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Gettysburg: Wrecking a Historic Landscape?

March 9, 2009
Autumn at Gettysburg

Autumn at Gettysburg

What is the Park Service doing at Gettysburg?  An interesting perspective from historian John Summers in the New Republic:

I grew up in Gettysburg, and my mother still lives in the shadow of Lutheran Theological Seminary, low in the lap of the ridge it names. Seminary Ridge is one of a string of ridges surrounding the town; General Robert E. Lee stood there on July 2 and 3, 1863. The woods atop the ridge had made it a sublime place to stroll for as long as I could remember–until that winter walk, which ended with a logging truck lumbering by.

Asking around, I learned that parts of the battlefield were in “rehabilitation.” In the hope of providing visitors with an authentic historical experience, the National Park Service (NPS) was seeking to restore some of Gettysburg’s landscapes to their condition when the Union and Confederate armies clashed on them.

Hundreds of acres of trees are being removed as the “rehabilitation” proceeds.  Is the National Park Service really performing a service in attempting to recreate the hallowed landscape at Gettysburg?  Does it make sense to try to replicate the exact appearance of the battlefield in July 1863? Can the Park Service really achieve the “accuracy” they are seeking?

One of the more than three thousand killed at Gettysburg

One of three thousand or so...

To truly experience what it was like to be at Gettysburg, we would need to lie with soldiers as they bled to death, groaning in pain; rotting corpses with missing limbs; streams running red; winds swarming with flies; air smelling of burning horseflesh. As we cannot know the precise cartography of the battlefield, or the movements of every soldier, or the location of every tree, so we should not try to leap backward into authenticity, or expect to become an eyewitness to history simply by showing up.

[Read the whole essay here]

Throughout the National Park system, there is a well-meaning drive to trap history in a static moment when “it” happened.  But that’s problematic…  The past can’t be immobilized and pinned like a butterfly.  History is fluid, complex, and multilayered.  A bucolic pasture doesn’t convey an “authentic” Civil War experience any more than Richard Neutra’s modernist visitor center.

Frankly, I think a well-done Hollywood movie like Glory is more effective at recreating the look-and-feel of Civil War combat than an open field of historic dimensions dotted with monuments and plugged-up cannons.  Will cutting down hundreds of acres of anachronistic trees really help?  Maybe the Park Service should focus more on interpretation and public engagement and less on horticultural correctness?

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