield.

U.S. National Archives/Mathew Brady
Last winter, I was walking with my wife along Seminary Ridge on the
Gettysburg battlefield when an odd detail drew into sight: piles of
felled trees, stacked alongside a road. The cuts smelled as fresh
as the trees looked strong. What happened to them, we wondered? I
grew up in Gettysburg, and my mother still lives in the shadow of
Lutheran Theological Seminary, low in the lap of the ridge it
names. Seminary Ridge is one of a string of ridges surrounding the
town; General Robert E. Lee stood there on July 2 and 3, 1863. The
woods atop the ridge had made it a sublime place to stroll for as
long as I could remember—until that winter walk, which ended with
a logging truck lumbering by.
Asking around, I learned that parts of the battlefield were in
"rehabilitation." In the hope of providing visitors with an
authentic historical experience, the National Park Service (NPS)
was seeking to restore some of Gettysburg's landscapes to their
condition when the Union and Confederate armies clashed on them.
And so the trees that once crowned Devil's Den—from whose crevices
Confederate sharpshooters picked off Union soldiers—were missing,
also. Hundreds of acres of woodland, actually, were gone or going.
(In July 1863, the battlefield contained 898 acres of woodland;
since that time, the number has grown to roughly 2,000.) The
"rehabilitation," many and varied in its activities, has also
rebuilt fences, replanted orchards, and demolished large buildings,
including a car dealership. The goal, as NPS regional director Don
Barger told The Christian Science Monitor in April, is to make
visitors "almost feel the bullets. ... That is what you want to
have happen in a battlefield."
The project likely delights the reenactors who troop to Gettysburg
every year in pursuit of authenticity, as well as those tourists
who expect less to encounter history during their battlefield trip
than to experience it. Academic historians also appear to approve.
University of Virginia professor Gary Gallagher, who advised a
recent project at the battlefield, cheers in the current issue of
Civil War Times that "there has never been a better time to visit
Gettysburg." Those who might object to the removal of the trees, he
says, are "people who don't understand the difference between a
historic park and Yosemite." Rehabilitation has something for
everyone: It flatters the left's suspicion of cultural authority,
its invitation to ordinary Americans to participate in their
history, even as it honors conservatism's fetish for an unchanged,
historically correct past. Indeed, Gettysburg, the jewel of
America's battlefields, is one of several currently targeted for
rehabilitation, including Vicksburg and Antietam.
As an historian, I can appreciate the impulse to restore. But my
wife Anna felt foul about my explanation of
salvation-through-improvement, and together we ruminated on her
instinctual reaction at Seminary Ridge: Did those trees really have
to go? The more we thought about this question, the more the whole
project troubled us. Those trees weighed in our concern, to be sure.
But we began to believe we saw something larger, a distinctive
pattern of thought sweeping across the battlefield, working in
sympathy with the changing expectations Americans apply to their
In the Gettysburg Address—delivered just over four months after the
battle's conclusion—President Lincoln cautioned that "we cannot
dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The
brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated
it, far above our poor power to add or detract." In this season of
Lincoln, it seems worth asking whether rehabilitating Gettysburg to
its original state is really a process of adding or detracting—and
whether the managers of our battlefields are, in their quest for
maximum authenticity, cheating visitors out of something more
In high school in the late 1980s, I worked at the Gettysburg
battlefield, imparting names, dates, and locations that were, by
and large, irrelevant to the moral history of the war. Which was
fine with me. I loaded the customers onto the fleet of blue and
gray double-decker buses, climbed to the top and took my seat at
the rear, where I sunned myself avidly. The problem I grappled with
most earnestly on these pleasure grounds was how to pry visiting
adolescent girls from their fathers. As for the matter of North
versus South, I felt, perhaps along with the sunglass-sporting
tourists, that I might have gone either way.
The main destinations then were no more inspired than my tours. A
few family attractions conveyed some slight educational matter—the
Electric Map, National Civil War Wax Museum, Lincoln Train Museum,
Hall of Presidents—and, lying beyond town, there were diversions
such as the Land of Little Horses. The entertainments were neither
authentic nor inauthentic. They were kitsch, lacking any clear
point of view; and, as they were pointless, so they were also
Today's drive to refurbish Gettysburg, more ambitious in every
respect, has not stinted on inspiration—or controversy. A
$135-million Museum and Visitor Center, which opened last spring,
has lately grabbed headlines thanks to allegations of ethical
impropriety. (Questions are swirling about why two firms—one run
by the head of the Gettysburg Foundation, the Park Service's
partner in building the new center; the other run by his son—were
selected to do work at the battlefield.) Less attention, however,
has been trained on the ongoing effort to rehabilitate parts of the
battlefield to their July 1863 states. This effort marks the latest
chapter in a contest between dueling conceptions of Gettysburg—the
battlefield as unchanging relic and the battlefield as living
In April 1864, the Pennsylvania legislature chartered the Gettysburg
Battlefield Memorial Association (GBMA). It had taken burial gangs
until March of that year to complete the bulk of their work and
inter most of the Union dead in Soldiers' National Cemetery. And
not until 1873 were the Confederate dead removed from mass graves
and reburied in Richmond and Raleigh, Charleston and Savannah. The
GBMA made some efforts in the direction of restoration—repositioning cannons, for example—and its founder argued for
maintaining the July 1863 appearance of some key aspects of the
battlefield. At the same time, he urged the construction of
monuments, while his organization's charter called for it to
commemorate the carnage with "works of art and taste." In 1866, the
legislature empowered the gbma to plant trees at the site. By 1895,
when the Department of War assumed jurisdiction and created the
Gettysburg National Military Park, the GBMA held title to 600 acres
of land from which it had carved 17 miles of roads. In its first
decade of administration, the War Department added more than 800
acres of land, planted nearly 17,000 additional trees, and improved
roads. The commemorative work of boosters and government officials
utterly transformed the battlefield.
