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.
Most people (read: tourists) tend to stay on the marked paths, follow the pre-programmed audio tours, or drive by, stop, read the signage, and move on. Want to have some fun? Seek out someone who knows the field (the NPS can most certainly arrange something for you) and ask to go off the beaten path. Seek out the rarely seen, the unusual, the forgotten. Visit the field during off hours or during the non-tourist seasons. I’ve done this all of these things myself and I have had quite the time. I have had the Shiloh and Perryville battlefields to myself, I have been to places at Gettysburg that only experts on the battle could ever hope to find. Do it. It will be worth the extra effort. And if all else fails, you can just stand by a cannon and point. This has been a battlefield tradition for over a century.
I live in the land of tours, tourists, and all things touristy. Hollywood, California: home to many, many spots of historical and cultural significance – especially if you are interested in the movie biz. There is an entire industry here built around the idea that people will exchange their hard-earned vacation dollars to have an expert (usually someone who arrived in the southland approximately two weeks before) show them around town. Do you want to know where Brad Pitt lives? Just walk down Hollywood Blvd and you will be approached by someone who, in some gaudy van, will take you there…and many other places of note – Pink’s Hot Dogs (where nobody famous ever eats…ever), the iconic Hollywood sign, or super swanky Rodeo Drive.
Perhaps this is just wishful thinking…but Los Angeles has a pretty rich Civil War era history – so why not a Civil War themed tour? I know, probably not. How would such a tour compete with a potential (never gonna happen) Paris Hilton sighting? But still, there are plenty of places one could visit to add visual depth to an exciting 19th century story. Downtown LA’s plaza near Olvera Street was once the site of heated secessionist activities. Federal soldiers had to be dispatched to calm the would be rebels and perhaps even force them into submission. Their quarters – Drum Barracks – still exist in Wilmington – just outside of Long Beach. This site served as the Federal headquarters for Southern California and the Arizona territory from 1861 to 1871.
If plazas and old buildings don’t grab your attention – maybe a classic Civil War themed film tour would do the trick. Gone With the Wind was filmed down the road from Hollywood in Culver City (David O. Selznick colored the California dirt red to look like Georgia). Culver Studios, formerly Selznick studios, stands to this day – the entry path from the main studio gate is in fact the very same walkway to the Butler’s Atlanta mansion. And there’s more. The Birth of a Nation was shot in a number of locations around town: Whittier, San Bernardino, Burbank, and elsewhere in the San Fernando Valley (where D. W. Griffith made no effort whatsoever to reproduce a South Carolina or Virginia landscape). Hmmm – well, at least I would like to see these spots.
My entrepreneurial spirit says if you see a need for something then you ought to provide it – for a fee of course. But I question whether or not the average LA area vacationer would care to see and understand the Civil War from a Southern California perspective in either history or popular culture.
Today I offer a Southern Pacific Railroad broadside promoting California tourism. This example, a William Howard Bull print from 1897, features elements of the known: Christianity, combined with the foreignness of Spanish mission architecture.
This type of imagery proved enticing indeed for well-to-do easterners looking to broaden their life experiences with a trip to the Pacific coast. Many found the region so appealing that they stuck around (and gave me something to write about…thanks).
But whether they stayed temporarily or set up housekeeping one thing is for sure: tourism never really faded. Anyone trying to find a parking place on a weekend day in Hollywood can attest to that.