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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While hard-core buffs might dream of even more—roads returned to wagon trails and planes banned from Gettysburg’s airspace—the result is a rare re-creation of the mid-19th century. “We’re not doing DNA analysis to determine exactly what type of heirloom apple grew in which orchard,” says Katie Lawhon, a park service ranger, “but we’re doing what’s realistic and sustainable to bring back the 1863 landscape.” This has brought environmental dividends, too, including the return of long-absent birds and of a rare mammal called the “least shrew.”

The rehabilitation has also drawn attention to parts of the battlefield that were once hard to reach or make sense of because of changes in the land. Most visitors still cluster at famous sites, such as Little Round Top, where Joshua Chamberlain and his Maine men repelled a flank assault, or the Angle, where Pickett’s Charge crashed into the Union line. But serious buffs like Peter Carmichael of the Civil War Institute prefer horse and walking trails removed from the tourist mobs. Clutching maps and photographs from the 1860s, he leads me on a narrow path to the base of Culp’s Hill, where the fighting was so intense that men battled into the night.

“That’s a burial trench,” he says, pointing at a depression about three feet deep and six feet wide. “It was filled with Confederate soldiers.” Though the bodies were later disinterred and moved to gravesites in Virginia, the land still bears the scars. Carmichael reads letters from John Futch, who saw his brother suffer and die while fighting here. “We lost all of our boys nearly,” Futch wrote his wife, declaring himself “half crazy” and desperate to return home. He deserted soon after the battle, but was caught and executed. “Places like this, where you can link the landscape to individuals, remind you that the war wasn’t all glory and noble sacrifice,” Carmichael says.

After a half-day of battle tourism, I retreated into town, which I’d barely explored on previous visits. One reason: The street closest to the battleground is a gaudy strip that includes the wax museum, a model train museum, Servant’s Olde-Tyme Photos and shops peddling cap guns, toy soldiers and paranormal gear for the town’s dozen ghost tours. But just beyond this skirmish line of schlock stretches the town’s historic heart, a grid of handsome streets and buildings, anchored by Gettysburg College. The bucolic hilltop campus arose before the Civil War on land owned by Thaddeus Stevens, the radical abolitionist played by Tommy Lee Jones in the movie Lincoln. An exhibit on Stevens includes his light brown wig, boots designed for his club foot, a photograph of the black woman he allegedly shared his bed with, and a document quoting Stevens’ words shortly before his death: “My lifelong regret is that I have lived so long and uselessly.”

Lincoln was likewise modest (and wrong) in declaring at Gettysburg, “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here.” The story of his 272-word address is well told at the David Wills House, a museum inside the home where Lincoln stayed the night before his speech. The grand brick home features the room where Lincoln may have polished his words, and the mahogany bed he slept in. I also learned that the Gettysburg Address was recorded by reporters at the scene, not always with accuracy. One newspaper wrote that Lincoln closed his speech by resolving that, “government for and of the people, born in freedom, might not perish from apathy.” Another newspaper considered Lincoln’s address a collection of “silly, flat, and dishwater utterances.”

Other small museums in town tell of the grim scene that prevailed in Gettysburg during and after the battle. Soldiers fought street to street and snipers set up quarters on porches and in attics, as civilians huddled in their cellars. Bullet holes are still visible in some homes, including one where a 20-year-old woman was shot dead while baking bread and hastily buried with dough on her hands. After the battle, the town became a makeshift morgue and hospital, and the stench—there were an estimated six million pounds of dead flesh, including thousands of horses, decomposing in the summer heat—lingered for months. “I felt as though we were in a strange and blighted land,” one resident wrote.

Signs of the slaughter still remained in November, when Lincoln came to dedicate the new soldiers’ cemetery at the edge of town. Those hired to gather and inter the dead, at the rate of $1.59 a body, hadn’t finished their work; the cemetery was filled with fresh mounds and unfilled graves. So Lincoln spoke from a temporary platform in the adjoining civilian cemetery. No one knows exactly where the platform stood. The soldiers’ cemetery is nonetheless a stirring site: a hilltop carpeted with simple blocks of stone, many of them marked “Unknown,” since Gettysburg was fought in an era before dog tags. Roughly a third of the Union dead couldn’t be identified.

At sunset, I descended Cemetery Ridge—entering a bar that is built into the historic slope. Hence the bar’s name—the Reliance Mine Saloon—and its ambience, which is roughly that of an underground shaft: windowless, low ceiling, a few mining tools on the wall. Though it’s the rare establishment in town that has no Civil War décor, the Reliance Mine is where battlefield guides, local historians and other buffs go to drink and discuss the 1860s the way others debate sports or politics.

“I’ll be here filling beers and listening to arguments over Stonewall Jackson or the difference between tintypes and daguerreotypes,” says the bartender, Eric Lindblade. Actually, he doesn’t just listen; he participates. “I’m a history dork like everyone else here.” In fact, he’s writing a regimental history of the 26th North Carolina, one of the units that almost broke the Union line in Pickett’s Charge.

The tavern’s most famous regular is historian William Frassanito, re- nowned for his groundbreaking analysis of Civil War photographs. His books form a shrine behind the bar and Frassanito holds informal office hours, beginning at 10:30 in the evening. He explained to me why Gettysburg is so visually well-documented: The battle occurred close to photographers based in Washington, and Union forces held the field at the end of combat. “Alexander Gardner and others had access here that they didn’t have after most battles,” he said.


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