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.
You have all by now surely seen the British grocery chain Sainsbury’s exceedingly well-done Christmas advert depicting the famous 1914 Christmas truce and football match – where German and British soldiers put aside their weapons and come out of their trenches for a brief moment of camaraderie. As one who writes about soldiers, memory, and reconciliation I found this commercial very interesting. Understanding that Christmas is for sharing, these men show no spirit of enmity. Rather, they enjoy a celebration of humanity and selflessness in the midst of chaos while recognizing, as the ad implies (with the distant sound of artillery), that they will soon have to return to hostilities.
For those of you interested in veterans, be sure to visit the Wisconsin Veterans Museum in Madison. Here you will find a mountain of documents on veterans of America’s wars – not only the Civil War but the Spanish-American War, World Wars I and II, Korea, Vietnam and the Gulf Conflicts.
I spent over a week pouring over the (seemingly endless) collection from the Museum’s Grand Army of the Republic Archives. If the GAR had something to say in Wisconsin, The WVM has it in their files! Of particular interest for those of you involved with Union veterans, the GAR Patriotic Instructor, one Lucius Fairchild, was a Wisconsin veteran. His files are at the WVM and come in handy when trying to figure out the Grand Army message to the world.
They have quite a bit of information listed on their website and are more than helpful when it comes to special requests. I know for sure that there is a collection guide for Civil War veterans – I shot them an email and they sent it right over.
So there you go – the first of many research facilities that I will be talking about in the future.