Gettysburg: Memory, Market, and an American Shrine

This book by Jim Weeks is not a history of the battle, but rather a history of how the battle has been remembered and how each generation changes the battlefield to fit how it wants to remember the battle. He tells us, “In addition to coming to terms with fundamental questions, the following chapters also challenge key assumptions about Gettysburg. First, Gettysburg did not emerge as a shrine simply by popular will. Entrepreneurs, promoters, and boosters have labored to attract pilgrims since the battle ended. Second, Gettysburg never was at odds with the marketplace, which instead played a major role in constructing and reconstructing the shrine. A third assumption confronted here is that African Americans have ignored Gettysburg because they were not considered part of the battle’s significance nor included in commemorative celebrations. As will be seen, African Americans used Gettysburg extensively for communal celebration near the turn of the twentieth century. Fourth, the present perspective that certain enterprises associated with the battlefield transcended the marketplace (avenues and monuments) while others desacralized (observation towers, the electric trolley) is reconsidered. Finally, the teleological view of Gettysburg’s development–that the present era of visual purification represents the culmination of progress in preservation–will be challenged. I argue, rather, that the present era is simply the latest in a series of transformations driven by cultural, economic, and social change, and that, furthermore, simulacra aid co-optation of the sacred by heritage tourism. Too often battlefield preservationists observe an uncomplicated dichotomy between the shrine and profanation by the marketplace. Gettysburg enthusiasts–some of whom, paradoxically, earn a living from Gettysburg’s popularity–view commercial threats to Gettysburg as the Beast of the Apocalypse.” [pp. 6-7]

He divides the book into four phases, representing four phases of tourism and use of the battlefield. The first of these, from 1863-1884, he calls, “A Genteel Summer Resort.” Gettysburg tourism in this phase catered to the more wealthy of the country, those with the money to travel and have leisure time. These were the “genteel” tourists. “From the beginning, commercial interests as well as cultural authorities transformed the horrific event into a memorial that would provide both a contemplative atmosphere and pleasure. Purveyors produced a variety of goods for personal consumption with Gettysburg themes, while artists attempted to interpret the fighting on canvas for public edification and entertainment. Local promoters, reaping the benefit of the battle’s cultural capital, attempted to fashion Gettysburg into a summer resort and spa. … At the time of the battle a cultural marketplace peddled memory as part of the goods and experiences sold to aspirants of gentility. Gentility and genteel culture refer to the broad, common culture of the nineteenth century that filtered downward from the apex of society to affect individual behavior as well as public space. Communicated through an aesthetic of refinement involving appropriate objects, manners, and taste, gentility appealed in a shifting society where appearances mattered.” [p. 14] The first souvenirs were actual detritus from the battle itself, including bullets and discarded equipment. “As battle debris grew increasingly scarce, townspeople manufactured souvenirs for tourists. Although in later decades townspeople crafted sophisticated souvenirs such as miniature cannon and monuments, early handmade mementos for the genteel traveler emphasized nature. Women assembled baskets of dried flowers gathered from the battlefield, while enterprising townsmen cut walking canes from battlefield wood, which they packaged in lots and sold as wood from particular battlefield place-names.” [p. 29] During this phase as well, there was an attempt to make Gettysburg into a resort for wealthy people. “The idea of transforming Gettysburg into a summer resort emerged from the 1865 ‘discovery’ of springs west of town whose water purportedly healed wounded Confederates. A professor of physical science at the local Pennsylvania College declared samples he examined ‘to be like the celebrated Vichy Springs of France.’ According to further scientific examination the water contained ‘lithia,’ a coveted therapeutic substance ‘as rare among minerals as gold and silver among metals,’ according to the Gettysburg Compiler. … The Gettysburg waters joined a long list of medicinal springs, called ‘watering places,’ scattered throughout the country. Water in Christian tradition offered a source of regeneration and healing. … Despite the dreams of boosters and investors, peddling the water itself initially proved more successful than developing a resort. A New York company leased the springs in 1867, erecting a bottling works that employed thirty hands and shipped out 240 dozen bottles a day. The Gettysburg Spring Company published promotional material affirming the water’s power to cure all ailments including rheumatism, kidney stones, constipation, impotence, bronchitis, and the pains of puberty.” [pp. 30-31] The genteel tourists did go to Gettysburg. “Indeed, tourists to Gettysburg had much in common with medieval pilgrims to holy sites. Both were forms of ritual travel whose expectations were shaped by literature and graphic art. Because genteel travelers were the only significant group that regularly traveled for leisure in the mid-nineteenth century, it is not surprising that boosters and entrepreneurs of Gettysburg shaped tourism around their expectations.” [p. 37]

