The Repeated Reinvention of Gettysburg

Today marks the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg address —
as good a time as any to reread Damon Root’s classic
Reason piece from 2004 on the evolution of Gettysburg as a
national shrine. Here’s an excerpt:

Glad so many of you could come. I'm going to deliver a few words to dedicate this new national shrine, and then I'll cut the ribbon to formally open it. Now where did I put my giant ceremonial shears?The blood had barely dried when
humanitarian groups, distraught relatives, and large numbers of
wealthy spectators descended on the smoldering aftermath. Quick to
meet the commercial challenges posed by this influx, intrepid
locals sprang into action. Hacks offered guided rides, property
owners preserved battle damage for display, and relic hunters
hawked everything from bones to bullets. Genteel shoppers, many of
whom had never visited the battlefield, soon filled their parlors
with a variety of Gettysburg-inspired products, including maps,
photographs, sheet music, and poetry. Such items encouraged
meaningful reflection on the Union victory; they also provided
hours of entertainment and diversion….

Thanks to spectacular advances in technology and communication,
plus rising wages and increased leisure hours, great numbers of
Americans joined [the cultural argument over what we “should”
consume] at the turn of the 20th century. The railroads
ushered in a new era of mass culture, allowing millions of working-
and middle-class citizens to travel for pleasure for the first
time, visiting such places as amusement parks, museums of natural
history, and even rural cemeteries. These new visitors often began
by putting the landscape itself to new use. Gettysburg, with its
wide avenues and lovely vistas, made an ideal setting for picnics,
sporting matches, and other less refined endeavors.

Not surprisingly, many critics chafed at this populist behavior and
attempted to regulate it through a variety of blue laws, fees, and
restrictions….In 1933 the Park Service assumed control of
Gettysburg National Military Park from the War Department, which
had overseen the park since 1895.

By the 1970s, the Park Service had removed many monuments and
avenues and erected a number of 1863-style buildings to give
Gettysburg a more “authentic” appearance.

Read the rest here.

from Hit & Run

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