Administrative control over the land migrated from the War
Department to the Department of the Interior and the National Park
Service in 1933; and developments surrounding the battlefield
continued to reflect tension between the two conceptions of
Gettysburg. On the one hand, New Deal officials issued a six-year
general plan that identified a desire to return the land to its
July 1863 appearance. Barns were restored, fences and walls
rebuilt. Using workers from the Civilian Conservation Corps, the
Park Service pared away overgrowth for the sake of an authentic
view at Little Round Top. Yet, in other respects, the site
continued to migrate away from its 1863 appearance. In 1938, at the
battle's seventy-fifth anniversary, President Roosevelt came to
dedicate the Eternal Light Peace Memorial, whose torch—situated
above a granite and limestone monument—was meant to symbolize
domestic unity while Europe rearmed. Fewer than 2,000 Gettysburg
veterans attended the ceremony, and their average age was over 90.
Perhaps they exercised something of a check on the drive for
authenticity: One can see how wishing for an authentic battle
experience in the presence of these survivors—who did not have the
experience of the battle so much as they were had by it—might have
been considered tasteless.
Eventually, however, the veterans died off, and, as told in Jim
Weeks's Gettysburg: Memory, Market, and an American Shrine and
Harlan Unrau's Administrative History: Gettysburg National Military
Park and Gettysburg National Cemetery, Pennsylvania, the idea of
rehabilitation continued to inform new plans for the park. In the
late 1950s, President Eisenhower—whose farm was near the
battlefield—egged on the campaign to restore Gettysburg. "I think
it is a pity this one piece of terrain is not kept so that
youngsters can see it nearly like it was in 1863," the president
told Parade magazine.
Rehabilitation was a major initiative in the National Park Service's
1999 General Management Plan, thanks to John Latschar, the park's
current superintendent. Last summer, Latschar explained to The
Gettysburg Magazine how he could tell, soon after arriving in 1994,
that a comprehensive program was needed to rescue the battlefield
from the encroachments of time. "I'd been here a couple of weeks
maybe and they scheduled my tour and I went out with a retired
Marine colonel who's one of our best guides," he said. "He carried
with him a stack of historic photographs that was probably
three-quarters of an inch thick. I thought, what's he need all
these for? But what he needed them for was to explain the course of
the battle. Because so much of what the commanders could see in
1863 was obscured by vegetation that had grown up. And it was at
that moment, I can remember thinking to myself, something's got to
be done about this."
Is it possible to return vast tracts of land to their appearance in
1863? On the Park Service's website, Latschar explains that he is
drawing on maps, participant reports of the battle, diaries, and
newspaper accounts for a description of the battlefield's original
condition. If that sounds straightforward, consider how little
anyone knows for certain about the site's prewar appearance. Very
few photographs of the Gettysburg outdoors from before the battle
exist. William Frassanito's Early Photography at Gettysburg,
published in 1995, identified M.S. Converse's map as the lone
relatively detailed one available in July 1863, and the Converse
map did not portray woods, hills, ridges, and other topographical
features. General G.K. Warren and his team of military engineers
made a sweeping survey of the battlefield in 1868 and 1869, then
revised the map in 1873. But even the Warren map, the most
authoritative made after the battle, has gaps and errors. "It is my
cumulative observation," writes Frassanito, "that the finished
product of 1873 more accurately reflects the appearance of the
battlefield in 1869 than in 1863."
The scale and complexity of the carnage at Gettysburg has made it
difficult to understand much about it. The approximately 1,328
markers and monuments scattered about the grounds are a stellar
collection of public sculpture, but, individually and as a whole,
they reflect "a constructed view of a certain version of the past,
rather than a factual description of some historical truth, "
according to Thomas Desjardin's These Honored Dead: How the Story
of Gettysburg Shaped American Memory. Many of these iron, bronze,
and stone structures were placed in the 1880s, and most excluded
the Confederates. Apocrypha that still surrounds Little Round Top
and other areas originated not in the infallible testimony of
eyewitnesses but in remembrances blurred, biased, or invented.
Desjardin argues convincingly that "there is no 'what really
happened' at Gettysburg; only a mountain of varying, often
contradictory accounts that are seldom in accord, all tainted in
some way or other by memory, bias, politics, ego, or a host of
other factors."
