Gettysburg Regress: How the Government is Ruining America’s Most Famous Battlefield

Originally published in The New Republic on March 18, 2009. Republished in Best American Essays, ed. Christopher Hitchens, Houghton Mifflin, 2010.

Last winter, I was walking with a friend 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 livesin 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 was seeking to restore some ofGettysburg’s landscapes to their condition immediately before the Union and Confederate armies clashed on them. And so the trees and shrubs that once crowned Devil’s Den—in whose caves Confederate sharpshooters had met a horrible end—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 beyond 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 appears to delight the re-enactors who troop to Gettysburg every year—in their quest for authenticity, some experiment with starvation to bring on the feeling of emaciation, while others induce bloating to simulate the appearance of a corpse—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, an advisor to the project, 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.” Rehabilitationhas 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, Manassas, and Antietam.

As an historian, I can appreciate the impulse to restore. But my friend 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 history.

In the Gettysburg Address—delivered 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 a process of adding or detracting—and whether the managers of our battlefields are, in their quest for maximum authenticity, forgetting something after all.

In high school in the late 1980s, I worked as tour guide for the Gettysburg Battlefield Tour Center, 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 grey 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, along with the sunglass-sporting tourists, that I might have gone either way.

The main attractions then were no more inspired than my tours. A few family museums 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 and Fantasyland. 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 harmless.

Today’s drive to refurbish Gettysburg, more ambitious in every respect, has not stinted on inspiration—or controversy. A $103 million Museum and Visitor’s Center, which opened last spring, has lately grabbed headlines about allegations of ethical impropriety. (Questions are swirling about why two firms—the one run by the head of the Gettysburg Foundation, the Park Service’s partner in building the museum,the other run by his son—were retained to do work at the battlefield.)Less attention, however, has been trained on the ongoing effort to rehabilitate the battlefield to its July 1863 state. The success of this effort marks the end of a struggle between dueling conceptions of Gettysburg—the battlefield as unchanging relic and the battlefield as living memorial.

In 1864, when the Pennsylvania legislature chartered the Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association, the land was still littered with human debris. Not until April of that year (five months after President Lincoln came and went) did burial-gangs complete their work and did the Union dead repose in Soldiers National Cemetery. Andnot until 1873 did relief organizations disinter the Confederate dead from mass graves and rebury them in Richmond and Raleigh, Charleston and Savannah. The GMBA made some efforts in the direction of restoration—reconstructing Union defense lines, for example—but its charter called for it to commemorate the carnage with “works of art and taste”; its principals envisioned the battlefield as a garden cemetery. In 1866, the legislature encouraged the GBMA to plant trees—some of the same trees now being uprooted. By 1895, when the Department of War seized 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. The War Department added 800 acres of land, planted 17,000 more trees, and widened the roads. The commemorative work of boosters, veterans, and government officials utterly transformed the battlefield.

There was no going back—or so it might have seemed. But, in 1933, administrative control over the battlefield migrated from the War Department to the Department of the Interior and the National Park Service; and New Deal officials issued a six-year general plan that identified, for the first time, a desire to return the land to its July 1863 appearance. Barns were restored, fences and walls rebuilt. Portions of the battlefield held privately were seized. Using workers from the Civilian Conservation Corp, the Park Service pared away overgrowth for the sake of an authentic view at Little Round Top.

Still,sentiment for allowing tourists to “almost feel the bullets” was silent. In 1938, at the battle’s 75th anniversary, President Roosevelt came to dedicate the Eternal Peace Light Memorial. The torch above the granite and limestone monument was meantto symbolize domestic unity while Europe rearmed; fewer than 2,000 Gettysburg veterans attended the ceremony, and their age averaged 94. Wishing for an authentic battle experience in the presence of these survivors—who had not had the experience of the battle so much as they had been 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 andHarlan D. Unrau’s Administrative History: Gettysburg National Military Park and Gettysburg National Cemetery, Pennsylvania, the idea of rehabilitation grew to inform subsequent general management plans. In 1958, President Eisenhower—whose farm bordered the battlefield—egged on the campaign to restoreGettysburg. “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 the second highest priority 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 insults 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 pre-war appearance. So far as I have been able to determine, only four photographs of the Gettysburg outdoors from before the battle exist, and each of these shows the town rather than the surrounding fields. No maps of the pre-battle farmland and countryside were known to exist as late as 1995, when William Frassanito published Early Photography at Gettysburg. Frassanito’s chapter on cartography identified M.S. Converse’s map as the only one available in July 1863, and the Converse map did not portray woods, hills, ridges, and other topographical features. Brevet Major 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 and submitted it to the War Department. 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 1,328 markers and monuments scattered about the grounds are a stellar collection of public sculpture, but individually and severally 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 Pickett’s Charge 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 determine what had taken place. In spite of the thousands of interviews Bachelder conducted with eyewitnesses and participants, 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 everything going on around us for each has 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 1883 from ten photographs by William Tipton, photos that depicted the battlefield as it was in 1882, not 1863. Photographers Matthew Brady, Alexander Gardner, and the Taylor 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 alone 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 touristsbrought more modest expectations. In 1865, 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 an artificial lake, billiard room, and bowling alley; but its most visited attraction was the cupola that offered a panoramic view of the first day’s fighting. This vantage point, high above and apart from the grounds, was much copied. In 1878, a private developer constructed the Battlefield Prospect Tower on East Cemetery Hill, which also provided a panoramic view. The War Department raised five steel observation towers overlooking the battlefield. In 1974, a developer erected a 307-foot-tall tower over Evergreen Cemetery and the strenuous objections of preservationists.

Latschar demolished this structure (the National Tower, as it was called by its owner) in 2000—a keysymbolic moment in his drive for rehabilitation. The towers enforce a moral distance between the seer and the scene. 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, with wild pigs feasting on their flesh, corpses overborn by maggots and strewn among breastworks, 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 totransport 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. For the thrill of vicarious re-enactment we turn our backs to our tragic knowledge of suffering transfigured in the aesthetic distance of historical art, literature, and reflection.

If a battlefield is not a locus of authentic experience, then what it is? A shrine? A classroom? The trees may teach us something yet. As with the artillery battles at Bull Run and Fredericksburg, a rainstorm followed the cessation of fire at Gettysburg. As flesh decayed, it aerated 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 battle, 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 intuit the connective tissues of trees and grief. That humans plant trees on gravesites is a spiritual fact of great and ancient significance. Homer signals a transition from war to peace by telling how Odysseus, returning home from the battlefields of Troy, 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.” Those trees on Seminary Ridge were not obstructing the view, not preventing authentic experience, as the managers of Gettysburg would prefer us to believe. They were emblems of a tragedy. They remind us of the pity and terror of war.