Tourists in cars, tourists in buses, tourists on Segways, tourists with selfie sticks, tourists yelling, arguing, dropping garbage. This is the typical scene at the most visited section of the Gettysburg battlefield: The Bloody Angle. Much of Gettysburg takes on a carnival atmosphere. The town itself is tuned almost entirely to the tourist industry – and the associated tourist revelry spills out to the surrounding fields of battle in ways that are – shall we say…less than dignified.
As a historian who studies memory, commemoration, and historical interpretation, I find battlefield tourism fascinating. Especially these days as the commemorative landscape is in a clear state of flux. But I can’t help but wonder if tourists more often than not miss the point.
You know that spot where where you are yelling at your kids? Yes, that one…thousands of people were killed there. And the ground was dedicated to honor the fallen. Perhaps death on that scale is too abstract for most to really fathom. Perhaps we are too far removed from the event.
But I think it would be a good idea for everyone to take a minute away from shouting and selfies to reflect on what actually happened there. Let’s stop and think for a moment about those who fought, killed, and struggled for their lives…and maybe then we can understand why they did it.
These days all things Confederate are under fire. This last week at Gettysburg illustrated to me that would-be Rebels are making yet another stand – this time to preserve what they insist is nothing more than their heritage. Though the controversy has captured America’s attention for the time being (the Kardashians are having a slow week) I would like to point out that attacks on Confederate symbolism are nothing new.
At the base of the Virginia State Memorial on Seminary Ridge is a weather-beaten plaque admonishing potential vandals who might try and stick a proverbial bayonet in the still-defiant Confederacy. Though there are other southern monuments on the field (few in comparison to Union monuments and with only a couple of exceptions, all state memorials) this is the only warning sign. And judging by its aged appearance, it looks to have been there a while.
This suggests to me that both in a modern context and for quite a while, Virginia – and by extension, Robert E. Lee, whose likeness (and Traveller’s) sit atop the monument, specifically represent the Confederate nation and its ideological underpinnings. Why else would this particular monument – as opposed to North Carolina’s or Alabama’s – be singled out for potential vandalism? The Virginian Lee is Confederate ideology and nationalism personified. This was true in the 1860s and has been true ever since. Those who choose to attack physically Confederate ideology (particularly racial oppression in the form of chattel slavery) would naturally set their sights on the nation’s most salient symbols: Lee and the Old Dominion – and thus the Virginia memorial seems in especial danger…and has been for some time.
As you all most certainly know, especially if you follow me on Twitter and Instagram, I have spent the last few days in Gettysburg participating in the Gettysburg Sacred Trust talks and book signing event. I met a number of captivating people on and off the battlefield, took part in a great panel discussion featuring a lengthy and engaging question and answer section, and I signed a shit ton of books. I could not have had a better time.
Though I have been to Gettysburg many times over the years this was the fist time I have been during the anniversary of the battle. I was surprised that there were so few people on the field itself. Folks with whom I spoke said that interest had died down since the 150th anniversary. Go figure. The people I did meet on the field had quite a bit to say, what with the flag controversy and all. Let’s just say there were strong opinions all around and leave it at that.
I took about a zillion photos and videos – here are a few highlights: