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Has Gettysburg Kicked Its Kitsch Factor?

Historian Tony Horwitz travels to the Civil War battlefield and finds that even where time is frozen, it’s undergone welcome changes

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Climbing over a snake-rail fence, Peter Carmichael leads me across a field of grass stubble and gray boulders. On this wintry day in 2013, the field is frozen and silent. But 150 years ago it was filled with the shriek and smoke of the bloodiest battle in American history.

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“The Confederates who charged here were mowed down in minutes,” says Carmichael, director of the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College. As evidence, he shows me photographs taken just after the battle of bullet-riddled corpses. Then he walks a few paces and lays the 1863 images on the ground. The field in the photographs aligns perfectly with the one we’re looking at in 2013, right down to clefts in individual boulders. All that’s missing are the dead. “That’s what’s so chilling and special about Gettysburg,” Carmichael says. “You can almost enter the past. It’s like time travel.”

Recapturing history with such precision wasn’t always so easy at Gettysburg. When I visited as a boy in the 1960s and ’70s, the battlefield contours included the Home Sweet Home Motel, a 300-foot observation tower and a Stuckey’s restaurant. Until just a few years ago, the battlefield visitors center stood near Gettysburg’s “High Water Mark” (the farthest point reached in Pickett’s Charge) and within sight of a wax museum, a restaurant called General Pickett’s Buffets and a clot of souvenir shops.

Tourist kitsch has always been part of Gettysburg’s appeal and much of it remains. But due to an extraordinary rehabilitation of the battlefield in recent years, and nonmilitary sites in and around the town, visiting Gettysburg is a much richer experience than the one many Americans may recall from school and family trips in earlier decades.

This is also a community that takes history seriously while having serious fun. Karin J. Bohleke is a case in point as is her husband, a scholar at Gettysburg’s Lutheran Theological Seminary, the cupola of which served as a lookout for both armies in 1863. I met the couple in the ballroom of the Gettysburg Hotel, teaching quadrilles and reels to 50 people practicing for a period ball. “Good Victorian posture!” Bohleke instructs. “And ladies, when you step back, tilt forward on your toes so you won’t trip on your hoop skirts.”

This casual blend of past and present suffuses Gettysburg, attracting people who love to live history, and not just the Civil War. In warm weather the streets fill with battle re-enactors, Lincoln impersonators, ghost-tour leaders carrying lanterns, and others dressed in everything from buckskins to World War II attire (the summer dress code seems to be “any time but the present”). Residents are so used to this eclectic parade that they don’t even blink at buying groceries beside Stonewall Jackson or Clara Barton. “It’s the banality of weirdness,” says Ian Isherwood, who teaches history at Gettysburg College. “People feel this license to be whomever they want.”

A more somber air prevails on the fields and ridges around town, where the Valley of Death and Slaughter Pen speak to the carnage that occurred here in 1863. That summer, following repeated victories in Virginia, Robert E. Lee led his army into Pennsylvania, hoping to gather supplies and crush his demoralized foes by beating them on Northern soil. A Union Army shadowed Lee’s, but neither side knew the other’s exact position. When units from the two armies collided near Gettysburg, reinforcements quickly converged along the ten roads leading into the town. Unlike most major Civil War battles, which resulted from long campaigns for control of strategic rail or river hubs, Gettysburg was a sudden and improvised clash in and around a rural college town. The three days of fighting caused 51,000 casualties—almost a third of all the soldiers engaged, and more than 20 times the town’s civilian population.

Gettysburg turned the Civil War in the Union’s favor, and Lincoln’s address near the soldiers’ cemetery four months after the battle is the most famous in U.S. history.Gettysburg is also the world’s largest sculpture garden, with over 1,300 monuments dotting miles of countryside. In short, there’s an awful lot of hallowed ground to cover. So it pays to be selective and to exercise some old-school virtues: map-reading, advance study and most of all, imagination. Otherwise, Gettysburg may seem just a peaceful expanse of farmland, marble and mute cannons—the opposite of the violent and deafening scene of destruction the battlefield commemorates.

Fortunately, the Gettysburg National Military Park does a stellar job of interpreting the battlefield, beginning with an introductory movie and museum at a palatial new visitors center. The park service has also just restored Gettysburg’s famed cyclorama, a 377-foot circular painting with a viewing platform at the center, so that combat swirls dizzyingly around you. Painted on canvas in 1884, the artwork melds into a 3-D diorama, creating the illusion that you can step off the platform and into Pickett’s Charge.

The changes to the 6,000 acres of battlefield park are even more striking because of an ambitious rehabilitation over the past 12 years. Not only have intrusive modern structures and utility lines been removed. The park service (which has a tree on its logo) has cleared woods that weren’t there in 1863, replanted orchards that were, and rebuilt miles of the zigzag “worm” fences that formed such a distinct and critical part of the original battleground.

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