The Questions of Gettysburg

100_8188by Max Shenk
A visitor to Gettysburg will notice that there are two distinctly different destinations within the same town. Gettysburg is a place where the site of one of the bloodiest, most futile battlefield maneuvers in U.S. history—Pickett’s Charge—sits less than a half mile from a restaurant called General Pickett’s Buffets. It’s home to both Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and the Lincoln Diner. It’s a town where thousands of tourists will pay money to go on “ghost tours”—guided tours of sites and buildings supposedly haunted by the spirits of soldiers—in hopes of catching a glimpse of “residual energy” from the battle, yet will miss seeing the very real witness trees that stand on the battlefield: living, tangible, still-growing, still-standing survivors of the battle. It’s a place where the most “hallowed ground” in the town—the National Military Cemetery—sits on a wedge-shaped piece of land bounded on two of its sides by streets lined with tourist attractions, hotels and restaurants.
Preservationists have done a remarkable job of restoring the battlefield to the state it was in when the battle took place in July 1863, but they have not always succeeded. Artillery positions near the railroad cut were lost when Gettysburg College expanded its athletic fields several years ago; the Lutheran Seminary in town recently cleared several trees purported to be witness trees from its property. Both of these actions were fought by preservationists, to little avail. The college’s and the seminary’s rights as property owners trumped other considerations.
Then there is Camp Letterman. Camp Letterman was a military hospital where over 20,000 wounded soldiers from both sides convalesced and were treated following the battle. It was the largest field hospital in service during the war and is arguably the most important military medical site on U.S. soil, but good luck finding it. The site is hidden behind a string of businesses: a grocery store, gas stations, fast-food restaurants, a hotel and two shopping plazas. About 80 percent of the hospital’s land remains undeveloped—for now. “Coming Soon: Starbucks” a roadside sign proclaims a few hundred feet down the road from a monument honoring the medical corps at Gettysburg, the only indication that there was ever a field hospital at or near the site.
Shortly after the Battle of Gettysburg ended, it (meaning Gettysburg) became a destination, and along with the tourists came commercial enterprise. The history of the town since the battle has been a story of tension between preserving and honoring what happened there and making money from what happened there. In some places, like the town’s beautiful new visitors’ center, commerce and commemoration go conveniently hand in hand, the line blurred. In other places, as with General Pickett’s Buffets, the distinction is ridiculously obvious, if not laughable. Laughable, but the food is good, and even the most ardent noncommercialist visitor to town needs to eat.
Gettysburg and the Civil War are important for many reasons. Many of the questions that we’ve imposed on the Civil War remain unresolved, so that even as late as 15 years ago, historian Barbara Fields could state in Ken Burns’s documentary The Civil War that “in many ways and in many places, the Civil War is still being fought, and sadly, it could still be lost.” Issues of separatism still divide the country: racially, religiously, economically—even regionally. (Look at a map of red states and blue states and compare it to a map of the Union and Confederacy if you’d like this notion reinforced.)
In Gettysburg, there are many, many Civil War–era buildings still standing. The best preserved homes and buildings are those in the tourist areas and other well-to-do areas of town. But go off the beaten path a little, and you’ll see other, more neglected period buildings in the poorer sections of town, areas that seem to benefit little from the two main industries in the town: tourism and the college. As in so many other American cities and towns, the dividing line seems to be cultural and (sadly) racial as much as economic. Again, back to the buffets: people have to work to make the food that the tourists eat, and work cheaply so that the businesses can profit. The apples and peaches grown by the orchards surrounding the town are mostly picked by migrant workers. Like so many other towns and cities, Gettysburg has a hidden-in-plain-sight underclass.
As Bruce Catton wrote in his book America Goes to War, we like to think that the Civil War ended slavery and answered questions and solved problems, but instead, it wasn’t an end, but a beginning. The war created a new set of questions and problems, many of which, as Fields and so many others would attest, still haven’t been answered, if indeed they can be answered.
Perhaps the meaning of Gettysburg and the Civil War is ultimately in those questions, questions we are forced to ask ourselves repeatedly. Along what lines do we, as a people, continue to divide ourselves from our fellow man? What is worth fighting for? What is worth preserving? Why, in some ways, is our country the United States in name only?
And, perhaps most importantly, in what ways is the Civil War still being fought, and on which side are we fighting?