Phase Two is the period from 1884 to 1920, and Weeks calls it “A Mecca for Patriots.” This phase saw an expansion of tourism to Gettysburg. “Thanks in part to the railroad, the genteel resort of the immediate postwar years gave way to one that included a broad cross-section of America, genteel and plebeian, black and white. Separate spaces catered to both genteel and working-class tastes, yet the genteel accommodated the plebeian. While the genteel agenda for constructing a park much like a rural cemetery finally came to fruition, it appealed to the more plebeian tastes of returning veterans and less-cultivated citizens. It burst through genteel restraint and recalled the popular story of valor rather than genteel abstractions about salvation of the republic. The shift reflected broader trends as the idea of Gettysburg became part of the nationalizing of American culture. Gettysburg earned the nickname ‘Mecca of the Patriot’ as both place and concept, a true shrine in the vanguard of mass culture forged from a ragged, heterogeneous society.” [p. 58] This period saw an expansion of guides and guidebooks. It also saw more in the way of souvenirs. “Both Gettysburg and the great fairs produced souvenirs that enhanced the ‘memory’ function of many parlors. Souvenirs, prints, stereographs, and Bachelder’s panoramic map all reduced Gettysburg for home use. When Henry and Charles Speece began producing miniatures of the monuments–that is, parlor kitsch–it was just as reasonable that the monuments on the field were giant replicas of the miniatures. In 1890 a tourist wrote to Bachelder (who in describing his panoramic map wrote, ‘Imagine yourself in a balloon two miles east of the town of Gettysburg’) suggesting that important points on the battlefield should be color coded just like his map. All three memory palaces changed, however. At Gettysburg, the pleasure seeker increasingly replaced the genteel tourist, fairs featured more ‘midway’ entertainment, and parlors and their kitsch faded in favor of less sentiment and greater function. Even parlor stereographs of edifying natural views devolved more and more into scenes showing people in comic situations. This change in parlor entertainment coincided precisely with the advent of Round Top Park at the nation’s memory palace.” [p. 82] Contrary to what most think, African Americans also enjoyed trips to Gettysburg. “The possibilities of Gettysburg, where one might slide from a pleasure park to a memorial park and back again, attracted Baltimore black excursionists. The absence of African Americans in park documentation generated by administrators or veterans’ organizations does not mean blacks did not visit Gettysburg. It is true that in the twentieth century’s age of automobile tourism, blacks have comprised a small percentage of the total number of tourists. But a close examination of black and white newspaper articles, squibs, and advertisements during the age of rail reveals a rich story of black visitation. Their experience permits an examination of how this ‘invisible’ minority used a commercially shaped national shrine for its own ends, and how the shrine in turn used blacks to unify whites. At the same time, the story of black excursionists permits a glimpse of how blacks celebrated in the new arena of commercial leisure, and how this traditional celebration clashed with expectations both of whites and of the black leadership. From 1880, when the first excursion of ‘colored waiters’ disembarked, and especially after Round Top Park’s construction until the advent of World War I, black excursionists from Baltimore arrived at Gettysburg frequently during the season. As the nineteenth-century’s ‘black capital,’ with eighty thousand African Americans by 1900, Baltimore featured a plethora of black benevolent organizations, secret societies, and church groups. With black leadership urging middle-class virtues as a path to progress, these organizations sponsored a variety of charitable programs as well as lyceums and schools for purposeful self-improvement. At the same time, the one-time coexistence of slaves and free blacks in Baltimore had spawned a number of traditional plebeian black-owned leisure establishments such as grog shops and gambling dens. As did white organizations, black groups supported their benevolent activities by sponsoring both ‘moonlight’ and day excursions to resorts such as Havre de Grace, Brown’s Grove, and Round Bay, Maryland. … But Gettysburg possessed special significance for the largest and most sustained Baltimore black excursion to Round Top Park. Although the date of celebrating slave emancipation varied widely according to region, Baltimore’s black GAR posts sponsored an annual Gettysburg excursion in September commemorating the 1862 preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. Like the GAR nationwide, Baltimore’s black Lincoln, Guy, and Logan posts had grown remarkably in the late 1880s. For two decades beginning in the 1890s, the outing that sometimes attracted more than seven thousand blacks into Gettysburg raised funds for the posts’ benevolent aid to veterans’ widows and orphans.” [pp. 92-94]

Phase Three, from 1920 to 1970, is the phase of “TV, Hot Bath, Cold War.” “The twentieth century brought Gettysburg another change: government and local commercial interests, instead of railroads and veterans, assumed lead roles in sponsoring Gettysburg tourism. Together, the U.S. Department of the Interior’s National Park Service along with new entrepreneurs vastly enlarged the tourist enterprise. Both constructed and contrived attractions for Americans on the road, recapturing the battle’s narrative using technologies familiar to mass culture. Where once local ad hoc organizations coordinated marketing and hospitality, now media professionals promoted Gettysburg.” [p. 116] The interstate highway system as well as turnpike construction greatly facilitated the ability of people around the country to visit Gettysburg. Along the way, the government also erected wayside markers, comfort facilities, and other amenities to foster patriotism, education, and tourism. The automobile also forced changes to the park itself, with the construction of roads to help tourists get around the battlefield and see the monuments and other sights. “To jolt visitors into the past, the Park Service employed modern business methods such as master planning and public relations. Restored houses masked plumbing, heating, and electrical systems, and so too did the battlefield, with its hidden sewage and electrical systems, wells, and water lines installed for tourist convenience. And as the overhauled park drew more tourists, it struck up against the interests of private enterprise spawned from that success. Much as the railroad’s round Top Park had attracted photographers and impresarios eighty years earlier, the visitors’ center dangled a lure for impresarios, restaurateurs, and other entrepreneurs to set up shop on private land nearby. Only now they clustered near the center of the battlefield instead of the southern end, creating a garish strip on land demanding more visual purity than ever before. To legitimize their enterprises, some borrowed the imprimatur of the federal government, such as ‘National Civil War Wax Museum’ or ‘National Riding Stables.’ And as an enterprise labeled the ‘National Tower’ planned to rise over three hundred feet above the nearby visitors’ center in the early 1970s, it kicked off a firestorm of controversy created in part by the Park Service’s accomplishments.” [p. 127] The famous electric map became a part of the visitors’ center, and enterprises such as Fort Defiance and Fantasyland opened, which “evoked Walt Disney’s familiar television images of American toughness and family togetherness.” [p. 137]

The final phase considered, from 1970 to 2000, is called “Heritage Gettysburg.” In this section, Weeks discriminates between history and heritage. “For one thing, heritage is primarily market driven; for another, it fragments instead of unifying society. With heritage, commerce creates the past as part of a vast public appetite for nostalgia. Historic restorations, public architecture, reenactments, theme parks, heritage tourism, historic films, and war games cater to an ever-increasing market of heritage patrons. Reminisce: The Magazine That Brings Back the Good Times is published under the maxim ‘Nostalgia is like a grammar lesson … you find the present tense and the past perfect.’ To touch, to see, to buy and possess, to experience the past characterize the heritage approach. Unlike monuments or carnivalesque attractions of the past, heritage relies on authenticity to provide psychic reassurance for an age adrift. Tourists explore mills, coal mines, prisons, and concentration camps to sense suffering; Time-Life books promises that one can ‘relive the horrors of Gettysburg in the comfort of your own home.’ Heritage aids divisiveness by attempting to resuscitate ‘authentic’ racial and ethnic legacies, and further fragments society through contemporary marketing methods that herd consumers into groups. In this milieu ‘Heritage Gettysburg,’ the fourth and current stage of Gettysburg’s development, began emerging around 1970. During the 1950s and 1960s, enthusiasts bought additional land and fought commercial blight to preserve a sacred vista at Gettysburg. But in the current era, groups of enthusiasts have transformed Gettysburg into a site of participation.” [p. 174] What about heritage over history? “A key feature of heritage over history is the substitution of image for reality that turns illusions into authenticity. The power of images lies in their evocation of feelings regardless of historical facts. Public interest in the battle’s narrative had been met by vendors through a wide variety of mediums since the battle ended. But with Gettysburg’s historical meanings largely gone, the quest to experience the original event became more urgent.” [p. 175] We also see the effect of popular culture. “In 1961, a tourist who had read John Pullen’s The Twentieth Maine wrote to the park superintendent complaining that bushes obscured the regiment’s monument made famous by the book. In reply, the superintendent stated that removing brush or adding roadways to ease access would ‘destroy the historic scene.’ Yet following publication of The Killer Angels thirteen years later, NPS installed a walkway to the monument and a small parking lot. After the movie, which boosted tourism by 19 percent in 1994, NPS improved these additions. It also added an exhibit featuring a recent artistic rendition of the fighting at the site, accompanied by a biographical sketch of the movie’s hero, Colonel Joshua L. Chamberlain. Like the illustrated sidewalk tablets in town, the painting provided the site with the animation tourists needed to overcome the deadening effects of the monument. With much irony, to meet the need for authenticity, an imagined scene defined a real historic site made famous by a fictional book and movie.” [pp. 190-191]

Not written at the same level as most other books, the book is not an easy read, but it’s worth the effort. The book gives us insights into the changes over time not only in tourism to Gettysburg but also in Gettysburg itself as well as the battlefield. Serious students of history as well as serious students of the Civil War in particular will profit from reading this book.

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