Nobody learned the practical limits of such research faster than the
battle's first historian, John Bachelder, who received $50,000 from
Congress in 1880 to write a history of the event. In spite of the
numerous interviews Bachelder conducted with eyewitnesses and
participants soon after the battle and in subsequent years, he
never produced the history for which he was paid. Flaws found in
his maps, plus the intractable conflicts he found in the collective
memory, defeated his attempt to make the story cohere. Soldiers and
commanders alike said they found their experience incomprehensible,
their vision clouded by fields curtained in smoke. General Abner
Doubleday wrote to Bachelder in this chastened spirit five years
after the congressional appropriation: "It is difficult in the
excitement of battle to see every thing going on around us for each
has his own part to play and that absorbs his attention to the
exclusion of every thing else. People are very much mistaken when
they suppose because a man is in a battle, he knows all about it."
Much of what we think we know about Gettysburg is knowledge gained
at a remove beyond the experience of the battle. Paul Philippoteaux
and his team painted the Gettysburg Cyclorama in 1884 from ten
photographs by William Tipton, photos that depicted the battlefield
as it was in 1882, not 1863. Photographers like Mathew Brady,
Alexander Gardner, and the Tyson brothers, Charles and Isaac,
circulated the earliest images of the battlefield. At Antietam,
Gardner had supplied many urban newspaper readers with their first
glimpses of dead soldiers. At Gettysburg, he captured images before
the burials finished. How easy it is to forget, in light of his
achievement, that neither Gardner nor anyone else photographed the
battle itself.
But suppose the evidence was overwhelming. Suppose an abundance of
available pictures, eyewitness accounts both reliable and
comprehensive, and maps could guide history's eye with flawless
accuracy. The question would still remain: Why should battlefield
visitors want to "almost feel the bullets"?
Earlier generations of tourists brought more modest expectations. In
1869, the Katalysine Springs Hotel opened in Gettysburg on the
heels of news that a medicinal spring had been discovered west of
town. The hotel offered 300 guests use of a billiard room and
bowling alley, as well as a cupola that provided a panoramic view
of the battlefield. This vantage point, high above the grounds,
became very popular. In 1878, a private developer constructed an
observatory on East Cemetery Hill, which also offered a panoramic
view. The War Department raised five steel observation towers
overlooking the battlefield. In 1974, a developer erected a tower
more than 300 feet tall over the strenuous objections of
Latschar demolished this structure (the National Tower, as it was
called by its owner) in 2000—a key symbolic moment in his drive
for rehabilitation. The towers enforce a moral distance between the
seer and the scene. Accordingly, the early ones sprung up when
memory of the suffering at Gettysburg was still raw. But towers
also impede the ability of visitors to experience the battle; and
experience is what today's battlefield managers aim to provide.
To truly experience what it was like to be at Gettysburg, we would
need to lie with soldiers as they bled to death, groaning in pain;
rotting corpses with missing limbs; streams running red; winds
swarming with flies; air smelling of burning horseflesh. As we
cannot know the precise cartography of the battlefield, or the
movements of every soldier, or the location of every tree, so we
should not try to leap backward into authenticity, or expect to
become an eyewitness to history simply by showing up. The arrogance
laid up around this expectation is astonishing. At Gettysburg, as
elsewhere, the parties of preservation, restoration, and
rehabilitation seek to transport us forward into the past by
scrubbing off the blemishes of time. But, in offering the illusion
of authentic experience, inviting us to "almost feel the bullets,"
they promise both too much and too little: They forget that
historical suffering must be regarded from a distance if tragedy is
to make us humble—or even be understood at all.
If a battlefield is not a locus of authentic experience, then what
is it? A shrine? A classroom? The trees may teach us something yet.
As flesh decayed at Gettysburg, it fertilized the earth for new
vegetation. What the Park Service calls "non-historic trees"—that
is, trees which grew after 1863—once were seedlings. Since then,
in the changefulness of the seasons, they have formed a palimpsest,
offering the closest we may come to communing with the lost souls
of the battle. "As he gazed around him the youth felt a flash of
astonishment at the blue, pure sky and the sun gleaming on the
trees and fields," Stephen Crane wrote in The Red Badge of Courage.
"It was surprising that Nature had gone tranquilly on with her
golden processes in the midst of so much devilment."
Most of us, like my wife Anna on Seminary Ridge, intuit the
connective tissues of trees and grief. That humans plant trees on
grave sites is a spiritual fact of great and ancient significance.
Homer signals a transition from war to peace by telling how
Odysseus, returning home, found his father tending a young fruit
tree. Ovid, in The Metamorphoses, tells of Cyparissus "begging the
gods to ... let him grieve forever" after he accidentally kills a
stag: "As his lifeblood drained away with never-ending tears, his
limbs began to take a greenish cast; and the soft hair that used to
cluster on his snow-white brow became a bristling crest. The boy
was now a rigid tree with frail and spiring crown that gazes on the
heavens and the stars." The trees on Seminary Ridge were a standing
reminder of the pity and terror of tragedy. Those who run
Gettysburg would grasp this—if only they were less obsessed with
authenticity and more inclined toward history.
John Summers is the author of Every Fury on Earth and a visiting
scholar at the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life
at Boston College.