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.
I get a question from my Civil War students all the time. It goes something like this: what mistake cost the Confederates the battle at Gettysburg? There are plenty of contenders. Richard S. Ewell failing to take Cemetery Hill on July 1, James Longstreet sulking around and not launching his flank attack against Little Round Top until late in the day on July 2, and Robert E. Lee himself – ordering a perilous frontal assault against well-fortified Yankees on Cemetery Ridge on July 3. Cavalry wiz-kid JEB Stuart comes up too. He had been more or less MIA for the whole campaign – denying the Army of Northern Virginia valuable intelligence they most certainly would have used to their advantage.
What I find most interesting about the question is that is presumes a foreordained Confederate victory that only fell short due to a misstep by a single individual. The question fails to address whether or not Union commanders (Meade, Hancock, Warren, etc) made some really good calls and outfought the Rebels. This, I think, is worth considering. After all, after the war, when someone asked former Confederate George Pickett why his army failed to secure a victory at Gettysburg he responded, “I think the Union army had something to do with it.”
So here’s your chance to weigh in. And for my money, though I do not necessarily think this was the determining factor to the outcome of the battle, JEB Stuart blew it wholesale and really let his army down. I mean…come on dude. You had ONE JOB.
Today I am featuring these cool vintage postcards depicting some Gettysburg battlefield tourist hot-spots. And…to let you know, if you do not already, that I have put together what I think is a pretty chill web-course on the battle. I designed it especially for high school APUSH and college students who want to know the battle and the historical context in which it unfolded. I also think it is great for anyone with an interest (buffs…I love buffs) in Civil War history or for those planning a trip to the national battlefield park. It will certainly get you in the Gettysburg mood. You can access the course HERE.
And this is what the reviewers think:
Succinct but detailed presentation by an instructor with an engaging style. Nice visuals. Very good production values.
Super concise and thorough. Love how he makes learning history fun 🙂
Professor Harris delivered an engaging and interesting way of approaching history. Rather than lecture and expect his students to accept his words at face value, Professor Harris challenges the student to engage the material and question long standing beliefs held by many. His integration of social media as a way of communicating ideas and engaging the material is superb. As he lectured, Professor Harris would periodically pop up in a side window to ask thought provoking questions, or to emphasize a point he had just made. Suffice to say, Professor Harris had no trouble making history come alive.
And there are more courses in production right now. I am nearing completion of a comprehensive course on the Reconstruction Era, and naturally, there is a Civil War course under development too.
On July 3rd – just a few short weeks ago, I took part in the Gettysburg Sacred Trust Talks and Book Signing Event in, as the event title might suggest, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. I offered a few words as part of a panel discussion and question and answer session concerning Civil War veterans and how they told their story of the war.
I really enjoyed the event and being in Gettysburg during the anniversary of the battle was something to behold. Suffice it to say, the Civil War tourist industry is alive and well. Just try and find a parking spot on Steinwehr Avenue and tell me something different.
If you couldn’t make it to the talk – the video is below. It’s a little over a hour, but worth the time spent watching. I would especially pay attention to the engaging questions posed by the audience. It’s just like being there!
They say it’s about heritage, they say it’s a soldiers’ flag, they say it’s about free speech. They are right. And from where I sit, no one with any sense is trying to deny the would-be Confederates any of this. While the flag came down from a government building – as it should – anyone who wants to wave it can, freely and without legal repercussions.
But these flag wavers are missing the point by a Confederate mile. Just yesterday – Rebel apologists staged a “rally” of sorts in Gettysburg and marched brandishing their banners along Baltimore Street and Steinwehr Avenue, in protest of the recent removal of the Battle Flag from the South Carolina Statehouse grounds.
They are trying so very very very hard to distance their ancestors from the Confederacy’s not so glorious past – or trying to deny altogether that their past lacks any glory. If you follow the comments on the Gettysburg Museum of History Facebook page (where I found this image above) you will note that flag supporters bring up the usual arguments. Most Confederates didn’t own slaves, soldiers fought to protect their homes, slavery existed in the United States, etc, etc.
Again – all true. Except that they are leaving out a fairly significant detail. Secession only happened to perpetuate oppression – to protect an institution that white southerners feared was in danger. The bid for Confederate independence – the Cause, if you like – was to ensure that slavery didn’t go anywhere. The ONLY way that one can deny this today is by ignoring the evidence, which apparently is a pretty fashionable thing to do among apologists.
Now, no one wants to associate their ancestors with a horrible thing, which is understandable. But all of you who are pointing fingers and accusing the “liberal agenda” (whatever that is) of erasing history might want to stop and consider this: like it or not – your ancestors who fought under that flag fought for oppression – no matter their individual reasons for enlisting. It was the national cause. Call it heritage if you must, but that is the fact. Just be sure to remember that little tidbit of history when you wave your flags.