The very first time I visited Gettysburg, with my UCLA undergraduate class…way back in 2001, I was particularly struck by the commercialism of the battle. Everything, or nearly so, is geared to selling that fight. I suppose I understand. After all, the town itself is nearly completely surrounded by a national park, and thus cannot expand into other areas of the marketplace. Its main attraction of course, is tourism, and businesses have responded accordingly.
This academic year, I am taking my own class to Gettysburg. As part of the experience, we are going to spend some time examining the commercial landscape. A few questions I expect them to tackle: at what point (if any) does tourism trivialize the struggles of those who fought at and lived in Gettysburg in 1863? If you looked only at the commercial landscape, would you understand any of the issues that had been at stake during the war? Similarly, could you tell who won the battle by looking at the commercial landscape? When visiting the park visitor center, what are the dividing lines between consumer culture and history?
That should certainly keep them busy for a few hours – I am open to your suggestions as well.
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.